I maintain that the Indignant or the “99%”, the aggressive atheism, the relative poverty and flexicurity concepts are counterproductive for the cause of poverty reduction. On the contrary, I claim that the political mobilization of the Romanian poor is vital, that SDP’s (Social-Democratic Party) actions inadequately represent the cause of poverty reduction and that a Socialist Party is an ecological necessity for the Romanian Parliament.
The poor don’t get indignant
Romania’s adherence to the 99% movement’s discourse is detrimental to the cause of poverty reduction. In theUnited States, the bourgeoisie’s dissatisfaction with financial speculation, the high cost of health and education, the loss of jobs or the freezing of salaries in the public sector were middle class demands that overshadowed the situation of those who live in absolute poverty and are socially marginalized.
Indignation towards the causes of the financial crisis entails a learning effort. In order to be indignant, the protester must have complex knowledge about his grievances – banking regulation, health insurance, labour legislation, etc. The uninformed Romanian or American living at the edge of poverty lacked a strong union presence that would simply demand “more”, as Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labour, memorably put it.
For the majority of the poor, unbanked, without any aspiration for higher education or real estate investment and having limited or no access to the Internet, their incorporation in “the 99%” was counterproductive because an eventual success of the movement (higher taxation for the 1%) would first and foremost benefit the bourgeoisie, bankrupted in its educational, enterprising and realty investments.
Nonetheless, one of the 99% movement’s gains was the reappropriation of the inequality theme in behalf of the progressive movement. By criticizing inequality, the left was sending the easily refutable message that inequality is a problem in itself, not the consequence of unjust societal institutions. Since many felt they had to protect their position on the social ladder, the anti-inequality message wasn’t working. By moving up the scale to the 99% mark the anti-inequality message can survive another few years in the discourse of the Left, until the middle class reaches a new horizon of growth and investment.
The Romanian Orthodox Church carries out a flurry of social and philanthropic activities, too often ignored and overshadowed by the criticism directed against the construction of The People’s Salvation Cathedral and other lavish Church expenditures. The Orthodox Church financially supports or cooperates with a vast network of social or philanthropically oriented associations and foundations, a list of which you can find here (Romanian Patriarchate, Social-Philanthropic Activity).
The atheism of the Romanian Left has its roots, on the one hand, in the French secular intellectual tradition and, more recently, in the defensive mounted by the American progressives. However, if in the United States, tens of millions of people are actively preparing for the second coming of Christ, the Romanian orthodoxy has a limited missionary activity which can at anytime leave room to a gauche chrétienne. A Christian Left thatRomania never had because of the equation between modernity and secularism that permeated the orthodox East.
Aggressive atheism disregards the civil right of the orthodox believer to direct his tax money towards religious activities. ROC detractors confuse the corruption and hunger for votes of the politicians constantly making the sign of the cross with something that any civilized society should have, a mechanism by which religious communities can carry out collective projects from their taxes. The fact that many of those who choose to direct 1% of their taxes to an NGO send it to ROC shows that there is an important category of people for which a socialist government that would neglect any collaboration with ROC would practically be disregarding their need for collective action.
A Christian Left and ROC could meet one another and cooperate on anti-consumerist issues, in helping the poor or in contextual alliances regarding prostitution. But the autocratic structure of ROC seems to render impossible such a collaboration. Sometimes, by attacking its structure, the Romanian progressives end up also attacking its core values, ridiculing the collective needs of its worshipers and discrediting the Romanian progressive discourse itself.
The perverse paradigm of relative poverty
The paradigm of relative poverty dilutes the concept of poverty. Useful to the discourse of the bourgeois left in the western countries, it proves to be equally useful to the Right, when it wants to relativize and diminish the issue of poverty. In 2008, “dissatisfied with the current level of knowledge about economy and society” Nicholas Sarkozy asked Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean Paul Fitoussi to set up a commission that would elaborate a report on those issues (here). The 292 pages of the final report end up extolling the virtues of French, or generally Western, capitalism, criticizing the American GDP indexing system and its widespread use as a tool for measuring social progress. However, the process of conceptual widening of the welfare and economic progress notions served Nicholas Sarkozy’s interests of presenting the more abstract victories of French capitalism in healthcare, environment and quality of life in general – victories for the middle class, that benefit the poor only if allowed to by their material deprivation and social exclusion.
The conceptual widening of the notion of poverty allows the European Union to treat it as a serious problem in each and every case and not consider it extremely severe just in Romania and Bulgaria and less so in other countries. During the expansion process, the high level of poverty inRomaniaandBulgariaused to scare the citizens of the EU. The authorities inBucharestunderstood this at the beginning of 2000 (when the absolute poverty rate was 40%) and made every effort to hide the data on poverty and the huge development gap that made the country a very unlikely candidate. In 2009, the 99 percentile of the population had an average income of 723 euro according to Eurostat data. In most EU-15 countries, this upper limit of the Romanian middle class is under the threshold of absolute poverty (here), besides, in 2006 food prices in Romania were 70% of the European average (Eurostat, Comparative price levels for the Western Balkan region for 2006 – actual individual consumption, available here).
The World Bank gave a helping hand in sweeping the poverty data under the rug, setting in conjunction with the Romanian officials an unrealistically small poverty threshold forRomania, of 70 dollars a month (about 2.5 dollars a day).
