A View from The Sociology of Religion.
Below you will find the improved transcript of the meeting that took place on November 9th, 2015, in Warsaw, with two non-American sociologists of religion and activists, Mr. Mihai Tarţa and Mr. Vitalie Sprînceană, who after working on their Ph.D.’s in the field of sociology of religion at two major American Universities – Baylor and, George Mason, respectively – co-founded independently on-line magazines “Mămăliga de Varşovia” – in Warsaw, Poland – and “Platzforma.md” – in Chisinau, Moldova – interestingly, with a fairly strong leftist twist. In a nutshell, besides the most recent issues of migration and the apparent rise of the progressive side of Catholicism with Pope Francis, the speakers will try to tackle the question of what is so special about the idea of austerity that makes it in the eyes of many governments an almost holy and certainly universal savior from any imaginable political or economic crisis, against all the existing evidence.
Mr. Tarţa and Mr. Sprînceană will also attempt to shed some light on the wave of public revolts in their countries of origin – Romania and Moldova – that culminated in the fall of both countries governments.
Teodor Ajder: Dear guests, I would like to welcome you here, in the former Szyneczka (The Ham House), at Al. Jerozolimskie 52, a place shared by – Warsaw Bauhaus, Curie City and Brud collectives. I would like to start by thanking Joanna and Wojciech from Bauhaus, who are our hosts tonight, and who were not just very kind to have us as their guests but also turned out to be, to use a neoliberal term, exemplary flexible. They agreed to host us having a very short time notice. I would like to thank Adi from Brud, who is with us today and who let us into the place. I would like to welcome Mr. Mihai Tarţa and Mr. Vitalie Sprînceană, both of them contributors to the first issue of Mămăliga de Varşovia. They might think of themselves less as sociologists and more as activists or columnists. So, Mihai and Vitalie, shell we begin? Would you like to take a seat here behind this table that looks like a tribune, or would you like to sit closer to our guests?
Vitalie Sprînceană: I would prefer to sit closer to the people. Let us complete the circle.
T.A.: Let us have the candles in the middle of the room than.
Before we start, I would like to thank the public for deciding to share the next following hour with us, as well as to Mr. Marius Năvodaru, from Vinarte, who kindly offered to provide us with some good Romanian wine to warm up, so to speak, today’s debate.
As you can see the place that we are in is quite unusual. There is no electricity or water supply in here. There is a lady who is begging near the entrance door. We can see her through the glass wall. She is standing with her back towards us. She just washed her socks they are drying on a next to her. She refused the plastic glass of wine that we’ve offered to her and she did not want to join us either. We are in the downtown Warsaw, and we can also see through the windows the building of Palace of Science and Culture – the most important monument of socialist-realism in Poland – lighted up with, i guess, at least some dozens of strong projectors.
I would like to start today’s discussion by introducing shortly our two speakers and their connection to “Mămăliga de Varșovia” – Warsaw Mash. Vitalie is the author of a text on the terrorist attacks in Paris, at the Charlie Hebdo Magazine, in which he claims that the attacks were triggered by something very different than Islam, Religion or the clash of civilizations. Mihai, on the other hand, wrote numerous texts on issues related to current affairs, economics, politics, migration, covering both Poland and Romania, in which, he mentioned on a number of occasions austerity as well.
After I have suggested to you the title of today’s discussion – In The Name of The Holy Austerity – which seemed to me pretty catchy and true at the time, I came to believe that nobody actually seems to believe in austerity at the moment. This is due partially to the fact, that during the last couple of days I’ve been reading a book called “The Traian Basescu Epoch” (edited by Florin Poenaru and Costi Rogozanu, Ed. Tact, 2014). Before reading it, I actually thought that the neoliberal minded Romanian political elites “truly believed” that austerity is the solution to the economical crisis that Romania, Europe and the World was going through, but its authors seem to suggest that it is all about gaining power and staying in power and privileges by few over the reduction of the means of existence for the many. The International institutions – what is called Troika – The European Commission, The European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund – wasn’t really into wishing the best for the population of the countries to whose governments it suggested austerity policies, but it was more into securing its own position and funds. (IMF of the three is the only one who seems to share some doubts on the efficacy of austerity policies.) Does this title make any sense to you from a Romanian and, respectively, a Moldovan context?
Guest: Before we jump into the topic, I think it will be useful to agree on a definition of what austerity is, so that we all talk about the same thing, or at least to hear what do you two mean when you talk about austerity, so that we could understand you.
Mihai Tarța : I would prefer to talk and assemble a definition as I talk, because I do not have a satisfying working definition of what (holy) austerity might be. We can start by saying that austerity is when one is cutting funds from a budget and its’ access to resources from wherever one can.
Guest: Wikipedia is saying, which of course we don’t have to accept, that austerity are measurements from the government’s directed into effectively balancing their budgets, meaning either to cut expenses, rise taxes or sell assets to generate money and reduce the government’s deficits. It’s a fiscal policy adjusting income to expenses. Use less credit. I think that this is pretty much what they say.
