This article was originally published as part of the Gazette of Political Art (GAP) #12 „In the Name of the Periphery. Decolonial theory and intervention in the Romanian context” December 2015, coordinated by Veda Popovici and Ovidiu Pop. It is the second out of a small series of materials from this issue, which LeftEast will present in English. The illustration was prepared for GAP by Alex Horghidan.
(translated from Romanian for LeftEast by Raluca Parvu)
In some of the biggest Spanish towns, the 2015 local elections have been won by women, and the left won in the top five biggest cities in Spain. Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau have won the mayoral elections in Madrid and Barcelona through campaigns that emphasised the fight against evacuations and blocking the privatisation of public services. This could be a sign that the Common Front for the Right to Housing in Bucharest, and all its allies, are at this point the closest thing to a true left that we have. In Spain, the Indignados movement served a function of primary recomposition of the left, as demonstrated by the explosion of organisations and social associations and left parties in the last three years, but not one of constituting a new social front or of affirming a collective historical consciousness.
In Romania, the popular protests in 2012 were remarkable precisely as an affirming of a historical consciousness that opposed the systemic logics of the transition. The protests were largely neutralised, not lastly by the Uniti Salvam (Together We Save) movement in 2013, which has inadvertently served to break inter-class solidarity, blocking the processes of organic articulation of social justice demands from below and of local recomposition of the left. In the meantime, the dominant political agenda has translated the popular demand for social justice into the anti-corruption campaign, which preserves unaltered the myth of transition towards good capitalism and professionalisedc administration. Moreover, the political instrumentalising of the Colectiv Club fire on the 31st of October 2015, the type of tragedy that could change a whole city, can also depoliticise the emerging historical consciousness.
Only through merging the recomposition of the left and the expression of historical consciousness in a social front could a new historical path be opened, an opening of different possibilities than those pertaining to the postcommunist transition: the beginning of a liberation from transition. It is within this perspective that I see the necessity and potential of a decolonial movement in Romania at political, social and cultural levels, and I propose the exploring of possibilities opened by a transautonomist strategy.
The meaning of the fight against corruption during the transition
The anti-corruption fight remains as superficial and reductively economistic as neoliberalism itself. The anti-corruption campaign is timely, but its external limits should remain as transparent as the internal results: it does not aim for a paradigmatic change and it is not coupled with a critical discourse regarding the pathways that have led to the social devastation of the transition. On the contrary, one can affirm that it is aligned with various conflicts of interest within the formal political sphere; moreover, the local promoters of neoliberalism, a few profiteers from the development agencies industry, and other /colonists of the dominant ideology – and not lastly the journalists of the central cultural industry – aggressively came forth in the public anti-corruption protest. Their liberal discourse remains one about removing the bad apples, joined by the clientelist defending of the ‘good, professional capitalists’ and the Hollywood-style personalisation of the whole process; at its core, it is a discourse that excludes the history of the liberals’ own participation in what Ada Colau has simply, publicly labelled the ‘crimes’ of the neoliberal policies of the last decennia.
The idea of fighting corruption seems to be coextensive with the idea of social justice, but the anti-corruption fight, at least in its present form, which is mainly a major media spectacle, serves to capture the very idea of social justice, at a point in the postcommunist transition where more and more revolted historical consciousnesses are awaking. For the moment, in spite of a rather impressive (and welcome) list of dignitaries and businessmen put behind bars, the anti-corruption campaign seems to be synonymous with the struggle for a ‘clean’ capitalism and a ‘clean’ Romania, meaning a struggle to civilise Romanian capitalism. In reality, capitalism always corrupts the state, both in Western countries, and in their client-peripheries. The anti-corruption campaign has yet to challenge the fundamental direction of the transition, the alliance between the state and capitalism, to the detriment of the common citizen.
