what you get here

This is not a blog which opines on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Friday, February 27, 2015

Survival in Romania

I referred briefly yesterday to the scandal which is currently gripping Romania – that of ex-Presidential candidate Elena Udrea. Anyone familiar with the writings of Tom Gallagher would have evinced not an iota of surprise at the revelations of greed and illegality. They loomed large in his most recent book on the country - Romania and the European Union – how the weak vanquished the strong which had followed his 2005 book Theft of a Nation itemising the kleptomania which has been a feature of the country’s political class for centuries….. 

Yesterday’s post used the phrase “consumerist amorality” of contemporary Romania – the last word alluding to Edward Banfield’s study in the early 1950s of a small town in southern Italy whose inhabitants displayed loyalty only to the members of their nuclear family and who had absolutely no sense of social responsibility for wider circles. The book (published in 1955) was called “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society” 

Banfield concluded that the town's plight was rooted in the distrust, envy and suspicion displayed by its inhabitants' relations with each other. Fellow citizens would refuse to help one another, except where one's own personal material gain was at stake. Many attempted to hinder their neighbours from attaining success, believing that others' good fortune would inevitably harm their own interests. "Montegrano"'s citizens viewed their village life as little more than a battleground. Consequently, there prevailed social isolation and poverty—and an inability to work together to solve common social problems, or even to pool common resources and talents to build infrastructure or common economic concerns.

"Montegrano"'s inhabitants were not unique nor inherently more impious than other people. But for quite a few reasons: historical and cultural, they did not have what he termed "social capital"—the habits, norms, attitudes and networks that motivate folk to work for the common good.
This stress on the nuclear family over the interest of the citizenry, he called the ethos of ‘amoral familism’. This he argued was probably created by the combination of certain land-tenure conditions, a high mortality rate, and the absence of other community building institutions.

Sixty years later, Ronnie Smith profiled (in “City Compass Guide Romania”) the ordinary Romanian in a similar way -

If you are fortunate enough to drive in Bucharest you will witness what is probably the clearest evidence of mass individualism in global human society. Romanian people, of all shapes, sizes, social and educational backgrounds and income brackets will do things in their cars that display a total disregard for sanity and other drivers.
Manoeuvres such as parking in the middle of the street, u-turning on highways without any warning and weaving between lanes in heavy traffic at 150 kilometres per hour are commonplace and point to an extreme lack of concern for the safety or even the simple existence of others.
The next time you are waiting to get on a plane at Henri Coandă airport, take a little time to observe how queuing in an orderly and effective manner is clearly regarded as an af­front to the sovereignty of the Romanian individual. Enjoy the spectacle of the pushing, shoving and general intimida­tion that follows the arrival of the airport staff to supervise boarding. Even while watching an international rugby test match you will only occasionally see the same intense level of barely controlled aggression.

Outside of their core social networks Romanians closely follow the rule stating that it is every man, woman and child for themselves. ……There is an opinion poll, published in early 2012, show­ing that around 90 percent of the Romanian population regards almost all of their compatriots as utterly untrust­worthy and incompetent. At the same time 90 percent, possibly the same 90 percent, see themselves as being abso­lutely beyond reproach. This is clearly an extreme response no matter how you view it and provides evidence of an ex­traordinary and troubling imbalance within the generality of Romania’s social relationships.
There is a well-known prayer in Romania, which roughly goes: “Dear God, if my goat is so ill that it will die, please make sure that my neighbour’s goat dies too.”

So what does this commonality suggest? The EU’s first Ambassador here was Karen Fogg who gave every consultant who came here in the early 1990s (like me) a summary of what can be seen as the follow-up to Banfield’s book – Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work – civic traditions in Italy (1993) which suggested that the laggardly nature of southern Italian Regions was due entirely to this “amoral familism”.  Putnam made an even greater play oF missing “social capital” – indeed spawned an incredible technocratic literature on the concept and ideas on how it could be “engineered” to deal with the new alienation of modern capitalism..

Romanian communism, of course, had almost 50 years to inculcate more cooperative attitudes and behaviour – but the forced nature of “collective farms”; the forced migration of villagers to urban areas to drive industrialisation; and the scale of Securitate spying created a society where, paradoxically, even fewer could trusted anyone.      
From 1990 the market became God; Reagan and Thatcher had glorified greed; the state was bad; and television – which had been limited by Ceaucescu to 2 hours a day - the great good……As the commercial stations and journals spread, the values of instant gratification became dominant. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the average Romanian seems to behave in such an aggressive and selfish if not amoral way………

Grancea’s article on “the concept of freedom in Romania” may be a very bad translation but does emphasise a crucial point – that the words foreign business men, consultants and academics have brought to Romania do not resonate in people’s minds the way we imagine them to…..They have in fact become simply another series of verbal weapons to use in the struggle for position..........
Almost 5 years ago I quoted this poem –

Watch him when he opens
His bulging words – justice
Fraternity, freedom, internationalism, peace,
peace, peace. Make it your custom
to pay no heed
to his frank look, his visa, his stamps
and signatures. Make it
your duty to spread out their contents
in a clear light
Nobody with such language
Has nothing to declare

My E-book Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey tries, in various places, to deal with some of these cultural aspects - particularly section 7.2 at page 31 and all the annexes

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