T.A.: When I put together the terms “holy” – which to me is something yet absolute, and still beyond our “human comprehension” – and “austerity”, I was hoping that we will be able to come up or fail to do so with some kind of a new concept, of something like a sect inside the neoliberal ideology, a mystical force, perhaps, that many seemed to me to believe in in an almost religious manner. Our guests do not have to accept my suggestion of course. It is not a very articulated one anyways.
M.T.: There are a number of macroeconomists who looked at austerity from the point of view of belief. It is funny how Romania became a case study in their view. One of these economists points to Daniela Gabor’s study on austerity in our country, for instance, where she argues that austerity was promoted and in fact imposed in Romania through a very technocratic and technical discourse. It sounded very impartial, but in fact it represented a biased discourse strongly connected with neoliberal ideology. The “gods”, the inescapable “truth” of austerity, were presented as “true” mathematical formulas, that one has no other way that just simply accept, because it is the so called “undisputed language of facts”, therefore one could argue that this scientific-like language was a language strongly linked to beliefs. Austerity and markets are to be listened, believed and obeyed. If somethings goes wrong in the economy, the story goes, it is because of a state intervention and, respectively, because the word of the market was not listened to, and this is the same as Christian conservatives would always go and blame things that go wrong by invoking the text of the Bible word for word, which sociologists sometimes describe as bible inerrancy. But what is the market if not a metaphor? Krugman for example talks about another successful metaphor for promoting austerity in use – specifically about the positive side of austerity in the family business. In a family, one have to apply certain procedures in order to avoid debt, but at the society level this can not be applied by the state, because the state is a much more complex entity. There are fundamental differences between family economy and state economy. The state gets income from collecting taxes, there is the issue of aggregate demand, and so on. These differences make the application of austerity measurements by the state incongruous. In fact, according to Krugman austerity can only worsen the economy of a state. If something works on a microeconomic/ family level it probably won’t work on a macro-scale economy.
Irina Moldovan: What is that that the promoters of austerity were trying to hide?
M.T.: They weren’t trying to hide anything.
I.M.: Naomi Klein writes in her “The Shock Doctrine” that neoliberalism was very popular in the 70s, and it was widely applied in Pinochet’s Chile and the Eastern European block, but it didn’t work because it tries to save the ship by sinking half of the passengers, in a the situation when one could actually save everybody if the the available resources would have been spent in a more rational way. Is this how you see the neoliberalism?
M.T.: In these crises there are winners and losers. The winners claim in theory that they accumulate more wealth and eventually they share it with the others. But, in fact this never happens, and here you can look at all the differences in income between similar countries, look at the medium and minimum wage in Turkey, Croatia and Romania.
I.M.: In other words, in Romania austerity was a preferential way to distribute the available resources?
M.T. : In today’s Romania, the Boc government’s overdid it. They’ve imposed much more than the Troika itself suggested. The working paradigm was and still is, the more one cuts from the state expenses the better you will be off, less debt and so on. They basically cut to the bone.
T.A.: In a book “What Is History?” Edward Hallet Carr writes that throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scientists assumed that laws of nature – Newton’s law of motion, the law of gravitation, Boyle’s law, the law of evolution, and so forth – had been discovered and definitely established. Students of society, consciously or unconsciously desiring to assert the scientific status of their studies, adopted the same language and believed themselves to be following the same procedure – to discover and establish more such laws. The political economists seem to have been first in the field with Gresham’s good money law, and Adam Smith’s law of the market. Edmund Burke was talking about the law of commerce, as a law of nature, and consequently as a Law of God. He deduced that it was not “within the competence of the government, taken as government, or even of the rich, as rich, to supply to the poor those necessaries which it had pleased the Divine Providence for awhile to withhold from them.”
So, it seems that the law of market, as soon as it was institutionalized gained a holy status, along other fragments of the scientific discourse of those times. Carr goes on and says that today this terminology sounds as old fashioned as it is presumptuous. (Carr’s book was published in 1961 and he makes a point that history is not just about the past, but about the present day of the historian who writes it, as well as of us today who read the historian Carr from the 60’s, who wrote on the idea of markets, of Smith and of Burke). So, Carr talks in the 60s about Poincare, who wrote that these [economic] laws should be considered rather as hypothesis designed to crystallize and organize further thinking, and were subject to verification, modification, or refutation. Today, says Carr, this is a commonplace and although scientists do refer to laws, for old time’s sake, they no longer believe (!) (he uses this particular verb) in their existence in the sense in which scientists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century universally believed in them. “Everybody knows today,” writes Carr, “that the price of oil or soap does not vary in response to some objective law of supply and demand; that slumps and unemployment are man-made; The transition has been made from laissez-faire to planning, from the unconscious to the self-conscious, from belief in objective economic laws to belief that man by his own action can be the master of his economic destiny.
Well, it seems to me that great policymakers of today slipped back into the eighteenth or, say, nineteenth century. They came to believe into something that their predecessors thought of being quite hollow.
V.S.: I would like to start by pinpointing a couple of ironies. The first one is that we are having a conversation on knowledge and science in a small room without electricity, with candle lights, and just on the opposite side of the street from us, there is this huge Palace of Science and Culture. There were eras, not so distant from us, when discussions like these, on belief, religion and religiosity were taking place in those kind of buildings, now they are not only being occupied but also surrounded by other building, tall and shiny, called by some thinkers “cathedrals of the new system” – businesses centers, shopping malls and this tells us a little bit about the shift in the interest in some types of knowledge today.
