Nothing is more real and abstract at the same time than class interest. Class itself is a real abstraction, something which defines and conditions the social status and the economic possibilities of a person without actually being an identity. It’s the shadow you can’t jump over. In capitalism, class is fate; it is its specific product. Postponing the becoming of a class-for-itself – linking its economic interest with political action – is the great accomplishment of capitalism. If the middle-class seems to be overcoming this obstacle, the working class is unable to do so. Moreover, the latter is deprived of any organic intellectual avant-garde precisely because, once more, class is fate, and that fate no longer includes any form of upward social mobility. Not to mention the fact that there is no left-wing political avant-garde of any kind, which means working class interests lay in the hands of a right-wing clique impersonating a left-wing. You vote because the others corner you and because your condition inevitably compels you to vote at least for the hollow framework of a political platform which appears to intuitively guess your existence. The vote of the poor this Sunday was, at the same time, the negation and the affirmation of a class condition. Its allies in Romania have long since kicked the bucket. The Romanian welfare state is but a mere zombie of what it once was in the West; a sort of empty specter which the right-wing points to in order to yell “down with communism!”
Being old, uneducated, poor, living in the countryside, being a worker (either a chav or a proletarian), all seem to delegitimize you as a worthy citizen of a democratic state. Deprived of any fortune, in possession of a labor power which is of little value (which you can no longer sell, anyway), you wake up on the outskirts of society. Thatcher’s dream materialized. If the right-wing won, after all its poor- and welfare-state-bashing, this can only mean society voted against itself. And no, the anti-corruption struggle and or the struggle for judicial reform cannot be prioritized ahead of the struggle against poverty. Civil society (or at least a great deal of it) has finally reflected its own reality. Middle and upper classes only! The poor are always responsible for their economic failure and thus deserve their fate. But who are these poor people we keep talking about? It appears they surfaced in Romanian history only to be hastily removed from it.
A Brief History of Poverty
The political projects in Romania of the past twenty years were aimed exclusively at satisfying the interests of local and foreign capital, a story embellished in the fancy clothes of creating a middle class. Its birth coincided with the massive exodus of Romanian workers towards more (economically) advanced geographic areas, where an exploited workforce has a better price. Back home, foreign investment took all shapes and sizes. Multinational companies offered jobs for the young, well-educated and qualified (offering them wages well below the European average, but slightly above the Romanian one). This text is about those who stayed home, about those left out of the wave of primitive accumulation in the 1990s, about those who picked snails instead of starting a business, about those whose qualifications were obsolete in the face of new technologies, about those with too little education to administer funding, about those without any inheritance or land in the countryside. About those whose world begins and ends in the peripheral Socialist neighborhoods, wherein “good people” pretend never to have set foot. About the old guard, whose historical mission ended with the closure of the last factory. I’m one of those people born into a family of workers. A stowaway among the middle class, who on Sunday could not vote for either Ponta or Iohannis. The following story is a personal, but quite typical history about those who, just like my parents, voted for the Social-Democrats on Sunday out of necessity, not political beliefs. In a nutshell, a story from “the hood.” Concretely and abstractly, things went down like this: if you were a simple worker under Socialism and didn’t flee the country, after the Revolution you worked for several more years in the rubber/bricks/whatever factory or in the mine until they were closed down. Back home I witnessed up close the demise of Arta Textila (textile factory) and Dermatina (a factory for the processing of chemical and plastic masses). It was the time of the first months of unemployment under the Iliescu regime of the early 90s. The Social Democrats (PDSR) would soon make room in power for the Christian Democrats (PNTCD). Ratiu or Constantinescu did not fool many people from the periphery. Iliescu’s return to power in 2000 meant a great leap forward in the workers’ backward progress. In the neighborhoods, people began to understand that democracy and capitalism are about poverty (as a side note, being able to buy your own home for a dismal price was a gift from the heavens, especially in a big city. The first property came with the capitalist dream. Still, the working class sold itself out for an apartment and a Dacia, the middle class did it for an apartment and an Audi. In installments).
These were the years of soda dispensers, products “made in China”, “notebook shopping” (being in debt to the corner-shop for things taken with the promise of paying for them later – a practice which is still alive in cities, but especially in the countryside, where people cannot even afford to live precariously) and bazars. Back then, workers dressed terribly, they ate even more terribly and hardly took any vacations, even though they worked their butts off. The costs of their social reproduction was high, and the wages were small. They used to vote for the PDSR (PSD), as they do now. For them, luxury took many shapes, such as the loaves of bread from Obaida bakery, which made a sort of inflatable bread that wasn’t nutritious and was more expensive than the usual one. On payday, we’d hang out in front of the apartment buildings and chew on this hollow frame, in the middle of winter, dressed in Chinese-made raincoats. Our parents’ bosses were already building their second villa. Their children voted for the right-wing on Sunday out of ideological conviction. Our parents had nobody to vote for.
It was during this period that the first class schism appeared within the Romanian working class. It was like a lottery. Some of them managed to get a job with meat-packing factories or others of the kind, succeeding in dodging their own fate for a couple of years. They were also closed down during the second PDSR administration and the prodigal sons returned home. Not because they had ever left the neighborhood, but because, at a certain point, they engaged in unproductive consumption more than their former mates did. Back then it was easy to be above the working class.
