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Did it Ever Happen? Social Movements and the Politics of Spontaneous Consensus in Post-Socialist Romania

Candles are lit next to photographs of the victims outside the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest Source: Associated Press
Candles are lit next to photographs of the victims outside the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest
Source: Associated Press

Note from the LeftEast editors: This article has first appeared in Romanian on the website Criticatac. It was translated into English by Maria Pozsar and extensively reworked by the author. 




                  1. The Oblivion

Today, only two months after they took place, the protests mentioned in this text are already history. In a double sense: not only that they are over, but their presence within the public sphere seems as distant as possible. Like a bizarre non-event, the street demonstrations have largely disappeared from public focus and the changes brought by them don’t differ that much from the business-as-usual of Romanian politics.[1] There seems to be a strange aura of obsoleteness which has thrown these street movements in the trash-bin of history with an alert promptness. So much so that talking about them seems to be more the province of the historian, of someone eager and patient enough to rummage through the innumerable details, the curious vagaries and peculiar changes which shaped the incidents. However, the magnitude of the protests was, by all accounts, impressive: thirty thousand people gathered in Bucharest on November 4th and numerous others thronged in some of the important cities of the country. Street demonstrations continued for a few days and the media was cluttered with conflicting interpretations, optimism, propositions, new ideas, anger or confidence. A powerful outrage oozed through the press, made itself felts on the streets, only to stealthily disappear after a few days. So that after this huge social upheaval, with very few alterations people got back from where they started.

It would be easy to blame this peculiar obsoleteness on the fluctuating interest of the media, on its sensationalism and its self-devouring sense of novelty. And although there is a grain of truth in this hypothesis, it might be the case that this obsoleteness springs from the manner in which political action and, as a result, social movements in Romania have been constructed and have been perceived in the last two decades. A case in point is that, with very few exceptions, the same amnesia has covered most of the important movements of the recent decades. Very few discussions tackle the innumerable strikes of 1990s Romania, the powerful trade unionism of the same decade, the student movements of the early 2000s, but also the collective anti-Roma attacks of the last twenty five years. Hence, it is not just the media industry with its short attention span, but also historical works, sociological studies, anthropological inquiries which share our common sense of flippant obliviousness. Somehow the recent past seems to be more distant than anything which might have happened before. If things were done differently in the interwar or the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s are not just a different country, they are the contemporary antiquity of present day.

In earnest or not, in what follows I will try to take this obsoleteness seriously and, faking the persona of a reserved but sympathetic historian, I will try to present the protests of November 2015 as part of this strange contemporary antiquity which evades us. As I will hopefully try to show, its distant character comes from the way in which political action has been constructed in the last decades: as a solution-finding process, cut off from the interests of any particular class or social group. Politics has become somewhat of an inter-class project, an attempt to find a common good which could satisfy the interests of that anonymous political subject called “Romanian society”, a subject that has no class, no gender and no ethnicity. This idea seems to have fuelled Romanian protests of the last years, leading to confusing collective actions which can be reclaimed by everybody and no one. The reason why we are here is due to the marginalization of any type of political identity representing the interests of recognizable social communities: the exclusion of any feminist, class-based or Romani language. Unmoored from any particular interests, build around a vague civic solidarity, the 2015 protests were unable to offer any political continuity and as a consequence, they could not form a social movement spanning for more than a few days or which could simply survive the November cold. This is why they could be so easily forgotten and so easily pushed aside. Disconnected from the immediate interests of any particular group, addressed to all and none, they could easily become part of our past without any nostalgia, heartbreaks or hard feelings.

  1. The Events

On the 6th of November 2015, in the midst of powerful street demonstrations shaking the country, the Governor of the Romanian National Bank issued a declaration, expressing his institution’s support and willingness to provide the specialists and the technocrats needed for reconstructing Romania’s political structures: “We have a reserve army of cadres who are ready to provide the specialists that we might need.” By the time of this declaration, Mugur Isarescu had been the longest serving governor of any central bank in the history of central banking, a feat which even the Guinness Book felt compelled to recognize. The conspicuousness of this longevity, however, was very much lost on the Romanian public. By 2015, his institution had managed to garner a specific aura of neutrality which contrasted with the murky waters of Romanian politics. Mugur Isarescu was the poster boy of this technocratic neutrality. It did not matter much that the peculiar delimitation between the technocratic space of the central bank and the conflictual arena of party politics was in itself a political creation: the result of the international reinforcement of narrow monetarist policies.[2]

It was astoundingly unclear, however, what problems were to be solved by this groundswell of technocratic knowhow. And most political and social actors were confused: coming from journalists or politicians, the word crisis loomed large. Up to that moment, however, nobody could pin-point what or whom exactly underwent this crisis and what solutions could be put on the table. As a result of both protests and political confusion, a specific sense of nervy edginess was visible in the public reactions of Romanian politicians: on the 5th of November, the Social-Democratic Prime Minister resigned. Demands for other resignations were frequently heard: the Prime-Minister was not enough. This was just one of the signs that, indeed, something was wrong: after all, there were thousands of people in the streets protesting against that “something” and a cabinet which had just been disbanded because of it. Defining the “something” was mandatory, an important task still laying ahead, messy and confusing, but necessary.

With all these uncertainties hovering around or in an attempt to quell them, on the same day the President of the country declared, with a gesture of ingenuous empathy, that the ire of the street was indeed justified. He was, thus, willing to start a dialogue with the representatives of Romanian civil society in order to define what exactly caused the collective anger and to offer solutions. Numerous people from a variety of backgrounds – analysts, journalists, politicians, economists, as well as common people, had already begun to comment on “what the street says” or, in one journalist’s parlance , to “listen to the street’s murmur”, and interpret it in articles, editorials, radio and TV shows, or back to the streets. The large crowds assembling in the Bucharest University square were not very helpful in imparting any definite meaning to this interpretative debacle, however. What the crowd was asking was also opened to interpretations and hence, the various pundits’ attempts to define the nature of their requests. In the absence of any outspoken claims, any clearly delineated demands, it became customary to try to fathom, guess and deduct them. A quaint interpretative fervour, sometimes rising up to half-baked sociological analyses, sometimes falling back dramatically on political common-places, were exchanged in the press, on TV, on the streets or at the presidential meeting summoned on the 6th of Novembers. The veneer of some of these interpretations could be inferred from the programmatic statement of one of the participants at the presidential meeting: “what the people need is dignity, truth and conscience, this is the starting point”… The poised self-assuredness of these befuddled declarations and the exaggerated intellectual comfort which reeked from them did not prevent, however, their progress. While the protestors were marching on the streets, analyses and elucidations were sprouting in the media, in the parliament, in the presidential palace, among the members of the now defunct government.