The other irony is the etymology of the word austerity – and I am not a philologist – yet I am very curios to know if this word was in the use in the 1930s with the economy meaning that is in use today – a governmental policy of deficit cutting. This might challenge the claim of universality that was suggested in the presentation of today’s debate by our moderator. It is a notion, a concept, a term that is intimately related to our current situation. The consensus in the thirties was, and this is yet another irony, that in order to get out of an economical crises one has to spend more – the keynesian theories – spend on public works, increase the public expenditures, etc. Why this change in perspective occurred? One can look at it from the perspective of various evolutions: of society, of political and economical thought, perhaps even fashion, and so on, but the fact is that here we are today, contributing to the ongoing discussion on the shades of austerity. Obviously when one embarks on this discussion, he or she has to be aware of the existent definitions of austerity. If I talk about economics I usually operate with the following definition of the term – reducing ”unnecessary” public spending. What is unnecessary is being decided by politicians and their advisers. It could be health care, education, social protection. I wouldn’t call it a concept but rather a name for a constellation of practices – optimisation, structural adjustment programs and so on. But there is also a political definition of this word, and I think that our discussion is more about the political dimension, and it would be something like this – austerity is a set of policies that are being forced by some actors of the political scene upon some other actors. The imposing group, known by different names – be it the so called Washington consensus, or The Holy Triangle or Troika, they have clearly specified roles or positions. It is also a very dynamic process. There is some kind of a big game at stake and there are some rules that have to be played by, and if some do not want to play, they might get penalized. Yet again, I am not an economist myself, even though I did participate in some postgraduate courses and I did read some books. I am familiar with the accounts of Naomi Klein, David Harvey, and other critics of neoliberalism. In my opinion “neoliberalism” and the swarm of words that come with are at the currently becoming buzzwords. They are extremely common. Everybody is using them. And because of this overuse in quite various contexts, one can find papers titled “Neoliberalisation of Mythology”, “Neoliberalisation of This and That”. There is an ocean of papers out there in which authors incorporate various processes into neoliberalism. This body is so large that it becomes difficult to perceive what is at their core, and I would say that the core is an anthropological shift, because it is something that is beyond the pure evolution of the economical science. It is a great political and economical project of some very influential people who were very closed to certain circles of power and what they are pushing, and now we are coming closer to the dimension of religion, are not just economic reforms, these are part of a project for a new man, for a new society, and we should be really aware of that. Austerity, as part of the neoliberal ideology is a detail in the great engine that should be responsible for the radical transformation of the human nature itself. It will change us as persons. It is imposing a new vision of the human being. The shift is already happening. In the old paradigm there is Aristotle who is saying that human being is zoonpolitikon – a social being – now the human being is an egoistic being that is trying to maximize his thriving by trying to increase his gains. In this new type of condition society is not anymore the place where the most meaningful interactions between individuals tale place. It is not something that helps individuals to develop meaning. It is just a certain resource that can be taken by the individual and used in order to maximize his or her profits regardless of consequences. Now one discusses things like: marriages should be thought of as games, or business transactions; friendships are discussed in similar terms. It even has a name – social capital, which basically is the name of the process through which you gain profits from your immediate social surroundings, your friends, your peers, your partners. People are not looking at a friendship as a meaningful relationship that enriches one’s mind/soul but as a source of profit/ economic advantages. Now, here we are facing the domain of religion. Keep in mind that I am very skeptical about using this domain as a mode of argumentation. Religion, as a concept, originated in the western tradition and it represents a very specific description of our relationship with something transcendental. It assumes the existence of a god, of a certain theology, that describes and justifies our relationship with that entity. There are, in addition to that, a body of research that shows that these schemes are very problematic when applied to other kind of contexts. Take Buddhism, for example: before the coming of Europeans there (and before the emergence of the sociology of religion), there was no such thing as Buddhism. There are practices derived from the cult of Buddha, however there is nothing like a generic, a Buddhism that one could say about that there is a certain type of theology of it, spread and practiced by a body of priests, that there is some kind of unified institution. Of course, during the last couple of hundreds of years things might have changed. But this was also a result of the existence of a western matrix imposed on the study of Buddhism. By the way, there is research that shows that Europeans have used religion as a conquering tool that helped to subjugate African countries. There are reports showing that the European conquistadors in Africa, while discovering no religion in the tribes they have met, would say: These guys, they don’t know religion. They must be beasts. They don’t know this, they don’t know that, they are in a way inferior beings, so it was ok to subjugate them.