In Romania, the fight against corruption has appeared in a historical coincidence with the moment in which monopolies and semi-monopolies have crystallised in almost every village, town, region and sector of the Romanian economy – according to the rules of capitalism, consistent across time and space. The ones the most aware of this situation are the members of the middle class, and they are interested exclusively in the dissolving of those limits, very visible to them, not only because of the objective material limitations of a peripheral middle-class, but also due to the castrating effect on the ideological infinite of the ‘aspirational’ life model. For a large proportion of those who dreamed of being white and rich, the ceiling is visible and tangible. Here we can see the intervention and development of cultural industries dedicated to the hiding of this unacceptable affect; music, literature and art that are channelling deep anxieties into petty-bourgeois depressions and mindless entertainment; racist projections of society’s institutionalised limits; the enclosure of life within the nuclear family (opened to domestic violence), inside the apartment (eliminating a culture of neighbourliness) or inside faith communities (eliminating the outside world); the projection of a double life through social media images; the affective compensation through the fetishism of underground capitalist industries (commercial sex and other vaguely illicit forms of consumption, as well as the niches of ‘apolitical’ cultural consumption that engender depoliticisation). As it is well known yet not sufficiently emphasized in political cultures, the dark side of the modern world is not built exclusively though oppressive mechanisms, but also through productive impositions of power, through seduction, spectacle or internalisation. What the modern world does not allow is the public visibility of its limits, because the capitalist ideology is one of infinite accumulation and the colonial ideology is based on the infinite supremacy of the white man and of the western civilisation.
In this time of poverty and permanent crisis, the intensification of the consumerist lifestyle industry in metropolitan cities such as Bucharest and Cluj illustrates not only the peak of a local cycle of capitalist accumulation, but also the urgent need to feed aspirational illusions. This is also the developmental end of a cycle of racism: after more than 20 years during which the middle class and the self-colonised intellectuals have set the tone of postcommunist racism, nowadays the adoption of a supremacist ‘European’ identity in the deepest strands of society seems to be complete. With the generational transfer, the whole society sets the tone of local racism.
The liberal anti-corruption campaign has emerged in a historical moment in which the local market is over-saturated by monopolies and when the capitalism in global crisis needs the State again; this time, not in order to remove the public resources from the citizens’ authority, but rather to stir things up in the same cauldron, in the effort to refresh the tropes that recreate the image of a ‘free market’. And, of course, in order to sell whatever is left. These are the really bad news: the moment of renewal of the relationship between capitalism and the State could become the beginning of a historical period as long as that of privatisation and austerity: the transition 2.0.
The postcommunist transition meant the reintegration of Romania and Eastern Europe in the semi-periphery of global capitalism, the local reproduction of structural dependencies and of modern-colonial hierarchies, which included the benevolent invitation on one’s own territory of armed forces belonging to the main military power of invasion of our times. The period of the first transition has been one of primitive accumulation of capital and the constitution of (quasi)monopolies, achieved though deindustrialisation, devaluation and violent dispossession, the fragmentation and reduction of communities to bare life and brute workforce. Almost three decades since the fall of the socialist bloc, a generational transfer has also occurred and more people have started to reconnect in processes pushing back the logic of transition.
The second transition has for aim, against social recomposition, the recomposition of capital. This is indeed an attractive proposition for the middle class.
This is why the revolutionary articulation of a decolonial option is vital in order to sustain social recomposition, from the level of intimate sensibilities to that of institutional organisation. This decolonial option takes shape in relation to revolutionary experiences from Latin America, yet starting from the historical experiences of Eastern Europe, from forms of local resistance and alternative means of organising, from our own tradition of critical reflection during the postcommunist transition. Because, against the cynical assertion of a part of the left, the people are not ‘missing’. The anti-corruption campaign is bound to leave behind a background of popular suspicion towards the money-king, the system, and capitalism. In fact, the anti-corruption campaign has shaped up in a context in which the right has been forced by popular pressures and the realities of the crisis to accept and borrow themes that traditionally belong to the left, exploring even the fundamentally anti-TINA idea that not everything should be submitted to the market. In the Romanian political and intellectual spheres after 2012, the liberals have left one by one the post-December 1989 alliance between liberals and neoconservatives, turning towards the left, whose ‘absence’ they started promptly deploring (after having asked for 20 years, why a left still exists). A similar phenomenon is traversing the formal civil society, where many activists and organisations are rediscovering their wider social sensibilities, beyond their singular object of activity, but they miss the culture in which to express themselves beyond the North-American bureaucratic vocabulary.
No transformation is easy, and after any colonising experience an intensive work of perceptual literacy is needed, as Europeans often mistake the discursive understanding of things with the perceptual or experiential knowledge. The truth is that the modern sensibility needs time in order to see beyond the modern disciplines and the normalised transitional spaces. Time and companionship are needed in order to see with the heart and the mind at the same time, in order to be able to relationally situate oneself in differing social worlds. In the public sphere, time and work are needed so as to introduce ideas that open up alternative visions in relation to the hegemonic ones. It took the period between 2004 and 2012 for the central cultural industry in Romania to begin to accept the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ instead of ‘market economy’ and ‘pragmatism’. And the process is not over, it is never over. Intellectual work is just beginning to be part of the work of reconstructing social solidarities.
