Ovidiu Țichindeleanu: Who speaks for our region?

Interview with the Romanian philosopher about non-alignment as an option for the East of the European continent, regional internationalism and popular sovereignty.

Ovidiu Țichindeleanu is a philosopher and cultural theorist, co-founder of the Romanian left-wing website CriticAtac, the Indymedia Romania platform and LeftEast. He was a member of the board of directors of the international NGO El Taller International. Țichindeleanu is one of the driving forces behind the Idea Publishing House in Cluj-Napoca and the Telciu Summer School. Țichindeleanu’s latest book is “Counterculture. Rudiments of Critical Philosophy”. He is the Romanian translator of books by Silvia Federici, Sylvia Marcos, Walter Mignolo, Arturo Escobar, Lewis Gordon, Immanuel Wallerstein, Ivan Illich, Gilles Deleuze, and Peter Sloterdijk. This interview was given during the conference “Urban Inequalities”, which took place in Sofia on 17-19 June 2022.

Mr Țichindeleanu, you said that the position of Eastern or Central Europe should be: neither the West nor Russia. This is also a version of the post-revolutionary motto of the Islamic Republic of Iran…

The idea of non-alignment comes from the tradition of the Bandung conference in 1955. The third way was non-alignment with the great military and ideological blocs of the Cold War, with all the great internal differences between countries like Indonesia, India, Egypt or Yugoslavia, which initiated this great movement, including the majority of the world’s population. I believe that Eastern Europe needs to get to know better all the areas with which it has had relations, after a period of ignoring the global South. The world is changing, and we now need a demarcation of both major poles.

The Bandung conference of 1955 brought about the idea of non-alignment. Source.

But isn’t it becoming impossible to be unaligned today? Today the West is in conflict with the East and the world seems driven to choose sides.

If we limit the perspective to a small scale, it seems impossible. But as we broaden the perspective and look at the transformations in the world system as a whole, then the need for a separate option, which is neither with Russia nor with the West, becomes more and more obvious.

In the course of the transition, Central and Eastern Europe has disappeared or been fragmented as a region. Today there is not a single building or institution through which the region itself has a separate voice, apart from those ventriloquising voices from afar. From the West, it is fragmented as an edge of the European Union and distant interests, and from the East Russia does what it does. What is needed is at least a regional point of view, if not a well-developed East European internationalism.

Returning with another question about non-alignment… does “Neither West nor Russia” mean alignment with China?

Possibly. But there have already been times when local authorities have responded with a whispered “no” to proposals from China, because they were not really in a position to choose, being subordinate to the American or Western line.

Ideologically, as both liberalism and Western conservatism are in crisis today as the dominant ideologies of modernity, as the whole extractive edifice of modernity is crumbling, a systemic alternative is increasingly sought. Socialism with local characteristics remains an influential option in the global South, but elsewhere it is anathema. In Eastern Europe this option is seen through the filter of anti-communism, associated with failure, totalitarianism and so on. But this is a limitation of recent times.

The existing system is not sustainable, this is the global or more comprehensive truth: this system is maintained only by force, wars of invasion, exploitation and abuse, and in the meantime social needs are growing, inequalities are more and more visible, and crises are accumulating and intensifying (including the ecological one). A systemic alternative is needed. The strategy of governing by mimicry, whether liberal or conservative, copying Western models from ascendant times, only limits local capacity to cope with great change.

Fine, but this non-alignment is still a certain alignment. With whom exactly? With the Third World?

The international space is not democratic, but dominated by the big powers, former and current colonial powers. In international politics, the strongest is the law. In order to survive in a world where great power rivalries are once again intensifying, you need to choose your friends carefully.

In a democratic space, everyone should be able to choose their own path of democratisation and development, according to their own specificity and local aspirations for the good life. The Washington Consensus has prevented this in recent history, organising everything around ‘economics’, according to neoliberal philosophies and existing power relations. If international democratic openness were real, it would include an openness to people-based models of organising the economy and society. For the time being, this has not been done in the major Western institutions, nor is it in sight.

The non-alignment option, while far from perfect, has provided for such economic concepts, given smaller countries room for manoeuvre, conferred the ethical advantage of supporting national liberation movements, and made it possible to establish relations from somewhat more balanced positions of power. But the capital of trust and mutual knowledge thus created has been destroyed in recent decades, and it cannot be rebuilt overnight; it would take a lot of work.

When we talk about our region, Central and South-Eastern Europe, if we talk about a specific model based on our own, unique, authentic experience, then what is authentic? The interwar period or the socialist period? Can we find something in the belle epoque? Wasn’t everything that was alive destroyed? And what can we rely on for independence and authenticity? In Latin America, there is talk of buen vivir, an authentic practice of governance that springs from the roots of indigenous communities. What do we have in our roots that is authentic here?

Instead of authentic, let’s say real. Real is the infrastructure on which we still rely: a modernization overwhelmingly achieved by socialism, but in need of updating. Real is also the survival, here and there, of older practices of good living, from the philosophy of homesteading (whether or not in a village), which is a communal philosophy that has indeed been partially destroyed and corrupted by the waves of modernity, to the philosophy of urban centers as places of intercultural encounter and catalysts of social mobility unprecedented in local history.