When I am saying that there is a religious aspect to austerity, I do not mean that there is a body of texts that claim that austerity is sacred and one should obey it and listen to its prophets, but what I say is that our behavior towards austerity, towards market is in many ways religious. I like, for example the word “holy” in the title of our discussion. There is a famous book by Rudolf Otto, “The Idea Of The Holy”, in which this renowned anthropologist was investigating the meaning of the concepts of holy and sacred – ganz Andere. Otto writes that one of the biggest things about the idea of holy is that one can gain the feeling of inferiority towards things, of creation, a feeling that is so superior, that it is beyond any doubt. I think that our relationship towards things like market, like austerity are somehow similar to this feelings that we are encountering something that is beyond any doubt. Things like the market’s demands, the so called – the invisible hand of the market – are not scientific propositions and not just mathematical representations and formulas. They are more than that. They are undeniable truths that some of us use to apply to some realities. It happens all the time. However, the market is not free. There is no competition on our market. The market is too monopolized. The free hand is not being allowed to operate freely. And when I was invited to participate in this discussion I was thinking that this would be the most appropriate way to approach it. As I said, I do not have the perspective of an economist, I can not tell you if the market is working or not working through the eyes of an economist, but what I can tell you is that from the perspective of a political activist the market is not working at all. From the instant it was accepted as a policy it produced only disastrous results.
There is one thing that I don’t like doing, I wouldn’t take something out of a context, push it a little bit around and drop it. The invisible hand of the market is something like this that have been pushed around a bit and dropped dead. It is a fairly misunderstood set of methods about which Adam Smith had talked about, however when he did it he also considered a theory of moral sense together with it. Smith did not have in his mind an anarchistic society based on the market and on its invisible hand and period. This reading of his works based only on the market is due to the fact that these ideas were just taken out of the context and used sometimes even against Smith’s own intentions. Now when we see the neoliberal projects unfolding in front of our eyes it seems evil, in the sense that it produces a lot of negative economic outputs. One might argue that neoliberalism emerged as a reaction to stalinism. It started with Friedrich Hayek, Newton Freedman and a lot of other guys from Austria, that were kicked-out of there in 1938 by the advances of the Nazi armies, or to be more precise by the Anschluss – the invasion and forced incorporation of Austria by Germany – so they were aware that there are two totalitarian regimes – the Nazi and the Soviet. Their reaction, perhaps an exaggerated one, was to envision a society of a different kind. Hayek saw the roots of all the evil in planning (see his “The Road to Serfdom”): planning, in his eyes, leads to gulags. I don’t want to come up with an excuse for them, I just want to put their ideas in the proper historical context. During their youth they became very influential and they became so not just due to the power of their ideas. There is no such a thing as a good idea that spreads and people take it and use it because it is a nice idea. It had also to do with the evolution with various political and economical evolutions, and one of these was that keynesianism, the dominant paradigm in economy, hit in the 1970 a crisis situation. There were a lot of new problems to which the old solutions did not work, people were looking for alternatives, and neoliberalism was one such alternative, one of the many. There is a whole history about how these ideas become influential. Many claim, and among them is also Naomi Klein, that neoliberalism became popular because it was applied somewhere in the third world, it worked, so it was decided to be used in the western world as well, in New Orleans, for example.
The answer to a question about the chances of success that this (or any other) ideology might have in changing us, as human beings, is not a very clear one. It might happen to certain extent. It might not.
I.M.: And if they do not succeed, than we will become less egoistic, more willing to share, which, in my opinion is going back to a communist profile personality. Would you consider that to be a risk?
M.T. One might want to try to think about the history of the capital. Talking about the alternatives, one could also look for them in the works of writers like Karl Polanyi, who also lived in Austria with the fathers of neoliberalism. Unlike with the Hayek’s works that were translated into Romanian immediately after the fall of Ceauşescu regime, Polanyi writings become available in Romanian only very recently. Polanyi never fails to talk about the political and economical ideas in a historical context, starting with the industrial revolution in Britain up to the Second World War. He also writes from a very different perspective than that of Hayek and von Mises, bringing in the societal dimension of economy and its tendency to work either for the people or for the capital, but never for the good of both.
V.S. : There are many groups who are trying to use this terms in their own interest, including us in a way by trying to be aware of this processes. This change will unleash the previous change, the communist change that took us, that open the path to radicalism and violence. There is also violence in this process. It is slower though. There are people who are trying to resist this ideas in many various ways. I can not give you names, because there are too many. But to give you an example, this communist thinking, that was mentioned earlier, the discussion about public or common property, these are things that are extremely important and dear to us all, like air, water, knowledge, culture that must not be privatized, which defies one of the logics that neoliberalism operates with – privatize everything – privatize universities, privatize streets.
Guest: By privatize you mean putting prices on things?
V.S. : Yes. This is what I mean.
Guest: I have a problem with the type of discourse in which markets are perceived as evil. Mankind has developed in various societies over various time spans the ability to take advantage of the usefulness of the idea of the price of goods. One can gain in many ways from an information like how much something is worth and how many people would be interested in purchasing that something. One can simply look at the range of prices that something costs and compare those numbers, and then one could look at the demand and the supply of that particular goods or services. One gains from these data, and this to me seems like a true statement. Markets provide this information – on the supply and demands of goods. One doesn’t have to rely only on the markets, but the market in itself is neither evil or good, it is neutral. It is a tool, a mechanism that allocates resources, a measurement device anyone can learn from.
