The making of indebted subjectivity

At the center of this story is debt: a woman’s debt to the abortionist, and in the distant background, the nation’s debt to its Western creditors. Creating sovereign debt has been at the core of neoliberal strategic dominance.[20] [open notes in new window] Old categories from nineteenth- and twentieth-century revolutionary discourse, such as labor, class society, ideology, were redefined by debt. The neoliberal economy rests not on the exchange of goods, but on credit and contractual relations between capital and labor. In such an economy, the domain of production shifts from the production of goods to the production of the “ethical” debtor or, indebted subjectivity. Considering this new economic paradigm, Mungiu’s film becomes very relevant beyond the Communist past.

Structuring the plot along debtor-creditor relations, Mungiu tapped into what Nietzsche called in his Genealogy of Morals (1968) “human prehistory”—“ the contractual relationship between creditor and debtor, which is as old as the idea of ‘legal subjects’ and which in turn points back to fundamental forms of buying, selling, barter, trade, and traffic.”[21] Debt as a promised payment to a creditor lies at the foundation of communal life. As Nietzsche again put it, “the community … stands to its members in that same vital basic relation, that of the creditor to his debtor.”[22] This “vital basic relation” makes not only woman’s procreative debt to the nation possible, but it also makes rape a way for the community to “collect” its debt. In a misogynic economy of pleasure, the woman’s body is in permanent debt to a male’s sexual desire. If all social relations, as Marx argued, grew out of gender relations, then rape as a perverse power grid in the neoliberal economy of debt must not be a stretch. At the core of this perverse entitlement lies, according to Nietzsche, sadism, “the pleasure of being allowed to vent [one’s] power freely upon [another] who is powerless. (…) ‘Of doing evil for the pleasure of doing it.’”[23]

The debtor-creditor relation is predicated on the formation of the subjectivity of debt. To this end, a debt economy demands political pressure on the subject’s submission to the interest of the creditor. Central to such a barbaric invention of the personal space is a creditor’s ability to produce a debtor’s moral interior, new subjectivity of debt based on a painful self-submission by inducing “blame,” “guilt” and “conscience.”

Mungiu concisely and accurately authenticates Bebe’s production of Gabita’s and Otilia’s moral interior filled with guilt. The hotel room conversation between Bebe and the two women breaks down on two disciplinary a priora—Bebe’s commanding language and Gabita’s and Otilia’s self-transformation into submission. Bebe’s language, like Frank Booth’s, discloses almost to the letter the monstrous aspects of language, not as a medium of communication but as a tool of domination.

His language is to be obeyed. Bebe makes this clear to Gabita as soon as he meets her in the hotel room:

“I told you two things on the phone. One, get a room at the Unirea or the Moldova. Two, meet me in person. You think I asked for the sake of it?”

Unlike Frank Booth’s over-the-top shouts, Bebe’s whispering voice, full of significant intonations and forced silences and his flat facial expressions and occasional displays of a self-restraining aggression, discloses the monstrosities of Bebe’s character, although at the same time, Mungiu maintains a certain free-floating autonomy in Bebe’s language. Ceausescu had no copyrights on the Romanian language, nor could he control its use on the fringes of the police state. Such limitations allowed characters like Bebe to become something on the order of an “entrepreneur of language.” Bebe shrewdly utilizes a command in order to maximize the victim’s submission. This discloses the link between domination and profit.

Bebe reveals another important aspect of capitalism. As we know from the history of South Baptist entrepreneurship, capitalism begins not with an economic calculus but with baptism with something on the order of “incorporeal transformation,” a symbolic power to transform the body instantaneously into the sign of its own system, like “the transformation of the passengers into hostages, and of the plane-body into a prison-body.”[24] In Bebe’s world, it means a symbolic shock aimed at rupturing the girls’ pastoral moral boundaries in order to open them up to their future. This is to the new disciplinary system of power based on the neoliberal rape-like economy of debt.

