Fuzzy Property: Rights, Power, and Identity in Transylvania's Decollectivization
An especially challenging aspect of transformation in the post-communist states—challenging for both social policy and social theory—concerns the (re)creation of private property rights from the collective property of communism. It is not only in post-communist contexts that property rights are changing, but these contexts differ profoundly from others. In no Western country undergoing the privatization of socialized assets has social production existed on anything like the scale of that in the communist states. Moreover, public enterprise in the latter instances operated in political, economic, and jural systems governed by totally different rules from those of liberal capitalism, making the creation of post-communist private property rights a wholly different proposition from the divestiture of public property in countries such as Britain, France, or the United States.
For these reasons, the process amply deserves the rapidly growing corpus of literature devoted to it. This literature treats such questions as the theoretical relationship among private property, markets, and democratic politics (e.g., Comisso, 1991), the process of transforming public property into private and its consequences for economic development and state power (e.g., Frydman and Rapaczynski, 1994; Frydman et al., 1993; Kiss, 1994; Staniszkis, 1991; Stark, 1992), the justifying ideologies of transformed property rights and their social effects (e.g., Appel, 1995; Verdery, 1994), and the nature of the new rights being exercised (e.g., Comisso, 1991; Cornea, 1993; Hann, 1993; Stark,
I owe special thanks to the following people for valuable comment on this paper: Michael Burawoy, Elizabeth Dunn, Gail Kligman, Mary Poovey, and Kim Scheppele.
1996). Reports to date on emerging property forms speak not of a wholesale shift from public to private ownership,1 but of mixes of these: different social actors hold different bundles of rights, and the definitions of the status of property are blurred and ambiguous.2
Among the tasks these investigations facilitate is a deeper inquiry into the very concept of property itself—what it means, and how property regimes are socially produced. Such an inquiry should also explore the ideological aspect of privatization as a centerpiece of the transition, for the neoliberal project of transforming public into private property has more than a practical aim (ostensibly easing the creation of markets, not to mention the interface with global capital); it has great ideological significance as well. This significance goes beyond the mere fact of constantly pressing for private property. If we see the transition as a project of cultural engineering in which fundamental social ideas are resignified—including not only democracy, markets, and private property, but also ideas about entitlement, accountability, and responsibility—then the (re)creation of private property is evidently a critical locus for this cultural project. The reason is that neoliberal property notions so often emphasize rights (entitlement) and obligations (accountability), whose subjects are normatively individuals (physical or jural) exercising exclusive rights. From this vantage point, all other arrangements look fuzzy.
The purpose of this chapter is twofold. First, I suggest that to understand property in post-communist contexts, one must go beyond defining it in terms of rights and obligations that assume individualized property subjects. I prefer instead a property analysis that invokes the total system of social, cultural, and political relations and inquires into, rather than assuming, the nature of property conceptions (Hann, 1993; Ghani, 1996). That is, I seek to broaden the way we study the property aspect of post-communism. Second, the chapter chronicles a specific moment in which a specific set of property conceptions was taking shape, which favored not individual but collective property rights based in collective labor. By investigating this moment, I hope to show the social processes through which a new property regime is produced. My data come from Aurel Vlaicu, a Transylvanian village undergoing decollectivization. The breakup of its collective farm has resulted in a complex array of property forms and claims, antithetical to what I believe the neoliberal architects of privatization had in mind; hence I label the outcome "fuzzy property."
The chapter begins by describing some of the overlapping rights and claims to land that prevailed in this community as of 1996, and argues that these have meaning only in a larger enabling context. It then describes an episode in which collective property forms with overlapping rights were strengthened at the expense of exclusive individual ownership. Using ethnographic methods, I seek to document transitional dynamics that might otherwise remain invisible—though not in their long-term effects. In this episode we see the intersection of interests and dispositions that served to maintain complex property rights at a moment when these might have been simplified. We see as well how these rights are bound up with power relations, with social identities and notions of self, and with embeddedness in social networks. Both parts of the discussion explore different reasons why emerging property forms seem "fuzzy" from the vantage point of an idealized image of exclusive private property, and seek to show the processes and calculations generating this fuzziness.