V.S. : It is more complicated than that. We are using the same term – market, however, we are using it in different ways. There is this assumption that it is “neutral”. Ok. Let’s take a knife. It is material. One can touch it. Measure it. But the market is different. How much material is in it? Can we measure it somehow? We should be aware about what content we put into that “tool”. There are many forms of markets. Which one of all the possible existing markets is closest to The Market. Is it the social democratic way of thinking about economic and societies? The neoliberal type of thinking, that is quite popular at the moment in Romania and Moldova, and even Poland? Or, a thinking along the line of the oligarchic driven market that seems to be the case of US? Added to that there are all this details that we use to describe the so-called market like “demand” or “offer” they are quite problematic terms as well. For example, I have a phone, an Alcatel, it costs some 100 Euros. Somebody else has an iphone that is able to do pretty much the same operations but which costs 6 times more. What does this tell us about a concept like price? I think it doesn’t tell us much, and the reason for that is that there is a totally independent sophisticated process that goes on in the cloud of social constructions, the result of which comes to us as following – alcatel is cheaper than an iphone. I am not trying to claim that what you have just said is wrong. What I am trying to say is that the whole story is very complex and the oversimplification, in this case as an operation with terms like “demand”, “offer”, “market” is quite tricky.
Guest: The market tells one that there is a difference in price, so your example is a very good one. One could make phone calls using both devices. I would say that iphone is so much priced by the people because of its usefulness to them, no matter why this is happening, but this type of comparative data are available only because of the market, without it one won’t be able to have access to such data.
V.S. In Marxism there is a big difference between the exchange value and the use value. But I wouldn’t want to get too much into it. I agree that market, as I understand it, in an anarchic-syndicalist way, is useful. It can help in the best possible way in allocating recourses, nevertheless I could not possibly agree with the idea that market is just a tool, and it is not just because in this way it is impossible to discuss about it. If it is just a tool, it is a tool and that’s all. How much can one discuss about a tool? But what we know for a fact is that whatever it is what is called “market” works in various ways. Sometimes it works against or in favor of big corporations, sometimes it benefits the society, sometimes it is more about the small entrepreneurs and so on and so forth. It is about the conceptual nucleus that is at the market’s core. The discussion is not about market being good and bad. It is about a specific concept of the market being imposed as the only possible way of thinking about the market, and one of the manifestations of this thing is taking it out of the discussion, not discussing it as a social construct, but as something natural, as true.
Guest: Maybe we should discuss it not as an instrument but how and who uses it? It’s the conditions, it’s the part of the society that decides how the markets work. I understand that the people blame the market but they don’t understand why is the market that way and who is determining the rules of the market.
M.T. However, that would mean that you are again placing the market on this pedestal, where you’re just saying that you want to contextualize it, by saying that if it benefits the society it’s not the same market that can harm the society. You cannot say that the market is used in a good way or used by the good people unless you are isolating it.
V.S. And there is another aspect that I would like to mention. It is the fact that we are endowing the market with a kind of soul, body, agency, when we’re thinking about the market: the market does that, the market does this. But is there a market, is there something like this, thinking of it in terms of a person, and it’s a person that it’s uncontrollable, a mechanism that you cannot interfere with? And that is sometimes dangerous because if, for example, I would be rich and you would be poor, I could say that it’s not my bet to win, it’s the market. The market has decided that children in Africa have to die from hunger and thirst. Or there is also the case when the market is brought in with the claim that this thing is doing something, that the market is real, it’s an agent, it has its own kind of logic, and from where I am, it’s saying that it is we who compose or do the market, it is we that assign a function to the market. If we assign a function to the market that has to benefit the whole society, probably it will benefit the whole society. I would claim, of course realizing that examples are problematic, but in our real life, maybe some Scandinavian countries would qualify, for the society that managed to find a way to put the market work for the its benefits. It’s not that the market has to be abolished. The market is a mechanism, but without its own specific logic, it’s rather we who give the market the logic. So, when we are leaving the market like this, I don’t believe that the market are just there acting. I always can see that there are some powerful forces that are manipulating the market, distorting it by having privileged access to information and distorting the market and all the related stuff, and the most important thing is that we set the cult of the market, it could be right that sometimes it is just a tool, it could be just a tool, but we have to set the goals, the frames of this tool, and that will have an impact on how this tool will function.
T.A. I would like to go back to the idea of “holy austerity” and, in fact, I no longer agree with it. I own my skepticism to the collection of texts “Epoca Traian Basescu”. It seems that people themselves in Romania don’t want to take austerity in as it is presented to them. Romanians don’t seem to accept it. As we know at some point the people were so unhappy about the whole set of austerity measures, that in February 2012 there was a big revolt, it is still a big discussion about why this revolt appeared, how it emerged and how it is connected to the whole idea of austerity measures. Of course it was more a revolt against the privatization of the public health sector. Interestingly, in Poland similar things were happening at the time but on a lower scale. Here they wanted to stop subsidizing hundreds of medications and medical procedures, and basically nobody said anything except for the right wing media, that presented a more or less accurate account of the Romanian protests. Another account was presented partially in a specialized art magazine. It seems that the Romanians doesn’t want to swallow austerity, would you say that in the ongoing protests in Romania and Moldova that actually picked in the fall of the governments of both countries, have anything to do with austerity measures that are being imposed for years and years in this two countries. I don’t think the Polish mainstream press is reporting on what is going on in Romania at the moment.
