Interwar Romania and the Greening of the Iron Cage:
The Biopolitics of Dimitrie Gusti, Virgil Madgearu, Mihail Manoilescu, and Ştefan Zeletin
Ion Matei COSTINESCU
This study examines the reconfiguration of the colonial matrix of power along biopolitical lines in interwar Romania. I reconstruct a shifting field of human sciences and governmentality whose cognitive interest resided in identifying the proper template for national subject-making and social modernization. This undertaking was predicated on diagnosing economic, political, and cultural blockages hindering the transformation of Romanian peasants into active political subjects. Building human capacity in the full, renewable, and open-ended sense implied by the term “bios” was seen as essential to overcoming what world-systems scholars would later characterize as conditions of dependency. But the empowerment/knowledge inherent in the biopoliticization of national development was simultaneously circumscribed and enabled by its transformation into power/knowledge mechanisms. I thus show the strong linkages between economics, sociology, and biopolitical theorizing during that era. Drawing on Weberian notions of the iron cage, Foucauldian approaches, decolonial thought, and the concept of alternative modernities, I examine several important projects of national development. These are exemplified by Dimitrie Gusti, Virgil Madgearu, Mihail Manoilescu, and Ştefan Zeletin. Said projects were based on analyses that reveal how Romania’s domestic status quo, peripheral characteristics, and role in the international political economy were conceptualized at the time. Furthermore, the biopolitical visions and alternative modernity programs advanced by these thinkers were imagined as upgraded variations of the Weberian iron cage. These variants were geared towards creating subjects capable of reproducing their distinctive internal economic, social, and political logics. In this way, these competing modernity projects, which were connected with well-defined organizational actors, helped crystallize the broader interwar colonial matrix within Romania.
Keywords: interwar Romania, coloniality, biopolitics, nation-building, modernization.
The premise of the present study is that the post-World War I crises of the capitalist world system opened up spaces for the proliferation of discourses and projects of alternative modernity, each with its own set of diagnoses and prescriptions for the crises at hand. Prior to the First World War the dominant, putatively normative conceptions of modernity revolved around politically liberal understandings (Wallerstein, 2011) and what one might retroactively refer to as Weberian notions of rationalization and bureaucratization. Although Weber’s most relevant writings on these two subjects came after 1918, the earlier Weberian notion of the “iron cage” of modernity is more crucial to the present argument. This metaphor of the iron cage refers to the self-perpetuating structure of modern society, the very modernity of which can be unpacked as follows: scientific progress, instrumental rationality as a model of socio-economic action, and individual and collective disenchantment with the increasing impersonality of bureaucratic logic and modern social life (Kalberg 2001:178-182).
So powerful were the blows wrought by the mechanized horrors of the First World War and its revolutionary aftermaths to both the structure of the capitalist world system and its legitimizing myths, that the post-war political, social, and economic reconstruction of said world-system necessitated the invention of alternative models of the iron cage that would nevertheless preserve its functional benefits, structural logics, and mythical justifications. For the new multiethnic Greater Romanian state, this need was acute. The incorporation of Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Bukovina into the Old Kingdom of Wallachia and Moldova under the Paris Peace Settlement (1919-1920) engendered the possibility of irredentist conflicts with neighboring states and increased the non-Romanian population that needed to be integrated into the existing institutions of the national state from roughly 8 percent to approximately 30 percent. The most sizeable minority groups were Hungarians, Jews, Ukrainians, and Germans in that order— most of whom were better educated, tended to concentrate in urban areas, and were economically better-off than the demographically majoritarian Romanian peasants (Hitchins 1994: 290; Livezeanu 1995: 10- 11). Thus, the modernization of Romania’s predominantly agrarian economy, whose structural problems were exacerbated by war damage, was seen as imperative for the survival, advance, and prosperity of the Romanian people and state.
This is what gave renewed urgency to the quest for overcoming Romania’s condition of what would later be called “dependency” vis-à-vis the West. Since dependency relations are always enacted in economic, political, and cultural dimensions, the question of which of these three planes was dominant in the mechanisms holding the Romanian state dependent need not, for the moment, concern us. This question continues to be debated by contemporary scholars, for whom the interwar debates on national development are essential to framing their own analyses (Love 1996; Chirot, 1976; Chirot 1989; Janos, 1978; Janos, 2000; Jowitt, 1978; Boatcă 2003; Mungiu-Pippidi, 2007; Ban, 2014; Schmitter 1978). What presently matters is how interwar social theorists themselves characterized what world-systems historians subsequently defined as Romania’s semi- peripheral situation and, more importantly, how these thinkers imagined and constructed new, “upgraded” iron cages capable of overcoming mechanisms of dependency and (re)producing their own mythical justifications.
