The Romanian “Family Referendum” and the New Right: Uncivil Society and Feeble Party Systems

This was first published in Serbo-Croatian by Bilten. I decided to include the English draft here since, despite its somewhat dreary tone, the text is very personal. Its basic point is that the family referendum in Romania tells us more about the feeble, free-floating local party system than about social values or anything like that. It’s not difficult to discern in other non-CEE contexts the same type of party systems (see, barring the different social context, R. Seymour’s argument in his book on Labour). It is similarly easy to find other non-CEE examples of pro-active conservative movements, building from the ground up (I’m look at you America) and the allure they  exert on  mainstream political actors. The simple lesson is, of course, not more stable party-systems, but more progressive grass-roots mobilization. What I probably did not manage to properly express here (and this is the personal part) is the intense feeling of frustration and ethical consternation when seeing once again so many friends under attack.

On the 25th-28th of May, and with the official support of the Hungarian government, Budapest was the place to be for all those keen on defending “the traditional family”.  The “Budapest Family Summit,” the event occasioning this huge congregation of patriarchy enthusiasts, was a massive gathering. It featured an impressive array of right-wing organizations tied together by a rather explicit anti-abortion, anti-gay rights rhetoric, along with their commitment to the patriarchal family and Christian faith. Among them one could find the Croatian U Ime Obitelji, the unavoidable US evangelical organizations, the Serbian Dveri Party, Lega Nord, La Manif pour Tous, along with representatives from every continent. The summit was also proud to host the annual meeting of the World Congress of Families (WCF) a US-based coalition of NGOs, comprising some of the most influential Christian right organizations.  Along with the enthused support of the Hungarian Fidesz, it was the WCF that represented the organizational backbone behind this global network of social conservatives.

Within this cosy right-wing environment a Romanian participant, Bogdan Stanciu, founder of an anti-abortion NGO, could boast significant advances: “Romania is at the forefront of the battle for family and for preservation of the European civilization model, grounded on the marital union and on strong and independent families.” Stanciu’s boastful statement was a reference to the Romanian Parliament’s approval of a referendum campaign which would constitutionally define marriage as solely the union between a man and a woman. A “civilizational model” already present in the Civil Code, but whose inclusion in the Constitution would explicitly rule out the possibility of same-sex marriages for years to come. Gathering an impressive three million signatures, the initiative was organized by The Coalition for Family (Coaliția pentru Familie-CPF) and, now that the Parliament has given its consent, a referendum is due in the upcoming months.

The Romanian 1936 Penal Code which first criminalized gay relations. Legal restrictions would remain in place until 2001.

It is not easy to spell out the muddled history of both the CPF or of its initiative. The Coalition is made out of a few dozens of organizations, most of them of religious tinge, but ample enough to include something like “The Association of Clever Parents”. In a way it is the alter-ego of the civil society of the liberal 1990s: a grass-roots organization which is active, capable of pressuring state institutions, and generously right-wing. Its first public appearance was in 2013 when it expressed its objections to a civil union initiative proposed by the lonely-wolf MP Remus Cernea. In the last years, the latter has recurrently tried to push forward a legal framework for recognizing civil partnerships, only to repeatedly find his initiatives prematurely slayed in the first stages of the legislative process. Long before its seemingly inevitable legal demise, his 2013 attempt triggered a rather successful reaction from right-wing Christian groups gathered under the Coalition for Family umbrella. That year prove pivotal also for another reason, however. The success of a similar enterprise, launched by the Croatian U Ime Obitelji, had provided a winning strategy and a rather illustrious model of efficacious mobilization. Moreover, a year earlier the Hungarian Fidesz government had managed to include in their constitution a similar restrictive definition of family. Both U Ime Obitelji and Fidesz had successfully defended their cause in front of the Venice Commission.  Consequently, 2013 showed that strictly within a liberal legal framework such initiatives could hardly be staved off without a larger pro-LGBT social pressure.