The ideological complex of the post-communist transition was built on Anticommunism, Capitalocentrism and Eurocentrism. The failure of the Tismaneanu Report on the ‘Condemnation of Communism’ and the relative delegitimation of the intellectual post-communist elite have contributed, at least since 2008, to the shaking of the absolute authority of Anti-communism in the public sphere; the beginning of the global crisis of capitalism and the anti-neoliberal protests of 2012 have played the same role for Capitalocentrism; currently, we are witnessing a relative delinking from Eurocentrism. Despite that, when each of those pistons is weakened, the others supplement the energy in reactionary directions; therefore we witness such phenomena as liberal Europenisation – a moderate exit from the era of the ‘anti-communist talibans’; the mafia-like favouring of autochthonous capitalism, as a counter-measure to ‘Western colonisation’; and Eurocentric anti-corruption with the role of civilising the ‘savage’ local capitalism.
The disappointments and disenchantments with the three dominant ideologies of the transition are expressed on a socio-cultural background which constitutes the real terrain of struggle which decides between revolutionary transformations of the social, or fragmentations and reactionary regressions. The transformations can be molecular, of medium and long duration, but they can also be abrupt, like the jumps of historical truths, from inexistence to banality.
In the history of transition in Eastern Europe, ‘the independent left’, understood here as a sum of loosely-organised resistances to the historical process of transition, has taken the shape of autonomies, that operate almost exclusively at molecular level, hoping in ‘more favourable objective conditions’ and a revolutionary change in the long run. Autonomies have developed long repertoires of repressing and devaluing factors and players, yet their reach towards ‘the people’ and influent institutions has been limited. However, this limit is not entirely ‘objective’ (i.e., due to the constraints and counterrevolutionary processes engaged by capitalism and coloniality). Overcoming this limit does not mean either that the left must re-subjectivize entirely and play again the role of avant-garde; its social background remains the familiar one of general popular skepticism towards the formal political sphere and the direction of the transition: an anti-systemic discontent which has yet to receive political articulation. Transautonomism would be the affirmation of a divergence from capitalism and coloniality on the basis of the recent history of resistances and repressions as well as willful colonisations.
The reconstruction of the needed relationships of solidarity and affective memories of resistance is a complex endeavour. Popular skepticism can derail into petty-bourgeois sentimentalism (including depression), or into cynicism (a predominantly intellectual affliction). This capture is traditionally ensured by the cultural industry, and this is why it is important to explicitly cultivate one’s own history, the ethics of the independent intellectual, the genealogy of this democratic counter-culture that we have created in autonomous spaces in the last 10 years. It is only though relations among the social classes on a cultural anti-hegemonic background, in social intersections with a self-defined history, that sentimentalism and cynicism can be fought, leaving space to a ‘big love’ (as theorised by Lugones), to ethical revolt, to revendications of social justice and the communal.
Having said that, I do not believe that molecular activism is sufficient. There is no linearity or a natural progressd, or of class conflict among historical periods, only relations, jumps and territorialisations. Right now we are in the midst of a process of collective transformation where a dominant direction is being decided, between the recomposition of the capital and social recomposition.
Therefore, we need an anti-systemic engagement, a confrontational culture as the environment where we can cultivate the transautonomist principle of transforming the ‘concrete totality’. If the experience of real existing socialism has shown that the Party was not the only modality of tackling the ‘totality’ (given the multitude of underground or social economies which emerged in spite of the Party, as well as many institutional processes of workers ownership, cooperatives, regional value chains, ecological cities etc.), the experience of the transition has shown the limits of the autonomist strategy. The organisational problem of autonomous spaces is the following: they carve out safe spaces where one can cultivate resistance and divergence from the hegemony, but their strategy of entering the social totality remains opaque, waiting for a revolutionary event that is not coming, or a total coherence of the social with autonomy. The opportunity of our historical moment, the generational mission mentioned by Fanon, could be seized only by transcending autonomy, however difficultly won, and by organising in an anti-systemic direction, including by forging uncomfortable alliances.
