Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu: Does Eastern Europe have the power to de-link itself from the mechanisms of dependence?

The Barricade talked to Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu, the Romanian philosopher, about the importance of the late Samir Amin’s ideas, the need for Eastern Europe to follow its own path of development, the message of the Telciu Summer School, and the need for a ‘left-wing spirituality’

Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu is a philosopher and a theorist of culture, a co-founder of the Romanian left-wing site CriticAtac, the Romanian platform Indymedia, and the Eastern European left-wing political platform, LeftEast. He was a member of the Governing Board of the El Taller International NGO. He currently lives in Chişinău, Republic of Moldova. Ţichindeleanu is one of the driving forces behind the Idea Publishing House in Cluj Napoca and the Centre for the Study of Modernity and the Rural World in Telciu, the latter being the organiser of the Telciu Summer Conferences and the Telciu Summer School. His most recent book is Contracultură. Rudimente de filosofie critică (’Counterculture. Thoughts on 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.

Mr. Ţichindeleanu, the political scientist and left-wing economist Samir Amin passed away this month. You knew him, having an intellectual connection and as a friend. What are your memories of him?

My interactions with Samir Amin were limited because of the objective limitations of contact with the global south. The whole life, career, and activism of Samir Amin lies before us as a critical legacy that has to be considered and continued. He was born in the ‘30s, worked under Nasser, was a founder and influential voice of dependency theory and of African knowledge institutions, and he was part of the group of four who created the world-system theory (alongside Wallerstein, Gunder-Frank, and Arrighi), of what is called ‘the global left’. After 1989 he continued to be an ‘independent Marxist’, a critic of visions focusing on Western history, who openly reflected on the future of internationalism, highlighting the importance of solidarity between peripheries after the historical moment in Bandung [the Bandung conference in 1955 was the first major summit of representatives from the global South – Africa and Asia – editor’s note]. Our last meeting was a few weeks ago in Dakar at the conference organised by the Caribbean Philosophical Association and the Senegalese Philosophical Society, where I participated in a discussion about the historical experience of Eastern European socialism and its links with Africa in the decolonisation years. Samir gave the introductory speech and then we talked more broadly about his latest experiences and possible translations in Romanian. Something that had preoccupied him lately was the rethinking of the left in the world; a left centred on rurality and most of the people in the world, not just industrial workers. Samir considered that the future of the left has to be anchored in the exploited majority of peoples of the world, who are rural. As a result, the rural issue becomes central to the hopes of the left. Here in Telciu, from the beginning, the rural issue has been of primary importance in the way in which we proposed to look at modernity, modernisation, capitalism and its alternatives, or resistance to it.

Samir Amin wrote a lot about the problem of the periphery. You also gave a presentation about decoloniality and Eastern Europe at the Telciu Summer School. To what extent are the different ideas of Samir Amin – for example about the de-linking of the peripheral world from the centre of capitalism – valid and applicable in Eastern Europe?

In this context, we can find some of Amin’s strongest ideas. He developed his doctoral thesis at the end of the 1950s and developed the concept of de-linking in the 1960s in the context of studying the origins of underdevelopment, of the debates about dependency theory, and then the famous dialogues with Immanuel Wallerstein, André Gunder-Frank, and Giovanni Arrighi. But Samir did not want to focus the discussion solely on the analysis of capitalism, world systems, domination, accumulation mechanisms, and the means of making the periphery dependent on the centres of capital, but to emphasize the de-linking from these as a political starting point both for intellectual analysis and to develop a socialist alternative to the capitalist global world. This move included a critique of Western Marxism and the anchoring of progressist groups in the global North (inspirationally named by, sadly, the late Peter Waterman), solidarity and a global justice movement. This orientation also remains essential for rethinking geopolitics in our area. Recently geopolitical discourse has been overlapping with social movements, thus for instance in the Republic of Moldova left- and right-wing ideas do not matter as much as whether you are pro-Russian or pro-Western – an alternative which leaves the issues of the region behind.