These successes also added a new page in the history of awkward alliances between the US religious right and local conservatives in Eastern Europe: the World Congress Family, along with its numerous member-organizations, played a significant role in this rapprochement, but also NGOs like the Liberty Counsel or the ADF (Alliance Defending Freedom) which have provided legal expertise in the tiresome legal battles for the „natural family” or „religious rights”. WCF had drawn on its extensive Russian experience where it has been involved since the 1990s, actively supporting the anti-gay legislation introduced there. Anatoly Antonov, who had put its mark on the Russian family legislation ever since the 1990s, is one of the co-founders of the congress. In Romania, it was the ADF which took centre stage, providing some of the legal expertise necessary for the constitutional referendum.

Remapping the political space

From the outside the entire process initiated out by the CPF might seem awkwardly futile, violently pushing against an open door. After all, just like in the 2013 Croatian case, the Civil Code already explicitly forbids same-sex marriages. The awkward references to an „LGBT pressure,” presumably wresting out of the Romanian legislation the right to marriage, can hardly be corroborated by facts. The LGBT community has barely managed to catch some breath in the last 15 years, let alone exert any significant pressure on state institutions. Apart from violent everyday discrimination, up until 2001 “homosexuality” was still a criminal offence and the last remnants of anti-gay legislation were scrapped only as part of the EU accession package. Since 2013 each and every one of the initiatives for civil union had died, however heroically, on the hallways of the Romanian Parliament. None of them ever reached the voting stage of the two Houses of Representatives. In this context, when even civil union is off the table, gay marriage is unfortunately well beyond the horizon and hardly an impending prospect. Moreover, unlike in the Croatian case there hardly seems to be political will to improve the conditions of the LGBT community. After the 2013 Croatian referendum, various political parties supported the idea of a “legislative barter,” by introducing a civil union legislation to offset the constitutional change. A similar scenario, accepting civil unions after the referendum, is highly unlikely in the Romanian case. For what they are worth, most major parties explicitly expressed their support for the Coalition’s aims.

With an enemy that it greatly outweighs in political leverage, the Coalition appears to be crying wolf in the safest, most conservative fold possible. No wonder then that even sympathetic critics have oftentimes accused it of addressing a “non-issue,” fighting against ideological windmills. And yet the political ripples of this strange campaign have quickly become powerful waves. The referendum proposal has managed to polarize the public sphere with direct political consequences. The only party whose members decided to take a stand against the referendum, the anti-corruption USR, found itself in the middle of an internal sea-storm. The newly-founded organization was ideologically split: after the party voted to oppose the referendum, the founder and leader Nicușor Dan decided to resign. According to him, the party’s anti-referendum stance would chase away the social conservatives from the common fight against corruption. The best decision was to refrain from any decision, focusing on the seemingly neuter terrain of the anti-corruption battle. The referendum’s upshots are more wide-reaching than this, unfortunately. It has become a battle for the hegemony of the public sphere, over the manner in which the political space is mapped out and political stakes created. The referendum has provided an opportunity for social conservatives to organize and show their mobilization skills, effectively pressuring both the public sphere and state institutions to react. The campaign has been a political school for the Christian right, a training camp for honing and refining their political strategies.

In this way CPF has successfully managed to popularize a marginal social conservative agenda and impose it within the public sphere. It has done so by picking on some of the most exposed citizens in Romania: up to this day the political leverage of the LGBT community is incredibly frail. The possible success of the referendum would a symbolic victory over a community which is still reeling after decades of criminalization. And yet there is more than symbolic victories here: the Coalition has managed to efficiently remap the social and political space in Romania, as well as the stakes of social conflict. Regardless of whether the referendum will fail or not, the terms of the “family debate” are those imposed by the Christian conservatives: as a fight between the forces of tradition and EU-backed modernizers, between those who defend the “natural family” and “Brussels-supported, Soros-financed” NGOs. Participants in the debate are unwarily forced into one of the camps, forced to pick sides, but unable to choose the terrain. The success of such a strategy is visible in Hungary or Poland where the political space has been defined in similar terms: as a fight between the ugly forces of globalization and the white cavaliers of tradition and “Christian Europe”, be they Orbán or Kaczyński. Meanwhile LGBT persons are unwittingly compelled to become the front-images of this presumably enforced globalization, bearing the brunt of the social violence unleashed against it.

