February in Romania has brought 27 consecutive days of protests against the current government, at a scale unmatched since the Revolution in 1989. In a record day, more than 600,000 people gathered in the capital’s Victory Square and around the country to overturn a decision by the current ruling party to decriminalize some acts of corruption and abuse of office. This decision was especially self-serving given the high number of party members already serving suspended sentences for similar graft offenses. News outlets around the world have covered the events using flattering words, describing the peaceful riots as a “poetry of international resistance” and a “massive political awakening.”
The resilience—and moderate success—of protesters, in spite of the government digging its heels in and the temperatures dropping, has been undeniably impressive, and has demonstrated an energetic interest in pursuing justice, which, rightly employed, could become the driver of a much needed change in Romanian politics.
Yet at the same time, amongst the shouting against totalitarian measures aimed at changing the penal and civil code, other voices emerged as well. Equally numerous, and sometimes belonging to the same people, they call for stronger ‘democratic’ processes and offer public displays of affection for the European Union. Unsurprisingly, there have also been no mass protests against another fairly recent economic policy which forces supermarkets to ensure at least 51% of their grocery offers are of Romanian provenance. In this regard, many protesters might decry the ‘thieving multinational corporations’, and ask for a government crackdown on tax evasions, in order to provide for socialized healthcare and education.
As much as one agrees with the initial outrage or admires the revolutionary spirit of Romania’s youth, we are inevitably faced with the realization that—as is often the case in modern day revolutions—the message from protesters has hardly been one of true liberty. Rather, these social uprisings eventually coalesce into a murky “anti” movement, unsupported by principles and looking to replace a present evil with another, perhaps less evident but equally harmful.
All this was reminiscent of Mises’s analysis of the ‘sham anticommunist front’ in The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality:
What these people… are aiming at is communism without those inherent and necessary features of communism which are still unpalatable... They think that they have proved their case by employing such aliases for socialism as planning or the welfare state. They pretend to reject the revolutionary and dictatorial aspirations of the "Reds" and at the same time they praise Karl Marx… as the eminent benefactor and liberator of mankind.
They want to make us believe that untotalitarian totalitarianism, a kind of a triangular square, is the patent medicine for all ills. […] In short: they pretend to fight communism in trying to convert people to the ideas of the Communist Manifesto.
The most worrying aspect is that the overwhelming majority of people are unaware that the ‘overhauling change’ they proclaim will amount only to a slight shift in the system that oppresses them and which they wish to fight. Others, even close friends for whose principled stance I can vouch, have found themselves face to face with political compromise, asking whether it is not better to trade a return towards the policies of the USSR for the more benign EU, or the welfare state for the respect for the rule of law.
The sad lesson to learn here is that the state eventually gorges on every choice you have: from prices and products in the market, to education and jobs, and finally even to the things you are able to protest against or dream about changing. In times such as these, it may be difficult to know what one needs to fight for. However, Mises’s motto—Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it—remains the best thing to uphold.
Dr. Carmen Dorobăț is assistant professor in International Business at Coventry University.