The Future Reimagined: Heritage, Governance, and Shortage in Bucharest
University of California at Berkeley, USA
When shortage is a permanent condition, can austerity measures be viewed as the impetus for the expansion of, rather than the retraction of governance? Discourses on austerity are bound in narratives of sacrifice, and marked by the deferment of promised results to a future that may never arrive. I explore austerity as a rationalization of the sacrifices of the present, in the service of future promises. My focus is on the urban development schemes in central Bucharest that began during the austerity years of the 1980s and reemerged in the past decade, but with a new telos: rebuilding architectural heritage. Comparing planning schemes during and after socialism, I argue—contra literature that ties austerity with the retraction of governance—that in an environment of constant shortage, state-implemented austerity measures can create the need for even greater state intervention, as the narrative of sacrifice and restraint in the present is mobilized.
With the future-oriented teleology of socialist planning relegated to the past, Bucharest has entered another process of accelerated history in which it is “catching up” with Western European cities. During socialism, this history of promises and technical failures was punctuated by the cyclical unveiling of five-year plans, and recently by the municipality’s recurring promises to complete the city’s heritage rehabilitation and spur economic recovery. Literature on postsocialist transitions views shortage as destabilizing the linear temporality of development. However, I argue that rather than causing instability, periods of austerity can reinforce the linear temporal ontology of the development process by creating narratives of new beginnings (e.g., five-year plans). Nonlinear in themselves, the recurring “new beginnings” repeatedly reset the clock of development to a present that must be overcome through sacrifices, helping to justify the perpetual gap between the shortages of the present and the promise of the future.