Α letter from Romania – Democracy and Totalitarianism: the Romanian story

By Florin E. Platon

It is an illusion that using a process like Democracy as a means of obtaining power would necessarily transfer its rightful qualities to the one who uses it. In the end, democracy is just a means of acquiring power. If a person or a group of interests wishes to gain access to political power in a democratic state, no necessary demand upon their interests and agenda is to be found in their electoral offer, nor any basis for them to be dismissed if they do not respect their electoral promises. This is an illusion that is already visible and its disintegrative effects are being felt by most of the citizens of Europe.

Since the dawn of human society the few have been trying to command and control the many. Tribes, empires, republics, it is only the means that are different. Like it or not, even our most esteemed democracy proved to be just a method for using pettiness and opportunism to win back what it lost as an aristocracy.

“When the tyranny had been put down, there was a period of faction-strife between Isagoras, son of Teisander, who was a friend of the tyrants, and Cleisthenes, who belonged to the family of the Alcmaeonidae. Cleisthenes, having got the worst of it in the comradeships, enlisted the people on his side, offering to hand over the government to the multitude.”[1]

Other means, rather than or together with “the power of the people” (democracy) have typically been: external common threats, common causes (like “let’s plunder the neighbour”), and the only phenomenon really competitive in efficiency with democracy, namely religion. Otherwise there is the ‘good old way’ of coercion. But political power is stronger and more enduring when you can replace coercion with persuasion. You won’t have your subjects following your commands just because you threaten them, which is expensive, unstable and short-lived. You will have them following you from their own will and convictions.

As history has taught us, Totalitarianism hides best in Democracy. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party is such an example. He was elected and enthusiastically supported by most Germans even in the darkest hours of Holocaust and Genocide in the East.

But the most perverse use of Democracy is to hide the power and the benefits in the hands of the ruling elite, and the responsibilities in the hands of the people.

This is what is happening now in Romania, the country where “more than 40% of people continue to be at risk of poverty or social exclusion, 29% are estimated to be severely materially deprived, 48.5% of children are at risk of poverty or social exclusion and 34.1% reportedly suffer from severe material deprivation. “[2]51% of Romanian children are living in poverty or even extreme poverty that limits the minimal right for a normal physical development (according to World Vision Romania)[3], of which 74% are living in the rural areas.

It is clear that the process of democratic elections is the means, for some, of legitimating access to political power, but it is hard to understand who this democracy serves. To judge from all the facts, it definitely does not serve the people. It is something most corrupt, most vile, to accept your well-being and imagine yourself as happy when some people beside you have nothing, not even the minimum for living decently. There is no democracy in that.

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In Romania the so-called democracy has become so corrupted that poverty has become an instrument for disparaging political competitors – those living in poverty are to be blamed for their own deprivation because they voted for a certain political party.  The competitors supporting this assertion offer as the natural solution, of course, that one should vote for them instead.

Moving from party to party or coming from the same circle of power, the candidates and their respective competing parties are mostly the same politicians and parties as previously, returning with the same promises. It’s Stockholm Syndrome, in its political version.

Trapped and hostage to these ruling classes, most people living in poverty or with bleak prospects have succumbed to acceptance of their fate and the impossibility of change. Some meager attention and a hope for not stealing and depriving them more than before become the reasons for their electoral choices. In their midst the politician is almost always seen as their captor and abuser, from whom there is no chance of escape and from whom all that can be hoped for is a condescending mercy towards them not to deprive them of too much, to the extent that this lesser abuse becomes an act of kindness.

For people in this situation there is no Europe, no shared prosperity, no culture and no education. And no Democracy. Even the previous communist state has become a dream too far to still think about it.  Yet among all this, as improbable as it may seem, these people have somehow preserved within themselves, with humility and faith, a rare dignity and a most sacred hope, which only a shared scarcity and suffering can give birth to.

Opposed to them is a Romania of social hate. In October 2016, while sleeping on the street, two homeless people had gasoline poured over them and were then set on fire. There were no street demonstrations, no scandals. These people remained almost totally anonymous as one of them passed away from the injuries he had sustained.  Just a year before that, in a club in the centre of the capital city Bucharest, a fire accidentally started during a concert and ended with deaths and people being severely injured. This triggered street protests, with extensive media coverage, forcing the government to resign and be replaced with one from a different political party. But for two homeless people, with no Facebook accounts, no Twitter, nothing interesting about them, there is no place in the media and no motivation for street activists.

They are the buried reality from which Romanians have been running for 27 years. There is no confrontation, no looking it in the eyes. There is just running.  Some succeed and become the example to demonstrate the possibility of escape from this reality. Some – the majority – do not.  Of those losing in the race, some just break down, falling into despair, turning to alcohol or drugs, sinking into depravity. It is a choice made for them, not their desired fate. It is not necessary to venture too far from the centre of the capital city Bucharest to meet them. But in accordance with the twisted logic of some of those who have escaped, the stigma of blame is attached to those who failed. They become the people who depend on social assistance, the lazy, the uneducated. It is only by putting the blame on the unfortunate, that those who have succeeded can confirm their distinct qualities and their exceptionality. It is a paradox, that only by ignoring or even denying the social inequalities and the dysfunctionality of the system can their success be affirmed and branded as a possibility.

