For over five years, Romanians have been using their bodies in public spaces to challenge politicians’ disregard for the average citizen. In a region low in standards of civic engagement, such as voter turnout and petition signing, Romanian people’s “citizenship of the streets” has stopped environmentally destructive mining in 2013, ousted a corrupt cabinet in 2015, and blocked legislation legalising abuse of public office in 2017 (Solnit 214). This article explores the democratic affordances of collective resistive walking, by focusing on Romania’s capital, Bucharest. I illustrate how walking in protest of political corruption cultivates a democratic public and reconfigures city spaces as spaces of democratic engagement, in the context of increased illiberalism in the region.
I examine two sites of protest: the Parliament Palace and Victoriei Square. The former is a construction emblematic of communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and symbol of an authoritarian regime, whose surrounding area protestors reclaim as a civic space. The latter—a central part of the city bustling with the life of cafes, museums, bike lanes, and nearby parks—hosts the Government and has become an iconic site for pro-democratic movements.
Spaces of Democracy: The Performativity of Public Assemblies
Democracies are active achievements, dependent not only on the solidity of institutions —e.g., a free press and a constitution—but on people’s ability and desire to communicate about issues of concern and to occupy public space. Communicative approaches to democratic theory, formulated as inquiries into the public sphere and the plurality and evolution of publics, often return to establish the significance of public spaces and of bodies in the maintenance of our “rhetorical democracies” (Hauser). Speech and assembly, voice and space are sides of the same coin. In John Dewey’s work, communication is the main “loyalty” of democracy:
the heart and final guarantee of democracy is in free gatherings of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in the uncensored news of the day, and in gatherings of friends in the living rooms of houses and apartments to converse freely with one another. (Dewey qtd. in Asen 197, emphasis added)
Dewey asserts the centrality of communication in the same breath that he affirms the spatial infrastructure supporting it.
Historically, Richard Sennett explains, Athenian democracy has been organised around two “spaces of democracy” where people assembled: the agora or town square and the theatre or Pnyx. While the theatre has endured as the symbol of democratic communication, with its ideal of concentrated attention on the argument of one speaker, Sennett illuminates the square as an equally important space, one without which deliberation in the Pnyx would be impossible. In the agora, citizens cultivate an ability to see, expect, and think through difference. In its open architecture and inclusiveness, Sennett explains, the agora affords the walker and dweller a public space to experience, in a quick, fragmentary, and embodied way, the differences and divergences in fellow citizens. Through visual scrutiny and embodied exposure, the square thus cultivates “an outlook favorable to discussion of differing views and conflicting interests”, useful for deliberation in the Pnyx, and the capacity to recognise strangers as part of the imagined democratic community (19).
Also stressing the importance of spaces for assembly, Jürgen Habermas’s historical theorisation of the bourgeois public sphere moves the functions of the agora to the modern “third places” (Oldenburg) of the civic society emerging in late seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe: coffee houses, salons, and clubs. While Habermas’ conceptualization of a unified bourgeois public has been criticised for its class and gender exclusivism, and for its normative model of deliberation and consensus, such criticism has also opened paths of inquiry into the rhetorical pluralism of publics and into the democratic affordances of embodied performativity. Thus, unlike Habermas’s assumption of a single bourgeois public, work on twentieth and twenty-first century publics has attended to their wide variety in post-modern societies (e.g., Bruce; Butler; Delicath and DeLuca; Fraser; Harold and DeLuca; Hauser; Lewis; Mckinnon et al.; Pezzullo; Rai; Tabako). In contrast to the Habermasian close attention to verbal argumentation, such criticism prioritizes the embodied (performative, aesthetic, and material) ways in which publics manifest their attention to common issues. From suffragists to environmentalists and, most recently, anti-precarity movements across the globe, publics assemble and move through shared space, seeking to break hegemonies of media representation by creating media events of their own. In the process, Judith Butler explains, such embodied assemblies accomplish much more. They disrupt prevalent logics and dominant feelings of disposability, precarity, and anxiety, at the same time that they (re)constitute subjects and increasingly privatised spaces into citizens and public places of democracy, respectively.
