Behind Every Rise of Fascism Lies the Cutting of a Heating Subvention

Every year in Bucharest, when early autumn chills can first be felt, there is inevitably a discussion about the supposedly unfair heating subvention those who live in blocks served by the city’s Communist-era district heating system receive. Arguments include that this is in effect a transfer to the rich (since living in a rickety, roach-infested Commie block built in the 70’s is the pinnacle of wealth, apparently), that it is unequal since other people do not receive the subsidy, that it is in effect an electoral bribe, and so on (it does not occur to those making the argument that, even if so, it was woefully ineffective at keeping Firea in power). Note that the subsidy is delivered directly to Termoenergetica, the company operating the system – the transfer is accordingly felt by the consumer as a reduction in price rather than as an added income.

So no one mails you the money – the company actually gets it directly, no questions asked. I would actually venture to say we should have more of this rather than the current BS systems that are designed to make you humiliate yourself to prove you need and deserve any money from the government. An effective, no-questions-asked transfer is, to me, working proof that we can and should do more for people.

Most people seem to disagree with me on this one though. The discussion is awkward and stilted because the local authorities do not wish to engage (and this tradition was carried over into the new, supposedly revolutionary Nicușor Dan administration from the previous one). They do not really want utility prices to go up in areas which would affect their base (yet, apart from this heating service, prices have risen), and do not really want to open the can of worms that is overhauling municipal services in Bucharest (of the specific issues of the district heating system I have written here)

The elimination of the subvention is not yet discussed, but has been called for repeatedly on neoliberal as well as straight up chauvinist grounds (like antipathy towards people living in the capital). Any discussion about the budget also masks the fact that without the subvention, heating would be untenable to pay for by a majority of the population, as well as the fact that the money is mostly used to offset the effects of the heat losses suffered during the delivery due to the many issues plaguing the district heating system.

Another option proposed is shifting the subvention towards a progressive model, where only the poor would receive it. While in principle this is not entirely unreasonable, in practice this is in fact a first step towards abolishing it entirely. How will local government determine who can pay, and who can’t? If they go by the owner’s income, as I suspect they might, they will have to keep tabs on the real estate ownerhship situation in Bucharest, and I suspect the petty owner class won’t like that at all. It will also hit tenants especially hard, since owners are likely to have higher incomes than their tenants, and thus lose the subvention, shifting the burden to the tenant to make do. If they will go with the incomes of the people actually living there, they will first have to account for them as suggested here, and that is something that will also prove challenging both politically and on a practical level.

The argument that the people of Bucharest are rich and therefore do not need subventions is also false, because the wealthier people live in new developments or houses where the district heating system has never been extended to, and thus they do not benefit from the subvention. Any such measures will not hit them at all, but rather vulnerable people and pensioners living in old Communist-era apartment blocks, as well as precarious tenants and young families with 30-year mortgages. Is balancing the budget on their backs really such a good idea?

If you really wanted to get rid of the subvention here is what you can do. Instead of these makeshift measures, an actual plan has to be developed as to the future of the Bucharest district heating system. I would much prefer it fixed and running up to spec, but in lieu of this, an actual congruent plan of creating small, regional heating hubs would also suffice. Increasing pensions and wages in such a way as to account for increases in the cost of services (by, for example, actually calculating the daily basket, not finding excuses, scapegoats and bad faith arguments) would also be a great start. Someone will have to pay for this, sure – but it must not be the people who barely get by. It just so happens that the city in question is also one of the most productive tech- and business- hubs in Eastern Europe! The huge multinational corporations operating here must rake in massive profits – yet the terrible traffic, poor quality air, expensive standard of living, and now the costs of minimal conforts such as hot water are all borne by the people (in fact, the incredible rise in remote work, as well as the refusal of many workers to return to normal office work, is a testament to how people do not actually detest work in itself as much, but rather the whole process of going to work). It is time they stepped up and participated to the conversation – after all it is in their interest too to have a liveable city.

Meanwhile, the price hikes are becoming a problem even for the “middle class” (I am hesitant to call it that, but adapted to the local context, that is what they are closest to). Will it be enough to wake them from their consumerism-induced complacency? One can but hope, though last time that happened, these two clowns were the result, so my hopes are minuscule:

Ciolos and Barna

Ciolos and Barna, also known as Lolek and Bolek, the fearless Knights-Errant of Unpopular Progressive Liberal Technocratic Reformism (USR-PLUS), recently out of the government “by their own choice”. What can one say – no one said the politics life would be easy, certainly not easier than running a EU funds consultancy company

Alas, I thought, loving one’s chains can only go so far. But in the meantime a political crisis within the governing coalition took place, resulting in the PNL imposing increasingly authoritarian (sometimes irrationally so) anti-COVID measures. Right now it’s a mess – I have no idea about the exact rules applying currently. I don’t even know if I should go to one of my jobs in person or online, I just kind of go there and see if anyone else shows up.