I speak of "fuzzy property" partly to indicate that I view simplistic notions of private ownership ironically, and I leave the concept somewhat vague since property rights can appear indistinct for a variety of reasons. Different people may contest ownership of a single object, complicating the assessment of use rights, obligations, and claims to revenue. If property is a relationship between persons with respect to things, conflicting definitions of that relationship give the things in question ambiguous status. Property rights may also appear ambiguous because several different social actors enjoy overlapping claims to something. For example, the sovereign may have the right to allocate and recover use rights to certain lands, as well as have a claim on its fruits, while households actually exercise these use rights and perform all the labor, and lineage heads claim managerial rights and a share of the harvest. In such cases, the hierarchy of rights and obligations may in fact be quite unambiguous, but from the point of view of privatization programs such as those being implemented in the post-communist states, the rights appear fuzzy because of their complex interrelations and the multiplicity of actors holding them. Yet other reasons for fuzziness appear if we define property (following Ghani, 1996) as a bundle of powers crystallized into practices of exclusion and inclusion within routinized rules.3 Fuzziness, then, will lie precisely in the lack of routinized rules and crystallized practices around private property in the context of post-communism, as well as in the constraints on exercising bundles of
powers. The term "fuzzy property" covers all these forms of indistinct, ambiguous, and partial property rights.
THE CONTEXTUALLY LIMITED EXERCISE OF PROPERTY RIGHTS
The chief social actors in the scenarios that follow are individual residents of the village of Aurel Vlaicu (county Hunedoara, Romania), where I conducted research during 1993-1994 and 1996;4 the mayor and other officials of the commune in which Vlaicu is located; and a new organizational form, the Aurel Vlaicu Agricultural Association. This last requires explanation. Throughout Romania (and some other countries of the region as well), the return of land to its former owners entailed the liquidation of collective farms (known as CAPs), sometimes accompanied by the creation of new entities—associations.5 The association is a kind of producers' cooperative whose raison d'être is that very few of the new proprietors owned the equipment necessary for cultivating their newly returned land, and many of them were too old to carry out the work of farming it. Moreover, in the Romanian case, many new landowners did not live in villages at all, for the restitution process permitted all heirs of former owners, even those living in distant cities, to claim family land. To ensure that newly private land would not go uncultivated, thus requiring massive food imports, the government encouraged people to form associations.
All members of the Aurel Vlaicu Agricultural Association signed over to it the land they received following passage of Romania's law on property restitution, known as the Law on Agricultural Land Resources or Law 18/ 1991. It was understood that the owners held and would retain ownership rights to the land placed in the association; they transferred managerial rights over cultivation in exchange for a payment from the harvest.
I see association property as fuzzy for a number of reasons, of which I will mention three. First, Law 18 established a number of fairly stringent constraints on an individual's private property rights by setting up a hierarchy of prior rights and claims. For instance, it constrained the land's use: owners of agricultural land did not have the right to leave it uncultivated, on penalty of a fine (Law 18/1991, articles 53-55), or to change the category of its use—say, from vineyard to pasture, or arable to houseplot—except under certain conditions and only by permission of the Ministry of Agriculture (articles 56, 57, and 69). There were limits on acquisition as well. No one could claim more than 10 hectares per family (articles 8 and 9) or thereafter acquire more than
100 hectares total (article 46). In addition, the law controlled the sale of agricultural land, making it contingent on the prior exercise of rights of preemption by an organization called the Agency for Rural Development and Planning (article 48), which as of mid-1996 did not yet exist. Such provisions suggest that the state held the most inclusive, prior rights over land disposal and use; in other words, it occupied the first rung in a "hierarchy of estates" of administration over land (cf. Gluckman, 1943).
Second, Law 18 biased the constitution of subsequent property rights in a collective rather than individual direction: it gave associations as jural entities the edge in acquiring property of moribund CAPs. A crucial clause reads as follows:
Zootechnic constructions, workshops for small manufactures, machinery, equipment, and other such fixed means belonging to the disbanded CAP, as well as the land underneath these and the land necessary to using them, and also vineyards and orchards and animals all become the property of the members of associations of a private nature having the status of jural persons, if these are established (article 28).
In a word, CAPs would "morph" into associations; their social capital was assigned as shares to the members by an algorithm linking one's total land and labor contributions to the CAP. Only those villagers who chose not to belong to the association were to be separated out fully from the collective and paid in money or kind for their share of the fixed capital. Thus conceived, the law presented the transformation of CAPs into associations as the "default option"; their disaggregation into fully individual proprietorships required extra work. We see clearly in this a systemic bias toward quasicollective property arrangements.
