Class Politics and Romania’s “White Revolution”

The color white embodied exclusionary middle-class aspirations to moral governance and virtuous citizenship.

Romania’s “White Revolution” (January–­­February 2017), the most recent episode of East European color-branded uprisings, earned its nickname on the night of February 6, when a sea ­of smartphone flashlights lit up Bucharest’s Victoriei Square, the seat of the government. This performance, turned viral at home and abroad, symbolized opposition to new legislation, adopted at nighttime, that would have helped politicians, the leader of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) included, escape corruption charges. The government had devised the bill weeks into its mandate, banking the passage of the controversial measure on popular support it had recently gained by raising pensions and the minimum wage. However, the amnesty for the corrupt and the boost to public spending outraged many urban professionals, who found these actions manipulative and cynical. They took to the streets nationwide to shine a light, as it were, on politicians’ shady actions. Thus, the branding of these protests as “white” provided an aesthetic expression of the aspirations, and inherent social exclusions, of postsocialist middle-class politics.

In The Fame of Gawa (1986), Nancy Munn showed how sensuous qualities such as colors or textures can become signs that inform moral judgments and social distinctions. To gain significance, qualities must bear semblance to the meanings or sentiments they evoke, and manifest in multiple realms. Romanian dictionaries tellingly define ‘white’ through embodiments (‘color of snow and milk’), bundles of qualities (‘colorless,’ ‘transparent,’ and ‘luminous’), and moral features (‘pure’ and ‘honest’). Participants in the “White Revolution” mined connotations that render white prominent in wedding rituals, toothpaste advertisements, and anticorruption campaigns in their acts of “aesthetic ordering” (Winegar 2016). By embracing the moral purity of whiteness, protestors sought to ‘cleanse’ politics and society of corruption, contrasting the virtuous citizenship they claimed for their movement with the moral taintedness they ascribed to politicians and their impoverished supporters.

Protestors in Bucharest’s Victoriei Square held cardboard effigies of PSD leaders dressed in prison uniform. Adi Bulboacă

Many Romanians blame corruption for social ills ranging from poverty and unemployment to substandard hospitals and underdeveloped highways. ‘White,’ through its associations with purity and brightness, captured longings for transparency and rule of law. Illustrative of this were protest signs reading “We see you!” that critiqued the adoption of the bill in question under the cover of darkness and appealed to civic vigilance. Support for legal institutions was also expressed through collaboration with law enforcement. Unlike in many recent anti-government protests, the ‘white’ revolutionaries explicitly aligned themselves with the police, by threatening politicians with the chant “may the National Anti-Corruption Directorate take you,” and by physically separating themselves from rowdy football hooligans, thus making the presumed infiltrators visible for apprehension.

The whiteness of good decorum also worked as representation of other middle class values such as education, rationality, and apolitical orientation, and as exhortation for corresponding standards in governance. “Ideology makes way for ethics,” wrote one journalist. Ethics emerges here as non-political: colorless. This ideal found expression in the preceding Dacian Cioloș Cabinet (2015–2017) of technocrats who promised transparency after being brought to power by public protests blaming bureaucratic corruption for the deadly Colectiv nightclub fire. “Those technocrats with no political color managed to do mind-blowing things,” said Marius, who works in IT. For Marius and his peers, the incumbent government was a step backward from the one prior, catering to the “boorish” and “unmeritocratic”: the workers, the peasants, and the elderly. “Pensioners and tractor drivers are at the helm again,” complained Călin, an advertiser.

Middle class virtuousness, grounded in an ethics of personal responsibility, manifested not only through calls to civic engagement and support for technocratic anti-politics, but also through demands for moral and physical cleanliness. An example of such aesthetic ordering, similar to the expelling of hooligans from the crowd, was the ritual of cleaning the protest venues every night, a strategy employed to secure the goodwill of police and to symbolize protesters’ upstanding nature. In a similar register of cleanliness, Cristian, a corporate middle manager, drew a direct connection between sharp physical appearance and trustworthiness. He contrasted the good looks of the technocratic prime-minister with those of the “disgusting” social-democrats he described as “ugly, foul smelling, [with] dirt under their fingernails.” Echoing this, protestors carried signs satirizing the brown, thus not perfectly white, dentition of PSD’s leader, Liviu Dragnea, as sign of moral rottenness and unculturedness. This trope of derision, rooted by the linking of (perceived) lack of self-care to moral decay, was not limited to politicians suspected of malfeasance, but was also employed to claim moral superiority over the pensioners and state employees who rallied to support the PSD government. Right-wing philosopher Gabriel Liiceanu, for instance, condemned the immorality of what he called “the Romania of toothless mouths,” comparing government supporters to the grotesque, dark antichrists in Hieronymous Bosch’s painting Christ Carrying the Cross.

