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An attempt to explain

It is often said that it is literature that provides us with the best explanations of social phenomena in a condensed form. I tried to explain to a militant American pacifist, Medeea Benjamin, why it is difficult to organize a protest in Romania. I think the best way is to transcribe an excerpt from Natalia Onofrei’s book, a fine connoisseur of the Romanian village, to understand why. 

– I don’t know what you’re talking about! I came to tell you that the mayor is corrupt!

– Get out! Who told you that? The people from the county whom you didn’t talk to?

– I know! Does it matter how I know? He gave the job for the new kindergarten to his father in law! It’s him! You don’t know how much they do around here!

– “Listen…”

– “And the school canteen without a tender!”

– “Without what? I know it’s been advertised,” said old Pavăl. It was voted on by the council, how could it not?!”

– “I’m telling you, they’re all corrupt! We must organize a protest in front of the town hall to get them all out!”

– “Now, before the elections? No way,” said the old man. (…)

– Why?!” The young Ghiocel was upset. “How can it not?! We’re putting up with criminals in public office?”

– “Who taught you these elitist phrases? All the county people you never met? Easy with the tough talk, who’s a criminal?”

– “Nobody yet, but they will be! We must protest.”

– “We can’t protest. Everybody knows everybody.”

– “So what?”

– “You’re stupid! Imagine if Toadere goes to protest!”

– “Uncle Toadere is a fair man, why shouldn’t he protest?”

– “So it seems, but the Mayor will come out and say: ‘You, Toadere, you keep your parents’ land without papers and don’t give your brothers a ruble of corn! Last autumn you were caught by Ciorpac stealing dolls from his land! You and I didn’t meet to steal.’

Little Sonowdrop  looked puzzled at old Pavăl.

– “Evidence?”

– “Ciorpac’s alive, he can confess, he caught him coming with his wife and Popa’s Ionel from the field. He counted the corn plants with fruit taken from them. Countless of them.”

– “There’s Ionel, Toadere’s herald! Disadvantaged and exploited without legal forms! He can protest!”

– “He could, if he weren’t a drunken loser who beats his wife and children with chains and doesn’t even take them to school. If Toadere didn’t take him to work, he’d starve! I’m not saying he might protest, but he hasn’t got much cheek!”

– “What about the teacher, who is directly affected by the bad work…? What about the teachers in the school?!”

– “Try calling them to protest. I’m really curious!”

– “What about Badea Grigore with Aunt Anuța?”

– “Grigore met the president of the council and the priest at the whorehouse. One went out, the other came in… He has no interest in making noise.”

– “Catinca, Aioanei’s widow? She’s got three kids, the town hall won’t help her, her alley’s as muddy as a fence!”

– “Catinca, so they say, I don’t know exactly, she’s in a relationship with a married councilor. He sends her a cart of wood from time to time. It’s hard for her, don’t judge her! If you were her, you’d starve and freeze to death with all the kids!”

– “Your neighbor, Uncle Ilie, protests! He’s got an uncapped hole in front of his gate from last year! Or what’s wrong with him that he can’t protest?”

– “He’s Maria’s right-hand man…”

– “Maria who?”

– “The secretary at the town hall. You want the boss to look at her and sack her?!”

– “Uncle Vasile Butnaru?”

– “Right cousin of the engineer.”

– “Auntie Anica, Andrei Shchiopu’s cousin?”

– “His mother married the accountant, they’re like relatives. She calls him “godmother.” How can she go there to protest?”

– “The owner of the bar?! What do you call it…? I forget!”

– “Hahahahaaa! You’re a fool, you little idiot! The owner?!”

– “Razvan Podaru, he’s young, what sins does he have?! Hardworking man…”

– “As hard-working as he is, his father is as lazy and thieving as he is; they’d give him a slap in the face, to look first in their backyard, where he ate only stolen chickens as a child and until recently, when the old man fell sick. He’s a good boy, or at least he looks like it.”

– “You see, what’s his fault?”

– “Maybe he’s not to blame, but he doesn’t have the nerve to protest. You know how it is with parents’ sins – the children pay for them!”

– “I don’t believe in such archaisms?”

– “Who cares what you believe?”

– “Birica’s?”

– “His brother-in-law is the son-in-law of the mayor… you want to be mayor, but you don’t learn, you don’t know who’s related to whom in the whole village!”

– “For me, all citizens are equal!”

Old Pavăl took a long bow.

