Ion Matei Costinescu
sursa online: H-Romania
Limitele meritocraţiei într-o societate agrară: Şomaj intelectual şi radicalizare politică a tineretului în Romȃnia interbelică (The limits of meritocracy in an agrarian society: Intellectual unemployment and political radicalization of youth in interwar Romania) is a timely and well-researched investigation into the social history of the interwar period. The study contributes a “bottom-up” perspective to a number of important issues that, hitherto, the historiography produced within Romania has treated primarily within the explanatory frameworks of political and intellectual history. Drawing on a variety of institutional archives, such as the Royal Cultural Foundations and the Ministry of Public Instruction fonds, a wealth of social and economic statistics, and period publications, Dragoş Sdrobiş argues that the field of education drew together and focalized the multiple, interrelated crises of interwar Romanian society. Accordingly, the book is organized into three major sections: “Intellectual models and intellectual labor in Romanian modernity,” “Higher education in interwar Romania: University overcrowding, the intellectual proletariat, and intellectual unemployment,” and “The village and university students in interwar Romania.” These sections illustrate the limits of meritocracy—understood here as both social practice and modernizing ideal—in a variety of social-educational fields regarded by interwar intellectuals and state makers as privileged domains for enacting policies of nation building and social modernization.
The analytical common denominator of Sdrobiş’s inquiries into these manifold social-educational contexts and their close relations with political and intellectual issues is the interwar quest for viable models of national identity and national integration. The author shows how this broader societal pursuit led to the ascent of nationalism in the universities and contributed to the right-wing radicalization of university youth. Importantly, the author sets these developments against the backdrop of an underdeveloped socioeconomic structure difficult to remodel and incapable of sustaining the rising aspirations of the country’s educated strata.
Drawing on contemporary sociological theory, the author applies a neo-functionalist model to explicate the malintegration between the elite-centered modernizing drive embodied by an increasingly technocratized state and educational system, on the one hand, and an agrarian-based economy not yet ready for a “scientized” social division of labor, on the other. The oversupply of university graduates constituted the primary cause of “intellectual unemployment,” which the author shows was a constitutive feature of the urban economy and a subject of frequent press debates from as early as 1927 (p. 146). The date is significant because it shows that these structural problems existed before the onset of the Great Depression. Hence, it is no coincidence that the same year witnessed both the founding of the Legion of the Archangel Michael and the appearance of the so-called Young Generation of intellectuals. It was the economic hardships associated with student life, the diminished prospects of social mobility, and the sheer depreciation of intellectual labor, Sdrobiş maintains, that constituted the root causes of student political mobilization and of the gradual radicalization of young people along nationalist lines.
The advent of the world economic crisis in 1929, Sdrobiş contends, accentuated the problem of intellectual unemployment. Consequently, the reinvigorated university-based, radical-nationalist ideological currents and groups, which first appeared in the early 1920s, expanded and reshaped their demands for a numerus clausus applicable to minority students (especially Jewish) into a broad “economic nationalism” whose goal was to promote the “ethnic Romanian element” in all sectors of economic and social life (p. 176). All this coincided with the rising appeal of the Legionary movement, which vigorously promoted said economic nationalism, and whose radical stance resonated with the mounting economic grievances and growing nationalism of public opinion.
Yet for all its social-scientific rigor, the book remains partially reliant on the teleological presuppositions inherent in classic modernization theory and some of its more recent (neo-)institutionalist variants. It also draws on a venerable “culturalist” approach to modernization, an approach whose origins in the Romanian sociological scholarship can be traced to Titu Maiorescu’s theory of forms without substance. The author makes a convincing case that the practice of meritocracy did not find fertile social ground in interwar Romania. However, the analysis runs into trouble when it suggests that successful political modernization implies a sort of package deal that includes a democratization of societal values and increased individual autonomy. This raises fundamental questions regarding the root causes and the modern/antimodern orientation of interwar Romanian fascism. These are issues that the book does not tackle head on.