This brings us to the second disciplinary a priori regulating the hotel room conversation, Gabita’s and Otilia’s personal “capital” of submission. For Bebe to enter into relationships of rape with the two women, probably not the first for him, Bebe must have known that he could rationally invest his desire in their hidden capital of submission. To say it differently, when imagining and constructing Bebe’s character, Mungiu must have intuited an essential principle of the capitalist economy, namely, that in capitalism, the human becomes a subject investible for capital only if she makes an enterprise of herself through submission. The strategically concocted neoliberal narrative permeates Mungiu’s Bebe. Gabita’s and Otilia’s rationalization and willingness to submit to the non-monetary exchange proves Mungiu's deep inside into the essential function of “human capital”[25] within the neoliberal grid of power, which is based not on economic rationality but on moral submission.

Central to this relationship is the creditor’s assessment of the debtor’s moral life, his or her daily habits, life conditions, commitments to social mores and conventions. We witness Bebe at the very outset making such an assessment about Gabita’s and Otilia’s “human capital” to submit: What are they made of and to what extent will his investment pay off?

At first, Bebe introduces himself in an open manner, as an honest man who takes a risk to help a woman in need.

“I have nothing to hide. I came in my own car. You can take my number. It’s maybe too late to start again, but I will say this: trust is vital.”

Trust is vital for various reasons. First, by getting from Otilia, “You can trust us,” Bebe creates an ethical bond between the girls and himself, as if saying, “We are together in this risky and dangerous enterprise.” By agreeing in “trust” he has implanted this ethical feature into Gabita’s and Otilia’s “human capital.” It therefore becomes part of who they are, trustworthy women.

Based on this strategic achievement, as we see later, Bebe will return to remedy the crisis of the creditor-debtor relationship when the women insist on monetary payment for the abortion. Because he was “honest” about himself, he expects Otilia to be equally honest about herself and Gabita.

“Has your sister ever done this before?” “How old is she?” “You live together?” “But you are not from here?” “Where are you from?” “Are you renting?” “How is it [life in a dorm]?” “What do you study”?

This is all vital information for Bebe’s investment. It provides him a measure of their ability to be molded into indebted subjectivities, the extent to which they will “work on themselves” to meet his invested expectations. He is like a wolf, who, upon entering the stable, counts the bodies and calculates his gains.

The creation of “human capital” as indebted-by-guilt subjectivity defines the catastrophe of the debt economy in Mungiu’s film. Gabita’s submission to the guilt induced by Bebe finally speaks out, “Please help me fix it. . .the way you said, … the guilty should pay. I screwed up.” To her suggestion to spare Otilia, Bebe responds, “You don’t suggest! If anything, you ask,” meaning that she is not in any position to negotiate. She is weak and he is strong; she is punished precisely because she is weak. By collecting on his debt, Bebe has produced two new subjectivities and a new form of debt. Along the scheme of “disaster capitalism” Bebe has made Gabita and Otilia see themselves as he saw them: as two self-made ‘whores.’ For that alone they will forever be in permanent debt to Bebe’s rapist gaze. Rape will be their secret and Bebe will own their traumatized psyches forever: “We’re never going to talk about this, OK?”

Two economies

Mungiu navigates his characters through two economies, explicitly Communist and implicitly neoliberal. It is not a stretch to consider that Bebe’s “economic imagination” emulates today’s “disaster capitalism” at the time of Ceausescu’s forthcoming demise. The only economic argument made in previous reviews of 4 Months… comes from Parvulescu. He contrasts the students’ dorm economy of solidarity with the brutal external economy. He reads in Mungiu’s reconstruction of the Communist-era student dorm, a “nostalgic gaze” at the student dorm as “a communist utopia,” a “word of solidarity” where “property has minimal value and … everyone is willing to share” (including the money for Gabita’s abortion), proving that Mungiu registers the “side effects” of the Romanian economic context. But, in my view, Mungiu’s “nostalgic gaze” is ambiguous.

Debt figures in multiple intersections of, on the one hand, the explicit students’ utopian and administrative economies, and on the other hand, explicit and implicit economies. Gabita’s and Otilia’s debt links opposite ends of the explicit economy. The lei is Romanian legal tender which they borrow from their dorm friends to pay for Bebe’s services.

