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Glamour Gulag (about a book by Vasile Ernu)

April 21, 2010

Claudia Ciobanu

“The Last Heretics of the Empire” is a good criticism of totalitarian systems, from our communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, to capitalism; drawing parallels between these two is still uncomfortable for an Eastern European audience, yet the rising popularity of the writer, Vasile Ernu (born in the Soviet Union but having studied and working in Romania), is a sign that perhaps we are ready to become more analytical.

“The Last Heretics of the Empire” is a book about pretty much everything, but a core theme is the struggle to remain critical towards all predominant political and economic systems. It’s written as an exchange of letters between two friends, one of them an anarchist who has once plotted to kill Stalin. Yet the two friends conclude that they are “Stalinist”, because they still (emotionally, instinctually) believe that language and a critical discourse can change the world by punishing the regime in power (this is a “Stalinist” attitude, according to the author, because it is valid in a system run by the political, as was communism, not one run by the economic, as is capitalism; if in the former language is crucial, in the latter, language is meaningless, the only language being money, and criticism through language and discourse cannot have an impact).

Now we live in Glamour Gulag, writes Ernu. What is this Glamour Gulag? Economic totalitarianism, a space of material well-being but deprived of freedom. A mode in which time and space have been compressed, leading to a loss of the sense of history. “The historical man, like the geographical man, comes from somewhere and is going somewhere else, and divides the space in which he moves into clear measurement units. But lately we are suffering from severe memory loss, from a historical Alzheimer, as we not only lose the memory of the past, but also that of the future. History finishes before it even begins.” It’s a world where no one can be a hero, no one can build a pyramid if they want to, because one no longer has the freedom to make up their own destiny, being restrained by the economic system, by the bureaucracy associated with it, by the technicalities that determine every aspect of life.

Advanced capitalism is a time for cocaine, the two friends say, a fast drug, taken individually, that helps to escape. Communism, the building of it, and early, industrial capitalism (both belonging to modernity) were times for alcohol, which needs time to have an effect, requires socialization and has the effect of getting one in touch with one’s deeper self, as opposed to escaping from it. And the transition from communism to capitalism is parallel to a hangover (another good metaphor, to be put together with Klein’s shock therapy).

It’s a world run by and made up of managers. “The manager is not a specialist in anything. He is, rather, a specialist in nothing. He does not produce anything in classical terms and, in order to stimulate production nevertheless, he uses a simple trick, he alters the meaning of work. A fundamental mutation takes place, a big lie takes over: the manager does not produce things, but relations.” In this world, people are no longer creators, but intermediaries in a world devoid of classical products, a world in constant movement, a world of total communication, of everything with everyone.

It’s a world where the political at the grassroots level, politics in the city, has disappeared, and through this disappearance of the political, a totalitarian system is possible (this is what allows Ernu to call the contemporary world Glamour Gulag; he argues the same withdrawal of the political from the citizen sphere took place under communism, allowing the enforcing of the repressive, albeit Political, regime; now, the withdrawal of the political from everyday life allows the enforcing of economic totalitarianism). It’s a world, like before, that is completely artificial, again leading to the stifling of any resistance: if, during communism, the artificiality was one of hyper-political symbols, of propaganda, constructed by politruks and their slave intellectuals, now the artificiality is that of money, stock markets, economic symbols, maintained by managers and PR agents. In both, the people are powerless.

One means to still engage in a dialogue with the power today is through terrorist acts (and the degree of violence of the terrorist acts stems from the inequality between the senders of the message and their audience, the Western world—the bigger the inequality, the more radical means are needed to make sure one is heard). “Terrorism is a message and, at the same time, a criticism, a radical dialogue with our world today. Terrorists understand very well that everything today functions according to an economic logic, hence the only question they pose is the one which is fundamental to the capitalist system: “your money or your life?” Terrorists face a simple dilemma as regards their rapport with the Western world: they either have to accept its conditions and engage in market relations with the West, or they can choose force and violence and thus choose “life and death” over money. And the powerful are no less violent than the weak, they simply have stronger self-legitimating mechanisms.”

For the rest of us, with such a pervasive dominant system, the struggle has to take place inside the individual first of all. “The only way to react is to become partisans. But, as the battle is taking place in one’s own intimacy, it is very tough to become a partisan of your own being: not to trust anything, to doubt everything, to finally fight with yourself because you no longer know what is true and what is false in your own memory, in your own feelings, in your own being.” Intellectuals are no good, because they take the soft position of following the power and strengthening it, plus their product, language, is neutralized, it’s just a merchandize like all others (Ernu takes a direct stab at Romanian intellectuals, always softies, not real dissidents under communism, and insisting on anti-communism after the regime change, merely because that position would pay off, and would involve no risks whatsoever—to assume anti-communism when there is no threat derived from such a position is worthless, has no critical value). Ernu gives a pretty bleak account of how freedom can still be achieved, but there is a sense in all the book,  that this is still possible, through the kind of partisanship described above and through this consistently heretic attitude, that of criticizing everything. Resonant of this description of Chomsky: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/04/19-3

Perhaps Ernu doesn’t say new things. Not about capitalism for sure. But even the criticism of capitalism is refreshing in Eastern Europe. And, surely, some of the parallels he draws between communism and capitalism are important. His previous book, “Born in the USSR” is already being translated in some foreign languages, so perhaps the same will happen with this one. Nevertheless, it’s a book more important to exist in Eastern Europe, where these questions are new, where his bringing together of capitalism and communism is still shocking.

 

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One comment

  1. Powerful Claudia,
    perhaps you should recommend it for translation to a western publisher yourself. For anyone who would like a similar theoretical comparison of communism and capitalism (somewhat more based on the history of ideas field) from the Occident this time try John Gray’s ‘Black Mass’ and ‘Heresies’ books.



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