The events which had produced this inflation of fumbling social investigations was a wave of street protests which had surprised both the political elite as well as the media, if not the protestors themselves. For a few days tens of thousands of protestors were present in Bucharest, Cluj, Timisoara and other major cities. Despite the fact that Romania had already witness important street demonstrations in 2012 and 2014, the sheer number of participants outshone those events.[3] The huge street demonstration had been sparked by a tragic Bucharest accident which left more than fifty dead: the downtown club Colectiv had caught fire leading to the deadliest incident befalling the Romanian capital since the 1989 Revolution, when hundreds of protestors were murdered on the streets. A whole series of small, apparently insignificant details, gestures and words had led to the accident, enhancing its magnitude and leaving tens of people in hospital and so many dead: cheap inflammable construction materials, indifference to any safety regulations, small or big bribes that made authorities turn a blind eye, etc. In a nutshell, it was the awkward collusion between capitalists keen on cost-cutting and a bureaucracy keen on assisting them. After the Riga accident in 2014, when a supermarket collapsed killing 54 persons, the Bucharest fire was another proof of how Eastern European capital, with its specific market constraints, could hardly avoid being a predatory type of enterprise. Within it, minimal investments in what state socialist economics called “the non-productive branches of the economy” (the service sector, entertainment), lead not only to profit maximization but also to a specific insouciance regarding safety regulations, stable infrastructure and everything that might come under the blanket term of “non-profitable investment”. In the Riga case, as any supermarket, the capital necessary for erecting such a building was minimal, partly in order to avoid the possible costs of relocation. In the Bucharest case, the local capitalists had simply taken over a socialist factory and transformed it into club, which reduced their costs substantially. Moreover, for the Romanian context, it was obvious that the state was either unwilling or worse, unable to impose some minimal constraints upon capital: that of ensuring the safety of its premises. A few days after the Bucharest attack, a factory in Brasov, an important urban centre, caught fire, feeding into the numerous labour accidents studding Romanian economy.

As a result, the peculiar organic structure of Romanian capital coupled with the impotence of public authorities, led to an atmosphere reminiscent of 19th century, when it first became obvious that capitalism did imply development but it also had its costs. Among them, safety and health issues were among the most visible; and tragically this visibility was again rediscovered in 2015 Romania. And just like in the fin-de-siècle discussions on labour safety, one of the bones of contention in the Romanian debates on the Colectiv accident was the problem of accountability and its thorny aspects: who was to blame for what had happened at the club? What were the social mechanisms which had made the tragedy possible? In the case of this type of accidents, taking place at the strange crossroad between capital and state institutions, private capitalist agents and public authorities, the issue of agency was very much obscure and puzzling. Furthermore, a powerful anti-welfare rhetoric had led to a strict state/private capital demarcation which could hardly account for the complex interweaving between capitalist interests and state institutions which gave the Colectiv accident its peculiar characteristics.[4] It could hardly explain how public institutions were little by little privatized by capital, controlled by it. As a result, the problem of agency and accountability swerved very easily onto an equivocal, ambiguous terrain. And it was this ambiguity which enabled the war of interpretations which was taking place at the time, channelling so many of the public debates. The accident was to a certain extent opaque, it did not provide a readied interpretation which could gather all social actors around a common agenda.

Why were these conflicting interpretations of the accident and of the protest important? And why it would be worthwhile to take seriously this second-rate pop sociology which they triggered? One of the answers lies in the political effects of the protests. The lack of a clear set of public demands had opened up a political hiatus, most visible in the resignation of the Social-Democratic government and in the unclear political future that laid ahead. Although the social-democrats still controlled the Parliament, the President, a former candidate of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, enjoyed a symbolic prestige that made him a pivotal political player. Hence, a certain unstable equilibrium when the balance could tipped in any possible direction. This situation, along with the powerful street demonstrations created an awkward stalemate, an open space which could be filled with anything from progressive social reforms to the re-instalment of the same hard-headed, but persistent neoliberalism. Within this context, the results of the protests depended very much on the ability of each class and social group to give their own meaning to what was happening on the street and to what had happened in the club which was now just a pile of ashes.

Moreover, the outcomes of this awkward social context depended on the ability of political actors to impose their interpretation within the public sphere. The actual requests of the protestors, including the way they were perceiving their own interests, were nothing but marginal. What mattered was who had the material and institutional resources to claim “this is an anti-corruption protest, not an anti-poverty one”, “it’s about renewing the political class, not about regulating private capital”, “we need more economical freedom, not more state control”. It did not matter who led the revolution, but who spoke on its behalf. Consequently, despite the sometimes ingenious terms in which they were couched, the babbling social analyses that had sprouted in the media did matter.

It would have been a mistake, however, to regard these conflicting interpretations as a dialogical contest, a liberal utopia, as a democratic space in which different contestants would brandish their argumentative strength. Far from it, what mattered was the political and institutional power to impose one’s interpretation as the most acceptable and the most compelling. The rules of the interpretative game were set outside of the game, by access to resources such as the press, internet platforms, institutional power, social capital, influence over state institutions. The interpretative battle was hardly a battle of words but a battle of political and economic strenght.

The most blatant illustration of this was the presidential meeting summoned on the 6th of October. The meeting was framed as a consultation with the “people”, the representatives of Romanian “civil society”, as an attempt to make the street speak and maybe even respond to its demands. At the same time, however, the meeting pointed out how some of the most basic, almost naïve conceptual tools used within current Romanian political discourse (civil society, people) can be efficiently employed in order to impose limits on political action: to designate who are the political actors whose interests matter and who can simply be ignored without any qualms or hard-feelings

The simple idea underpinning the president’s decision was the rather common conception that everything outside the confines of state and political parties can only be civil society. It followed that what was happening on the streets was also civil society.[5] Consequently the problem evinced by the protests was simply one of proper selection: how to find the most reliable representatives of civil society. The final selection for the meeting did not feature any surprises. In the end, it turned out that the representatives were a rather recognizable bunch of institutions and organizations: pro-business organizations (Freedom House, Expert Forum), bureaucratized non-militant student unions, liberal NGOs, as well as a group of public figures recognized for their “civic involvement”. In a nutshell, a cluster of neoliberal organisations and think-thanks, together with a pensive middle-class whose discourse focused on concepts such as: moral revolution, the renewal of the political class, anti-corruption fight, or, in the words of a participant, “humanism, dignity, respect, meritocracy and freedom”. Simplifying, it was a meeting between the representatives of capital and its wistful apologists; either those of a ferocious pragmatism in defending specific class-interests (Freedom House, Expert Forum), or those whose political vision was permeated by a moralizing and moralistic discourse: truth, sincerity, renewal, anti-corruption, a kind of cleansing of the whole society was the agenda sketched at the meeting. The important quality of this ethical discourse masquerading as political program was that, in its elevating impetus, defied any possible rebuttals: who could claim, in the end that, truth and sincerity were not OK?

Of course, the people on the street were not the “civil society” and, in general, a meeting with the representatives of civil society is not a consultation with the “people”, but merely a meeting with those who had had the capacity and resources to organize in order to protect their own group and class interests. The social actors identified by the president as relevant wereidentifiable , in the first place because they had the resources to voice their claims. Unfortunately, precisely those who had suffered the brunt of the Great Recession, those who had undergone the chilling austerity measures of the preceding years, lacked the capacity and the resources to organize, to be part of the civil society which the president had summoned. In the end, the presidential conclave made obvious that the civil society which he, as so many other Romanian politicians, had employed in order to delineate the sphere of legitimate social actors was indeed a very selective group: it was a dialogue between those for whom the problem of organizing their own interests was not necessarily a problem, those who had already the will and the power to influence and sometimes pressure state institutions. Civil society was, so to speak, a biblical concept: it granted public representation to those who already had it, it gave a voice to the loudest, it offered strength to the strong. The term “civil” in “civil society” took again the discriminatory nuances it had in its original, 18th century usage: a confined circle of the powerful, identifying itself in permanent contrast with the popular classes, usually perceived as a nagging, unworthy chorus of discontent.