A confrontational culture is necessary for fighting domination in the public space (because the claiming of social justice never takes place on a neutral background), and in order to enter in a relation with the powers that oppose the socialisation of policies. It is of vital importance to disseminate in the public space the perception that the political outlook of the new left concerns a path we are all walking, including the people who are not politically involved, in the concrete totality of a country that belongs to a colonised semi-periphery of global capitalism. A confrontational culture is the first entry point in relation to both the social totality and ‘power’. A confrontational culture means self-naming, keeping to one’s own terms and nurturing the courage to speak truth to power, to name it from the outside, but within the sensible limits of the awareness of one’s own vulnerability (without the egotistic gestures of a masculinist heroism). A confrontational culture can be a vehicle for cultivating an ethics of communal truth, finite and vulnerable, against the acculturating traditions produced in modernity.
Moreover, transautonomist politics means efforts dedicated to the development of a positive culture of companionship and entries into the concrete totality. Autonomy must be joined by politics that open towards the intersection of resistances, through which differences are assessed so that their historical background becomes an intimated history, focusing on the potential of the process of social recomposition that we are traversing together, even without knowing. Maintaining internally-articulated differences through a coalitional strategy (and not a ‘network-society’) is vital in a counter-hegemonic turn. Another strategic direction for transautonomism is the development of relations and entry points into the concrete totality, regarding both the broader society, and the influent institutions. In what contexts takes place the politization and/or mobilisation of people? And what are one’s connections and perspectives of ‘real influence’? Also, the autonomies that have developed locally into common platforms need the experience of international ones in order to develop capacity for action and transnational coordination. In order to stand a revolutionary chance, autonomies need to enter dual power relations, partnerships that have the potential to erode power or effect a transfer of power. The political concept of transautonomism that I am proposing here is hard to conceive within the Western autonomist tradition, which has tended to conflate autonomy and avant-garde, even in criticisms of the Party. Whereas the avant-garde is always fundamentally alone, transautonomism gestures towards the horizon of a counter-cultural social front.
Decolonial thinking as a resource: border thinking, feminism and anti-racism
It was rather obvious that, sooner or later, a counter-reaction towards the IMF, the World Bank and Western corporations would take shape in Romania too; it was also predictable that this reaction would be predominantly articulated from the pre-existent background of either ethnocentric nationalism or the idea of the current ‘liberal’ decadence of the West (which implies the return to even more conservative policies, justified by fascist myths about the golden age). Hence the counter-efforts to introduce in the public sphere the decolonial option and regional East-European internationalism, which provide working tools and a territory for fighting both capitalist modernisation and ethnocentric nationalism. At the moment, without epistemic and organisational efforts dedicated to a revolutionary turn, we are allowing the reproduction, on a smaller scale, in the everyday life, of the tragic situation of commander Mozgovoi on the Ukrainian front, the liberal small business-man who got caught up in a war from which he could not find a way out, despite understanding that him and his adversaries on the battlefield actually had the same common enemies.
The area of the ex-socialist bloc has become a semi-periphery of the world-system. The last condition of the modern-colonial peripheries was achieved: the definition of Eastern Europe as a ‘conflict zone’ in the international space, a ‘bordee’ where the great powers struggle for influence. ”There is no modernity without coloniality” is the conclusion re-iterated by Quijano and Mignolo, and all modernisation process will include, inevitably, the local articulation of long-term configurations of power in the modern-colonial world. Eastern Europe, as Marina Grzinic noticed since 2010, has itself become a mega-frontier of the European Union, a region that strongly internalises the contradictions of the world-system. However, this process also breeds a rich territory of resistance and social innovation, especially since in Eastern Europe, despite the workings of post-December 1989 anticommunism, is still alive the memory of real existing socialism as a historical experience, in the sense of a historical option of dissociation from the unique path of global history written by the West (despite internal rejoining via modernisation, etc.).
Decolonial thinking, whose decoupling from modernity and Eurocentrism is never absolute, but takes the shape of border thinking (Anzaldua), is directly relevant for the post-1989 East-European experience: it is the paradigm of the migrant worker who realises that borders cannot be just ‘crossed’, but are carried wherever one goes in the West or returns ‘home’ – a burden that the migrant feels, and sometimes uses to his or her advantage; yet it is also the paradigm of those who ‘stayed home’, but have been crossed and redefined by the new borders of capitalism and coloniality. Decolonial thinking allows for a contemporary articulation of the principle of hope, although in a way it corresponds to the situation from that novel composed from a single phrase by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso: ”When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there”. In this dawn of spirits, decolonial thinking has already taken some distance from the dinosaur, through epistemic and political (and not only theoretical) experiences of political liberation, without denying its existence altogether.