The concept of de-linking not only helps in rethinking economic organisation, but also in diminishing the extent of the geopolitical context integrating it not only in the context of centre and semiperiphery relations, in trans-state similarities, but also in the context of possible ties between peripheries and semiperipheries. The idea of de-linking is relevant for not only economic but also political analysis when Eastern Europe no longer exists as a region, being caught between a Western choice (integration in the EU, neoliberal development, but also small liberal concessions or technocratic utopias etc., under the guidance of the IMF, the World Bank and so on) and on the other hand an Eastern, autocratic pseudo-alternative, which tries to strengthen sectors of the local elites, as a reaction to a state eroded by neoliberalism. The question of de-linking from forms of dispossession, devaluation, and dependence is relevant for Eastern Europe because it cannot be treated on a national level. The Eastern European region, which has a socialist historical experience, can find common resources in international dialogues to explicitly address the problem of institutional de-linking and the harmful or destructive logic of modernity. For now, in Eastern Europe, we have to deal with an internationalisation of issues but not an internationalisation of solutions. Eastern European countries are confronted with similar problems generated by the transition to capitalism and Westernisation, by states that are turning away from their citizens and towards capital and the great powers, and these problems are addressed on a national or state level generating internal conflicts. De-linking on a regional level from the mechanisms of dependency may become a vital issue for the future of the Eastern European Left.

Samir Amin (photo: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia Commons)

Part of this large Eastern European region is also part of the EU. What might de-linking look like through concrete measures and policies in this region that starts in Poland and ends with Romania and Bulgaria?

In reality, there is no major institution that would represent the interests of the region. Inter-state alliances and international policies seem to be shaped inside large Western organisations, such as NATO. Meanwhile, despite the integrations and constraints of the post-socialist transition, the region transcends all major Western and Eastern organisations including the EU, NATO, and on the other side, Russia. As a result, without a form of self-representation it is becoming the place which internalises all the substantial contradictions between these two poles of power. A necessary step would be an East-East regional institutional collaboration in Southeastern Europe. Multiple cultural initiatives already do this on an informal level, such as this one [The Barricade – editor’s note] or LeftEast – whose editors and collaborators are doing a remarkable job. The Balkan Social Forum used to be such an institution as well. There is also the Free University of Sarajevo, and many others – including the collaborative platforms of state cultural agencies and even of some banks supported by the EU. The necessity of this kind of collaboration is so strongly felt that many times it has redefined the agenda of dominant institutions. In fact, at a cultural level, we are going through a kind of mini golden age in which the best social analysis, social theatre, critical film, critical visual arts etc. are appearing in this region. However, there is nothing visibly comparable at a political level – even though both the efforts of rebuilding a European left and that of the fortification of the European right seem ever more conscious of the vital importance of Eastern Europe. It remains to be seen who will be able to listen to these new phenomena.

On a political level, there is also the issue of relations with the EU and rethinking the meaning of Europe. This is not about the rejection of the EU as such, but the de-linking from Westernism and the awareness that the EU, in its current form, is a right-wing political project. It is necessary to redefine Europe through the eyes of Southeastern Europe and its relevant experiences. It is not the region that has to develop according to the Western models, into which it should ‘integrate’, but Europe that has to change, de-linking itself from a racist, mono-national Europe as a privileged place that gives birth to fascisms, towards a more democratic, non-militarist Europe that proposes a better social redistribution, reducing inequalities and mediating peace.

Social-democratic parties from Romania and Bulgaria show conservative tendencies and claim to be open to the Visegrad Group. This, on the one hand, looks like the regionalisation of Eastern Europe. On the other hand, these social-democratic parties are aligning themselves with conservative forces. What political and social forces do you expect to develop such a project? Can they be seen on the horizon?