This social mobility has also been partially destroyed or replaced by the social vacuum produced by the mass emigration of labour to the West, and by the importation of the model of the city as a place of capital accumulation and the genuine affirmation of class elites. Such ruins constitute more honest and realistic starting points, from positions of vulnerability rather than by proclaiming some hard core of authenticity, and with the openness to learn from other areas that have gone through similar experiences or are in similar structural conditions.

Urban factories used to be key places for capital accumulation and social change in Central-Eastern Europe. Now the old industry is in most of cases inactive or ruined, like this former textile factory in Łódź, central Poland. Source.

For its part, the socialist experience in Eastern Europe was barely attempting to break out of the neoclassical model of the economy, based on extensive growth – more land cultivated, more resources extracted, more factories, more workers – and was seeking an ecological reorganisation of the economic circuit, which involved shortening value chains, shrinking large urban agglomerations, and developing energy alternatives.

Today, small towns are derided by the ‘developed’ metropolises as ‘Europeanising’, but the sprinkling of towns of under 150 000 people at the foot of the Carpathians was, in another vision, the backbone of a different type of social and economic development, which would have ensured a more rational saving or use of resources, a reorganisation of relations between rural and urban areas, and a new wave of internal social mobility.

All these can be resources of a local philosophy of the good life (as opposed to the current philosophy of “economic growth” ad infinitum): a reorientation that would start from local characteristics and their partial ruin, from the existing infrastructure, and open up to the experience of others who have risen from their own ruins.

The socialist period was characterised by a development that was somehow forced or pushed from above, and we try to imagine a development on a local level that comes from the bottom up, based on something that springs from within, more authentic. Isn’t it a problem that our region is actually very mixed? We are not a “one-sided” region but a region with many influences from different areas, put together in a collage?

This can become an advantage in a situation of cooperation, not competition. However we are encompassed by much wider areas of influence: clothes, phones and TVs are made in Asia, food in supermarkets elsewhere. The most mundane and intimate gestures activate these far-flung processes: an economy over which the man at the end of the line has no control, and the peripheries fight each other for access to contracts and favours.

A socio-economy based on man, not on abstract growth, would, on the contrary, seek to regain real control at the bottom of society, or at least to limit or remove the social and natural damage caused by this systematic depletion of human and natural forces; it would also seek cooperation between peripheral or semi-peripheral areas in order to confront large interests and powers. In a cooperative situation, the differences you mention could be combined together to create exchanges and shorter value chains.

Another problem is that our region actually has to choose between two major types of populism: technocratic populism and conservative populism. A rather pro-American populism, and the opposite trend, which would be Orbanism or Putinism. It’s a choice that can arise in every country in the region. And here I wonder, and I want to ask you: can we have a populism of our own, and what characteristics would it have?

First of all, I would say that the whole geopolitical discussion has over time destroyed the political spheres in our region – destroyed them in the sense that it has emptied the parties of ideology. It has mattered more who is with the West, or who is or looks more pro-European. As a result, local ideological content, even liberal ideological content, no longer mattered or developed. Superficial geopolitics empties parties of their ideological meaning, meanwhile neoliberalism pinches and weakens states, capital corrupts and creates divisions, and the coming populisms are built on this background of political impoverishment, prolonged crises and alienation.

Technocratic populism is an imported version of Western liberalism – itself in the throes of a crisis – which seeks to redress the weakening of the state in recent decades, and which always talks of a return to ‘normality’, i.e. keeping afloat as a new form of the political ideal, and maintaining the status quo – in a world undergoing fundamental change! Conservative populism is proposed by new elites – sometimes former liberals – who have meanwhile accumulated power and capital and who are trying to cope with real crises and the weakening of the state, but who turn the state’s mission into their own protection and consolidation of their own power.

Not far behind is fascist populism, which has emerged in recent years, and which is the only one so far to offer a systemic critique, which should give food for thought. But all these forms of populism reflect the hollowing out of local politics.

How can a different kind of populism emerge in the region? What could give the region a boost in this respect?

A different political culture. Meetings like this one help, but there is a need for institutions or an institution that represents the region, outside those created by private or corporate interests. Institutions such as the Casa de las Americas for Latin America, for example, systematically organise meetings of cultural actors with representatives of the state apparatus, as well as regional meetings of writers, scientists, etc. Such meetings and exchanges no longer take place, or take place on a much smaller and unsystematic scale.

What is needed is an umbrella that can turn these more or less informal meetings into joint projects with popular resonance.

Isn’t the problem that we are currently set as countries and societies in internal and external competition?

The structure of the European Union does not really encourage regional cooperation, just as it does not generally encourage empowerment initiatives, such as the movement to remunicipalize cities by taking over public services that have been privatized.

What remains is a kind of rat race in competition for European budget resources. They all apply to projects from the same source and make temporary alliances within European parties or within funding lines – they fight each other without having time to develop a common ‘overall culture’.