M.T. Our facebook page is constantly pointing out articles about austerity, and it was interesting to see that when “it” happened, shortly after the imposed austerity measures, Băsescu, Romania’s former president was about to be removed by a parliamentary procedure, by impeachment. He escaped at that time with the support of the Romanians votes from abroad, so it’s an irony here that Romanians abroad agreed with austerity, while being isolated from its effects, and managed to impose austerity at home. I would, in fact, question the statement that the people disagreed with austerity. Initially they liked the idea. They only disagreed with austerity when they become aware, for example, of how primary medical care worsened. There was an iconic case, when a man took his dying child to the emergency clinic and after making a considerable distance he only found out that the hospital was shut down and everything in there was moved to another city much further away. So, people agreed with austerity as a discourse of the type that Băsescu was proposing – we have too many professors working only 4 hours a day, and we don’t wave enough people to wait on tables, enough workers in industry and we also have too many philosophers.
T.A. People like Mr. Sprînceană here.
M.T. So this type of discourse was very popular, in a way or another it soon became part of the mainstream discourse as this was not new, I would say this discourse is going back even before the 1990 moment and it just became catchy again. About the protests in Romania, probably Vitalie knows more about them than I do, I live in a small place in Romania, nothing seems to be happening there, and all I know is from the TV and the press.
T.A. We are all familiar with the club fire that erupted in Bucharest and there are over 40 casualties reported at this moment.
Guest. It is already clear that the club did not have the proper authorization and they did not respect all the fire prevention rules, and they actually had some authorizations that they shouldn’t have gotten.
T.A. But is this also somehow related to austerity?
Guest: Yes, especially when the government authority was limited to the point that it can no longer effectively protect its citizens.
T.A.: However, one can think of it as just an accident. In Poland every day there are some 15 people dying and 160 injured in car accidents, according to a recent survey. In Romania these figures are smaller, however, if one takes into consideration the number of casualties per million of inhabitants, there are more casualties in car accidents happening in Romania. In Poland there are 84 deaths per million, in Romania there are 90. These numbers are not triggering any mass scale protests. Quite the opposite, EU is fighting this numbers at an institutional level. So, here, an accident took place.
Guest: It was not an accident, it was a fire!
T.A.: There is of course a longer discussion on the idea of accident versus an arson, and even if what happened in #Colectiv nightclub can be considered an arson to some extent, how do we deal with this kind of evidences? Are there accidents? There is also the interesting correlation between the road accidents statistics in EU and the so called REBLL countries – Romania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Latvia – the newest EU member countries that proceeded with severe austerity measures and they are also the countries that lead the car accidents death rates statistics. Estonia is the only one of them closer to the EU average, which is 51 per million, with – a 55 per million car accidents death rate, Greece – 72, and it is separated from Poland only by Croatia, Bulgaria – 90, LIthuania-90, and the top of the list is Latvia with 105. The rate of accidents in Moldova is just above Romania. EU is treating them as something that can be tackled, in a quite objective way. I don’t think anybody looked at this correlation that I am talking about in particular, although attempts were made to link to austerity things like the growing suicide rates, prostitution and the spread of infectious disease. Mark Blyth mentions these in his book “Austerity”. In Romania these protests did emerge, because of this fire and they go on for some time now in fairly big waves. Firstly, in February 2012, as a result of the government initiative to privative the ambulance services, then the Roșia Montana protests that are, actually, one of the most interesting ongoing civil actions in Romania, and now the #Colectiv Club fire. The amount of people that actually came out onto the streets was truly amazing. Blyth, whom I have mentioned earlier links social revolts to the implementation of austerity measurements too. Good that the Romanian don’t have so many firearms.
I.M.: Romanian editorialists compared the protests that go on in Romania to the Arab Spring. There it all started because of Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by a municipal official and his aides. His name was Mohamed Bouazizi.
T.A. The Romanian Revolution from 89 also started with the self-immolation of Liviu Cornel Babeş, on March, 2, 1989. I think Cornel Ban is one of the few who talks about Ceaușescu’s Romania as a country in which extremely severe austerity has been practiced, this is what Mihai was hitting at, I think a little earlier. Another terrifying example, even though it actually brought to a decrease in Romania’s external debt. But with what costs? Although Babeș was protesting against Ceaușescu regime per whole. The suicide of Jan Palach and later of Jan Zajíc in a similar way came already after the Prague spring and its suppression.
Guest: The society should be ready to stand for itself. Romania was ready in 89. So were the Tunisians. It seems that what this country managed to accomplish after the Spring is quite amazing. In Poland nothing like this will happen soon.
T.A. Vitalie, you’ve just seen the Warsaw’s Antifa manifestation yesterday. How was it? Was it a big crowed? Was it a lively event?
V.S. I think we are switching from the topic here. Well, there were some 2000 progressive people, who were discussing peacefully various issues as they walked. It was almost like a funeral. In comparison to them, the right wing manifestations are very noisy, people shout, yell, chant. There are definitely a difference in style of protest of various crowds. Perhaps the power of left is not on the streets. It is in the media, in various publications, in organized debates,
T.A. Can you sense in the new waves of protests in Moldova and Romania a conscious revolt of the masses against the dogma of neoliberalism or, more specifically, of the austerity? Who are the people who are currently protesting in Moldova and Romania? What is the reason that brought them into the street?