In this way the Friday’s consultation inhibited the simple awareness of the fact that there were indeed people who did not have the resources to have their interests represented; that maybe the ability to organize and demand needs time, money, and social capital, that is to say exactly what the victims of the Romanian waves of austerity did not have. In this way the presidential meeting managed to block any question that might have raised the issue of political representation. After that Friday it became increasingly difficult to name and render visible the problems of those who could not make themselves heard, of those who could not participate in the political process without being elbowed out by the representatives of capital or of bourgeois idealism.

  1. The Responses

It was evident though, that the President’s effort to frame the problem in this way was not entirely convincing. At least not for everybody. And more importantly it could not persuade some of those who had the resources to make themselves heard but not enough power to impose their interests as seamlessly and as easy as Freedom House. Quickly after the presidential meeting a number of voices, varying from NGOs to pop stars, started to criticize the way in which the president had tried to make sense of the events, focusing especially on the selectivity of his dialogue. The President’s decision could step on quite a lot of toes. Which meant that the whirlwind of interpretations had to keep on turning.

The political parties were deeply engaged in this process. Alongside President Johannis, The National Liberal Party (PNL) seemed the most enthusiastic about this unexpected political windfall. Without putting any effort they had somehow managed to get rid of a Social-Democratic (PSD) government which had long been a hurdle for them: it was, after all a long awaited victory over an unwavering prime minister. Some voices in the Party even tried to ask for another round of parliamentary elections, as the Social-Democrats still controlled the Parliament. This is why the liberals’ stance regarding the events was simple, vague and efficient: in their opinion, the protests expressed the disappointment of the population with all political parties, but especially with the ruling government of the last years, the PSD. In this way, after the symbolic espousal of collective expiation (“we all, as politicians, are guilty”), they could introduce a more poignant statement: everybody was guilty, especially the opposing party. The Social-Democrats on the other hand, probably the biggest losers in this game, were desperately trying to promote the collective guilt hypothesis: for them, the protests were a reaction to the shortcomings of “the political class” as a whole, a systemic reaction to systemic ills. To a certain extent this was a very seductive position and a lot of the protestors would have agreed with it. After all, in the streets one could still hear the slogan “PNL și PSD/Aceeași mizerie” (PNL and PSD/The same scums), while constant refrains about the renewal of the “political class” seemed to point out into the same direction. So intuitively this would have been a credible statement; but coming as it did from PSD, everyone saw in this stance a mere tactical move, a simple ideological ploy, an attempt to shift the burden of responsibility from the Party’s shoulder onto the collective “political class”. The PSD’s stance was for a lot of journalists and protesters a way of advancing “a political agenda”, as the press phrased it, reformulating the protestors’ demands to fit the party’s political interests. Of course, the same could be said about the PNL position which seemed even more cynical.

In a way all interpretations offered by political parties were suspicious by default. They were perceived as a way of translating a common collective effort (the protest) in the narrow terms of one’s private interests, privatizing thus the collective undertaking The common vocabulary used in order to describe this privatization referred to “manipulation”, “infiltration”, “the theft of the protest” or its “high-jacking”. Similar reactions to the parties’ interpretation of the protests had been seen in the 2012 and 2014 A generalized suspicion regarding the manner in which the protests could be actually derailed in order to fit personal or group interests was hovering over the street manifestation and the politicians were the most obvious targets of such accusations.

This suspicion, however, did not easily stop there: it focused not only on recognized political actors, but also on the fellow protestors gathered in the street. There was a generalized fear of infiltrations, of undercover SRI (Romanian Intelligence Service) agents, of Political party affiliates lurking amidst the crowd. It seemed that what connected the people gathered in the streets was not just the bond of solidarity, but also that of suspicion: the comrade present next to you could very easily turn out to be SRI agent, a party member or, in any case, a dubious person whose intentions were not at all innocent. The direction and the meaning of the protest could be privatized at any time, confiscated by social actors with well-established interests who, hidden in the crowd, could use this collective effort to their own gain. Hence, small incidents which permeated the protests when different groups rediscovered that, despite their proximity, they could be worlds apart: from the fleeting suspicion directed at the person next to you to small ironies or quarrels which sometimes did escalade in more serious cases of violence or strange episodes of social panic. The most relevant debate on this subject was the never-ending issue of the people carrying megaphones. Lacking any formal organization, the protests had been loosely coordinated through self-elected individuals whose access to megaphones led to some semblance of coherence. They were the ones who would first chant the slogans, who would direct the marches or who would try to keep up the protest’s momentum. Most of these figures already had a history behind them, taking part in the 2012 and 2014 movements, making themselves recognized there and, to a certain extent, becoming the unofficial poster-boys of some of these movements. The informal power that they yielded, however, also raised questions, especially since there hadn’t been any democratic process to legitimize their position, just a megaphone. Hence, a wire-clutter of conspiratorial scenarios, presuppositions and hypotheses started to surround these figures. The press were constantly informing about the real or invented past of such people, trying to surmise their hidden intention, their plans, and the way in which their actions interacted with the presupposed agenda of the SRI, of various political parties or, in some extreme cases, of the usual suspects, the Masons or the Jews. In the atmosphere of generalized suspicion that was surrounding the protests, this type of interpretative delirium became somehow normalized.

The same logic of suspicion seemed also to have fuelled the unwillingness to elect any street representatives. On the Left, this reluctance was sometimes seen as sign of the democratic ethos reigning in the streets. It was obvious, however, from the diluted acrimony of the street interactions that this was hardly the case; the protests were not as horizontal as one would have wished. The strained sense of solidarity was punctuated by suspicion without being held together by any democratic decision-making mechanisms. Moreover, as dubious as their status was, informal leaders did exist. Their uncertain position was however very useful and had to be kept as unofficial as possible: electing official representatives would have committed the protests to a specific agenda, to a specific set of demands and claims. In this way, preserving their ambiguity, their informality and their amorphousness was actually an asset: it allowed the motley crew of people gathered in the street to maintain some sense of commonality without defining it, some sense of common interests without pin-pointing them. It allowed a very strenuous balance between suspicion and solidarity. In this way everybody in the street could define the protest at will, could provide her interpretation of what was actually happening. Just as the journalists and the politicians were offering contending interpretation of the events, the same interpretative Babel was present among the protestors. The street protests could therefore, only be defined negatively, by what they were not: by the fact that they were the opposite of any particular group interest.

  1. The Results

If for the 2012 protests there was a certain general feeling that austerity was to blame and this was recognized by all social actors, whether they liked austerity measures or not; and if in 2014 there was a concrete objective actively assumed by all protestor regardless of their ideological differences (stopping the Canadian gold-mining project), in 2015 it was still unclear what was the stake of the political conflict. It meant different things for different factions of the media and the political parties, engaged in various interpretative struggles; it meant different and contending things for the people taking part in it. In the absence of a clearly or at least schematically formulated set of concerns, the protests could mean anything. Which in practice entailed that they could be made to mean what it was convenient for them to mean, that they could be easily co-opted by the already hegemonic discourses dominating the public sphere: on the one hand the anti-corruption discourse and, strictly connected to it, the debate about the “political class”. It was these two political tropes which came to dominate the way in which the protests were framed in the public sphere, as well as the manner in which, on the ground level, protestors saw the movement. The sense of interpretative confusion which still dominated the first days of protests was easily replaced by rather definite certainties and inevitable answers. In the end, it was decided: it was a protest against corruption and against something called “the political class”.