And then, after 1995, the factories were reopened, this time under foreign private ownership. The poor went back to work, taking jobs as unskilled labor in the emerging sectors of production: day laborer or builder, assembly line work with foreign electronics companies or in export-oriented production etc. This story also lasted for a few years. For 10 years, Timișoara put shoes on the whole of Italy. Behind the story about Italian technology (another “job well done” – hinting at president-elect Klaus Iohannis’ campaign slogan) were Romanian working women inhaling toxic air, slaving over the assembly line in scorching heat, making slippers they could never afford themselves. Under the Tariceanu administration, things went smoothly precisely because the perks offered to foreign investors left room for the exploitation of a very large labor force. At the slipper factory (where my mom worked) there were no more unions and the organization of labor was in the hands of the former Socialist production managers, converted to the ideology of profit. Incidentally, this is what the first social category in Romania with a contradictory class position looked like.
At the end of this golden age of the Romanian working class, its members found themselves old, sick and physically exhausted. Yet not old enough to retire, even though most of them have worked the required number of years for retirement (my father is 55 and has officially worked 35 of them – he doesn’t qualify for retirement). Then the crisis hit, and in the last 5 years, the waves of lay-offs have sent this labor force back into the arms of the state, this time permanently, it seems. Local or foreign profit has forsaken its creators quicker than you can say “social justice.” Christian-liberals, conservatives, neoliberals, all of them are too concerned with democratic values to notice the existence of these people, not to mention take care of them. This situation was put on President Basescu’s slate and on that of his prime-ministers. Reinforcing austerity did little else but increase the level of poverty. The only rational choice for the poor is to vote against the right-wing, albeit only formally. Any other option is irrational.
In the meantime, another Ponzi scheme is leading Romania on: European funding. For the working-class, these funds also come in the form of professional reconversion programs. On top of being unemployed, without any possibility of finding a job, in a world where everyone is a wolf (of Wall Street) – young, qualified, educated – you also have to undergo reconversion, which, of course, you’re paying for entirely out of your own pocket. At the age of 60, one can only cherish their security guard degree. The costs will most likely not be worth it. After contributing a lifetime to the creation of private property profit, you end up guarding said property. A great deal of the Socialist working class is now guarding the earthly riches of the capitalists. Their only competition? Riot police special forces.
This is a picture of the Socialist working class’ life after death: a never-ending cheap commodity guarding another commodity. The dialectical lesson in political economy for poor Romanians. They have tragically been, and always will be, closer to the truth of capitalism than any of us. They are, both literally and figuratively, the guardians of this truth. They have never gained and will never gain more than their own physical reproduction. For them, the historical and moral low which Marx talks about coincides with the high. This is exactly how opposites cross paths when in poverty. And since gender differences are an issue, the last wave of lay-offs has meant an instant reconversion into housekeepers and babysitters for the upper classes. They are heroines, at times supporting an entire family while paying for their husbands’ reconversion programs. They put up with a great deal, including posters of Iohannis glued by their employers on the well-stocked refrigerators in the kitchens these women have to clean. The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie is polished by these women – and they’re doing it while being lectured on the virtues of the political right-wing.
Those who still have strength to labor are joined by pensioners, peasants, the disabled and other underprivileged and marginalized categories. They all live precariously, barely making ends meet, even though the living labor (now dead) of some of them once contributed to the Romanian economy. The peasants have also been forgotten, even though they travelled for a long time on the hunger train, feeding the mouths which transition capitalism has left hungry, or on student campuses where Romanian intellectuals were studying theories on redistributive justice or models of democracy on an empty stomach. Of all this labor, the records show almost none. All other levels of poverty (there are degrees here, too) carry just the Hegelian certificate for begging. This is what the state gave them. And sometimes, not even this.
On Sunday, two political visions seemed to clash; two sides loaded with political values. In reality, there was a single political vision and two sides of voters. The only fault of the poor was buying into the narrative of the two different visions. One of them seemed to include them. They were right and wrong at the same time. They were wrong because the PSD has long ceased to be anything but a hollow carcass for the left-wing. They were right because the political game is always the game of hollow signifiers. Their vote for Ponta is at the same time justified and not justified. Solving this contradiction which informs their choice is beyond their abilities, but it is also unclear if history will prove Iohannis right.
The history of the old working-class guard is over. They cannot integrate in this brave new world. They’ve experienced too much Socialism and too devastating a transition to be able to surf the World Wide Web now. Still, your housekeepers, the few workers in the few remaining factories, the old security guards, the peasants and so many others, come from a history to which we owe some understanding. If only because their labor has benefitted us, as well: free healthcare and education until we foolishly (and against our own interests) traded the bird in the hand for the two neoliberal ones in the bush. Moreover, if a great deal of the middle-class generation is the “home alone” generation of the 90s, then it can only mean that a great deal of the middle-classers have healthy origins, the costs of their creation being footed by the local and the migrant working-class. Exhausting ourselves in corporate jobs is the (over)price each of us has to pay in order to be not just a middle-class, but part of society. Things are getting serious!
If the working class has managed to spawn generations of people with a more expensive and more capitalist-appropriate labor power than that of its own, this can only mean that it is (to some extent) the organic genesis of something bigger than itself. The origin of both capitalist apology and its critique is to be found in the same genetic-social pool. Grateful or not so grateful offspring, depending on each case. Of course, in times of acute social precarity within the middle class itself, it remains to be seen how (and if) the latter will roll up its sleeves and get down to the “manly” task of socially reproducing its own kind.
Dana Domșodi is a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Scuola Sant’ Anna in Pisa, Italy, with a thesis on class and Eastern European migration. She has published articles in Cultura and Vatra magazines.
Translated from the Romanian by Marius Bogdan Tudor