The Eastern European Party Systems and the Allure of Social Conservatism

The dangers of this ideological remapping are significant partly because of the strange structure of the Eastern European party systems. After 1989, the political parties of the region have rarely tried to develop formal connections with their constituencies through intermediary associations such as trade unions, civic organizations or various caucuses. The ties between the party system and the electorate are incredibly weak. The few ones that managed to create some links with the voters, gaining their commitment, have done so through informal and dangerously unstable patronage networks. Romania’s most powerful player, the Social-Democratic Party, is dizzyingly trying to solve gigantic internal crises which have sprung exactly from these patronage networks and the personal allegiance which they commanded.

The results of this loose institutionalization are visible in the amazingly low turnouts which have characterized almost every election since 1989, as well as the lack of traditional party-allegiance. It is a fuzzy party system, with no clear ideological identities and no intermediary institutions that might ensure stable voting patterns. More often than not capturing the electorate becomes a confused scramble for the votes of a volatile constituency. Furthermore, the financial crisis has led to unstable political alliances, with some of the parties of the region loudly caving-in or badly shaken-up, while new experimental political formations (Momentum in Hungary, USR in Romania, Modern in Poland) are vying for votes.  In this context, the political leverage of conservative organizations such as CPF, boasting three million supporters, can be significant. In a way, the CPF ensures what Romanian parties have always lacked: a more stable grounding in civil society as well as an ideological profile. While staying clear of any political commitments and boasting its autonomy, the Coalition provides an opportunity to renew the ties between political actors and their voters, to ensure a stable constituency. Moreover, it provides a ready-made political vocabulary, of strong ideological allure: a certain neo-con intransigence with Christian flourishes which Romanian politicians dote on. This offers a certain social and ideological depth to what are otherwise free-floating political actors: Romanian politicians whose sole connection with the electorate in the last years have been shaky patronage networks.

But it is not just the direct votes that matter. As it has showed in the last year, CPF can influence how public discourse is shaped and organized, it can create and recreate political stakes out of thin air, it can incense political passions. By recovering out of the dungeons of the Internet the fascist opposition between faceless, EU/Soros-backed globalizers and the defenders of profound localism, the Coalition has set up a way of defining political identities which is here to stay. Just like in Macedonia or Hungary, accusations of “Sorosism” are constantly being hurled at each other in the media or on social networks. This is an impressive power which makes the political sphere unusually receptive to social agendas such as those propose by the Coalition.

Since, after all, the Coalition’s aims are much bigger than the referendum: it includes a campaign against sexual educations, a strict anti-abortion stance, but also diverse social and measures for protecting “the natural family.” This program is telling of the political effects of the economic crisis on the Eastern European right. It is something visible especially in Hungary or Poland, but also in Slovakia and now Romania. On the one hand, the recession made the conservative right sensitive to certain welfare and redistributive measures, in contrast with a strict neoliberal stance. After all, PiS won the elections in Poland by promising a generous family allowance to boost the nation’s birth rate, while Fidesz has made the same birth rate a top national priority. On the other hand, however, the right’s vision of redistribution and welfare is limited to a handful of measures that come in a larger ideological package. It is a package rife with apocalyptic tropes of demographic decline, a strong emphasis on patriarchal structures and violent pro-natalism. Added to the mix and justified by the same demographic fears, there is an anti-immigration stance verging on xenophobia. Whatever small redistributive measure the conservative right might propose, they are undergirded by a vision of welfare as a nationalist, patriarchal project, more of a demographic instrument than a social justice mechanism. The state’s redistributive function is aimed solely defending the “demographic wealth” of the nation against migrants and the enemies of the “the natural family.” These perceived enemies might be LGBT people, trying to cling to their hardly-won rights, or women simply wishing to have control over their bodies.