Let us consider the trajectory of the two debts related to rape, Gabita’s and Otilia’s debt to the dorm and to Bebe, in relation to the two opposing types of masculinities, Bebe the rapist and Otilia’s boyfried Adi (Alexandru Potocean), the solidarity-money lender. At first glance, passive Adi stands in sharp contrast to aggressive Bebe. While it is difficult to imagine Adi as a rapist, one can surely imagine (transnationally) a male dorm boyfriend as a rapist. If Mungiu could allow a story about the university professors having sex with their students at the family dinner table, then he must also accept another (transnational) fact that rape is prevalent in the student dorms.

Precisely because of its intimacy-inducing solidarity, student dorms breed rape; statistically speaking, a woman is more likely to be raped by someone with whom she has intimate relations and trust, like a boyfriend, a father, a relative, etc., than by a stranger. I take that Pop reinforces my claim when he writes,

“In Romania, it has been suggested that a rape is reported every 10 hours, and police records show that there are many violent acts [that] are never even officially recorded.”[26]

Were Communist’s student dorms excluded? The borrowed money from the pool of the dorm’s solidarity, according to the plot and the girls’ received information about Bebe’s low cost, lures Gabita and Otilia into rape. Shouldn’t we infer that the trajectory of the dorm’s money, which lead Gabita and Otilia to rape, links on the level of the socially misogynic system of desire Bebe’s rape desire with the hidden student dorm’s rape desire?

Let me reiterate that Mungiu’s intentions are far from clear and that their ambiguities breed perversity honing Bebe’s critical edge. When power achieves the total submission of its resisting force, it reveals its abstract “diagram”—a grid of its disciplinary manipulation through which, in this story, Gabita’s abortion, despite the rape and all its risks, succeeds. By not showing the actual rape, Mungiu cannot prevent our afterthoughts about the catastrophic productivity of power.

This brings us to the implicit economy in which power is a productive force. The most perverse aspect of the story is precisely the productive aspect of disciplinary power. Bebe’s rape made Gabita’s abortion real. Mungiu created Bebe with the understanding that power produces reality before it represses, while punishment establishes the productive relations of power. Hence, Mungiu’s point, much like Foucault’s, is that social reality is by definition punitive in nature.

In so far as rape became a punitive currency in the transaction between Bebe and Gabita, Mungiu elevates rape into a working metaphor of the economy of debt in general and, in the case of Bebe, in particular. Perhaps Mungiu unknowingly “stepped” on Bebe’s allegory of the Romanian future as if on a hidden landmine, and as a traumatic experience remained repressed underneath the articulated intention. Perhaps the same applies to the previous film analysis.

Bebe: an allegory of post-communist Romania

In her book What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? (1996), after her in-depth analysis of post-Communist conditions in Eastern Europe and Romania, Romanian-American scholar Katherine Verdery arrives at an unexpected conclusion:

 “My skepticism about whether the former socialist countries are undergoing a transition to democracy and market economy has led me to propose instead the apparently absurd image of a transition to ‘transition to feudalism.’”[27]

As an example of her claim, she uses the case of Caritas, “the largest and most far-flung of many pyramid schemes that sprang up in post-Ceausescu’s Romania during 1990-1994.”[28] As in the case of Bernard Madoff, the founder of NASDAQ (the world’s second-largest exchange system) and his Wall Street Ponzi scheme, or in the case of the corporation Enron, such pyramid schemes caused massive losses in people’s life savings, pension funds, university funds, charity funds, homes and in some instances, it led to suicides, including Madoff’s son Mark Madoff on December 11, 2010. In the Caritas case, the founder, Ioan Stoica, a shady figure known before 1989 as “an accountant, a fixer for the Communist Party apparatus, and a black-market currency trader. . . [who]. . . seems to have also done time for embezzlement,” invented a “mutual-aid” pyramid scheme promising eightfold growth of the deposited amount of money every three months.