For the demonstrators, the incumbent government was a step backward from the one prior, catering to the “boorish” and “unmeritocratic”: the workers, the peasants, and the elderly. “Pensioners and tractor drivers are at the helm again,” complained one urban professional.

The moral aesthetics of the protests opposed the clarity of ‘whiteness’ to the shady immorality of the ‘grey’ informal economy. As Krisztina Fehérváry argued in Politics in Color and Concrete (2013), in postsocialist settings greyness carries a heavy political load, standing for the callousness of state-socialism that provisioned low-quality goods. During the 2017 protests in Romania, greyness, or non-whiteness more generally, also came to stand for informal personalized dealings associated with the generations that lived under state-socialism. Andrei, a corporate coach, rejected as unethical the propensity of his father, a retired railroader, to engage in bribery. “He used to say ‘everybody must eat’, but I don’t want such social relations.”

Another scheme of symbolic contrast pitted ‘white’ against the heraldic red of PSD, illustrated by crowds chanting “PSD, the red plague,” an old anticommunist epithet. Whereas the linking of whiteness and middle-class protestors evoked modernity, rationality, and Western democracy, redness became associated with old age, with the danger of totalitarianism (through placards depicting Liviu Dragnea as reincarnation of Nicolae Ceaușescu), and, given red’s association with emotion, with the purportedly simple-minded viscerality that rendered government supporters easy to manipulate and buy off. The last is exemplified by how demonstrators contrasted the civility of their own White Revolution with the alleged crudeness of the counter-protestors whom they accuse of physically attacking dissenters.

Stencils depicting former technocratic prime-minister Dacian Cioloș on Bucharest walls. The handwriting reads, “Great man. Great character.” Adrian Deoancă

The white versus red opposition also highlights tensions between the neoliberal drive for macroeconomic development and rule of law on the one hand, and, on the other hand, many citizens’ demands to be cared for by the state—demands often dismissed by protesters as remnant of socialist mentality among those Romanians they considered insufficiently independent from state services. Unlike red, a warm color associated with urgency, white’s coolness affords associations with the detachment of economics. Protestors fetishized technocratic rationality and anticorruption, presupposing that social good hinges on clean governance and capitalist development rather than on redistributive politics — hence their condemnation of pension and wage raises as financially irresponsible politicking. For example, a journalist explicitly commended the protesters for demanding “justice, honesty and truth,” rather than hikes in wages and pensions. However, in neoliberal trickle-down economics, prosperity is promised sometime in the undetermined future. The Romanian working classes shared a dread of corruption, but were aware that the rhetoric of anticorruption and anticommunism often stifled welfare demands. “I make a bit over minimum wage after thirty years of labor. Where’s the justice in that?” bellowed Nelu, a locomotive repairman for whom the 50 USD raise in monthly wages promised by the increase in minimum wage was an urgent addition to his salary of 400 US dollars per month.

In Romania, as in other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, middle class activism hopes to forge a more democratic future through calls for transparency, legality, and virtuous citizenship. The “White Revolution” was such a potent site for the promotion of middle class notions of spotless politics and upstanding citizenship. Whiteness provided an aesthetic outlet for the moral ordering of politics and society in terms of oppositions between white and non-white, clean and unclean, law abidingness and illegality, and personal responsibility and dependency on the state. Yet, as Jennifer Carroll (2015) noted with respect to Ukraine’s Maidan, politics of virtue may stigmatize and exclude the contextually unvirtuous. While iconic of positive ideals of anticorruption, transparency, and cleanliness, whiteness reveals a form of moral intransigence that risks further alienating those whose bodies, practices, and politics are deemed non-white, and thus immoral. This is particularly risky in a country like Romania that features the highest index of inequality in the EU. With populism rising globally, stark social distinctions may forge a climate in which a reactionary demagogue could rise.   

Adrian Deoancă is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan.

Deborah Jones is contributing editor for the Soyuz Postsocialist Studies Network’s AN column.

Cite as: Deoancă, Adrian. 2017. “Class Politics and Romania’s ‘White Revolution.'” Anthropology News website, July 6, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.502

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