Butler proposes that to best understand recent protests we need to read collective assembly in the current political moment of “accelerating precarity” and responsibilisation (10). Globally, increasingly larger populations are exposed to economic insecurity and precarity through government withdrawal from labor protections and the diminishment of social services, to the profit of increasingly monopolistic business. A logic of self-investment and personal responsibility accompanies such structural changes, as people understand themselves as individual market actors in competition with other market actors rather than as citizens and community members (Brown).
In this context, public assembly would enact an alternative, insisting on interdependency. Bodies, in such assemblies, signify both symbolically (their will to speak against power) and indexically. As Butler describes, “it is this body, and these bodies, that require employment, shelter, health care, and food, as well as a sense of a future that is not the future of unpayable debt” (10). Butler describes the function of these protests more fully:
[P]lural enactments […] make manifest the understanding that a situation is shared, contesting the individualizing morality that makes a moral norm of economic self-sufficiency precisely […] when self-sufficiency is becoming increasingly unrealizable. Showing up, standing, breathing, moving, standing still, speech, and silence are all aspects of a sudden assembly, an unforeseen form of political performativity that puts livable life at the forefront of politics […] [T]he bodies assembled ‘say’ we are not disposable, even if they stand silently. (18)
Though Romania is not included in her account of contemporary protest movements, Butler’s theoretical account aptly describes both the structural and ideological conditions, and the performativity of Romanian protestors.
In Romania, citizens have started to assemble in the streets against austerity measures (2012), environmental destruction (2013), fatal infrastructures (2015) and against the government’s corruption and attempts to undermine the Judiciary (from February 2017 onward). While, as scholars have argued (Olteanu and Beyerle; Gubernat and Rammelt), political corruption has gradually crystallised into the dominant and enduring framework for the assembled publics, post-communist corruption has been part and parcel of the neoliberalisation of Central and Eastern-European societies after the fall of communism. In the region, Leslie Holmes explains, former communist elites or the nomenklatura, have remained the majority political class after 1989. With political power and under the shelter of political immunity, nomenklatura politicians “were able to take ethically questionable advantage in various ways […] of the sell-off of previously state-owned enterprises” (Holmes 12). The process through which the established political class became owners of a previously state-owned economy is known as “nomenklatura privatization”, a common form of political corruption in the region, Holmes explains (12). Such practices were common knowledge among a cynical population through most of the 1990s and the 2000s. They were not broadly challenged in an ideological milieu attached, as Mihaela Miroiu, Isabela Preoteasa, and Jerzy Szacki argued, to extreme forms of liberalism and neoliberalism, ideologies perceived by people just coming out of communism as anti-ideology.
Almost three decades since the fall of communism, in the face of unyielding levels of poverty (Zaharia; Marin), the decaying state of healthcare and education (Bilefsky; “Education”), and migration rates second only to war-torn Syria (Deletant), Romanian protestors have come to attribute the diminution of life in post-communism to the political corruption of the established political class (“Romania Corruption Report”; “Corruption Perceptions”). Following systematic attempts by the nomenklatura-heavy governing coalition to undermine the judiciary and institutionalise de facto corruption of public officials (Deletant), protestors have been returning to public spaces on a weekly basis, de-normalising the political cynicism and isolation serving the established political class.
Mothers Walking: Resignifying Communist Spaces, Imagining the New Demos
On 11 July 2018, a protest of mothers was streamed live by Corruption Kills (Corupția ucide), a Facebook group started by activist Florin Bădiță after a deadly nightclub fire attributed to the corruption of public servants, in 2015 (Commander). Organized protests at the time pressured the Social-Democratic cabinet into resignation. Corruption Kills has remained a key activist platform, organising assemblies, streaming live from demonstrations, and sharing personal acts of dissent, thus extending the life of embodied assemblies. In the mothers’ protest video, women carrying babies in body-wraps and strollers walk across the intersection leading to the Parliament Palace, while police direct traffic and ensure their safety (“Civil Disobedience”).
This was an unusual scene for many reasons. Walkers met at the entrance to the Parliament Palace, an area most emblematic of the former regime. Built by Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu and inspired by Kim Il-sung’s North Korean architecture, the current Parliament building and its surrounding plaza remain, in the words of Renata Salecl, “one of the most traumatic remnants of the communist regime” (90). The construction is the second largest administrative building in the world, after the Pentagon, a size matching the ambitions of the dictator. It bears witness to the personal and cultural sacrifices the construction and its surrounded plaza required: the displacement of some 40,000 people from old neighbourhood Uranus, the death of reportedly thousands of workers, and the flattening of churches, monasteries, hospitals, schools (Parliament Palace).