Caritas, according to the Romanian National Bank, in 1993 held “a full third of the country’s banknotes.”[30] The lowest estimated figure involved around two million depositors, mostly “working-class families and pensioners” many of whom sold their houses and apartments and other valuables and deposited in Caritas a hope that they would be able to buy it back and still have substantial savings left. But Caritas also had a hidden class of participants: “former apparatchiks, current politicians, and the nouveaux riches.”[31] While the pyramid lasted, this class with Stioca’s help managed to collect their profit in time at everyone else’s expense. The outcome of the Caritas collapse in 1994 shaped the Romanian “transition to ‘feudalism.’” This financial apparatus transferred millions of leis in people’s savings into the hands of newly formed “unruly coalitions, less institutionalized, less legitimate, and less stable than parties, [with a] territorial base . . . primarily regional or local rather than national.”[32] Now as feudal war-lords, they rule over the ruins of Ceausescu’s Romania.

While Verdery still maintains the reality of Western democracy and the market economy in contrast to the Romanian “transition to ‘feudalism,’” Jean Baudrillard, on the other hand, registers the neoliberal economy of debt as a return to feudalism. “Credit,” he argues, “brings us back to a situation characteristic of feudalism, in which a portion of labor is owned in advance, as serf labor, to the lord.”[33] This feudalistic rule of owning labor in advance through debt is an ancient rule that goes back to the Barbarian invasions of Europe.

George Duby’s analysis of early medieval history credits the Barbarian invasions for the rise of the new economy of debt imposed by force.[34] An entitlement to collect presupposes relationships of domination and subordination. This ancient barbaric right to collect debt by force defines today’s financial capitalism in many ways. Consider, for example, the barbaric inscription by the German right to collect the Greek national debt or by U.S, investors to collect Puerto Rico’s national debt at the expense of social devastation equivalent to early feudalism. Even though enshrined in contract as the legal base of the capitalist economy, the economy of debt stems from the ability to inflict pain. This right, in Benjamin’s register would be a document of civilization, which is also a document of barbarism.

As a motto for her book, Verdery offered the following question-answer: “Q: What is Socialism? A: The longest and most painful route from capitalism to capitalism.” After agreeing with Marx’s insights about “commodity fetishism” as one of the defining features of capitalism as a state of illusion, she locates a variation of capitalism in the Romanian Communist economy of “plan fetishism.”[36] To the same extent that illusion feeds capitalism so “socialist plans generated the illusion that everything is under social control.”[37] But unlike in socialism where the government absorbs the blame for economic crisis, the illusion of market exchange in post-Ceausescu Romania would make the economy visible as a non-personal, yet still brutal “force of nature.”[38]

So, when Pop makes claim that Bebe represents Ceausescu’s “absent present”[39], channeling the system’s subhuman forces through abortion and rape onto Gabita and Otilia, one wonders if Pop in fact registers a presence of germinating brutal “force of nature” streaming through the black market economy of the student dorm economy of the “fetish commodity” (the Hollywood movie East of Eden, the New Zealand TV show Thorn Birds, and ads for Kent, Salem Menthol and Marlborough cigarettes and Wrigley’s chewing-gum) soon to be incarnated in Caritas’ Stoica’s money fetish.

To the extent that one can argue that the embezzler Stoica is a harbinger of the forthcoming invasion by the “force of nature,” Bebe is a harbinger of Stoica. In this story about abortion and a double rape, Bebe is the agency of a “barbarian flow” cracking “the enclosing pastoral shell”[40] of the two innocent women, announcing Stoica’s financial rape of the nation. Both criminals navigated Ceausescu’s black market economy, they crawled out onto the scene as sexual or economic rapists, skillfully utilizing their lure inside the system of illusion. Because the fetish is an eroticized object, co-extends money into an illusion of ownership of the female body, hence Gabita’s and Otilia’s rapes become the currency for Gabita’s abortion. In doing so, Bebe as allegory of post-Communist Romania teaches us a valuable lesson about the barbaric nature of the debt economy and forecasts the forthcoming Romanian ‘feudalism’ as confirmed by Verdery.

Abortion and the Romanian economy of debt

As an important authority on the social history of Romanian pro-natalist polices, Gail Klingman sums up their tragic consequence, “In Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania the ‘marriage’ between demographic concerns and nationalist politics turned women’s bodies into instruments to be used in the service of the state.”[41] The Romanian economy of debt looms in the background of such a monstrous example of bio-politics.