If we want to develop Romanian-Bulgarian relations for example, who should we rely on – the people or the corporations?

On ourselves first of all, as long as we maintain and enjoy the unique feeling of regional familiarity. The European Union is good for some things, but it does not represent the region: north and south of the Danube have more in common than the EU or the states themselves can formalise.

Regardless of the political situation at national level, and against the European instruments of corporate guardianship, cities such as Sofia and Bucharest could join forces to bring back into municipal ownership public services, which continue to be fragmented and sliced and diced to local or international companies, thus creating a whole tangle from which various nefarious interest groups profit.

But how have they managed to do this in France, and why is individual mobilisation not taking place here?

Some cities have access to resources and have access to the European Union, while other cities are left without such access. The differentiation is not actually gradual, but structural, which explains the anomaly of the remunicipalisation of Paris, while this option is anathema to other cities, which remain stuck because of private contracts accumulated in record time in recent years.

It is good to end with a return to our discussion four years ago in Telciu, about how Eastern or Central Europe could overcome dependency. Who is our region actually dependent on? Aren’t there more dependencies? And where can this energy come from? I am not necessarily talking about political power, but about the energy needed to balance or rebalance these deviations.

The idea of breaking out of dependency or at least limiting asymmetries has not been and is not currently part of any political programme of any party in Romania or in the region – perhaps something could be said about Hungary, but in a different, conservative way, also full of illusions. On the contrary, the political philosophy of the transition explicitly proposed entering into relations of dependence: a chasing after the great powers, like fish swimming after a shark, and imitating the great Western models with skill. The notion of breaking away from dependency has been little studied.

The region’s economies are primarily dependent on Germany, and Germany has used European integration, but also the countries outside the European Union, as a source of lowering its own production costs and labour costs. In other words, the region has been a source of cost externalisation for German industry. This would probably be the most visible example of dependency. But the phenomenon is much wider.

Central-European and Balkan economies are heavily connected to German economy – and this is a powerful factor in German-CEE relations. Photo: Romanian president Klaus Iohannis seated next to German chancellor Angela Merkel during European People’s Party conference, Zagreb 2019. Source.

Within this model, some countries – the ‘success stories’ – have managed to manage dependency to ensure relative growth, which has also made possible the emergence of a local middle class, but at the cost of increasing inequality across society and generalising consumerism without even ensuring food sovereignty. Over time, dependencies have multiplied, and there is little evidence to suggest that they have not, and the structural mechanisms of dependency cannot be reversed or weakened overnight.

In addition to economic dependence on Germany, there is also energy dependence on Russia or even political dependence, because some elites are linked to Russia. There is also security independence linked to the Anglo-Saxon bloc, for example, or NATO. But if the region becomes independent, will that mean a Central Europe for Central Europeans?

Realistically, Europe cannot be completely independent in the energy market – or the military market. States exist in an international space of interdependencies, which are nothing but common needs. But the way in which these common needs are organised differs: one option is the individualistic one we find ourselves in today: the constant struggle between the strongest and the weakest, and another option is the collective one: the organisation of regional or European public consortiums in areas of common interest such as health, energy or transport, which in any case describe trans-state spaces. Central and Eastern Europe remains an area with its own specificities, with specific proximities and neighbourhoods, which needs a different way of organising common needs.

Shouldn’t independence or decolonisation also be defined? Iran or Venezuela are countries that want more independence, but at the same time they are perhaps too specific as regimes, and we are part of the West. I think we are inevitably economically linked to many countries in the world and the West. So what does independence mean with such strong interdependence?

Perhaps we should not talk so much about independence as about popular sovereignty and democratisation of international relations. Decolonisation has given national liberation movements the upper hand, but it has not diminished global neo-colonialism, often producing local elites who, in complicity with colonial forces and those of capital, have entered into a logic of consolidating their own power and actively eroding local popular sovereignty.

Similarly, the post-socialist transition has weakened states and diminished popular sovereignty, moved the centres of decision-making towards elites, capital, large international institutions, etc. Yet all states move in an international field of interdependence. Virtually no nation state can be completely autarchic, perhaps with the exception of Russia and the United States, and the smaller ones inevitably run into the larger ones. Inevitably states exist in relationships of mutual dependence. But the aim of international politics is precisely to democratise these relations.

Realistically, there will always be asymmetrical power relations. But it is precisely because of this that the affirmation of regional and interperipheral views would strengthen the process that leads to the democratisation of interdependent relations, which in turn would be what would give reality or international consistency to local independence. Of course, from democratisation to decoloniality would still be a long way off.

Both within the so-called ‘more sovereign’ states, which have gained in one way or another the freedom to choose their own path of democratisation and political development, and within the so-called ‘more dependent’ states, which follow the models of others, the common internal problem is to regain popular sovereignty, i.e. the popular capacity to define the meaning of politics. At present, the meaning of ‘sovereignty’ is muddled, confined to state apparatuses and the elites who run them. A systemic reorientation towards strengthening popular sovereignty, towards social recomposition based on collective needs, would make society better prepared to face the great changes that are coming at global level.

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