The recomposition of the independent left takes place through the valorisation of a history of resistance, actualisations of affective memory and by producing places of cross-class and inter-sectorial solidarities based on a similar condition rather than labor exploitation. Despite multiple internal differences, feminism and antiracism remain the most important binding elements of the independent anticapitalist left. On the issue of organisation, the most relevant existing models in our common history remain the Zapatistas and certain Latin-American revolutionary experiences. Writing from prison in 1915, Rosa Luxemburg was making an explicit link between South America, Western colonies, and Romania. The direct relevance of those links was even clear to A.D. Xenopol in 1882, as he was producing the local theory of unequal exchange. The relevance was even clearer to the local boyars in the 16-17th centuries, the ones that started the very fast and brutal process of land grabbing and intensive exploitation in the Baltic region, Poland, then Hungary and Transylvania, as a direct result of the transformations of the global economy in the wake of the colonisation of the Americas. Furthermore, the postcommunist reintegration of Eastern Europe in the world of capitalism and coloniality meant also the emergence of new or reactualised racial categories in the West, via the racialisation of ‘Eastern-Europeans’ in the West and the commercial hypersexualising of the Eastern European woman – an issue which has been hardly addressed by the Eurocentric Left. The nature and role of post-communist racism, and the position adopted by East Europeans in the global hierarchy of races – whether assumed by East European immigrant workers or by East European state apparatuses – is a major issue in the current developments of ‘global Europe’ as well as for the articulation of another political option.
In a culture of resistance, feminism and antiracism constitute a common cultural resource, able to negotiate amongst the multitude of anticapitalist and transmodern options, beyond North-South or East-West divisions, against the common front of neoliberalism and reformed liberalism. But even these resources need to be submitted to the transautonomist test. For their part, decolonial thinking and border thinking offer resources against the colonising forms of hegemonic feminism and liberal antiracism. And the story of the migrant worker or in other cases the simplest local social histories are able already to offer the general frames of convergence for the most diverse social sensibilities.
Left Eurocentrism, which affects even the most basic mode of relating, and beyond that the fluency in the repertoire of non-Western experiences, is of more recent date, but was adopted inconspicuously by a tamed left, long accustomed to being dominated, a left whose critical exercise is almost exclusively directed towards analyses of the dominant hegemonic actors or mechanisms, or the latest avant-gardes, and whose perception and sensibilities are rarely centered around resistance and liberation. As an allied resource, decolonial thinking is recusant, demands an epistemic turn, but does not require an exclusive attachment to non-Western experiences: the ‘Global South’ is a concept, not a purely geographical area, and it includes a multiplicity of Western allies (just like “Eastern Europe”). There is a huge difference between importing and colonising from the territories of hegemonic ideologies, through institutional channels, and borrowing from the territories of Western resistances, on a relational basis.
The countries of Western Europe are far from being ready for decolonisation, let alone emancipation, very far from truly transformative engagements with the present parameters of coloniality and capitalism. At the same time, from Syriza to Podemos, one can notice attempts to redefine Europe from the South. In this sense, Romania (and Eastern Europe) have a dissenting historical experience, a potential and maybe even a unique generational mission to redefine the current meaning of Europe. But the hard work of perceiving coloniality and decolonising a transautonomist territory has just started. And the most difficult part of this work is to politicise the emerging historical consciousness of the transition, underlining that one either assumes an active position on the side of social recomposition, or an equally active position on the side of capital. Gestures towards both of these positions are already visible, and also include, besides handing the State to capitalist oligarchs, the building of walls and forceful protectionism, as well as outreaching gestures from conservative actors towards recognising – to a controlled extent – the existence and even value of social economies. A rather different direction is illustrated by the multiplicity of voices in the recent show ‘La Harneală’, by Mihaela Dragan and Mihai Lucaks, belonging to evicted people from Bucharest, Roma women and children who have answers to give and are commenting in spontaneous manner to the open questions, until the voice of the director intervenes at the end on the set, only in order to remind the public, one moment before the clapping begins, that ”you are here”.