Analyses have been written by my colleagues – such as Florin Poenaru – about the social democrats who are now in power in Romania, which suggest that the party has a neoliberal program, with concessions to the precarious classes, however more so to their own internal elites. I have referred to this party as the ‘nominal left’. It has a certain leftist orientation, but a superficial one. Throughout the history of transition, it applied a multitude of right-wing policies. We cannot really put our hopes in it, as long as it does not undergo a real process of transformation – as long as it does not actually listen to its voters and the silent majority, impoverished and hopeless. The return to sovereignty and ethno-nationalism which we are witnessing today throughout the whole region, is equally superficial, being counterbalanced in all cases by an autocratic strengthening of particular groups or local elites. It is a nominal regionalism, not a real one. What, however, would a generalisation of popular sovereignty be like? – That is to say, to start from the recognition of the impoverishment of the majority of the population in parallel with the construction of monopolies and quasi-monopolies in the last almost three decades of capitalist transition? A real change of direction, based on local historical experience is, in fact, a reasonable proposition.

At the same time, in the case of Romania, let us note that all the right-wing parties in power in the history of transition, applying right-wing policies which defined the transition (privatisations, retrocessions, indebtedness, minimal state, flat tax etc.) have disappeared. They were somehow punished by the people, the majority of whom, although they voted for the nominal left, went into a process of withdrawing from the public sphere for a while. In a context in which there is a nominal left in power with very diluted ideologies – and in a semi-periphery almost everyone with a university education believes themselves to be in the middle classes – the middle classes that have access to the public sphere wish for the reconstruction of the right. They are, however, frustrated by a major internal contradiction: some of them are motivated by an image of Western utopia, of technocrats who will re-civilise the country (a government for the middle classes), meanwhile others have a populist vision of a ‘return’ to the ‘traditional family’ and ‘true values’ – which never existed, being a pure invention of modernity. While the nominal left attempts to navigate somehow over the troubled waters of new critical orientations through the dilution of the ideological message (and strengthening state control), the right is trying to affirm itself through a constituent battle. After the global capitalist crisis of 2008 the right was forced to borrow from the traditional repertoire of the left. However, this latter orientation already articulates a radical change of direction of the transition, but not one that is under a good omen. As a result, the left – formal and informal – is in need of more honesty and a recomposition effort. Otherwise it won’t be on board the train [of history]. It is clear that after almost three decades of transition there is a generational transfer of historical awareness, a series of disenchantments, including the ‘European dream’ but also with capitalism – at least in the sense that it was sold in the 1990s.

A widespread consensus is developing that ‘the direction must be changed’, however, the territory upon which the disenchantments are falling is not at all that of certainty, of an independent left whose time to say ‘I told you so’ has come. On the contrary, it is precisely the territory of future political disputes. In politics, it does not matter who ‘was’ right.

Samir Amin wrote that socialism means new relationships in society. He stressed that the solutions must be informal. In your opinion, what initiatives, projects, activities could contribute to the de-linking from transition and change, again focusing on the territory between Poland and Romania-Bulgaria?

I believe that everyone who speaks here has one or more answers to this question. Samir Amin considered inter-human relationships to be the central issue of socialism, more so than the fight against private property – even though he always highlighted the necessity to combat capitalist monopolies. We could start with deindustrialisation. The transition destroyed the industrial base in all the countries of the former socialist bloc, in order to reconnect these countries to the capitalist flux – be it Western corporations or new owners of the local oligarchy. As a result, cities and entire regions became so-called ‘victims of transition’. People lost their jobs, their way of life en masse, and became, eventually, the supply of the migrant workforce in the West. Meanwhile, some local communities found ways to reinvent themselves – however, in precisely this context we can concretely understand both the necessity of community autonomy and the dimensions necessary for state intervention. I just saw a documentary film at the Telciu Summer School about the closure of the coal mine in the town of Petrila in the Jiu Valley, which generated a wave of local activism. The emphasis on understanding rurality and the local circuit of values, giving attention to small Eastern European cities and former industrial areas, and in large cities to worker’s districts, could contribute to the work which needs to be done for social recomposition in a context which is increasingly characterised by individualism, division, and the increase of social differences. The realistic starting points do not necessarily have to be models of success but acceptances of vulnerability.