This chaos led to food, fuel and services seeing price hikes, as mentioned above. Now, this is what I am getting in the mail (would have much preferred it to be the subvention, honestly):

AUR Flyer

WINTER is coming!

Even tougher restrictions will be imposed.

Those unvaccinated will become forced (sic).

Prices are rising and we will not have money to pay the bills.

SPRING has not yet come just because AUR entered parliament. [1]

You have two options:

Accept being trampled or TAKE TO THE STREETS!

Honestly I am almost impressed by the grassroots organising skills of these guys. Classical agitprop, right out of what used to be our playbook. Pity we have forgotten stuff like this. Not that it would matter, since there are no halfway-decent leftists in the parliament, let alone in government. But a grassroots call for higher wages, better conditions and a coherent COVID strategy instead of using the pandemic as an excuse to create a police state sure could be better served by a left party than the Fascists, who, once remotely around power, would use it to turn things from bad to categorically worse. Of course, they could eventually cough up some concessions for certain sections of the working class, but overall we would be in a far worse position that the already terrible one right now.

Let’s see another one:

AUR Flyer

  1. They closed our schools
  2. They will make you take the vaccine
  3. They punish you by making you take expensive COVID tests
  4. They will not let you see your family during Christmas
  5. They will have you pay bills at double price
  6. They feed you poorly with expensive foodstuffs
  7. They forbid you from leaving your house

We will overthrow the Iohannis-Citu government!

60% of these (4/7, the highlighted ones) are economic and educational concerns. The others are calls to emotions (fear, with the vaccines and the lockdowns and punishment) and cultural (the one about Christmas). Now I don’t know about others, but I feel these should be the strong suite of the left – addressing economic, healthcare, educational concerns. If the right can accrue that discussion, and bring it in a subordinate sphere to culture and identity – then they will always win. These are the concerns the left has unique opportunities to address – by appeal to common sense observations of the world and through political-economic theory.

Everybody sees that something is profoundly wrong with the world – if AUR’s conspiratorial explanations are all the people hear, they will appeal to Occam’s razor and consider it a valid counter-narrative to the mainstream discourse that simply says that things happen here and there for no real reason whatsoever.

Mainstream journalist Slavoj Zizek telling the unsuspecting audience a profoundly ideological spin on the headlines of the day, circa 2016

AUR tells a powerful (if somewhat kitsch and melodramatic) story, with thousand-year histories, occult forces at war, titanic heroes battling evil villains, and an opportunity to regain dignity as a Romanian after decades of humiliation. It is mostly mythology, but an appealing one at a sentimental level.

What does the left offer? If PSD is the left, then they offer a watered-down version of the same (after all, AUR did not come out of nothing), but without any credibility.

But there is so much more on offer from the left. A story, equally compelling, though less emotional, about how the world works and how we could make it work differently, together. The hard work of going to the people and challenging the narrative lies ahead.

At the same time there is no good outcome for us in this situation. The vote of no confidence against the current government, set to take place sometime next week, and whose outcome the protest is supposed to be organised to influence, will only ever advantage AUR, and totally discredit all other parties. There is no good choice here – an incompetent, authoritarian neoliberal PM that has totally lost control of the situation on one hand, and all other parties playing into the hands of AUR, on the other. The best outcome is the fall of Citu and the PSD somehow forming a government without AUR – although how this could happen I am not sure. More likely is that the PSD forms a coalition with AUR – together they would have enough seats to form a slim majority – this would be horrifying indeed in the short term, but would probably ultimately lead to the sizzling out of the danger of AUR, because with such a move it will discredit itself to much of its base (one of their slogans – adopted from the TFLs chanting in favour of USR-PLUS – was the epithet The Red Plague for the PSD, just to get a feel as to what the relationship between the parties was at the rhetorical level). I see no way for the UDMR (the Hungarian minority’s party) to form any coalitions with AUR, since some of their political actions were aimed clearly at attacking this minority, and the anti-Hungarian sentiment is strong within the middle-and-lower echelons of the party (the leadership was careful not to make this very explicit, but how they feel is also transparent enough).

So I am afraid it is far too late for the 2nd of October. But it is a work that must be done, lest we end up in an authoritarian hellhole, a country-sized work camp run by the tenets of Fascism’s indolent Balkan cousin.

References

  1. An attempt at wit. The saying is Cu o floare nu se face primăvară, “Spring has not yet come just because of one flower” (literally “With one flower it does not turn (to) spring”)