Apart from the sophisticated and strategic European indexes of poverty, it’s enough to understand that Romania is a country in which you can freeze to death in a recovery and rehabilitation centre because there’s no firewood (here) or that in a village in Vrancea province parents put their children to sleep in a pig shed, after their makeshift home has collapsed because of the rain (here).
“Financing for the flexicurity policy at the required levels could be provided from public sources and contributions from private companies, on the lines of the bonus-malus principle” reads the “SDP promotes and defends a responsible Social State” press-release that can be found on the National Council “Workshops for the Future” website. However, SDP supports the need for a reduction in social security contributions and SLU (Social-Liberal Union) anticipates no tax increases, on the contrary. Somehow the increase in revenues requisite by the social state component of the flexicurity notion is left in SLU’s economic programme entirely on the shoulders of an increasingly uncertain economic growth and the eternal promise of cutting down tax evasion and better absorption of the European funds.
As long as there will be a “race to the bottom” in labour legislation the same will apply to taxation. As such, flexicurity remains a pretty justification for depriving employees of their rights, to which SDP subscribes, maintaining its image of middle class party through its association with the liberals. SDP knows very well that flexicurity can only work at the enormous level of taxation specific to Scandinavia, but not inRomania, which is closer to the flat tax applied inBulgaria.
Political mobilization of the poor
In December 2011 the Internet penetration rate inRomaniareached 35.5%. In this regard,Romaniaonly outrankedUkraine,Moldavia,Bosniaand Kosovo in Europe, being surpassed byRussia(43%),Turkey(44%),Belarus(46%) andSerbia(56%). In terms of social network use, 53% out of the 35% Romanian Internet users had a Facebook account – about 18% of the population.Romania’s Internet penetration rate is lower than that ofIran(46.9%),Palestine(CisJordan) – 58.9%, being close to that ofEgypt– 26.4% and almost the same as that inTunisia– 36.3%.
Due to the low penetration rate, Internet access is mainly limited to a middle class urban population, who only adheres to complex causes which reflect its own interests. The January 2012 protests have illustrated the diversity of demands formulated in theUniversity Square, but also their middle class inspiration – environmental and feminist causes, ad-hoc contests for making up clever and funny slogans. As Claude Karnoouh remarked on the CriticAtac platform, “But what is left, each night, after the last of the protesters left the places in which they had gathered to express their discontent and indignation? Unfortunately, nothing; for some, just a friendly chit-chat in front of a mug of mulled wine or a pint of beer; for others, the pleasure to rejoin their group of friends in the warm atmosphere of a café.”
The progressive efforts for political mobilization must be transferred from the demands in the University Squareto the towns and villages in which the Facebook – public protests dyad doesn’t work. This role can be attributed to a new socialist party or to any other progressive movement that would take upon itself the task of actually talking to the poor, otherwise approached only during the electoral campaign in order to buy their votes with food or cash. The difficult mission in this situation is to get a valid response to such attempts at political organizing and education: X party is paying me to get my vote, what are you offering me? Nonetheless, the difficult grassroots efforts for a political and unionized mobilization of the poor are a sound civil action in a country where democracy is stolen with buckets full of sugar and sunflower oil.
The need for an authentic socialist party
The present situation is particularly misfortunate for the political representation of the poor and the cause of poverty. Realising that it has lost the ferm base that it had in the ‘90s, comprised of the working class and peasant electorate, SDP has shifted towards the middle class of the European Left by joining forces with a liberal party. For example Victor Ponta’s speeches often mention the need to keep a low cost of labour in Romania: “It is imperative to lower the price and cost of labour in Romania, otherwise we won’t be competitive” (here). Apparently, Victor Ponta doesn’t fully comprehend the awkwardness of a situation in whichRomania, a member state of the European Union, had a lower medium wage in 2008 thanBosnia,Serbia,MontenegroorTurkey, according to data from the United Nation’s Economic Commission forEurope.
SDP has opted for the centre of a middle class fed up with politics (that doesn’t grant it its trust) at a time when popular anger against the Băsescu regime will favour all extremes. This political miscalculation which the SDP doesn’t seem willing to retract will benefit the extremist right wing parties and, as we can now see, no other socialist party.
Apart from the enormous need for redistribution inRomaniathere is also a need for a socialist party that can clearly and unambiguously advocate it. It seemed absolutely hilarious to me when the Republican candidates that were present at the debate inFloridaattacked the proposal of a flat tax arguing the need for a progressive tax and a higher contribution to society of those with higher revenues. InRomania, the issue with a progressive tax in its present form is that the surplus income would end up in the pockets of the current political class and its financiers. Before advocating the need for a progressive tax, a socialist party should first form an electoral base among the workers and the poor through grassroots activities and only then prove, through parliamentary activity, that it has the trained personnel necessary for a good governance.
Any new political initiative must overcome a certain sense of ridicule – Mihail Neamţu was defeated by his own ridicule, Dan Diaconescu made a living out of exploiting it, those that will join forces in a Popular Movement never had it to begin with. I would like to see the emergence on the Romanian political scene of a socialist party that would first of all overcome this sense of ridicule by a grassroots political mobilization movement that would represent the interests of the poor against the authorities and corporations, up to the inevitable political competition with the Right, which is always organized from top to bottom.
Translated by Alexandru Macovei