There are different forms of solidarity activities in Western Europe and the world – from diverse cooperatives (for example in the Basque Country and Catalonia) to participative citizenship in municipal budget decisions (in Porto Alegre). Is the level of consciousness of our region high enough to apply such economic and democratic innovations?

The tendency to develop political thinking through taking over existing models and applying them locally is something that has to be criticised. However, it is true that it is necessary to build and popularise a comparative repertoire, a general context of the existent non-capitalist or solidarity economic ideas and organisational models, against a framework that claims that ‘the market’ and capitalism alone are the unique foundations of reality. The primary source that has a chance to win, the one that drives an active critical consciousness, is local history. Eastern Europe has many examples of participative budgeting both on informal and formal levels. For instance, in socialism there were block tenant associations, or in former socialist enterprises there was the way in which people put money together in the collective, thus forming citizen banks based on solidarity and mutual trust. Or, during the transition, we had the alternative economic system of money exchange and transfer of migrant bus circuits. Formally we can look at the history of the coming and going of relations between central planning and local administration, at different administrative levels (Norbert Petrovici has done this recently); or at the history of craft cooperatives. Sociology colleagues or those who study economic history know much more than I do about this history of socialist experience, which often had unexpected continuities in the transition. A systematic encouragement of subsistence economies seems to me more important than the fight against corruption.

Victoria Stoiciu, the programme director of Friedrich Ebert Foundation Romania, closed the Summer School at Telciu with her presentation about ”The Heroes of Capitalist Labour” campaign, which tells storie of abuse in the workplace. The Barricade is a media partner of the campaign (photo: The Barricade)

We are in Telciu, and I recall that in your presentation you showed a digital hemisphere centred on Telciu. You said that Telciu is the centre of the world. That is, the Telciu Summer School has a kind of message for the whole world. This can be felt in the diversity of the topics related to critical thinking, in the unexpectedly high number of international participants, and so forth. What is the message of the Telciu Summer School?

The Telciu Sumer School was conceived following the Telciu Summer Conferences initiated by Valer Cosma. Together with Manuela Boatcă, and Madina Tlostanova from the second year, we had from the beginning an anchor point and a definite relation to decolonial thinking, where the emphasis is placed on local histories resituated in the foreground of the history of modernity – concrete histories that highlight ways of economic and societal organisation different from colonial and capitalist ones. Local initiative and decolonial thinking made the Telciu Summer School possible, however, it has taken on a life of its own. We are trying to find ways of de-linking or overturning the power relations with the centres of power and accumulation (Western or metropolitan ones), and ways to value the histories of those on the margins – the exploited ones and those on the margins of geographies. Telciu – a rural locality – is a place where we bring together such histories, trying such a ‘centralisation’ or even, ideally, a democratic communisation. Being a ‘school’ such overturnings seem to take place, obviously, on an ideological or pedagogical level. However Valer Cosma anchored the school from the very beginning in real relations with the formal state power institutions from the village such as the mayor’s office, and the informal power structures such as the bar. Thus participants understood from the very beginning that a decisive part of the work done at Telciu is outside of conferences, in community workshops and in the generous sharing of the critical projects accomplished throughout the year that just passed. In three years, the organising committee of the school has also grown significantly, taking on a life of its own. These different parts of the school have real social consequences, which we can only understand collectively. Therefore, Telciu is not only a place that’s good to visit or exhibit. Here critical theory and social history are not distributed and centralised in the same way as in Historical Materialism, in London, Bucharest, or Cluj. The critical questions that are being asked in London, Bucharest and Cluj have the opportunity to enter into a transformative process in Telciu. Not everyone, however, is willing to become vulnerable again, to open up, preferring to treat Telciu as only a new shop window, instead of a place of inspiration, learning, and transformation. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done. However, Telciu remains a place where we can oversee alternative options, we can try decolonial practices, sensitivise ourselves, and develop capacities of resistance and communisation. Telciu gives us the chance to reduce the dimensions of Moloch, to see our own vulnerabilities through critical realism, but also to see the potential of the social histories which we learn and bring together here.