“Je m’y suis médiocrement amusé”

My big, big hope was  that of finding documents on rural wages from some of the landed estates of pre-socialist Romania. I wasn’t lucky, of course: somehow you never find what you’re looking for. Instead of the much-needed accounts, there were just few family letters; written in French, coming from one of the big landowning families of the fin-de-siècle, the Furnarakis. Despite my better self, I did have a mild archival kick: putting aside my aversion to old-documents fetishism, I was fascinated by how most personal letters from the period were written in small, postcard format; something I had no clue about. The letters themselves, however, were hardly exciting or revealing in any way: just a handful of lives spent between Paris and some destitute muddy Moldavia. Somehow, from Bahia/Brazil to Bacău/Romania, the cosmopolitan rural elites of the fin-de-siècle seemed the same, experiencing the same unrecognized social dissonance: feeling comfortable both in Jardin du Luxembourg as in the poverty-stricken areas at home, dealing with this transition in the most matter-of-factly ways possible.

Socialist ravings aside, what I found essential, however, was this beautiful minimalist description of a Paris trip. It’s written by a family friend, Alexandre Pisosky [i.e. Alexandru Pisoschi], whose estates were in the same impoverished region of Moldavia. It is a curt blasé sentence, almost jaded in its phrasing, and probably unimportant. Its weariness, however, its emotional fatigue, seems to epitomize that era: “I was in Paris these last days, one of my cousins brought me there. I somewhat mildly enjoyed it [Je m’y suis médiocrement amusé.]”


Bresson and Postwar Scarcity

Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956), dir. Robert Bresson.

At the Existentialist Café (2016), by Sarah Bakewell.

I won’t say too much about Bresson’s movie, its simplicity, spirituality, etc, etc. I don’t want to repeat the plethora of epithets bestowed upon the poor guy from Bazin to Paul Schrader (although I should mention Susan Sontag’s piece about him which, despite its occasional didacticism, is such a beautiful text.)

A scene from the movie. Fontaine, the film’s main character: eating and plotting.

As I was watching it, however, I couldn’t help but recognize something I’d have thought buried in the 1940s-1950s; something which seemed totally outlandish, outside any present references, an echo of some distant past, of some cultural Middle Ages: French existentialism. It’s true, the cinematography had nothing to do with any passionate discussions about political engagement, personne, absurd, the Slansky trials, Indochina. The camera’s strict movements, its careful tailing of the character’s inner monologue, its sense of transparency were from another movie, borrowed from a different aesthetics: some sort of “écriture blanche, exemptée de tout théâtre littéraire” as another French put it. But it was impossible not to recognize the postwar French atmosphere, traces of phenomenology and existentialism, Mounier, Merleau-Ponty, Gabriel Marcel. The character’s attempts to refashion the objects of his cell into instruments of freedom; the obsessive attention to the materiality of things; or the Biblical idea of free-will as a “wild wind”, totally indeterminate; all these smacked of smoked-filled cafes and postwar contentions about the Resistance.

And yet, while Bresson is still a part of our intellectual vocabulary, this cultural context of his has totally disappeared, muffled by common-places about tormented existentialists smoking in dim-lit cafes. Or take for instance Andre Bazin, whose writings spring more from Les Temps Modernes and Esprit rather than anything else. One cannot help but see in “la politique des Auteurs” the same intellectual impulse laying behind Sartre’s books on Baudelaire or Flaubert. Our way of thinking about film, from the centrality of the director to phenomelogical obsessions about the moving image, is somewhat the direct heir of this postwar era.