Third, even once a person obtained undisputed title to a specific surface area of former CAP land, theoretically holding all the rights of use, enjoyment, and disposal not reserved for the state, that person faced serious contextual constraints on the exercise of these rights. Most people who received land did not own the implements needed to cultivate it, nor did interest rates on loans and credit permit them to buy that equipment. Hence, many signed their land over to associations, thus entering a realm of intricately overlapping rights and claims that seriously limited their ownership status (see Verdery, 1998, for further details). The association, for its part, acquired rights to manage and use the land and to take its fruits, but also the obligation to redistribute to members some of those fruits. Members held overlapping rights to the revenues, which they were obligated to share with other members. The association's duty to provide members with revenue often conflicted with rational cultivation strategies, thus constraining the exercise of managerial rights; these rights were further circumscribed by the highly fragmented state of the newly restored landholdings, as well as by the right of members to
withdraw their land at will and their reluctance to provide labor for the association's labor-intensive tasks. Added to these impediments to associations' exercise of their managerial rights was their dependency on the state for mechanized inputs (their inheritance of the CAP's fixed capital was rarely adequate for efficient cultivation), credits, and prices. Problems with obtaining cheap credits to modernize their implements are probably the single most important limiting factor on what associations can do with the use-rights they enjoy.
In short, although Law 18 gave owners and managers certain rights and obligations, various systemic constraints obstructed their exercise. This shows how inadequate it is to consider property chiefly as a matter of rights and obligations. Exclusive individual ownership rights to land, which many in both Eastern Europe and the West see as the goal of decollectivization, are effectively constituted only within a total field of relations among institutions, policies, and social actors. These relations shape what actors are able to do with property, modifying the rights to which they may be entitled and the obligations to which they may be held. Fuzzy property in this context consists of complexly overlapping use and revenue rights lodged in external conditions that give the holders of these rights incomplete powers for exercising them. The emergence of something more closely approaching exclusive individual proprietorship would require not so much clearer legal specification of who has what rights—these rights are fairly clear already—but modifications in the surrounding economy, modifications that would permit individuals to acquire the means of cultivation affordably and to dispose profitably of their product while outcompeting quasicollective associational forms. Such modifications, in turn, depend on various parties' electoral fortunes, intergovernmental relations, decisions by international lending agencies, and other matters not usually included in discussions of property.
If property is more than just rights and obligations, it is also more than just the surrounding political economy; it entails complex meanings, often revolving around ideas about labor, persons, community, and kinship. These meanings are not necessarily those of Western privatization programs. Post-communist property regimes will gradually develop from repeated interactions between macrosystemic fields of force and the meanings, behaviors, and values of people caught up in them. The next section explores the dynamics of transition in Romania's property regime by examining a specific event that helps reveal more fully the meanings of "property." In this event, individual ownership rights were asserted and rejected in favor of persisting fuzzy property and collective rights. Behind this outcome lay not only a certain set of power relations, but also convictions about social justice and self-actualization. I offer considerable detail on this case to provide evidence of a sort rare in the literature on post-communism: the ethnography of cultural reproduction.
THE TRIAL: INDIVIDUAL VERSUS COLLECTIVE CLAIMS
While in the office of the Vlaicu association one day in November 1993, I learned that its agronomist and accountant had wasted their morning in court. They told a complicated story about the liquidation of the collective farm, an irregular auction of a granary, a resulting lawsuit decided against the plaintiff—a villager I will call Ionescu—and an appeal aimed at annulling the auction. A few weeks later I ran into Ionescu on the street. He greeted me with much enthusiasm and invited me over to hear his side of the story, encouraging me as well to ask certain other people for their opinion. My curiosity piqued, I asked two of them about Ionescu's case.6 One replied, with feeling, that the granary should belong to everyone, not just to Ionescu, adding, ''He's boasted all over the village that he'll get the granary and will never have to work again, just live off renting it out. Shouldn't it belong to the village, rather than to just one person? The whole village built it, after all." The other disagreed, however, saying that Ionescu had been the victim of a breach of the law. Law 18 had special procedures for auctioning off the goods of collective farms, he said, procedures that had been closely followed until the officers of the prospective association had interfered with the auction unlawfully. Ionescu was right to sue them. Agreeing that it would of course be better to have the granary used by 100 people than by one, this man nonetheless felt that there were larger principles at stake: Do we or do we not respect the law, and do we or do we not give property to individuals who will take good care of it (as the association, he feels, does not)?