You also said, as far as I understand, that Eastern Europe should not be ashamed of socialism. This should not be a burden that has to be dumped or cleaned up somehow. In your opinion could the socialist past be an advantage or a disadvantage for our region? To what extent have the things of value been kept and to what extent is it possible to recover the socialist heritage in its various dimensions?

This is extremely important. Unfortunately, the logic of transition has been fixated on the total destruction of the heritage of the past. Anticommunism was the dominant logic of the transition, which encompassed the attempt to rewrite the past, through which socialism becomes a wrong turn and its experience or its civilisation is envisioned as a homogeneous totality, a ‘bankruptcy’. Unfortunately, many comrades at international levels have accepted the effects of anti-communism, ceasing to consider Eastern Europe as a point of reference. The socialist past, however, is a recent past with an internal dynamic, with successes, failures and its own history of differentiation and de-linking from the capitalist world. Even if its products have been to a large extent destroyed, there remains a trace of the past in the present wherever we look – in cities and villages, a large part of the infrastructure, social networks, and even contemporary cultural references. Moreover, on a subjective level, there remains the attitude of Eastern Europeans, which takes on certain differences distinct from Western Europe and other regions. The socialist past has produced within Eastern European societies the idea of taking a different historical road from that of Western Europe. This difference is felt intuitively in dialogues between Westerners and ourselves, but it is something that had an institutional dimension on an international level. The relations between countries from the socialist bloc in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the unaligned movement remain relevant in this respect.

Similarly, the internal life of socialism has seen radical changes. There have been changes in the way the future of communism, economic organisation, redistribution, the role of ecology, the fight against inequalities, even the concept of class were conceived. The former socialist countries do not have to start from zero because their recent histories offer them a resource for critical thinking and practical mobilisation. Numerous internal debates in the former socialist bloc, especially from the ‘70s, remain relevant although they have been ignored in the history of transition.

The world today produces a particular kind of market or capitalist spirituality. There are many forms of thinking and institutions – for example, the marketing networks use motivational techniques to encourage people to sell more. There are conferences with marketing and business gurus who are treated there like some kind of saints whose messages need to be internalised. Often these messages are clichéd – we should leave our comfort zones; we should think positively. In any case, there exists this form of food for thought which promotes the values of the market and of capitalism. Where is socialism in this fight for souls? Is there a spirituality of the left?

Here we can clearly see the particularities of our area and certain prejudices that have been adopted even by critical intellectuals. In Latin America, liberation theology is deeply connected with the left movements. In Eastern Europe, religion has been a territory traditionally won by the right and by ethno-nationalism, especially in the ‘30s. It is a similar situation with ‘nationalism’ – in Central and Southern America this has been coherently articulated with left-wing messages (successfully redefining the nation state as a plurinational state), while in our area nationalism has generally fallen on right-wing ground, tied to ethno-nationalist and purist messages. However, this does not mean that spirituality and sovereignty are not relevant fields for critical or left-wing political thinking. Vasile Ernu, for instance, showed the capacity of Protestant churches to host and develop certain types of resistance and social solidarity. And if we observe the explosion of religiosity after 1989 and the increase in the number of churches (more than the number of schools) these phenomena are the expression of social needs, sufferings, and hopes. If ‘socialism’ removes spirituality from the discussion, it risks losing touch with these social requirements and even the possibility of popular dialogue.

