Reflections on class & middle-class in Romania (2)

Ștefan Lipan

Class, however, has been used in different Romanian sociological approaches (Marginean 2011, 2015; Vasile 2008; Tufis 2010; Ioniţă & 2015), but mostly from the point of view of stratification which divides society into groups with different roles, and often conceals issues like the unequal power relations between these groups (Ost 2015a). After the year 2000, critical class research has seen some signs of revival (Ban 2015) coming from scholars based at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj (e.g. Petrovici 2012; Simionca 2012; Inglot et al. 2012) and from different left-oriented groups based in Bucharest (e.g. criticatac.ro). Their influence, however, is still very limited, especially when you consider the way people talk about the middle-class.

The topic of middle-class in Romania has been much more visible within the public sphere. As with other countries in Eastern Europe (Crowley 2015; Saar & Helemäe 2015; Ost 2015b; Boyadjieva & Kabakchieva 2015; Drahokoupil 2015; Fabo 2015)⁠, the middle class has been glorified (Chelcea & Druta 2016; Eyal, Szelényi and Townsley 1998) as the class that will save society, the class that breaks with the communist past and is the carrier of democracy and modernity (Vasile 2008)⁠. Or, as another Romanian sociologist puts it: the modern society is mostly a projection of the middle-class, of its values and ways of life (Marginean 2004)⁠.

As Buchowski (2008: 49) has pointed out, “the new middle class [in Eastern Europe] is a concept influenced by teleological ideas of “transformation,” and it plays an ideological role in the building of the new liberal political and ideological order”.

When talking about the transition to market-based economy in the years after the communist fall, the first democratically elected president of Romania, Ion Iliescu states that “the objective companion of such a change in economy is, in the social sphere, the creation and strengthening of the middle-class, which is not just a simple request, but a mandatory condition for the functioning of an advanced market-based economy” (Iliescu 2011)⁠. Also, the current president of the Social-Democratic Party, Liviu Dragnea, in his 2016 national day wishes for his Facebook followers states that “the national day is the day in which Romanians hope for the better, hope to be a part of the middle-class, in their own country, and not leave the country in search for higher salaries” (Dragnea 2016).⁠ Different generations, same talk about the middle-class. Dallas and Dynasty, with their stories of success and wealth didn’t just air in Romania. We actually built a replica of the famous Dallas ranch near Bucharest (Pasti 2006)⁠.

What characterized the term middle-class in the first years after the communist fall and still does today is its ‘vagueness’ (Ost 2015a)⁠. ‘Corporatists’, entrepreneurs, creatives, public employees, teachers, medics, engineers, architects, sales representatives – all entered the category of middle-class (Urse 2004, Larionescu et al. 2006). It’s almost as Beethoven’s Ode to joy, a perfect ideological container, as Žižek (2003) calls it, used irrespectively by the Nazis, the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, in China during the cultural Revolution and now as the EU’s anthem. But the rhetoric of ‘middle-class’ meant, in political terms, that the state should focus its attention (read funds) towards the market, towards the middle-class which is best suited to handle these resources. It also meant a rupture from the ‘uncivilized’ lower classes, those who have failed the market test, those who vampire the free market and the state with their dependence. As Chelcea & Iancu show, the labor of parcagii (self-appointed parking attendants in Bucharest, often identified as being part of the low class) becomes “the perfect alibi for middle classes’ discourses about the undeserving poor who steal the city from its “hard-working” middle-class owners.” (Chelcea & Iancu 2015)⁠.

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