No European nation after World War Two experienced industry as national catastrophe as did the Romanians under Ceausescu. Many catastrophes begin with a hope for a better life. Ceausescu’s hope to transform Romania into a modern, independent nation, where people like Otilia could work and realize their hopes, hinged upon massive industrialization. To this end, East European socialist countries, the USSR and China, as well as Romania, made two strategic turns—first, to move from an agricultural to an industrial economy; and second, in a “strategic opening” toward the West to obtain cheap Western loans for industrial development. Both strategic moves toward quick industrialization faced two challenges, both demographic and financial.

Ceausescu’s economic rationale to boost the labor force amid massive industrialization contradicted a normal decline in birth rates. In 1966, the Romanian birthrate dropped to 14.3 per 1,000 from 19.1 per 1,000 in 1960, a decline that stood in the way of Ceausescu’s economic policy. The same year the Romanian government introduced Law # 770/1966. The following year 1967, the birth rate went up from 14.3 to 27.4 per 1,000 only to drop in 1983 to the level of 1966. While the forced industrialization of a woman’s procreative sexuality might have been economically justified, it was still a monstrous idea. Because of these antiabortion policies between 1965 and 1989, 9,452 women died due to complications related to illegal abortions.[42]

In one of his interviews, Mungiu ponders the abortion ban as a case of Romanian exceptionalism:

“And the Soviet Union promoted sex as a way of relieving social pressure. It was completely different in Romania. Even in Poland, despite the influence of the Catholic Church, the policy was different. This was something specifically Romanian. It’s difficult to find a good explanation. But, according to my research, the causes stem from Ceausescu’s motivations from 1966 on that were partially economic and partially propagandistic.”[43]

But according to my research, the various forms of the legal prohibition of abortion in Romania existed a long time before Ceausescu. Since the union between the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1864, antiabortion laws existed in various forms until 1957, when the Communists abolished it. Before Communism, Romanian eugenicists between the two world wars placed the control of woman’s sexuality at the center of national security and demanded that the state protect the nation’s “biological capital.”

Romanian eugenicists used the term “biopolitics” long before Foucault. Biopolitica was the title of a book published in 1926 in Cluj by the most prominent Romanian eugenicist Iuliu Moldovan.[44] “The reproductive family,” he wrote, “on whose purity our biological future depends, will be placed at the center of biopolitics….“. In the words of Marius Turda, “

"The biopolitical axiom shared by Romanian eugenicists and the racial scientist, 'The individual is nothing; the nation is everything,’ forcefully illustrates how the national body was planned and subsequently controlled between 1918 and 1944.”[46]

This story about Ceausescu’s antiabortion law may also be seen as a story about the discursive continuity of Romania’s racial history. One should consider the fact that the Ceausescu’s pro-natalist policies, as Klingman pointed out, had a hidden racial agenda. Antiabortion measures were more liberal toward Romania’s Roma, Hungarian and German population in Transylvania where they constitute a sizeable group of ethnic minorities and have always been a source of Romanian ethnic anxiety; while the Roma population had very high birthrates, the government nonetheless considered this sector’s expansion a problematic.

One government report, for instance, evidences racial undertones vis-à-vis the Roma’s undesired birthrates, stating, “The exaggerated reproduction is determined especially by their lifestyle, the degree of their social and cultural backwardness.”[47] There was a tacit approval of Roma abortion, as Klingman argues. Roma women regardless of age could get an abortion in Arad, a city in Transylvania, where a large Hungarian and German population resided. In other words, antiabortion policies were a national legal tradition tied to the interest of the state regardless of its ideological orientation.

