Reflections on class & middle-class in Romania (1)

Ștefan Lipan

 

“Class” in Romania is rarely heard in everyday conversations. Eyebrows rise and heads tilt back a little when we ask the question: ​ do you consider yourself to be middle-class? Usually, the answers I received from my interlocutors suggest that ‘class’ is not a category of reference in describing​ ​ one​ ​ self​ ​ or​ ​ when​ ​ trying​ ​ to​ ​ talk​ ​ about​ ​ one’s​ ​ social​ ​ context:

“Am I middle-class? What class? Who cares? Maybe I am. I must be. I guess I am. Am I? Class is such an old term, I haven’t thought about it since high-school.” ​ [excerpts from the interviews]

As in most of the former communist countries in Eastern Europe (Saar, E. & Helemäe, J. 2015; Crowley, S., 2015; Ost 2015; Gagyi & Éber 2015; Kramberger & Stanojević 2015), in Romania, class talk has been seen as the discourse of the ‘enemy’, a category which reminded of the ‘old’ regime, not suited for the new, modern one (Ost 2015a). In academia too, one of the main sources from which such a perspective might gain value within the larger population and bring attention to structural inequalities, speaking of ‘class’ in the 1990s smelled (obviously bad) of “communism” (Ban 2015). It became part of the repertoire of the so-called zombie socialism (Chelcea & Druta 2016), kept alive, among other ideas, to act as an “ideological antioxidant” (Žižek 2001) i.e. to put a sock in the mouths of those who challenged the new, neoliberal world-view.

This lack of a class lens which would bring up issues like exploitation and inequality (Kalb 2015) has had important political and real life implications. It has allowed the winners of capitalism (Stoica 2004, Eyal, Szelényi and Townsley, 1998) to silence social justice claims (Poenaru 2013; Simionca 2012) coming from those unfitted or unwilling to conform (Verdery 2003) to the categories imposed by neoliberal capitalism (Cernat 2006). I do not assume an obvious, logical, causal relation between the lack of class talk and the economic situation of Romanian citizens today, but the EU’s 2014 statistics show that Romania has the second highest rate of people at-risk-of poverty and social exclusion, more than 40% to be more precise (Eurostat 2016).

In Romania, class has been replaced by a discourse of ‘normality’, of democracy, and transition (Pasti 2006) and its absence from public discourse has allowed for the flourishing of nationalist views (Verdery 1993)⁠. The idea of normality has become so pervasive in everyday talk that most out-of-the-norm expressions (whether political, gender related, religious or just adopting a different type of diet) are hastily labelled as ‘not-normal’. Usually without any argumentation. Because ‘this is the way things are’. “This discourse of normality constituted an ideological claim that there was nothing much to do except adapt, in individual ways, to the new order” (Ost 2015a). Focus on other issues as the economic system or nationalistic praises influences people to consider the system as being natural or right, something to be endured (Carrier 2015)⁠. As the latest meme circulating on social media spells: What can you do? There’s nothing you can do! (Csf? Ncsf!)

References:

Carrier, J. G. (2015), “The concept of class”, in Carrier, J. G., Kalb D. (eds.), Anthropologies of Class Power, Practice and Inequality, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 28-40.

Cernat, L. (2006), Europeanization, Varieties of Capitalism and Economic Performance in Central and Eastern Europe, Hampshire & New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Chelcea, L., Druţǎ, O. (2016), “Zombie socialism and the rise of neoliberalism in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe”, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 57( 4-5), pp. 521-544.

Crowley, S. (2015), “Russia: The Re-emergence of Class in the Wake of the First “Classless” Society”, East European Politics and Societies, 29(3), pp. 698 –710.

Eyal, G., Szelényi, I., Townsley, E. (2001), Making Capitalism Without Capitalists: The New Ruling Elites in Eastern Europe, New York, Verso Books.

Eurostat (2016), People at risk of poverty or social exclusion, available at: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/People_at_risk_of_poverty_or_social_exclusion.

Gagyi, Á., Éber, M. Á. (2015), “Class and Social Structure in Hungarian Sociology”, East European Politics and Societies, 29(3), pp. 598–609.

Kalb, D. (2015), “Introduction: class and the new anthropological holism”, in Carrier, J. G., Kalb D. (eds.), Anthropologies of Class Power, Practice and Inequality, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-27.

Kramberger, A., Stanojević, M. (2015), “Class Concepts and Stratification Research in Slovenia”, East European Politics and Societies, 29(3), pp. 651–662.

Ost, D. (2015) “Stuck in the Past and the Future: Class Analysis in Postcommunist Poland”, East European Politics and Societies, 29(3), pp. 610–624.

Ost D. (2015a), “Class after Communism: Introduction to the Special Issue”, East European Politics and Societies and Cultures, 29(3), pp. 543 –564.

Pasti, V. (2006), Noul capitalism romanesc, Iasi, Polirom.

Poenaru, F. (2013), History and Intellectual Class Struggle in Post-communist Romania, PhD Diss., Budapest, Central European University.

Saar,​ ​ E.,​ ​ Helemäe,​ ​ J.​ ​ (2015),​ ​ “Estonia:​ ​ Visible​ ​ Inequalities,​ ​ Silenced​ ​ Class​ ​ Relations”,​ ​ East European ​ ​ Politics ​ ​ and ​ ​ Societies ​ ​ and ​ ​ Cultures ​, 29(3),​ ​ pp.​ ​ 565​ ​ –576.

Simionca, A. (2012), “Neoliberal Managerialism, anti-Communist Dogma and the Critical Employee in Contemporary Romania”, Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai, Sociologia, 57(1), pp. 125–49.

Stoica, C. A. (2004), “From Good Communists to Even Better Capitalists? Entrepreneurial Pathways in Post-Socialist Romania”, East European Politics and Societies, 18(2), pp. 236–277.

Verdery, K. (1993), “Nationalism and National Sentiment in Post-socialist Romania”, Slavic Review, 52(2), pp. 179–203.

Žižek, S. (2001), Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a Notion, London, Verso.

 

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