Manichaeism, the middle class and the Victoria Square protests in Bucharest

Magdalena Craciun

Stefan Lipan

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Photo by Alexandra Dinca

Many protesters describe themselves as belonging to the middle-class. However, the most frequent depictions have a more aesthetic/ethical side to them: beautiful people, which has currently evolved into young & free beautiful people. Our research shows that these are frequently used characterisations for the middle class.

This perspective has strong moral connotations attached like goodness, and righteousness, grounded in a particular ethics of responsibility similar to that of the global middle classes (Heiman, Freeman and Liechty 2012).1

The leftist commentators also identified the majority of protesters as belonging to the middle class (read also „corporatists”). However, their critical approach brings a different moral view to the foreground. Tamás (2017)2, for example, argues that „the demonstrations are fuelled by the contempt of the young liberal middle class for the poor who are regarded as the electorate of the governing party, the PSD, considered old and decrepit and barbarian.” Or, to give another example, Poenaru (2017)3 claims that “what always lurks in the background is class politics, and these protests are no different. In very broad strokes, the mobilization against the government was also a mobilization against its economic policies. The Social Democrats increased the minimum wage and pensions, cut taxes for the poorest segments, and increased – even though just slightly, compared to the needs – the social welfare spending. […] Unsurprisingly, corporate workers (especially their bosses), were on the streets to protest.”

Class struggle is also a moral struggle.

1 Heiman, Rachel, Carla Freeman, and Mark Liechty. 2012. The Global Middle Classes: Theorizing Through Ethnography. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.

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3 thoughts on “Manichaeism, the middle class and the Victoria Square protests in Bucharest

  1. This post provides a welcome and timely intervention in a context of quasi-generalized hotheadedness. The observation that the protests we have been witnessing recently display a strong moral component, and thus transcend mere party politics, institutional clashes, or oppositions between generations should provide a privileged starting point for in-depth analyses of contemporary class politics. However, some conceptual clarifications would be necessary for methodological and empirical purposes.

    Most prominently, it is the relationship between morals and ethics that should be clarified. In the text, the two concepts are used interchangeably. More specifically, the post concludes by coding the protests as moral struggle – a very apt codification, if I may add -, but this follows an earlier reference to the notion of ¨ethics of responsibility¨ characteristic of global middle classness, without qualifying the relationship between the two. In the philosophy of morality, morality stands as an umbrella term for quite conflicting ethical dimensions. On the one hand, there is the law-like Kantian ethics of duty that grounds morality in social norms that must be obeyed. On the other, there is the Aristotelian ethics of virtue that emphasizes the role of personal character over the role of social norms in bringing about good behaviour and good social consequences. Whereas in common parlance morality tends to be subsumed to the Kantian understanding of law and duty, the recent ethical turn in anthropology preoccupies itself with the fashioning of virtuous subjects.

    The latter seems to be the focus of the post, but there is substantial empirical data that point towards the coexistence of both dimensions. Taken at face value, the protests pertain to legality, or better said, to the morality of the law. Notoriously triggered by the government’s attempt to pass a dubious self-serving bill, the protests have displayed calls for lawfulness, and a somewhat baffling, yet perfectly explainable, appreciation of repressive state apparatuses: ¨DNA să vină să vă ia,¨ ¨Susțin DNA,¨ ¨Cinste lor, cinste lor, cinste lor jandarmilor,¨ ¨În democrație, hoții stau la pușcărie¨ are among the chants and slogans that animated the square). But these calls for legality are, at the same time, calls for virtuousness. Let us not forget, for instance, the support that the self-identified ¨free and beautiful young people¨ have lent to the ¨technocratic¨ government made up of relatively young professionals who held anticorruption, rationality, and transparency as pivotal to (their) good governance.

    There should be no surprise then that moral qualia infuse middle class perspectives on legality and governance: transparency, anticorruption, and rationality find corresponding qualia in the spectrum of lightness (qua light as in the beaming flashlights turned on in Victoriei Square, simple and predictable procedures, and illumination-cum-education). These qualia of virtue find a homely embodiment in the luminous and minimalist aesthetics of Ikea-style interiors so fashionable among the local middle classes, and, perhaps in good-clean teeth that Dragnea and his voters purportedly fail to sport. In this particular context, qualia of lightness and whiteness (cold, new, impersonal etc.) emerge in opposition to redness (¨PSD ciuma roșie¨), that invokes simultaneously oldness (as icon of state-socialism), flashiness, danger, and visceral emotionality.

    The white vs. red opposition illustrates a subtle difference between legality and care. The ¨beautiful and free young people¨ fetishize the impersonal and cold aesthetics of law, on the presupposition that social good hinges on whether legality is brought in line with middle class virtuousness. However, the positive social effects that this tweaking of law and governance might enable can only operate in a long temporal horizon. Like in trickle-down economics, welfare comes, if it comes at all, sometime in the undetermined future. In the other camp, the stress falls not on abstract norms that take long to yield results, but in personal immediacy: an ethics of care. Both sides demand legality and virtuousness, but the content differs.

    Indeed, then, class struggle is moral struggle. But what kind of morality are we talking about? How do legality, virtue, and care relate to one another? What temporal horizons to these views enact?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Adrian, for your comment. We didn’t mention in the blog-post that we use the terms ‘moral’ and ‘ethic’ interchangeable. We are very aware of the debates concerning the two terms and how they might be misunderstood. For me, honestly, the choice of terms is a matter of personal taste. I like them both and they both mean the same to me 🙂 I’m thinking here about the origin of the word ethics which comes from the ancient Greek word ethos: a way of life, moral character, habit, custom; while morality comes from mos, which is the Latin translation of ethos. I should also mention that when we use these terms, we are very influenced by the recent ethical turn in anthropology aka the quest of understanding world through the lenses of morality: the moral making of the world, as Fassin says, or the fashioning of the virtuous subject as you very well mentioned.
      Thank you for the questions at the end, they are the kind of questions that haunt (and this is a carefully chosen word 😉 my research. I would extend the question of what kind of morality to the relation between morality and other social realms like religion, law, pedagogy, globalization in the Romanian case. I have a feeling 😉 that religion has a big role in the way the Romanian middle class has constructed its moral views. When I say this I don’t imply that there is an overt religious discourse attached to the debate, but I’m rather thinking about Althusser’s ‘problematic’ – the ideological base, those concepts that have not been made explicit, the unarticulated theoretical framework on which an argument is constructed.
      I don’t know if I understood the last question, to be honest 🙂 Are you talking about something similar to the ‘fantasy time’ Liviu Chelcea talks about (and we also discussed in front of the library? 🙂
      Or maybe the ‘overheated’ world of which Eriksen talks?

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  2. Young & free beautiful people¨ works as an ambivalent formula. When it comes to self-identification it is associated with moral and political spotlessness while some pro-government media use it as a form of soft invective (meaning “youthful mindlessness”). I think what gives these protests their class specificity is the compulsive aestheticization of the political manifestations encapsulated in these events. Illustrative for this are the efforts to perfectly clean the venue immediately after the rally and the various individualized and creative placards with super-tech visual component, as well as protesting through reading:
    https://www.mediasinfo.ro/protest-prin-lectura-la-sibiu-sute-de-oameni-au-citit-carti-piata-mare/2017/02/13/etc.
    References to the precarious dentition of Liviu Dragnea (the leader of the ruling party) associated through explicit slogans or Facebook comments with the public participating in counter-demonstrations in front of Cotroceni Palace (presidential residence), consisting mostly of working class elderly peoeple bring back the class in the center of a fertile discussion about this conflict.

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