In 2015 Romania the anti-corruption discourse had already managed to gain the status of a general framework for interpreting political conflicts, a macro-social explanation. Social struggles, access or lack of access to resources, institutional and social disfunctionalities could be easily interpreted as the result of a generalized phenomenon of corruption. This status as a macro-social interpretation was partly the result of the malleability of the anti-corruption discourse: it could be used by any social group or class in as much as it allowed an easy indictment of its opponents. The Liberal party could readily accuse the Social-Democrats of developing an infrastructure of corruption, using public institutions to cater for private interests. The same accusations could be easily brandished by the Social-Democrats at the Liberals. Even on a local level corruption charges could function as a way to meander through the dangerous political sphere by undermining one’s opponents: this was a common practice in the hazy regional conflicts of counties such as Arges or Olt. The anti-corruption discourse implied a sustained focus on identifiable culprits, avoiding any systemic analysis of political and economic conflicts and consequently, any systemic reform: it was the corrupt politician or the tainted state employee which was the sociological hero of this discourse. This focus on individual figures explains why anti-corruption charges could be used so efficiently in order to broker and negotiate the complex conflicts between different sections of the capitalist class or the political elite. This expedient functionality ensured its endurance, the fact that so many political and social actors were reproducing it on a daily basis. More importantly however, the anti-corruption discourse was sustained by a complex network of institutions which made it hard to root out. The previous President, Traian Basescu, had overseen the establishment of specific organizations, like the Anti-Corruption Office, which maintained its institutional autonomy and moral prestige, despite various accusations that it lent itself to political targeting. Added to this, anti-corruption was a narrative which enjoyed the active support of international bodies with a gigantic leverage on the Romanian political scene: the IMF, the World Bank, the EU commission. Its widespread character though, was also the result of a certain popular support, catering to the need for popular justice: due to anti-corruption campaigns people in all walks of life had had the opportunity to see behind bars a former prime-minister, numerous ministers and other public figures. These were atrocious figures, in the end, some of the rapacious winners of the transition.

Despite this popular support, however, it was difficult not to spot the pro-capital bias of the anti-corruption rhetoric. It could be easily used to explain and somehow legitimize the inequities of Romanian capitalism: from its perspective, it was the local shortcomings of generalized corruption which had prevented a functional market economy. The economic violence of pro-market reforms, of privatization, increased social inequalities, all these could be easily interpreted as local irrationalities, as indigenous outcomes of a corrupt environment. Hence it could be easily alleged that the only solution to these local disfunctionalities could be an attempt to further bolster capitalist institutions while speeding up the fight against corruption. This interpretative move was also supported by international bodies such as the IMF or the World Bank that which constantly over-emphasised the importance of “good governance” plus market institutions. Of course, the direct effect of this macro-interpretation was that it totally erased out of the picture the importance of private capital in supporting corrupt practices. If corruption was, as it was claimed, the illicit privatization of public resources and public assets, the way in which the private sphere encouraged and sustained this type of process never tackled. Since the unquestionable hero of the anti-corruption hero was the corrupt state employee, the other side of the corruption relationship (capital) seemed to disappear from sight. This was one of the reasons why important corruption cases that involved major international players (Microsoft, Canadian gold companies, Chevron) never seemed to have gone off the ground. Moreover, in quite a lot of cases, this focus on corruption legitimatized constant attack on state autonomy and its institutions, usually through calls for privatizing corrupt or inefficient public institutions.

It was this powerful institutional framework coupled with its pro-capital bias, which made the anti-corruption discourse an everyday presence in Romanian public life, providing a ready-made reading for any sort of political conflict, including the one sparked by the Colectiv tragedy. The fire could easily be seen as the result of a corrupt bureaucracy, more interested in its private welfare than in the public good. It was a rather efficient reading which, however, made invisible the powerful collusion between private capital and state institutions that characterized the accident. The fact that state institutions were made incapable to play their supervisory role as a result of the same anti-statist discourse which fuelled anti-corruption claims, was never mentioned. The role of private capital in the tragedy was swept under the blanket. The most successful slogan of the protests became “Corupția ucide” (Corruption kills), a slogan promoted by the press, adopted by various politicians, by the NGOs, by the entrepreneurs’ associations and, in the end, by the protestors themselves. To top it all The Guardian could finally write an article showing a new generation of Romanians fighting against corruption. This was a rather common press strategy keen on providing a specific generational identity to these ambiguous protests. New-fangled terms were proposed in order to describe the actors of these social movement: the new Romanian middle-class, the Facebook generation, the social media generation. Of course, what defined the generation was its fight against corruption, its commitment to “transparency” or its allegiance to a vague ideological concoction usually called “Western values” [valori occidentale].

The anti-corruption discourse easily fed into another generalized idea which supported by the press, came to dominate the way in which the protests were understood: the debate about the “political class.” On the streets and in the press, let alone in The Guardian’s interpretation of the events, a strong call for renewing the entire “political class” was being voiced. All political actors, regardless of their affiliation, were pilloried as the main cause of the Colectiv tragedy and, more generally, of the dismal state of the country. This strange sociological invention of “the political class” as a social actor was symptomatic of the manner in which the relationship between state institutions and private capital was interpreted in Romanian public sphere. Widely used, in the street as well as in the media, this idea managed to erase the intrinsic ties between private capital and state representatives, the intimate but disastrous relationships between the two, their catastrophic dance of mutual inter-dependence. It assigned agency and accountability for the social crisis to the political elite alone, rendering the violent process of capital accumulation invisible again. At the same time, it completely eliminated the constraints imposed by capital on the state, regardless of whom might have been in power. The usage of this concept made the impression that Romania had suddenly became the first capitalist state in history that miraculously managed to rid itself of the influence of capital on its institution: political representatives could do whatever they wanted, without any constraints imposed on them by the economic elites. The naiveté of such an interpretation did not make it any less functional and any less widespread and the Colectiv protests became another vehicle through which the critique of the “political class” was voiced.

In the end, after a few days of protests, it seemed that the interpretative Babel which dominated the first days of street demonstrations was gingerly channelled into the hegemonic discourses of Romanian political field: anti-corruption and its corollary, the criticism of “the political class”. The institutional support which it enjoyed (international bodies, the press, political parties) made it have the powerful impact that it had: when Romanian journalists listened to “the murmur of the street” they would hear anti-corruption and the “renewal of the political class”. When the president chaired the meeting with the “civil society” of his own making, he was hearing the same thing. Any alternative interpretations which might have pointed out to the instrumental nature of state institutions, the state’s lack of autonomy in respect to the economic elites, its incapacity to impose even minimal constraints on capital like banal safety measures; all these were pushed aside. Although a few voices were heard during the protests which made references to alternative interpretation, they were easily overwhelmed by the din of anti-corruption white noise or by the powerful sway of a media bent on crying wolf at the wrong tree. The few attempts at pushing to the fore other important social concerns, such as labour safety or tenancy laws, were also marginalized. The protest became a protest against corruption and an attempt to “renew the politic class”. This way politicians could continue their mutual game of corruption allegations; Romanian capitalists could continue their accumulation of capital at the expense of their employees and everyone’s safety; the media could go on with their analyses of the former, totally oblivious towards the latter.

The protests did have a rather important pragmatic effect, however. Both anti-corruption and the indictment of the political class as a whole, tended to favour a political program that embodied a specific form of neutrality, the neutrality represented by institutions and actors such as the National Bank and its Governor; the technocratic ideal of an apolitical government, outside the sway of political parties. The President, caught between his allegiance to his own political party and the fear of being perceived as politically biased, also seemed to favour such a solution. The Social-Democrats, after the resignation of the government, seemed inclined to accept the compromise. Although it was hard to say if this was actually one of the demands of the protestors, a technocratic government seemed to be the solution to the crisis for everybody. Or at least for everybody that mattered. So that on the 18th of November a technocratic government was finally formed.[6] Among the first measures announced by the new Prime-Minister was a refusal to increase the minimum wage. The reason: the necessity of increasing capital’s competitive edge. The untold subject of these protests, the invisible actor of the Colectiv tragedy, the one that everybody refused to talk about, the spectre of capital as it were, seemed to have made its presence felt once again.