This arbitrary construction carved out of the old city remains a symbol of an authoritarian relation with the nation. As Salecl puts it, Ceaușescu’s project tried to realise the utopia of a new communist “centre” and created an artificial space as removed from the rest of the city as the leader himself was from the needs of his people. Twenty-nine years after the fall of communism, the plaza of the Parliament Palace remains as suspended from the life of the city as it was during the 1980s. The trees lining the boulevard have grown slightly and bike lanes are painted over decaying stones. Still, only few people walk by the neo-classical apartment buildings now discoloured and stained by weather and time.
Salecl remarks on the panoptic experience of the Parliament Palace: “observed from the avenue, [the palace] appears to have no entrance; there are only numerous windows, which give the impression of an omnipresent gaze” (95). The building embodies, for Salecl, the logic of surveillance of the communist regime, which “created the impression of omnipresence” through a secret police that rallied members among regular citizens and inspired fear by striking randomly (95).
Against this geography steeped in collective memories of fear and exposure to the gaze of the state, women turn their children’s bodies and their own into performances of resistance that draw on the rhetorical force of communist gender politics. Both motherhood and childhood were heavily regulated roles under Ceaușescu’s nationalist-socialist politics of forced birth, despite the official idealisation of both. Producing children for the nationalist-communist state was women’s mandated expression of citizenship. Declaring the foetus “the socialist property of the whole society”, in 1966 Ceaușescu criminalised abortion for women of reproductive ages who had fewer than four children, and, starting 1985, less than five children (Ceaușescu qtd. in Verdery). What followed was “a national tragedy”: illegal abortions became the leading cause of death for fertile women, children were abandoned into inhumane conditions in the infamous orphanages, and mothers experienced the everyday drama of caring for families in an economy of shortages (Kligman 364).
The communist politicisation of natality during communist Romania exemplifies one of the worst manifestations of the political as biopolitical. The current maternal bodies and children’s bodies circulating in the communist-iconic plaza articulate past and present for Romanians, redeploying a traumatic collective memory to challenge increasingly authoritarian ambitions of the governing Social Democratic Party. The images of caring mothers walking in protest with their babies furthers the claims that anti-corruption publics have made in other venues: that the government, in their indifference and corruption, is driving millions of people, usually young, out of the country, in a braindrain of unprecedented proportions (Ursu; Deletant; #vavedemdinSibiu). In their determination to walk during the gruelling temperatures of mid-July, in their youth and their babies’ youth, the mothers’ walk performs the contrast between their generation of engaged, persistent, and caring citizens and the docile abused subject of a past indexed by the Ceaușescu-era architecture.
In addition to performing a new caring imagined community (Anderson), women’s silent, resolute walk on the crosswalk turns a lifeless geography, heavy with the architectural traces of authoritarian history, into a public space that holds democratic protest. By inhabiting the cultural role of mothers, protestors disarmed state authorities: instead of the militarised gendarmerie usually policing protestors the Victoriei Square, only traffic police were called for the mothers’ protest. The police choreographed cars and people, as protestors walked across the intersection leading to the Parliament. Drivers, usually aggressive and insouciant, now moved in concert with the protestors. The mothers’ walk, immediately modeled by people in other cities (Cluj-Napoca), reconfigured a car-dominated geography and an unreliable, driver-friendly police, into a civic space that is struggling to facilitate the citizens’ peaceful disobedience. The walkers’ assembly thus begins to constitute the civic character of the plaza, collecting “the space itself […] the pavement and […] the architecture [to produce] the public character of that material environment” (Butler 71). It demonstrates the possibility of a new imagined community of caring and persistent citizens, one significantly different from the cynical, disconnected, and survivalist subjects that the nomenklatura politicians, nested in the Panoptic Parliament nearby, would prefer.
