Society for the Anthropology of North America
Oral Presentation Session
In the work of urban activists, action has value. Effective action, doubly so. Do they give value to effective action by downplaying the significance of resistance? No, value obtains from resistant action, and effectiveness is merely the smokescreen. Satiric shorthand aside, this paradox of activist agency is crucial when the effects of resistance are penned into enclaves, readymade for appropriation by the very structures of urban governance they counter. The paper reviews a decade of activist engagement with urban governance in Cluj-Napoca (Romania) via oral history interviews with members of various leftist platforms. Some of these initiatives have focused on social housing, others on participatory budgeting or creative urban transformation – in a post-crisis period of economic growth (spurred by IT outsourcing) and deepening inequalities that saw the emergence of Cluj as creative city. These are stories of hope that bleeds into exhaustion, struggle that thrives on withdrawal, critique that redeems itself in complicity, and tenuous solidarity. Threading through these narratives are two major tensions between modalities of activist practice: to act pragmatically from within the structures of urban governance or uncompromisingly from without; to endorse “the cultural” or “the social” as the promising terrain of urban transformation. Such tensions are central to local urban class politics, but also to Cluj’s capitalist coordinates as European creative city that rigs the political economic bet in favor of “cultural vitality”. In value terms, within and without stand critical for the paradox of activist agency as much as for the outsourcing trap.