These four brief conversations—with the two association officers, with Ionescu, and with my two friends—set the coordinates of what became a village-wide controversy over privatization. Virtually all the significant issues appeared in these commentaries. I spent the next several months filling them out by attending the sessions of the court case; discussing it with the plaintiff and defendants, as well as with the presiding judge;7 and asking many other villagers their opinion of it. Not having been present for the critical auction, I cannot say what happened there, but I am fairly confident of what was at issue in the case: a clash between procedural issues on the one hand and the "public good" on the other, and between the conditions promoting individual entrepreneurship as opposed to certain values of community. These conflicts lie at the heart of privatization all over Eastern Europe; they are also
central to producing a new property regime, with specific conceptions of property, as well as specific conditions that either favor or impede autonomous individual action and ownership relations.
Before proceeding, I should emphasize a salient feature of this case: it is about the privatization of a good that, unlike land, had not been privately owned before. It thus resembles privatization of the industries that were built up during the communist period and were visibly the product of people's labor in that time, when collective labor produced collective products having no "owners." Land, by contrast, has prior owners; its privatization creates conflicts between those owners and others who feel themselves entitled to a share by virtue of their work in the collective (see Verdery, 1994:1105-6). With the Vlaicu granary, that sort of conflict was not present, and this brought the question of public good more cleanly into view.
As best I can determine, the events leading to the dispute went something like this. Law 18, providing for the liquidation of collective farms and the return of their land and animals to the former owners, unleashed chaotic activity because the terms within which everything was to be resolved were fairly short, and no one really knew how to do what they were supposed to be doing.8 The law gave each CAP 15 days to constitute a so-called liquidation commission and each commission 9 months to dissolve the CAP (article 26). As already noted, the law foresaw the possibility of setting up associations—privileged recipients of the fixed capital of the old CAPs, which would otherwise be sold at auction and the proceeds distributed to members.
In Vlaicu—and presumably not there alone—it took a while to form an association. A few villagers began occupying and working their land singly; some of the personnel of the dissolving CAP began to think about forming an association, but were having trouble figuring out how. On July 5, 1991, then, when the association was still just an idea and not yet a jural entity, the village liquidation commission put in the newspaper the notice required by law, stating that every Thursday from 10:00-2:00 "until the patrimony [of the CAP] is liquidated," public auctions would be held for the sale or rental of buildings and the sale of equipment and other objects.9 One aim was to obtain enough money finally to launch the association. Its first organizational meeting took place in March 1992, but its legal incorporation would occur only 5 months later, in August, after several items had already been put up for auction. These
included three of the five cattle barns, some equipment, and the only available tractor.
By his own report, Ionescu showed up on Thursday, July 30, 1992,10 to buy a CAP building. Also present were several representatives of the prospective leadership council of the embryonic Vlaicu association—I will call them the quasi-council. When this group outbid Ionescu for one building he wanted, he proposed bidding on the granary; the quasi-council made another bid, and Ionescu raised the offer. At this point one of the quasi-councilors asked that the bidding be stopped so the quasi-council could consult with association members as to how high they were willing to go. The president of the liquidation commission then suspended the bidding.
These events took place amid considerable confusion. As one of those running the meeting explained to me, "We had no idea how to do an auction, how to proceed with liquidating the CAP; my image of an auction was from American TV movies—standing in front of people and calling out numbers—but that's not how it was happening!" Although the liquidation commission had requested a legal aide from the county capital, none turned up. No one knew whether it was acceptable to suspend the bidding, but under the circumstances—in which people representing an embryonic association suddenly realized it could not function without a granary it did not yet have the resources to buy—that seemed the thing to do. The decision was not only logical but also possible precisely because most of the people on the liquidation commission were also on the quasi-council of the prospective association.
Deeply upset by what had happened, Ionescu complained to the mayor, who came on Saturday (August 1, 1992) and reopened the bidding. But Ionescu now refused to bid, saying that he had won the real auction held 2 days earlier, and Saturday was not a day listed for auctions. Overriding his objections, the association raised his earlier bid by a small margin and was awarded the granary. Ionescu got a lawyer, sued the liquidation commission, and lost. He filed an appeal to have the auction annulled for breaching the published terms that auctions were to be held on Thursdays only. By the time his appeal began (January 20, 1994), a year and a half had passed since that auction, and the association was a well established—indeed an essential—player in village life.