Persisting in the Victoriei Square
In addition to strenuous physical walking to reclaim city spaces, such as the mothers’ walking, the anti-corruption public also practices walking and gathering in less taxing environments. The Victoriei Square is such a place, a central plaza that connects major boulevards with large sidewalks, functional bike lanes, and old trees. The square is the architectural meeting point of old and new, where communist apartments meet late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture, in a privileged neighbourhood of villas, museums, and foreign consulates. One of these 1930s constructions is the Government building, hosting the Prime Minister’s cabinet. Demonstrators gathered here during the major protests of 2015 and 2017, and have walked, stood, and wandered in the square almost weekly since (“Past Events”).
On 24 June 2018, I arrive in the Victoriei Square to participate in the protest announced on social media by Corruption Kills. There is room to move, to pause, and rest. In some pockets, people assemble to pay attention to impromptu speakers who come onto a small platform to share their ideas. Occasionally someone starts chanting “We See You!” and “Down with Corruption!” and almost everyone joins the chant. A few young people circulate petitions. But there is little exultation in the group as a whole, shared mostly among those taking up the stage or waving flags. Throughout the square, groups of familiars stop to chat. Couples and families walk their bikes, strolling slowly through the crowds, seemingly heading to or coming from the nearby park on a summer evening. Small kids play together, drawing with chalk on the pavement, or greeting dogs while parents greet each other. Older children race one another, picking up on the sense of freedom and de-centred but still purposeful engagement.
The openness of the space allows one to meander and observe all these groups, performing the function of the Ancient agora: making visible the strangers who are part of the polis. The overwhelming feeling is one of solidarity. This comes partly from the possibilities of collective agency and the feeling of comfortably taking up space and having your embodiment respected, otherwise hard to come by in other spaces of the city. Everyday walking in the streets of Romanian cities is usually an exercise in hypervigilant physical prowess and self-preserving numbness. You keep your eyes on the ground to not stumble on broken pavement. You watch ahead for unmarked construction work. You live with other people’s sweat on the hot buses. You hop among cars parked on sidewalks and listen keenly for when others may zoom by. In one of the last post-socialist states to join the European Union, living with generalised poverty means walking in cities where your senses must be dulled to manage the heat, the dust, the smells, and the waiting, irresponsive to beauty and to amiable sociality. The euphemistic vocabulary of neoliberalism may describe everyday walking through individualistic terms such as “grit” or “resilience.” And while people are called to effort, creativity, and endurance not needed in more functional states, what one experiences is the gradual diminution of one’s lives under a political regime where illiberalism keeps a citizen-serving democracy at bay.
By contrast, the Victoriei Square holds bodies whose comfort in each other’s presence allow us to imagine a political community where survivalism, or what Lauren Berlant calls “lateral agency”, are no longer the norm. In “showing up, standing, breathing, moving, standing still […] an unforeseen form of political performativity that puts livable life at the forefront of politics” is enacted (Butler 18). In arriving to Victoriei Square repeatedly, Romanians demonstrate that there is room to breathe more easily, to engage with civility, and to trust the strangers in their country. They assert that they are not disposable, even if a neoliberal corrupt post-communist regime would have them otherwise.
Becoming a public, as Michael Warner proposes, is an ongoing process of attention to an issue, through the circulation of discourse and self-organisation with strangers. For the anti-corruption public of Romania’s past years, such ongoing work is accompanied by persistent, civil, embodied collective assembly, in an articulation of claims, bodies, and spaces that promotes a material agency that reconfigures the city and the imagined Romanian community into a more democratic one.
The Romanian citizenship of the streets is particularly significant in the current geopolitical and ideological moment. In the region, increasing authoritarianism meets the alienating logics of neoliberalism, both trying to reduce citizens to disposable, self-reliant, and disconnected market actors. Populist autocrats—Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, the Peace and Justice Party in Poland, and recently E.U.-penalized Victor Orban, in Hungary—are dismantling the system of checks and balances, and posing threats to a European Union already challenged by refugee debates and Donald Trump’s unreliable alliance against authoritarianism. In such a moment, the Romanian anti-corruption public performs within the geographies of their city solidarity and commitment to democracy, demonstrating an alternative to the submissive and disconnected subjects preferred by authoritarianism and neoliberalism.
In addition to the anonymous reviewers, the author would like to thank Mary Tuominen and Jesse Schlotterbeck for their helpful comments on this essay.
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