  1. The End

What is to be gained from this historical fable, from these events which by now have already receded out of sight, out of our political horizon, gaining a certain air of curious obsoleteness? First of all, it is the banal but crucial fact that public space is not at all the democratic arena we might wish for, but a very hierarchical system. Even in the case of what was, by all accounts, one of the few weapons of the weak, a popular protest, people gathering in the streets to voice their demands, it became obvious that the resources of political representation are distributed very unevenly. It was Romania’s President who was helpful and cynical enough to point this out in a dramatically obvious way, selectively picking out the social actors who actually counted, those who had had the capacity to impose their interests as valid political demands. The presidential meeting made clear that it mattered little what were the slogans shouted out during those days, who were those gathered in the street and what they actually wanted. It mattered who had the position and the capacity to translate this social unrest into valid political claims. In order to become once again the voices of freedom and “civil society”, the spokespersons of capital such as Freedom House did not have to go onto to the streets, did not have to pick up a placard or to shout their lungs out. In a way the Romanian state, like any capitalist state, involved an impressive selection process of the political actors whose interests counted but also of the topics which were deemed legitimate political concerns.[7] The manner in which the Colectiv disaster became once again a discussion about corruption and state institutions and not about capital and the dangerous stunts of profit maximization, was a proof in this sense.

It is, nevertheless, true that the ambiguity of the tragedy and the interpretative confusion which it sparked could have been a good opportunity to make social claims going beyond the neoliberal status quo. It could have allowed social groups which have no voice to make their demands heard and partially acknowledged, challenging this askew selection mechanism. The power vacuum created once the Social-Democratic government was dismantled, the general ambiguity of the political context, especially in its first days, could have triggered an analysis of the relationship between capital constraints and the impressive bureaucratic pliability to them. It could have pointed out to the dramatic context in which the state is either unwilling or incapable to act against the power of capital. However, the capacity to impose such a political interpretation within the public sphere was conspicuously missing. The problem was not so much the absence of such a version of the events: it was the possibility of voicing it and making it heard which was lacking, the chance of making it gain a foothold in a very hierarchical public space.

In the end, it was the lack of resources which would make such questions viable political debates, the dearth of economic and political assets which could render a progressive agenda possible, democratizing the process of political representation. The 2015 protests made again obvious that in the absence of powerful social movements, the economic and political elites will always secure their hegemony[8] over the public space. Their control of the press, think-thanks, commissions of expertise and some critical institutions like the chambers of commerce, but also the help of cynical or naïve commentators like Romanian journalists, enable such a hegemony. In the end, the capital’s capacity to secure this symbolic domination is always going to be greater than that of its critics, even if only for the basic fact that its economic resources are highly superior. This is why, despite the most excessive optimism one could muster, there are not too many things to be expected from protests such as those taking place in Romania: the political disruption that they bring about has been solely used by pro-capitalist forces, the only ones that have the symbolic and economic capacity to profit from them. This is why the protests have so easily turned into an anti-corruption demonstration with a strong pro-capital bias. With a shattered Romanian working class movement, a defenceless rural population and an impressively thin layer of intellectual opposition, there is hardly any progressive force which could push for its interests in a more forceful manner, bringing some political balance against what is, actually, a highly organized and efficient bourgeois domination.

Especially after 2000, Romanian capitalists’ capacity to organize themselves and to influence not just critical state institutions, but also public opinion as such, has increased considerably. Partially this is the result of an institutional transfer enabled by organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank, or pro-capitalist NGOs like Freedom House. The model implemented was the one trade-marked through the US capitalist offensive of the 1970s. It involved not just direct political pressure on state institutions, something American capitalists already mastered, but also a complex network of think-tanks, expert knowledge and the media which could ensure a successful control over the public sphere. It is difficult to imagine the success of neoliberalism without the anti-welfare rhetoric of major media outlets from the 1970s onwards, without the constant allegations of trade-union corruption, without the networks of economic expertise pushing for monetarist financial principles and deregulation. Only this mixture of hard and soft weapons managed to push back the otherwise minuscule gains US labour had won during the New Deal.[9] This impressive display of logistic power created, however, a prototype of class organization which has been freely adopted across borders[10]. Although in a patchier manner, the model also took roots in Romania, mixing direct political pressure with advocacy efforts, media control and economic expertise. Patchier and partial since the gigantic display of force the American capitalist class used was not at all necessary: no powerful working class organizations like the UAW were in place. Thanks to the generous help of Romanian political elites, resistance was minimal. The full implementation of the model was unnecessary also because of the gigantic leverage that international institutions such as the IMF had in the Romanian context; due to the state’s financial dependence on external credit IMF’s anti-labour pressure was a determining factor, being severely felt by workers on the shop-floor or by the numerous unemployed forced to migrate to Western Europe. Anti-corruption was a powerful instrument in this array of soft weapons since it pressured the privatization of state companies, seen as nests of corruption networks, while avoiding any inquiry into the dirty business of private capital accumulation. Flawed as it was by corruption, Romanian capitalism could not spread its wings and bring about prosperity.

One can sense this increasing power of capitalist hegemony in the very different manner in which the labour codes of 2003 and that of 2011 had been adopted: while in 2003 it was still possible for trade unions to throw some weight around and push for a more progressive legislation, in 2011 their input hardly mattered.[11] By 2011 capitalists had not only the institutional capacity to provide legislative expertise defending their interests; they had not just the political acumen to pressure state institution, but also the ability to influence public opinion. The Romanian press was ecstatic about the new discourse on labour flexibility, about the anti-union provisions of the code, about the important leverage the legislation gave to Romanian entrepreneurs at the expense of their employees. Similarly, despite fierce but brotherly political dissensions, all political parties brandished the same pro-capital enthusiasm, not feeling at all pressured to throw at least some symbolic concession to labour representatives.

For the 2015 events, the anti-corruption discourse was another example of the difficult struggle to displace any pro-capital hegemony over the public sphere.[12] Throughout the protests it was the anti-corruption rhetoric that became the battle cry of almost all political actors, pushing in the end for the establishment of a technocratic government of a strong neoliberal bent. Curiously, although anti-corruption discourse is a sign of the conflicts within the capitalist class, especially between local and international capital, its ubiquity leaves no room for taking advantage of these dissensions. Its effects are those of undermining an already embattled and entrenched public administration, whose capacity to fight capitalist interests has conspicuously decreased. Instead of providing the means of making public institutions more impermeable to such private interests, anti-corruption calls for their retreat and their dismantlement. Immediately during the protests, calls for privatizing the emergency medical services became widespread. They first took the form of powerful corruption accusation directed at the head of the Romanian emergency care system,[13] only to ask for another round of privatization, allegedly in order upgrade their efficiency.[14] This is why protests such as those that took place in 2015 can hardly offer a solution as they cannot disrupt the powerful hegemony over the public sphere that pro-capital advocates have. If anything, they actually strengthen it. Within a social context temporarily destabilized by street protests, the neoliberal groupies are the only ones who can use their powerful leverage to push once again for another set of pro-market reforms. They are the only ones who have the organizational capacity to impose their interests. The technocratic government installed after the 2015 protests and the set of reforms it announced only confirmed this sad recurring pattern.