Ceausescu faced neoliberalism as his second challenge. Neoliberalism came into life through a “shock doctrine” of manufactured debt. During two oil crises during the ‘70s, the OPEC countries flooded Western banks with enormous amounts of cash, inviting the bankers to figure out where to invest it. Because of the decline in industrial investments in the West, the developing countries seemed the best option for foreign investors. At the time, David Graeber writes, “Citibank and Chase therefore began sending agents around the world trying to convince Third World dictators and politicians to take out loans (at the time, this was called “go-go” banking).”[48]

The initial low interest rates skyrocketed overnight to 20% due to the change in U.S. money policies. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, this created a debt crisis among the developing countries, including Romania. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in as a debt enforcer to demand structural adjustments as a precondition for obtaining refinancing. Graeber continues:

“poor countries would be obliged to abandon price supports on basic foodstuffs, or even policies of keeping strategic food reserves, and abandon free health care and free education . . . all of this had led to the collapse of all vulnerable people on earth . . . of looting of public resources, the collapse of societies, endemic violence, malnutrition, hopelessness, and broken lives.”[49]

Neoliberalism changed the economic gravitas. The interests of shareholders, bondholders, and other owners of security prevailed over the interests of the welfare state to protect the economic rights of citizens. During the 1970s, the neoliberal transformation of state financing lead to a massive increase of national debt of socialist and Third World countries heavily dependent on expensive Western loans. Contrary to its claims of introducing economic regulation, neoliberalism emerged as a new form of power and conquest by means of the debtor-creditor relation.

Unfortunately for Romania, the rise of neoliberalism coincided with the Romanian economic need to increase its debt; unlike other East European countries, like Poland and Hungary, Cornel Ban writes, “Romania only began borrowing on a large scale at a very inopportune time: in 1979 the interest rate shock triggered by the U.S. Fed made cheap development finance unavailable.”[50] Romania became one of the first casualties of the emerging national debt economy, according to Ban,

“… oil and financial shock in the capitalist world percolated through the gas-guzzling Romanian economy and were interpreted as an imperative to disengage from international finance.”[51]

To this end, the Romanian government imposed stringent austerity measures—all produced things were exported, domestic consumption and incomes were reduced, and exported electricity, oil and gas left Romanian homes freezing during the winters. Austerity measures, Ban contends,

“led the regime to adopt policies that eventually threatened its promise to deliver basic economic rights. Unfortunately for the regime, these policies and their consequences eventually contributed extensively to the dramatic anti-regime mass mobilization of December 1989 that pushed the uncivil society to withdraw its commitment to the regime.”[52]

As living conditions worsened, so did antiabortion laws for Romanian women. “The pro-natalist policies introduced by Ceausescu in the 1960s,” Klingman writes, “were a mild version of what was later to become a draconian policy…,”[53] including punishment for the abortionist and those helped in the process. Antiabortion laws and prosecutions of illegal abortions were the Government’s response to conditions favoring abortion. Klingman further points out,

“In 1986, Ceausescu introduced a campaign—unique in the history of Romanian medicine—to analyze the health of the population, particularly that of women between the ages of sixteen and forty-five, the years when most women are fertile. These exams, regardless of officially professed intention, subjected women of childbearing age to state control of their reproductive lives.”[54]

By 1989, not only had Romania paid off its entire national debt ahead of schedule, but it had also accrued nine billion dollars of state surplus. Instead of improving the Romanian standard of living, however, Ceausescu fell prey to the neoliberal virus; he decided to turn Romania into a creditor nation and to use the surplus to provide loans to African countries and to the USSR.[55] On the flip side, Romania’s citizens had to pay off the national debt to the Western banks under stringent austerity measures. To this extent, the Romanian population became captives of the government-enforced creditor-debtor relations. In reality, the Romanian State only regulated this relationship between Western creditors and Romanian labor.

In short, confining the events of rape and abortion to the personal experience of the characters, as Romanian film critics tend to do, glosses over the fact that human intimacy does not rest outside the omnipresent global context. The film accurately authenticates the structural exterior of the story shaping the story’s psychological interior on an intimate and personal level. The prohibition of abortion, as the film’s dramatic prerequisite, opens a point of tension between the structural and personal and the industrial and sexual, where Ceausescu’s desire for Romanian massive, quick industrialization intersects with Gabita’s desire for an abortion. The hotel room permeated with risk and fear attests to the moment of infrastructural clash between politico-economic and personal desire. The demand for more labor input and higher birthrates coincides with stricter antiabortion laws.