I propose that these new mythical justifications are best understood as a “greening” of the iron cage. What do I mean by greening? This is a term that carries its own implied methodology and does not refer in this analysis to environmental or ecological issues. At the most general level, I use “green” to refer to the need for a re-enchantment of the world in the wake of the Great War; a new type of secular magic that would restore a sense of “psychic wholeness” and of belonging in the world. If scientific rationalism had once seemed emancipatory, the widespread sense of alienation inherent in the modern condition of mass administration and instrumental state violence could no longer be denied (Berman 1989:16-17). The therapeutic—and in the broader Marxist sense of the term, ideological—mission of overcoming the alienation between subject and object, between self and collectivity, now fell to the social and human sciences. At a functional level, however, “green” can stand for both renewal and the biopolitical. That is to say, these new, alternative iron cages were geared towards creating political subjects capable of reproducing their distinctive political, social and economic logics. And, I stress and will subsequently show, this biopolitical turn was now rendered both reflexive and prescriptive in sociological theorizing.
The key theme of this biopolitical turn was building human capacity in the full, open-ended, and renewable sense implied by the term ‘bios’ (Righi 2011: 5-6). Thus, it is no accident that all thinkers examined here either explicitly or implicitly engaged with the Marxian notion of labor power, not least its immaterial aspects. As we shall see, this was a well-nigh unavoidable concept if their quest to change their country’s peripheral characteristics, which they themselves had identified and theorized, was to be successful. Consequently, one of the questions I investigate is the extent to which interwar biopolitical thought regarded human intelligence and creativity as productive forces that could be mobilized and set in motion for purposes of national construction. Yet, with the exception of Zeletin’s, the projects discussed here did not aim for a type of social transformation subordinated to the needs of capitalist development. Hence, these interwar initiatives are also germane to contemporary arguments that in modernity work constitute its own form of power. In this view, work is a mode of organizing society in a way that cultivates and regulates life’s productive potential so as to “extract a surplus of power from living beings” (Lazaratto 2002: 102-103; Just 2016).
The greening of the iron cage is most clearly exemplified in the alternative modernity project of the Bucharest Sociological School, of which Dimitrie Gusti (1880–1955) was the principal founder. Its vision of a quintessentially “Romanian,” rural modernity was predicated on the literal construction of rational citizen-peasants capable of transforming themselves and being transformed from passive repositories of social tradition into active agents of socio-economic modernization and bearers of nationhood. Crucial to this undertaking was diagnosing the economic, political, and cultural blockages hindering their transformation into active political subjects. In this way, strong linkages between economics, sociology, and biopolitical theorizing were articulated during that era. In the process of forging such connections, the Gustian School helped define a shifting biopolitical field of human sciences and governmentality whose cognitive interests resided precisely in defining the proper template for national subject-making (Costinescu 2014:15).
I will reconstruct the main features of this field by focusing on the explicit sociological groundings of the principal interwar national development projects, each with its peculiar biopolitical vision of an alternative Romanian modernity. The creation of a “new man” was a motif that permeated the entire interwar Romanian ideological spectrum, and this tropology typically denoted a “he.” However, the gender dimension of the problem is not part of the present inquiry. Rather, I attempt to bring forth, compare, and confront the biopolitical premises underlying the sociological systems of Dimitrie Gusti, Virgil Madgearu (1887 –1940), Mihail Manoilescu (1891– 1950), and Ştefan Zeletin (1882–1934). All four thinkers were intellectual and ideological rivals- collaborators, while their visions of modernity were connected to well-defined organizational actors and/or social movements. My analysis foregrounds the biopolitical and internal colonial aspects of their modernizing ideologies, provides a historical contextualization of the institutional positions they spoke from, and outlines the socio-economic problems they sought to address.
Their case is of particular interest from our perspective. They have been previously analyzed from several viewpoints: as strategists of modernization, as forerunners of world-systems theory, as examples of contested national identity formation, and in terms of interwar agrarian vision of collective regeneration in East-Central Europe (Chirot 1978; Schmitter 1978; Love 1996, Verdery 1995, Trencsényi 2001; Trencsényi 2014). More pertinent to the matter at hand, Manoilescu and Madgearu have been held up as examples of how subalternized sociological knowledge can produce thinking that exists at the very borders of the colonial matrix, potentially challenging Western global designs (Boatcă 2003: 248-249). The present article does not focus on this issue of epistemic disobedience in the context of “de-linking” from the logic of coloniality (cf. Mignolo 2007). Rather, I show how the empowerment/knowledge inherent in the biopoliticization of interwar national development projects became epistemically circumscribed yet at the same time enabled by its transformation into power/knowledge. As such, I undertake a case-study of coloniality in action within the nation-state. My inquiry speaks directly to the dictum that the hidden, constitutive side of modernity is coloniality (Mignolo 2011: 2-3). Although a complete account of coloniality within interwar Romania would require a larger study that would take up the question of peasants’ reaction to these national development projects, the modalities in which social scientists intellectually reconfigured and sought to institutionalize coloniality via biopolitics are key to understanding how the transformation of the power/knowledge structure actually happened. In this overall context, it is striking that Gusti has not received any extended treatment in the English-language literature as a strategist of modernization from the perspective of world- systems analysis and/or in the context of coloniality. As we shall see, he was one of the key architects behind the biopoliticization of the interwar Romanian power/knowledge structure, expending considerable efforts to guide its institutionalization.