One cannot deny, however, the shaky instability of this 1940s intellectual style : it only took a few years, after all, to be displaced by the post-1956 generation, from Levi-Strauss to Foucault. Even historians, famous for rummaging in all sorts of things, are shying away from it: the intellectual history of the 1940s-1950s is now much more focused on the complex intellectual legacies of Bachelard or Canguilhem. Something more interesting, I admit. Although it is important to recognize that the history of French Theory (in the Anglo-Saxon academia) is also the history of this awkward disappearance, of how easily we forgot the highfalutin language of the 1940s-1950s.

Le Café de Flore in 1945 (by R. Doisneau)

I am not the one to miss or mourn its passing. I was just suddenly surprised by its awkward cinematic appearance, with such full force, and by my inability (or unwillingness) to recognize it. Existentialism appears, after all, so much soaked in teenagerish sensibility that you forget how the elegant simplicity of Bresson is actually connected to it. Just as much as you forget how many political debates of the postwar period, from Indochina to the post-1944 rationing discussion, were carried in its strange language. Even after reading the nice endearing book by Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café,  which received so much notice lately, I could hardly identify with its nostalgic outlook: the spectre of emo-ness seemed probably too powerful. If anything, what remains dear to me about those years is the carnavalesque description from Boris Vian’s L′Écume des Jours : with a Jean Sol-Partre arriving on an elephant at the lecture hall, causing a fury of engagement. 

There is, however, a particular aspect which remains fascinatingly present: the issue of deprivation and scarcity. In Bresson’s movie, Fontaine, the main character, is forced to make out the few objects of his cell instruments of escape: his spoon, the arm of his lamp, the cords beneath his mattress, a handkerchief. Projected against the general deprivation of prison life, of an almost empty cell, each object receives an incredible presence, a powerful light, like in those minute phenomelogical description of Merleau-Ponty. In a way, it’s not just the Germans that Fontaine has to fear, but the lack of any resources that might help him flee. And while this might be a movie about freedom, it’s also a movie about the scarcity which needs to be overcome to reach that freedom. The same deprivation is present in Pickpocket, or in Journal d’un Curé …. And even in Vian’s novel, regardless of its baroque surrealist imagery, the general atmosphere is that of scarcity, of lack, of dire deprivation, of mouldy ruined homes, of poverty hiding behind the corner: people snowed-in by debts, taxmen shooting at those unable to pay their taxes, the endemic want of money, the rotting atmosphere of disease and the dearth of resources for fighting it. While in Sartre’s work of the same years, scarcity is the main character, the source of alienation and of historical struggle.

A 1947 strike at the Renault Factories. One can read on the placards “We want to eat!” “A 10 Francs increase means no divisions, just a little bit more bread”. The strike led to a political imbroglio which ended with the communists’ exclusion from the coalition government.

Some of this period’s main traits, including the phenomenological attention paid to objects and every-day life, seem to be an extended discussion about scarcity and deprivation.  After all, this was a period when bread rationing was still in place, when “bread marches” where organized, when price controls affected the distribution of staple foods, and the black market for main products was a gigantic political issue. In places like Dijon, in 1947, the Economic Control Board was invaded by the rioting population, asking for more food, while by the end of the same year a gigantic wave of strikes was followed by numerous urban riots. Even after 1949, when these issues gradually disappeared, it was not hard to understand the centrality of scarcity for a generation which had witnessed the economic deprivation of the war and the immediate post-war years. In Bresson, in Vian, want and lack are somehow always there, lurking in the background, leading to death or escape.

Nothing could be more different that the intellectual debates of the 1960s-1970s, where the main problem seems to be that of affluence, of finding ways to manage over-abundance: the challenges of material and symbolic excess. French intellectuals seemed to be concerned with the alleged surpassing of scarcity (société d’abondance, société de consummation, etc, etc), the embourgeoisement of the working class, the challenge this poses for progressive politics once the revolutionary subject is not that angry anymore and has a TV or a frigo. Even more annoyingly, there’s a continuous focus on the affluence of symbolic resources confronting the modern subject.  The French intellectual scene is obsessed with the wild, abundant proliferation of discourses and ideologies; from the “society of spectacle” to structuralist/post-structuralist debates about the labyrinth of signs, Baudrillard’s hyper-reality, etc. Somehow, it is the management of an over-abundance of material and symbolic resources which becomes the main problem in the 1960s-1970s: a topic successfully imported in the US through French Theory.