No left-wing discourse can take advantage of these social movements without the institutional resources necessary for gaining a foothold within the Romanian public sphere and making claims for more progressive social measures. The problem is not, as people on the left often claim, the lack of an alluring left-wing program. It’s not the discourse as such that is the main obstacle, just as it is not some alleged distance between working class people and socialist values that should worry us. The main difficulty is the lack of resources which could impose such a discourse within in the public sphere, able to represent a viable alternative to the pro-capitalist hegemony. Another problem are the political barriers confronting such grass-roots initiatives: the current electoral legislation makes political projects more and more difficult outside the few big parties that dominate the political scene.[15] One should not forget that parties such as Syriza made a powerful impact not just because of their political agenda and their anti-austerity stance, but because of their imaginative usage of the resources they had at hand: a complex set of alliances between different political organizations, their relationship with trade unions, regional institutions, certain media networks, etc. It was this political creativity which allowed them to transform the economic crisis of the Greek state into a political opportunity. These resources are scarcer than ever in Romania, but rare as they are they have to be used and pooled together. This implies the difficult job of everyday activism, of organizing meeting, building alliances between different social groups: NGOs, intellectual collectives, political parties or factions. It implies patience and the capacity to accumulate enough resources to make things matter.

More importantly, it implies a certain degree of political imagination. Only such a patient and inventive everyday effort can develop those institutional settings able to make local communities politically more dynamic, enabling them to take political initiative: from the disaffected workers of the former industrial towns to the rural population representing more than 40% of Romania’s inhabitants. The gigantic social gulf between the few Romanian big cities and the rest of the country has often had a terrible political result, as the most disaffected social communities are effectively blocked from having a political voice. In the Romanian province “political” efforts are confined to philanthropic initiatives or the predatory hunt for votes once in every four years, pushing aside the banal fact that these are either temporary or demeaning solutions. Without entering into a dialogue with those living in the Romanian rural inferno or in the everyday apocalypse of former industrial towns, and without devising the institutional mechanisms for such a dialogue to take place the Romanian elites would hardly feel any need to respond to their needs. They would hardly feel threatened. However, no economic crisis, no matter how tough, can radicalize these deprived communities if their political input is effectively blocked and their status as political subjects is constantly debased within the current liberal democracy. We saw how during the Colectiv protests their existence was hardly acknowledged and, when it. But without their support hardly anything can be achieved.

What was obvious, however, in the recent protests was a manner of conceiving political action which pushed these maybe trite but necessary concerns aside. The protests were conceived as an act of national solidarity which, somehow, could unite all against the dangers besetting the country; “all” being those who cared, the ones motivated by something called “civic spirit”, dedicated to the common good, well-intentioned. The protests seemed to have taken for granted that political representation is a given for any citizen, a simple question of individual motivation and will. One of the persistent slogans heard on the streets was the simplistic call “Iesiti din casa/Daca va pasa”(Come onto the streets/If you care), while the liberal press was keen on drawing a start contrast between the political activism of the imagined middle-class youngsters taking to the streets and the perceived political apathy of the “others”: rural inhabitants, the older generation still somewhat “corrupted” by communism. There is no wonder that international newspapers like the Guardian, always keen on finding another idealistic middle class lurking behind every protests movement, was lured by this type of discourse. However, this further emphasised the political exclusion of those who, lost in the social inferno of Romanian rural life or in urban ghettos, could not even take part in this ad-hoc political action; or simply those for whom anti-corruption concerns seemed too disconnected from their daily drudgery and their immediate social interests. The generational discourse of social activism, the reference to the “Facebook generation”, the “new Romanian middle-class” or, as they started to be called in the Romanian press, “the beautiful youngsters”, entertained a dangerous fantasy of civic unity with deleterious political effects. Especially since it was always depicted against the negative background of a perceived inactive citizenry. The cheap game of contrasts from which this phantasm of civic unity had emerged, managed once again to push out of sight the basic fact that “political apathy” has been the result of intense economic and social violence; that it represented an efficient exclusion from the political body of the poor, the women or the Roma sealed off in ghettos or dusty villages.

Moreover, this discourse on civic activism was based on a very naïve idea of the political process which only encouraged political pathologies such as the technocratic solution. It was the strange political concoction that street protests could somehow automatically bring about a spontaneous consensus among their different participants; the strange idea that there was a common political agenda, a common good which, if one was in earnest, could be easily discovered and which could have readily satisfied all political actors. It seemed as if regardless of the class and group interests of those involved in these movements, their political altruism could easily bring about a solution to fit all. Within this perspective the political process was a problem solving exercise, an attempt to discover that common good whose consensual allure would create an instant agreement. Closely interwoven with the anti-corruption discourse, the only thing that could impend such a happy outcome were personal failings, individual attempts to cater for one’s interest; in a word, corruption. Hence the constant calls for actors who seemingly were beyond such personal shortcomings: those who were successful enough to guarantee that they would find the consensual “solution” to economic and social ills, the common good. These dangerous saviours were of course the ever-present technocrats, the experts, the specialist promised by the central bank governor, those whose professional acumen seemed to ensure them a perfect neutrality, “the right man at the right job”.[16]

Rather than seeing the political process as a conflictual arena, in which different groups and classes try to control state institutions in order to further their interests, there is an endearing and dangerous political imaginary of politics as an almost medical practice: finding the ills of the social body and healing them. Fairly indebted to some corporatist imaginary, there is an entrenched idea of a common good which can transcend class and group interests or which can somehow magically harmonize them all of a sudden. All it takes is an act of solidarity, of exalted civic spirit and some technocratic abilities. Because after all, the common good exists and it can be discovered through a precise diagnosis of society, through a solution that can satisfy all the social actors involved, through a good management of the economy and a good administration of the polity. There are no social conflicts, no divergent interests and especially no class conflicts.

This vision of politics as an altruist solution-search has begotten a well-rooted ideal of a pure protest of anonymous dissatisfaction which somehow surpasses class interests and political affiliations, in which any political stance can find its rightful place: monarchists, neoliberals, fascists, even anarchists. The tense suspicion which dominated the protests was partly the result of this motley crew of social forces trying to discover a spontaneous consensus around a common good. This is the source of the interpretative Babel dominating these last years’ protests, in which every group would give its own meaning to the movement while presenting it, at the same time, as a common struggle. This is also the cause of the generalized feeling of suspicion in which the presumed common good would be constantly under the threat of being privatized, “stolen” by the private interests of the comrade next to you. It’s the political naïveté of the slogan “”Come onto the streets/If you care” which implies, if we are to be correct, that a) all those who care aren’t already thrown into the streets by the real estate market, and b) that there actually is a common cause that everyone should support, a general solution which would please every social class.

There is an obdurate reluctance to accept the otherwise commonplace idea that the interests that define our social condition are, in fact, complex conflictual interests which don’t easily harmonize; that there is no common good or general solution; that if neoliberals and fascists might mix together from time to time, there is hardly any reason to believe that unions and syndicates will do the same any time soon. There is a stubborn reluctance to accept what for a lot of women, Roma and workers are actually very strong daily realities: that class interests don’t match, that they lead to powerful conflicts and that, somehow, those who lose keep on being the same over the years. There is no democratic chorus of citizens, no “Facebook generation”, no beautiful youngsters who would magically find the perfect solution under the conductor’s baton of technocracy or civic unity. Such political imageries are the result of violent political exclusions, they rely on the enforced silence of millions for Romanians who are excluded from the political process, whose voices are hardly heard and whose poverty seldom becomes a matter of concern.