The appeal took place in two court sessions, which I attended. At the end of the second session, the lawyers for the two sides summed up their arguments as follows. The plaintiff's lawyer argued to annul the auction for procedural irregularity: (1) two persons who had bid on the granary for the association were also members of the liquidation commission; (2) the law requires publicity since sales are not for a limited number of people, but for all
potential buyers, some of whom were unaware of the Saturday auction; and (3) it was impossible for the association as such to bid on the granary in July, for it acquired legal status only in August. Thus, the quasi-council could bid only as private individuals, which would mean they had no grounds for suspending the auction to consult with anyone else. The lawyer emphasized that the manner of the auction contravened the interests of the public and of the former CAP members since the lack of publicity kept potentially higher-bidding participants from attending, and this reduced the proceeds from the sale that could be distributed to villagers.
The defense lawyer rejected the suit, saying that (1) the plaintiff could have bid on Saturday (he had done so for earlier purchases), but did not; (2) as someone pursuing a private outcome, he was not legally qualified to sue in the public interest; and (3) because article 28 of Law 18 specifies that the fixed assets of CAPs automatically become the property of associations, the granary need never have been put up for auction at all. The lawyer called into question the very notion of "public good" used by the prosecution, asking whose interests were to be protected by wide publicity—those of people in cities and towns far from the place where things are being sold, who would have little reason to want a granary in a small village and might do antisocial things with it?
The summaries made it clear that completely different principles were at war in this case. One was that because article 28 of Law 18 privileged new collective forms, the auction need never have occurred, in which case all the other arguments were moot. Upholding the law in the broadest sense was thus compatible with ruling against the plaintiff. Alternatively, because Law 18 gave precise instructions about the conduct of auctions (and these had clearly, in my view, been breached), one could argue that it would be upholding the law to rule in the plaintiff's favor. There was also the matter of the association's legal status at the time of the auction, which might or might not be seen as adequate to qualify it for inclusion under article 28 of Law 18. Then there were questions about just what it means to defend the public good: How should one construe the "interested public" for purposes of selling off collective property, how broad should that public be, and who is qualified to defend its interest?
The question of the public good turned out to be decisive, as I learned from conversations with the presiding judge after she ruled against the plaintiff and dismissed the case. Her reasons, as she explained them to me, were these. First, given the provisions of Law 18, article 28, the whole auction was unnecessary. While acknowledging that she could have ruled against the association since it had no jural status at the time of the auction, she preferred to see the evidence that it was forming as sufficient grounds for applying article 28 and awarding it the CAP's fixed property. Behind this preference stood, second, her belief that the law should protect the interest of the greater
number—the members of the association, rather than a single individual. In this case the plaintiff could not claim to be defending the social interest himself, for a larger social interest was represented by the defendants, and he could not sue for protection of his personal interest, since he had forfeited this by not bidding on Saturday when he had the chance.
Whatever the reasons for the judge's decision may have been,11 the effect of her decision was to deny legal sanction to those who would have moved an object from an ambiguous status, subject to overlapping claims and rights on the part of individual owners and collectivity, into Ionescu' s clearly defined, exclusive private ownership. By her decision, the granary remained the property of the association, belonging to all and managed by their representatives. It thus joined the larger patrimony of collective property in Romania that includes associations, state farms, and other state-owned enterprises. Each member had a claim on it—in fact multiple claims, motivated not only by their present share in the revenues that might help maintain it, but also by conceptions about the role of labor in property owning. Here the goals of the judge, local authorities, and association leaders that intersected in ruling the granary a collective good coincided with conceptions and values held by many villagers.
As I went on my rounds during these weeks, the trial was a prime topic of conversation, and the overwhelming opinion was that the association ought to win. Included in the file for the case was a full list of association members, over 70 of whom (65 percent) had signed a statement expressing the widespread view that the granary had been built with their labor, and they in no way agreed that it should become Ionescu's property. After the verdict, I heard repeatedly one or more elements of the following collective opinion: "It's very good that he lost the trial. He never worked in the CAP a day in his life. We all built that granary; it was hard work, and he didn't do any of it. There are many of us; we aren't a single person trying to become rich overnight! He's the kind of person who never really liked to work, was always looking for a way to get by easy—he even boasted he'd get this granary and never have to work again, just live off the interest! He's not even from here. Why should it go to a single individual, when it's the work of all of us and we need it? You can't give the wealth of everyone to a single person!"12 Only 4 people (of the over 30 families from whom I noted an opinion) dissented from such views, and each had good reason. About half the villagers who expressed an opinion against Ionescu were members of the association; most of the others had received some land and were farming it themselves. A small number were inmigrants (like Ionescu) who had received no land, had little
possibility of benefiting from the granary, and thus might have sided with him. But even among these people, many saw the granary as a public good, usable (for a fee) not just by the association and its members, but by anyone.