And you cannot help thinking that maybe this wasn’t at all fun, true or interesting.

The Sentimental History of Communism

Apostol Dej
The cover of Gheorghe Apostol’s 2010 book “Me and Gheorghiu-Dej”

“I met Gheorghe-Gheorghiu Dej in 1929 […] I was in my second year at the Professional School of the Romanian Railways Workshops. I was working as an apprentice in the iron and bronze foundry … One day, due to a short-circuit, all the lights were off. Ion Ifrim, the foreman, sent me to the electrical department to call on someone who might fix the power system […] I was told that only one person could do it and [someone] pointed him out to me. This particular electrician shook hands with all the workers in the foundry as he entered the workshop and everybody received him with warmth and respect.

  • Welcome comrade Gheorghiu! Bring us some light!

Gheorghiu replied:

  • Where there’s light there’s also more justice and the exploitation of our work is also reduced. Together in their fight, workers will obtain more freedom, a bigger and better loaf of bread”

Written in the 2000s, by Gheorghe Apostol, one of the most important names of the Romanian communist establishment, there is hardly anything about this passage which might seem credible: totally disconnected from the working class culture which it allegedly depicts, from its mores and language, it seems to be more a socialist Cuore (as a Romanian writer, Radu Cosasu, would put it), a childish exercise in the 1950s socialist realist prose, rather than a real dialogue which might have taken place at some point in the troubled waters of 1929 Romania. And yet it is exactly this total lack of verisimilitude which makes the passage as touching and endearing as it is clumsy. Before their careers as statesmen, before they reached the heights of power, both Apostol and the future leader of the Romanian Communist Party, Gheorghiu-Dej, had actually been part of the working class culture which Apostol describes so implausibly. As railways workers, they had been actively involved not only in the political agitations surrounding the railways sector, but also in the daily rituals characterizing the working class culture of the interwar. In this sense, there was no social distance between Apostol and the milieu he was describing; no social gap which might have made this encounter between two railway workers a clumsy caricature of communist ideals, a ragged puppet of socialist realism as it is the text now. Similarly, in the early 2000s, already in his 80s and enjoying a comfortable old-age and pension, there was hardly any reason for Apostol to fake some petty-bourgeois exercise in working-class idealism and to adopt the high-falutin language of 1950s propaganda. And yet the text is exactly that: Apostol’s memories seem stuck in that particular language of 1950s literature. So there should be another explanation.

Maybe the clumsiness and mawkishness, the lack of any sense of verisimilitude are more the signs of a heart-felt desire to give those daily meetings in the unlit, gloomy foundry a sense of dignity which, pace our own sense of plausibility, can only be found in the unrealistic tone of socialist realism.  As if somehow the banal sentences of daily life on the shop floor, its every-day interactions, the curt remarks or randy jokes uttered in that year of the Great Depression would need the artificial lightning of formulaic phrases, of clumsy officialese to get out of the gloomy night of the shop-floor. Which might mean, in the end, that even for a sly activist as Apostol, adept in the slippery and dangerous machinations at the heights of power, a former deputy prime-minister and general secretary, who had survived not only the dangers of the communist underground but also those of power; even for him, a person not all innocent or sensitive, those formulaic words and their artificial lightning, far from being the poor remnants of propaganda, had a dignity which was a safety boat, an open door into History. As if socialist realism had provided a reality  which, although fake, was much more real for him, for Dej and all those people working  in 1929, in an iron foundry somewhere in Eastern Europe.