V.S. Although I am an atheist, as a sociologist of religion I always take the believes of the people in a very serious way. No matter what these believes are and no matter how crazy I take them to be sincere and very real. I believe more in their beliefs than they themselves. I am one of those sociologists who are sometimes more fundamentalist than the people they study.
The protesters in Moldova did not express any demand that could be even remotely connected to austerity or neoliberalism and I am doubtful of a rhetorics that claim differently. The facts are as they are. Which of course does not mean at all that one can not see the effects of neoliberalism in Moldova. When we are talking back there about cutting the expenses we are in fact talking only about a part of the whole truth. On the one hand one can see a very eclectic crowd of the two protests in Chișinău, because there are two protests over there going on right now. One wave was formed by a mixed crowd, even in terms of nationalities, who wanted, let’s say, a better life. The other way was a mixture of pro-Russian nostalgics, right-wing conservatives (despite the fact that they were calling themselves “socialists”). But this should not be categorized as an anti-neoliberal protest, because there is no, shell I say, ideological maturity, there is a lack of political education of the population. The people even lack a basic economics-related language. On the other hand we have this very well equipped riot-police. They seemed to me to be like aliens, like out of a Terminator movie. When we talk about cutting public spending, this dichotomy is precisely what I thought of. The state is cutting its spending but not all of it. It does it preferentially and in a skewed way. Pierre Bourdieu came up with this metaphor, the two hands of the state, the left hand, that is getting weakened to the extent that it can be easily cut, and there is the right hand, which is very strong, and yet it is constantly trained and reinforced. There is a state cutting, but not too much. Today’s military and riot-police forces are not trained anymore to fight invaders or foreign armies. They are trained to fight peaceful crowds of demonstrators, to control civil disobedience, to control the citizens. It is not like, the times are hard, so we must save, no, it is like this, we need funky weapons, armory, in some countries it can become nukes, anti-nukes shields and in order to have that, we must cut from the health care system, from education, and so on.
Guest: One could use other ways as well to gather liquids, like taxes. There are a lot of people who are very rich, but they are not getting taxed at all, or very little! So why cut the spending, instead of taxing? Let us have a choice. Let us change the constitution and tax them. This is another issue that is not very often discussed as a crisis solution.
V.S. Of course, you are absolutely right, there is a huge injustice in the taxation system of many countries. It is not just a matter of rich versus poor people, but also one must look at how corporations are being taxed. They are very flexible to move from one place to another in the search of better tax deals. This is one of the many topics that is left out of discussion, in fact. There are many more potential solutions. I am not an economist, but I am aware that there is something called the equation of the consumer’s equilibrium. Why not think about that? Going back to the question of the population who participate in the protests in Moldova. They have some economic demands, but these are definitely not anti-neoliberal or anti-austerity in principle, and it is partially a result, as I said, of the unsophisticated level of the political discourse in Moldova. And now we are talking politics. Many of the people’s demands are good and important ones, but they are easily dropped in favor of some local ideas. To give you an example, the reunification with Romania. It is a theme that captured so many minds and it is being seen as a miraculous solution for all Moldova’s political and economical problems. Let us unify, and all the problems will be solved. And now, we are in this very specific situation in which both Moldova’s and Romania’s prime ministers resigned. There was a case in the XIXth century when Moldova and a part of today’s Romania, Muntenia, picked the very same ruler. Some of the people are reading the current events in that XIXth century framework.
Guest. It sounds dangerous.
V.S. The other approach that people use to read the events is through the geopolitical confrontation between two big powers, of Europe, the civil rights defenders, and the unpredictable and evil Russia, who wants to cut and conquer the whole Europe. So the people on the street claim that they are the true defenders of the European dream of Moldova. In other words, it is not the language of neoliberalism or austerity. I take these believes as granted, even though, of course the unification would not solve everything. We are trying to provide through the texts that we write and translate for platzforma.md these new ways of thinking, a more economy based language. We try to shed some light on what is going on beyond the common beliefs of today’s Moldova protesters. We try to change the optics through which we should be looking at things. For example we know that we have a market economy but very few concern themselves with what the market economy means. Nobody cares about questions like what is a market? How does it operate? Is everything allowed on the market, or not really? And so on. In the meantime you have experts from the World Bank who come and say, for example, that we should privatize the land. And we did it, but in such a bad way that now instead of having a competitive agriculture we got ourself a surviving agriculture. Why is the European agriculture competitive? Perhaps because it is, unlike ours, heavily subsidized.
T.A. Sometimes these migratory taxes might actually make a bad austerity story look good, as it happened in the case of Ireland, even if only on paper.
