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Those Protesting in Romania Today

Victoria StoiciuIn a paper already famous – “Time for Outrage” – Stéphane Hessel urges his readers to get outraged, claiming that the basic ground for resistance is outrage. Hessel was often rebuked that outrage is not enough, that collective action meant to bring about change entails more than that. Still, Hessel tells us that it is only when we are outraged with something that we turn assertive, determined and committed. This means, of course, that outrage is a needed ingredient for civic commitment, but is it also sufficient?

A survey released last week by Miliţia Spirituală (Spiritual Police) (available here)  shows that 74% of the youth believe that things in Romania are headed the wrong direction, and 92% of them believe that there are plenty of reasons for protesting. Acknowledging the wrong turn of things does not immediately trigger that mix of rage, contempt and anger defined as outrage. But feeling that there are serious reasons for protesting indicated more than mere dissatisfaction. Still, the percentage of youth involved in any type of protest is incredibly small, and it could also be noticed in the latest protests in January-February, when the missing youth was the major question mark.

Why does youth outrage fail to turn into actual collective action, civic involvement and protest? The same question can be extrapolated to adult generations, faced with the same situation. The survey does not give a comprehensive answer, but is drawing up an attempt to, outlining  a portray of the young protester as compared to the non-protester. Thus, protesting youth come mostly from families with an income of over 2,000 Lei, while non-protesters are mainly from families of lower income (below 1,400 Lei); are defined by increased trust in NGOs and low trust in the church, unlike non-protesting youth showing increased trust in church institutions; they are involved in all sort of organisations (student, political) and often discuss politics, unlike non-protesters who never discuss politics, etc. (the full profile is available in the report, page 36).


I will next consider two aspects that intrigued me, without any claim to cover all the possible answers to questions raised by these.

The first aspect is related to non-protesters’ high trust in church. One would immediately tend to say that religion discourages civic involvement, but this would be pure speculation, as the survey only indicates a mere correlation between the two variables while nothing indicates the existence of a conditional relation between the two. Such a conclusion would be cursory and easily dismissed with the noisy counter-argument provided by the Greek situation. I rather incline to believe that the factor playing the main role here is the church’s attitude towards historical adversity, and not religion it itself – and the resistance tradition of the Greek Church during the independence war and during German occupation certainly played a crucial role in the protesting ebullience of the Greek youth. Which is not at all how we can describe the attitude of ROC (Romanian Orthodox Church) during communism, as it preferred to withdraw in the ivory tower of inward faith, disconnected from the foul mundane. We may therefore say that, in Romania, with the example it gives to society and parishioners, the church fuels an attitude of humility, an unwavering acceptance of fate’s hardships regarded as fatality, but that overall, the survey does not provide sufficient data to strongly support the assumption of an influx of submission and noncivicism coming through the religious discourse. The fact that young people rarely go to church (as it was shown by other sociological surveys) and are therefore little exposed to this type of discourse, is an argument in favour of this assertion.

It is rather that trust into church is, among others, the product of a society dominated by conservative cultural patterns also consolidated by the church. Trust into church denotes a vision of the world and society focused on obeying hierarchies, preset rules, hence the trust into church – an essentially hierarchical institution, and the lack of inclination for any questioning of the world’s order. I believe that the binomial best explaining the inclination to protest or not is that of modernity versus traditionalism, where trust into church is only one component in a much more comprehensive set of values and attitudes, including respect for tradition, authority, hierarchy, natural order. But that confidence in preset hierarchies is quasi-automatically repressing the protesting drive, which is rooted on an egalitarian perspective of human relations, where authority is always constructed and never given, as it happens in traditional societies, and is therefore perfectly disputable and questionable. In other words, young people are not protesting not because they trust into church, but because they have a deeply traditional mindset, where denial of authority and revolt are socially objectionable behaviours, and trust into church is nothing but the expression of this wider attitude.

The second very curious aspect is that related to the increased income of the families that protesting youth come from. It is to me, I confess, a slightly puzzling conclusion. Consequently, are those protesting not the poorest, the ill-fated, the marginalised doomed by precariousness? Was the slogan “Go out of the shopping malls”, repeatedly chanted  in University Square, closer to truth than might at first seemed? And how about the Marxist theory of the exploited and impoverished classes as revolutionary vector?

A first explanation coming to my mind is that related to the nature of the protests recently acclaimed, to the difference between that what is called “old social movements” – mainly focused on claims of trade unions and economic specific, where the main stake is the “bread and butter” – and “new social movements”, also called “emotional movements”, concerning ideological, post-materialist objectives, such as green, pacifist causes, etc. With no economic agenda, it is natural for this type of protest to fail to attract citizens of low income, as they do not identify with the claims expressed. On the other hand, I am certain that if we were to conduct a survey on social movements with economic and trade unionist agenda, during the past two years in Romania, it would come out that the participants are also mainly people with an income over average. And this is because trade union members in Romania have, in general, a higher socio-economic status that the majority of the population (according to Word Values Survey data).

Another possible explanation is related to the general association of high income with an increased level of education – in other words, people with medium and high education levels are, normally, either trained workers, and are therefore better paid if talking about employees, either students coming from somewhat well-off families, affording to pay the tuition fees. Differently put, people with high incomes have a higher level of education. In this context, things grow somewhat clearer, as education is here and elsewhere in close relation with increased access to information (media, the internet) and a higher support for democracy and public participation. Consequently, poor youth is passive not because they have no reasons for discontent, but because they are not or were not included in an education system to facilitate access to information and foster civic spirit.

So it happens that this poor and poorly educated youth trust even more into church, unlike youth coming from families with an income over 3,000 Lei, who are students, are university graduates and who trust EU institutions and NGOs. Faulty and poor as it is, the education system seems to somehow manage to nurture modern and participatory political attitudes. And I cannot fail not mentioning here the issue of access to education and the chances a young person coming from a poor family stands to attend university in our country today.  I can only ask one question to those claiming that equal opportunities and social rights are not vital for democracy and that political and legal equality are essential and sufficient: what kind of democracy are they looking for? A democracy where discontent is not turned into outrage and where the protesting phrase is never uttered? A democracy where a good citizen is only a voting citizen? Taking into consideration the agony democracy underwent during the past years of recession both in Romania and elsewhere, and bearing in mind the prevalence of economic reason over the democratic one, I would not be surprised if it were so. After all, why would politicians want the outrage of citizens turned into resistance, when it can simply be turned into absenteeism?

Translated by Sanda Watt