This way of conceiving political action has unfortunately characterized most Romanian protests of recent years. Making claims in the name of a well-defined social classes, defending particular interests, admitting the basic fact that there are groups whose access to resources and political representation is blocked, hardly has any political currency in today’s context. Partially this is due to the strong marginalization of any type of political movement which would refuse this type of consensual politics and its underlying principles. The post-socialist onslaught on any class politics, its total exclusion from the political scene, the absence of a strong feminist or Romani discourses are setbacks not just for these specific social groups. They are also unfortunate defeats for any type of social movement which wants to get away from the nationalist consensus of the common good, of inter-class cooperation, of redeeming technocracy.

Political action starts by recognizing the social rifts between us, the fact that we do not have the same interests and certainly not the same resources. By veiling these inequalities and muffling these conflicts, the phantasm of civic altruism has created a notion of common good and public interests which has proven very dangerous. Simply because it can be easily co-opted by those that, unlike most Romanian workers, women and Roma, do have the power and the political leverage to present their private interests as public welfare, by those who have the resources to influence state institutions and the public sphere. This magical, invisible transformation of the private interests of capital into the “common good” has made anti-corruption the hegemonic discourse of Romanian politics. In this way, what turned up to be a direct attack on state institutions and a rather direct call for privatization has become the central way in which the relationship between the state and the economy is perceived even by those who are affected by this. A similar magical transformation of private interests into “common goods” has been the pervasive neoliberal discourse on economic growth which has dominated recent years. By presenting growth as totally dependent on the expansion and profitability of private capital, state intervention has been reduced to the observant task of ensuring the best conditions for Romanian capitalists. Job-creation programs have become covert or formal subsidies, while the labour code has been transformed into a simple FDI lure. It was this pledge of class bias, presented as a commitment to economic growth, which enabled the easeful adoption of the 2011 Labour Code, a gigantic defeat for Romanian employees. This is why the vision of politics as a consensual process can easily become a recipe for disaster. It offers again the possibility for those who can influence state institution and control the public sphere to present their private interests as general endeavours, as the common good to strive for. It transforms the private political demands of capital into the general aims of the polity.

Moreover, by cutting off political action from class or group interests, the politics of consensus has made the street protests depend on a disembodied political identity which has no continuity outside of the simple physical act of being present in the streets. The disconnection between political action and class or group interests has blocked the possibility of building stable political identities which are rooted in the economic conditions of Romanian class structure. There were no strong social links which might have connected the protestors besides an ad-hoc language of phantasmatic civism, dissipating as soon as the emotional power of the tragedy weakened. There were no social or economic interests which could fuel a stable political identity that would survive the monotony of taking to the streets every day or simply the November cold. Consequently, there is no social memory of the protests because there is no social group that might reproduce, which may identify its interests with the political stake of the protests. Beyond the short-lived and rather turbulent solidarity of those November days, the protests almost did not exist for anyone. It is only normal then that these type of events would only fade from memory; that, only a few weeks after they took place, they would seem so much part of our past and not of our present. Their awkward obsoleteness comes from the fact that there is no cohesive social actor which could actually reclaim them as its own, no social or political self whose interests would be genuinely expressed through them.

This is also why it has been so easy to forget a rather turbulent post-socialist history, shaken by powerful waves of strikes, privatization and violence. The 1990s and the 2000s have probably become the most obscure decades of the Romanian modern state, with their social contours eluding both scholars and the media. Once women, Roma and workers have been excluded as legitimate political actors, once such collective identities were stifled by the politics of consensus, it was only normal that this history of strikes, privatization and anti-Roma pogroms would be forgotten by both historians and sociologists, let alone the popular press. Even more than with the 2015 protests, the social actors who could reclaim those histories have disappeared from the public sphere, being actively silenced. The only place where those years, with their strife and their struggles, still find a place is in the personal recollections of so many women and men displaced by privatizations, in the personal narratives of so many Roma communities which had to face anti-Gypsy collective violence. Hence, the obsoleteness which surrounds our recent past, its awkward aura of contemporary antiquity where, just like in the pre-modern era, violence and social struggles are present only in personal narratives, circulating by word of mouth, through whispered recollections.



dan.cirjanDan Cîrjan is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the Central European University in Budapest. His research interests include economic sociology, labour studies and the political economy of Eastern Europe, with a focus on the first decades following the Great Depression. He is currently working on his doctoral dissertation on the restructuring of the Romanian financial system after 1929, with an emphasis on the state’s public debt and the private debt of the Romanian rural communities.


[1] In an important article published in Leafteast, Florin Poenaru has described very poignantly the context in which the context in which the protests appeared and the uninspiring results they triggered.

[2] For a beautiful analysis of the Romanian context see Daniela Gabor, Central Banking and Financialization A Romanian Account of how Eastern Europe became Subprime (Palgrave, 2011).

[3] While the 2012 events were sparked by tough austerity measures, in 2014 the main reason for the protests was an attempt to stop a Canadian gold-mining project with disastrous ecological effects.

[4] This added to the intrinsic ambiguous notion of agency that work related accidents in general have and which had been partly solved in the 19th century through the construction of complex welfare institutions that avoided the question of who’s accountable for the accident replacing it the idea of minimizing risks. For a classical analysis of these worries, see F. Ewald, L’Etat Providence (Grasset: 1986).

[5] Unfortunately, no one tried a Marxist recovery of the notion of civil society from the ideological whirls of post-1989 neoliberalism. This is why the false idea that political parties don’t belong to the civil society is so generalized, an idea intimately linked to the sociological fiction of a “political class”.

[6] A useful analysis of the new Ciolos Cabinet is provided by Vasile Ernu in his intervention “Guvernul Cioloş -populism tehnocrat. Stat social minimal şi stat maximal pentru „investitorul strategic” şi grupurile privilegiate

[7] I am relying here on Claus Offe’s classical essay “Structural Problems of the Capitalist State”, in Von Beyme ed., German Political Studies, (Sage, 1974) pp. 31-54.

[8] I am using the term in the rather classical manner in which the Birmingham School used it (see Policing the Crisis. MacMillan, 1978), without any pretensions of going into the intricate debates of what Gramsci actually meant by it. For a summary of these debates, especially in the Italian context see Dylan Riley, “Hegemony, Democracy, and Passive Revolution in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks” in Californian Italian Studies, 2.2 (2011).

[9] The narrative I am drawing here is greatly inspired by Kim Moody’s book An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism, (London: Verso, 1988).

[10] I am stressing the capacity of the capitalist class to organize itself since, in most of its history, this was not actually necessary. As Fred Block has poignantly put it in a classical essay, capital does impose constraints on state institutions without any advocacy efforts, without having to control the state as classical Marxist theory had it (Fred Block, “The Ruling Class Does Not Rule: Notes on the Marxist Theory of the State”, in Revising State Theory, (Temple: 1987), pp. 51-68.) What was specific to the American 1970s, however, was that these intrinsic constraints of the capitalist economy were double by what was actually a class war initiated by the economic elites through a highly developed system of self-organization.

[11] See Stefan Guga’s overview in “Criza ca oportunitate: schimbarea legislaţiei muncii şi înfrângerea mişcării sindicale.” In Epoca Traian Basescu. (Ed. Tact, 2013), pp. 151-187.