V.S. But there were other things as well. The leaders of the protesters claimed that they represent the people. They said, that they wanted to create a frame of radical transparency. However, they were not at all transparent about how the leaders of this movement were chosen and even more importantly, where did their financing come from. Instead, what they did at a founding meeting in September was that they very quickly elected some leaders and the leaders pushed for this process. They were saying that they are the representatives of the people, that they were democratically elected. Yet, there was a list and a guy reading this list on a stage, and that was the whole democracy. They were reading and appointing, and it was something like, “Raise your hands who is FOR”, and you’d have a forest of hands, and then, “Who is AGAINST?”, and again you’d have yet again a forest of hands. “OK, agreed. Moving forward.” And they were appointed. It was not a democratic process, in my opinion. Interestingly, the protest had a logic in itself, it’s own dynamics. For example, the people, the real people that came there and install their tents, there was a lot of solidarity between them and from the other inhabitants of the city. They would often visit, bring food, some cash and at least, because there is no money transparency(?) we don’t know how much this actually contributed to the survival of the tents. It was something really fascinating, and I was surprised in a pleasant way, seeing that there is such a solidarity. I saw poor people, I know because I took some interviews with some of the organizers, I saw real people, of different ages, different professions, and different classes, there were pensioners with a monthly pension of some 50 Euros, there were businessmen who donated money on the spot, but who said, “I don’t want to sign anything. I don’t want to leave my name. I don’t want you to know who I am. I am just bringing for the good cause.” So these things are inspiring. Other than that, I am skeptical because it’s a protest that doesn’t want to change the whole society, it doesn’t have an alternative in the sense of: let’s have a program, or at least a mechanism to change, at least some very fundamental things, because the changing of one guy in the soft chair doesn’t change anything, be it the PM or the president or I don’t know, it just doesn’t change. They can very quickly elect another, and our last like three or four prime ministers were like this, the last one was just a random guy that didn’t had even a high school diploma.
T.A.: Ok, we’ll just have the last comment of Mihai and we’ll finish for today, so can you tell me what will be in your opinion a success for the ongoing protest in Romania ?
M.T.: I’d like to refer to what our guest said earlier about protesters in Romania. Despite the mixed bag of messages I am more optimistic about the whole educational background of the protesters and their capabilities. I think that the #Colectiv fire tragedy related demonstrations showed that some protesters really know what is going on. They seem to be aware of what is the impact of austerity, namely of the reforms that ended up in cutting the state’ capacity to protect its citizens. I tend to give them full credit, and I am not talking about the right wing incipient neo-nazi groups that sometimes are visible among the protesters. For example, some people were also protesting against Mugur Isărescu, who I believe is in charge of the Romanian National Bank for 26 years, and this is a guy who, through the institution he’s leading, and through his 2 main voices, Lucian Croitoru and Valentin Lazea, vouched for heavy austerity measures of Boc’s government and for the so called “shock therapy”. Recently, they also started to reproduce the new IMF discourse about the dangers of too much austerity, so they brought up the idea about equal access to education, saying that we also need to support people from the villages in order to have real progress in our economy, but at the same time they continue to speak about saving as the only alternative, while stimulating internal consumption is out of the question, as is raising wages. Today it looked like we had a rage against this type of discourse, as some protesters went after Isărescu. This finally made Isărescu to say that he wants to meet with the protesters, or with their leaders anyway. So I am optimistic because this protests seems a little bit to go against this part of the system.
V.S.: It’s an anti-establishment protest in Romania.
M.T.: It is a little bit chaotic but I am glad it’s not just going on with the classical anti-corruption theme following the local neoliberal credo that everything is about corruption, and it’s just corruption to blame for everything. Everybody were talking about corruption and nobody was talking about the fact, that there were a lot of more people inside the club on that night than it was allowed even by the so called corrupt system, that there was only one and not two exits in the Collective club, and so on.
Guest: The club fire was just a sparkle, it provided the sparkle
V.S. It provided it in a non-ideological way…
T.A. To sum up, austerity is not holy at all, it is, to cite Mark Blyth, a very dangerous idea, a fashionable one as well. However, the discourse by which it is being presented to the general public is in many ways alike to a teleological discourse. To understand its popularity today, one should keep in mind, among others, the historical context in which it emerged, and especially the fact that Hayek’s ideas, along with Arendt’s, were critical about totalitarian governments. The conflict of the cold war was perceived as the clash of two great ideas of liberalism (liberal democracy) and totalitarianism (communism), but also, interestingly as the crash of two types of markets (see Klaus Bölling, 1983) or like two systems of religious beliefs (Günter Gaus, 1983) – protestantism versus catholicism! The incumbent Pope Francis seem to make Gaus speculation much more intuitive. We did not manage to discuss the overwhelming presence of the church in today’s secular states and in the great decision making processes. Going a little further, should today’s decision makers treat church as a corporation that should be rather taxed instead of a beneficiary of various state administered funds? We just touched upon the austerity based terminology and its etymology, that to me seem to be strongly related to a theological vocabulary.
One could notice a general increase in the dynamics of the Moldova’s and Romania’s civil societies. In Moldova where austerity is fierce, people protest rather for geopolitical reasons than economical ones, although it is the poor quality of life what pushes them towards protest. In Romania, the people are more aware of the importance of ideas and ideologies, thus the picture that we have used for today’s event of a girl that holds a banner on which it is written, “Secular Romania”. However, one should be careful with interpretations. The image, that was taken from the social media, was read in both left and right wing keys.