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Social hate grows and builds up in this way, spiraling and spreading. And is no accident that step by step, politicians, but above all civic activists and journalists, have constructed this ‘Character’ of the poor and uneducated, usually living in rural areas or impoverished towns.  But worst of all, they are  always voting for the wrong guy, usually because they let themselves be bribed, or it may be just out of ignorance, stupidity and not understanding what is good for them. It is quite strange to see how these activists, usually involved with NGOs ‘defending Democracy’, twist the meaning of democracy, separating ‘those who know the common good’ from ‘the ignorant citizens’ deterring it.

This idea is not altogether new, Noam Chomsky[4] talked about it , citing Walter Lippmann, in “UneDémocratie pour spectateurs”. With “a progressive theory of liberal democratic thinking” as his point of departure , Lippmann calls for a “revolution in the art of practicing democracy” for the purpose of “manufacturing consent”, utilizing the means of propaganda. “The common good is a notion that eludes public opinion”. The immense majority of the people comprise what he called “the bewildered herd”. For a democracy to work properly, a class of specialists have to envision the ‘common good’ and rule the state, while at the same time protecting the ‘common good’ from the ignorant and wrong thinking of “the bewildered herd”, who have to be limited to the role of “spectators”, called upon from time to time to nominate one or other of the proposed members to be elected from the class of “the specialists”.

Lippmann was writing in 1922 and some years later, inspired by the same logic, we saw the rise of Nazi propaganda, Fascism, and the Second World War. We like to think that things have progressed but it may well be that the progress has been towards greater danger. In the past the limitations of the media, which was centrally organized, confined this propaganda to the realm of the State. There was no social media. The State was its source and it was the strength of the State that lent credibility to the message. Almost 100 years later things are very different, with the proliferation of social media and its socially generated content.  Propaganda has not only become more effective but has been embedded in society, as social media, not merely State propaganda. It is now visceral and violent and once set in motion can tear apart communities from the inside, coming from no easily identifiable source, to be opposed and countered. It has become an extremely dangerous game to play.

This is exactly what is happening now on the outskirts of the ‘EU Empire’. It is on its periphery that a system activates and tests its variables. If you want to see what the EU is becoming and not merely contemplate its existing “acquis”, you have to look at its periphery, possibly geographic, but also perhaps beyond that to the outskirts of its influence  which may be outside of its political borders and may be more accentuated in certain border areas  that are in contact with different cultures.

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It is happening now in Romania. The simple acknowledgement of the separation between ‘those who know the common good’ and ‘the ignorant citizens’ deterring it, was raised to a new level in the course of the most recent electoral campaigns. Through the speech and positions of the competing politicians (or ‘technocrats’, who are the new type of politician), the distinction between the two categories of citizens has been turned into a fight between them, or more accurately into a siege. The “bewildered herd” has become a barbaric horde of those voting for the wrong solution while, at the same time, this wrong solution has been extracted from the democratic stage of political debate, mainly by the argument of ‘technocrats’ (turned into a ‘science’), and demonized into a strategic key  (‘sold to Russia’) and menace for the very existence of democracy.

But the real twist is how “the bewildered herd” has become ‘déclassé’.  It now bears a social stigma for supporting the wrong political solution. How different is this from the ‘Bolshevik threat’ theme used by Nazis in their ascent to power in the 1930s? We now have the ‘refugee threat’ instead of the ‘Jewish threat’ (the traditional menace of the foreigner), so completing the picture. But the greatest and most wicked effect of the new propaganda is the way it has moved the generation and dissemination of social hate to the level of society, supplemented and overseen by today’s  ‘political officers’ (activists, NGOs and others).

The most dangerous aspect of totalitarianism is the marginalization and finally the total elimination of argumentation from social and political structures.  It is at this point that technocrats and bureaucrats come into the picture.  Due to its absurdity, in order to survive, this New Totalitarianism Totalitarianism must censor thought, not through coercion, but through limiting the spectrum of acceptable reality and the imaginable possibilities. But where totalitarianism outperformed modern democracies was in going beyond the limitation of the spectrum and into animating the debate within this limited and confined space.

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum” (Noam Chomsky)

There are bleak perspectives ahead, as we are living now at the very moments when unacceptable realities are turned, through new means of propaganda, into the New Acceptable Reality.

* Florin E. Platon is a member of DiEM25 Romania

[1]Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 20, translated by H. Rackham.Cambridge,MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1952.

 

[2]End-of-mission statement on Romania, by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Bucharest, 11th November 2015; http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16737&LangID=E

[3]In Dora Constantinovici“EXPERIMENTUL Dacă n-au pâine, sămănâncecozonaci”;http://www.criticatac.ro/29192/experimentul-daca-n-au-paine-sa-manance-cozonaci/

[4] Noam Chomsky & Robert W. McChesney, “Propagande, médias et démocratie”, Écosociété, 2004