– “God, how stupid you are and how much I’ll have to workl with you! Shut up and get it into your head: who is brother, brother-in-law, godson, cousin, drunkard, whore, thief; who beats his wife, his children, who has what wealth, where he got it from, who he meets at Easter and Christmas, who he sits at the table with at weddings, what inheritances they have to share, who he fought with and from what, who has children from flowers, debts to ANAF…”

(Natalia Onofrei, In the Name of the Father, published by the author in 2023)

We have in this very short fragment the quintessence of Romanian democracy or, rather, of the impossibility of Romanian democracy. Democratic ideals, on an empty stomach, give rise to all sorts of authoritarian neo-feudalisms. For thousands of years we have known from Plato that democracy is fragile and can always descend into tyranny. The philosopher likens it to the situation where the father – the state – lets the children go too free and, inevitably, the older ones end up beating the younger ones. He left us a great lesson in political philosophy as a legacy. We should treat it with a little more care. 

For, lo and behold, in our little imaginary village, in our genuine democracy, people are engaged in a pyramid of clientelistic relationships. While many intellectuals are quick to blame it on backwardness, I would say it is a systemic problem. In a deeply unequal society where grinding poverty coexists with unbounded wealth, democracy itself is hard to achieve. Inequality of economic power is incompatible with political equality. Democratic dysfunctions are the defects of a system that tries to make two systems that lead in opposite directions work together. Capitalism is notorious for the crises it periodically causes and the inequality that is the result. Liberal democracy based on multi-partyism and free elections becomes a bad joke when poverty sends people into situations from which the only way out is the compromise of informal relationships. 

What’s the poor widow with children to do? She turns to a member of the local council who sends her a wagonload of wood in winter. How can the villager whose granddaughter is employed by the town hall protest? She’d give her trouble at work. The long string of dependencies is underpinned by poverty and lack of horizon. To give political rights and freedoms to people in rags is to mock them – as said Isaiah Berlin. 

The idea that we project democracy anywhere because people’s thirst for freedom and representation will make it work is just another utopia. But from it we have yet to awaken. We don’t get that without a strong state – that aims to achieve social equity, to put a limit on wealth through redistribution, to provide opportunities for all – exercising power through representatives is a bad joke. 

But we are not yet ready to recognise that it is a systemic problem. We’re still whipping ourselves full of frustration thinking we’re the dumb, idiotic ones around here in the East and that’s why we’re blowing the goodness out of the system! We weep, no less, as we tarnish noble ideals, alas, I almost said revolutionary. But wait, that was from another movie. One I’ve seen before, when we still had the wonderful system and we weren’t able to honor it. We were ruining it with our ineptitude. Hopeless idiots, we can’t, sir, live up to expectations. 

We’ve got a long way to go before we understand terms of structural violence, before we accept that you can murder a community economically and bring them down easy by smiling pretty and selling them all kinds of donuts. A great one is the stick we have to give everyone instead of the fish! As if we took the honourable people at the National Bank, for example, and made them live in some godforsaken village alone with children to support, they would surely manage without any problems! Because it’s all a question of will. The system is perfect.

There is another tasty and instructive part of the extract quoted: old Paval! The equivalent of James Bond, this 007 in the Romanian version is the perfect intelligence officer who knows everything he needs to get ahead. He wisely laughs at the adolescent democratic outbursts of the predestined named “little Snowdrop”. What citizenship, what equality, what protest? These are elitist phrases for “the county people” – that is, the elites. Out there in the country, these aren’t worth the weight of a peeled onion. The system of relationships, dependencies, who depends on whom and how, who sleeps with whom, who goes to the brothel, who is related to whom: that is the source of power. 

If you think about it, it’s our post-December history in this little story. Some get drunk with democratic ideals while others know better. They know that conditions of grinding poverty are donuts for suckers, and that what matters is information about the system of relationships and social weaknesses. Cynical and unscrupulous, the secretaries of the type of old Pavăl do not pursue ideals. They have clear short-term goals and are terribly effective in achieving them. But here we see another structural problem: as long as there is an old Pavăl at the helm who knows everything that moves in the community, ideas of transparency, democracy and citizenship are a kind of marijuana for intellectuals. That’s because in real life there is a very well set-up informal system of exercising power. One that has little to do with democracy. And, yes, of course we can hope that it’s just an accident, but I’m very much of the opinion that until we directly confront the problem of the economic system and the influence of the secret services, the noble democratic ideal is just a hookah smoke for idealistic snowdrops.

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