[12] Of course, one should be careful not to interpret this state of affairs as a capitalist conspiracy in which a central committee of the capitalist class would make the decisions. Not just because of the banal fact that there is no such central committee but also because of the the inner-struggle within the capitalist class. One should also point out that most of those crying corruption or asking for “the renewal of the capitalist class” are actually staunch believers in their ideas, idealists and not at all cynical hirelings. Similarly, it is not at all the case that the entire Romanian press is control by neoliberal forces. First of all because capital does not need such a direct control, “idealists” can easily do this all by themselves. What I want to point out here is that pro-capital hegemony does not just “take place”, it implies a infrastructural efforts and up to a certain point is should be seen as a conscious, although decentred, political project which involves institutions, media, discourses. It requires in this sense economic and political capital.

[13] Such accusations sparked the 2012 public protests, following President Traian Basescu’s efforts to push for the privatization of the emergency care infrastructure. Similarly to what happened in 2015, he started by first calling attention to the corruption of its personnel and the general incapacity of the public sector to efficiently manage goods and services.

[14] Besides the legitimation of privatization initiatives, the effects of these attacks on public institutions have also a very direct economic effect. They actually devalue the value of public firms, they devalue their assets, effectively cheapening them. Even if in the end privatization does not occur, it does make channelling public funds towards these companies more difficult: this was the case, for instance, with the Bucharest public transport system forced to make do with absolutely absurd budgetary practices which constantly keep it on the brink of bankruptcy.

[15] Recently a number of NGO have tried to change the legislation regarding political parties.

[16] The technocratic idea, seen as a solution to the ills of a corrupt “political class” has actually a long history in Romanian political culture. One of the first technocratic governments (called in the era “a technicians’ government) was installed in 1932 after a series of real or imaginary corruption scandals which had ousted the left-leaning peasantist party from power. The first right-wing government of the post-1989 period became famous for its promise to provide fifteen thousand specialists who could bring Romania back on track.


By Mihai-Dan Cirjan

Mihai-Dan Cîrjan is a PhD candidate in the Department of History of the Central European University in Budapest. His research interests include economic sociology, financial anthropology and the history of capitalism in Eastern Europe, with a focus on the first decades after the Great Depression. His current research project tackles the restructuring of the Romanian financial system after 1929, with an emphasis on the state’s sovereign debt and the private debt of Romanian citizens.

One reply on “Did it Ever Happen? Social Movements and the Politics of Spontaneous Consensus in Post-Socialist Romania”

A wonderful analysis of a political conjuncture that can be said started in Reykjavik late 2008 when every window of the Alltinget – the Icelandic parliamentary building was smashed and the government had to resign due to the financial crisis brought to the economy by extreme neoliberal banking. This wave of occupation of squares and streets was very much celebrated by the left and the activists often presented in the way the street protesters in Romania were presented, a new social media generation. Iceland seems to be the only place wee the protests driven forward in their radicalness mainly by the radical environmental movement Saving Iceland and Anarchists with the traditional left almost not existing as in so many countries had some effect with the jailing of almost 30 bank bosses and a change in economic policy more to the benefit of people. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Greece, Spain and Ukraine seems to have more ambigeous results, mainly bad, in some cases extremely bad.

In this serie the Romanian case summarizes well this protest wave against the political regime in general rather than clear economical or ecological demands carried forward by lasting social interest in society. What makes this analysis so fruitful is its detailed description of what happens on the street when their is no clear demands and everybody have their own hidden agenda or believes the other have. Together with the way how this is related to the way the political system and the corporate interest organize their intervention the political anorexia becomes evident.

Interestingly it becomes so clear that it can easily be an ideal type to analyze not only Romania but Europe in general at the moment. What is present everywhere simply becomes most visible in this case. Because the way political conflicts are channeled today the kind of pattern which is here described for Romania is applicable also to countries like Sweden where we at the moment have a so called corruption scandal involving our foreign minister and trade union leadership. The foreign minister was allowed to rent and apartment in a house belonging to the trade union which is no presented as making it necessary for here to resign by a massive media campaign, it is hard to get a contract to rent an apartment in Stockholm and thus considered as corruption that a minister in this way could have privileges others do not have (If it sounds odd that such a case can become a big scandal, well i do agree. She was earlier a EU commissioner and have enough money to by herself an apartment but I guess it was more convenient to rent one from the trade union, noone to my knowledge claim that the apartment is especially luxurious.) At the same time the trade union has some party for the bosses which also have caused a huge corruption scandal and 10000 members have left the union. Several other more important conflicts have a similar pattern. We have the most privatized school system in the world allowing private companies to run schools taking the profit to tax havens payed from the taxes people in common pay, but as everyone knows nowadays profit make schools more efficient when competing with each other so in spite that the system creates more and more segregation and extremely worsening school results in international comparison there is no way to change it, privatization is the best for everything. So the Romanian case can be seen as the perfect concentration of all cases in the present political cycle.

One criticism can be mentioned. When it comes to Iceland which can be claimed to have been somewhat successful the key actor was one inter class movement which Dan Cijan sees as negative, the Saving Iceland movement. To quite a few degree especially together with the Anarchists one could guess that this actor would be the typical example of the idealistic middle class ten Guardian so much finds everywhere while not finding anything else. Two things can be said about that at least. Firstly what the international press as well as the Icelandic found were not these tow radical groups but a more amorphous voice of the people always reluctant to go any further until the environmentalist and Anarchist made one more radical direct action move again and the other followed suit. The other that Saving Iceland was not only an idealistic middle class movement, probable much middle class but certainly much direct action oriented in close alliance with many rural people. Furthermore directly in conflict with the biggest growing corporate interest in Iceland, the aluminum industry with their interest in building dams coming in conflict with rural and environmental interests.

With other words I challenge Dan on this point. if Inter class movements oppose a clear corporate interest the may very well have an important role. From this follow an interesting emptiness in the text which otherwise is very detailed. The omission of how the gold mine protests could have been different from the other protests. Dan mentions rural communities several times but the environmental struggle which as far as I know have some longer history and some stability in the way Dan asks for is not taken into the otherwise very well developed analysis.

This seems to be a general problem among leftists. recently a Ukrainian leftist mentioned on his facebook page that he had problems with a relative who liked Ukrainian villages and thus liked fascists ideology. This caused immediate huge interest by many to show how fascist ideology and rural backwardness was linked together and how bad it was. That the left in ukraine has no social basis of any considerable influence while actually the villages represented by small and middle size farmers recently managed to organize nation wide road blockades in protests against IMF/EU imposed new tax policies is a contradiction these sectarian leftists seems to not grasp. If the workers movement and the middle class academicians and intellectuals and activists proclaiming to be left would have more systematic interest in the present global corporate struggle against peasants world wide with Romania, Ukraine and other countries as hot spots, maybe fascists would not be so strong and inter class movement enabling linking the struggle against corporate interests both concerning rural economy and urban. I would not exclude that the kind of struggle which now the peasant in Ukraine are could be crucial to the future of Europe together with the alliance of farmers and environmentalists against TTIP with trade unions somewhat more reluctant on the side and sometimes also important actors. In general the left in the west is uninterested in material realities and prefer to look to where things seemingly move, not were conditions might move much faster once they start to develop. Once the left knew everything should happen in Germany and not in backward Russia. It seems to me the left does the same mistake again. Dan shows how hard it is but also that one cannot know what happens when social realties becomes almost wiped out from the main stream political discourse. Things might change quickly.

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