I understand, but you are referring to the social expression of people’s needs. But in the sense of food for individual thought, in what sense can the leftist books, which we see in this room for sale, contribute to a change in life? Isn’t this the problem of the left – that it deals too much with superstructure, that it sees life from the sky? And isn’t there a need for a kind of thinking that connects the sky and the earth, a living form of thinking, which is not only limited to books and online articles?

Those who work at the publishing houses that are present here at the Telciu Summer School, – IDEA Publishing House, Tact Publishing House, Pagini Libere Publishing House – all of us are intellectuals. There will always be the objection that we bring to the table speech that is too elevated and concepts that are too complex, that fail to break the class differences and reach the people. It is a legitimate, but inaccurate reproach. It expresses a universalist vision of intellectual work. Intellectual work, like other types of work, is caught in its social and technical context. A book is not a Bible, but a means that opens to those who can read and who somehow come to the book. The critical thinking book needs spaces like Telciu, where discussions about books are accompanied or followed by formal and informal reflections, workshops, and the development of other cultural projects that reach other social groups and categories. More than a single universal discourse to catch them all, I think we need to multiply these social mediations.

Regarding the living spirituality of the left, I believe that the most different traditions of the left are anchored and motivated by the vision of a dynamic reality, by the perception that we do not live in a given, fixed, unchangeable reality, but in a dynamic reality that has passed through and is still going through radical transformation. If dominant ideologies attempt to place us in a tenuous and controlled reality – like that of a sterile lab, a television studio, or a corporate office, creative resistances always operate in dense spaces, in grey areas where things are not always what they seem to be, precisely because they can open up to transformation.

I would like to conclude this interview by returning to Samir Amin, but looking to the future. Together with Ignacio Ramonet from the Monde Diplomatique, Amin was one of the founders of the World Social Forum. What comes after these people? To what extent will the younger generations who come after them succeed not only in replacing them but also in surpassing them?

After them comes their memory, if we consciously keep it active and critical. We have tried both here and at the Middelburg Summer School, organised by Rolando Vázquez and Walter Mignolo, to commemorate those who are no longer among us, but from whom we have learned. The World Social Forum is the counterhegemonic political expression of the hopes of the most diverse democratic movements of solidarity and global justice of the difficult era after the fall of the socialist bloc, characterised by strong reactionary, pro-capitalist, extractivist and militaristic tendencies. It is an attempt to repoliticise civil societies through the decisive contribution of the Global South – a transformation inclusively regarding the major development organisations, which are also undergoing a restructuring process in today’s global transition. The next generation may face, if we are to listen to the elders of the Forum, the bifurcation of the capitalist world, in which it will take either a more democratic and ecological path or an even more violent and unequal path than the one of the past hundred years.

I wonder: If the elderly were a source of inspiration and hope for change, to what extent can the young people who come after the elderly also be a source of inspiration and hope …?

In order not to wait for the moment of extinction, it is vital to exhibit our own histories. In Eastern Europe, we have had an explosion of independent scenes in visual art, sociology, philosophy, social theatre. We need trans-peripheral comparisons, to tell us about the little successes and bring them together at a transnational table. These small histories are not revolutions, but who can judge their collective potential?

Translation from Romanian: Ágota Ábrán

Vladimir Mitev is a Bulgarian-Romanian journalist based in Rousse, a town on the very border between the two countries. He is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian website BARICADA Romania, which initially started as a Romanian language version of the Bulgarian portal by the same name. He focuses on international politics. He has worked for the Bulgarian weekly “Tema” until its closure in 2015. He founded the bilingual Romanian-Bulgarian blog ”The Bridge of Friendship”. His articles and translations have been published by the BGNES agency, the magazines of A-specto and Economy, the blog of ”Solidary Bulgaria” and others. He has published also in the Romanian magazines of Decât o Revista și Q Magazine, in the Romanian cultural magazines of Vatra and Poesis, and in the Romanian left-wing portal Critic Atac.

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