The widespread opposition to Ionescu's suit, then, did not rest chiefly on the prospect of benefiting from the granary if he lost, even though the structure's utility was clearly significant to people. Nor was it a simple question of locals against inmigrants, although this division did play a role. Rather, I believe, it was a reaction against certain aspects of the construction of capitalist individualism that Ionescu unfortunately represented, as well as against the associated notion of private property. Implicated in both are deeply held values concerning community and the definition of self in relation to work. To explain this, and to show why Ionescu's suit catalyzed so vigorous a reaction among his fellow villagers, I should say a further word on his personal characteristics.
Ionescu is not a native-born Vlaicean; he comes from a neighboring village, whence he married into Vlaicu in the 1960s. His in-laws likewise are not natives of Vlaicu, but moved there from a hill village; by local status conceptions, they are "strangers" [straini], "inmovers" [veniti or venituri] of relatively poor hillbilly origin, held in some contempt by the locals. Having no land, the family gave nothing to the collective farm at its formation and were not regular members of it. Ionescu himself had served as the village bus driver during the 1970s and had gained a certain sympathy; this was easily reversed, however, following his 1980 visit to a brother in the United States, from which he returned full of "American'' ideas about how to get rich without working hard. From then on, he conformed to the stereotype of capitalist enrichment that was central to Communist Party propaganda. Vlaicenii had been laughing for years behind his back at his plans for one or another venture in which other people would put in the effort and he would "contribute the brains" and get the profits.
Why are these details significant? They illuminate the system of self-conceptions and social boundaries within which Vlaicenii constructed the public good and the public property that would serve it. The core of the village's reaction to Ionescu's case (echoing language used by the judge in her conversations with me) was that the granary is a public good and should not be monopolized by a single person. It is a public good not because it was part of the collective farm, but because it embodies the labor of those who lived in the village when the collective was formed in 1959. Those villagers built the buildings of the CAP in their "free" time, through "voluntary" labor, with coercive work norms to urge their voluntarism along. In a certain sense, these buildings embody the common suffering of all those who lost land to the collective: the structures were the result of everyone's combined labor, but alongside their sweat were blood and tears. Anyone (such as Ionescu) who did not participate in that experience but wants to appropriate its results finds himself facing the community from the outside.
This notion that the structures of the CAP in some sense represent villagers' personal substance appeared in the comment of a local functionary who observed, concerning the looting of the CAP buildings in many settlements throughout Romania, "The buildings of the CAP weren't communist, they were people's work!" The same notion appears even more starkly in the procedure by which villagers in Noul Român (in southern Romania) decided to dismantle their CAP buildings: they marked off with a tape measure separate sections for each family, the area corresponding precisely to the amount of work each family had given to the collective; each family then took the building materials from its section.13 Similar procedures occurred elsewhere.
The same connection between owning and working appears in villagers' opposition to Ionescu as "lazy," as "not liking to work." People drew a contrast between we who work and he who is lazy. More to the point: he wants to be lazy at our expense. Vlaicenii could get positively apoplectic at the rumor that Ionescu would buy the granary and then rent it back to people to store their grain; thus, they would sweat in the fields, and he would sit with his feet up, profiting from their efforts in the present as well as in the past. Community property would thus be used to exploit community members. One woman put the problem thus: "The whole village is saying, 'Why should he get the results of our work?"' In short, private appropriation from the fruits of collective labor is wrong. The rumor about Ionescu's intentions fueled his difficulties, then, because the villagers so strongly associate possession with work.14 From among numerous comments supportive of this point I cite one woman's succinct summary in telling me why a certain piece of land should belong to her: "It's mine because I worked it" . We can only conclude that John Locke is alive and well in Transylvania.
Public reaction against Ionescu therefore rested on property conceptions involving notions of "community" and "person" and how self is formed in relation to these. Central to both were concepts of kinship and labor: Ionescu was placed outside the boundaries of community because he acted (or was suspected of acting) individualistically, like someone with no kin, and because he was seen as not valuing labor and the things built up from it; nor was his labor embodied in the public goods he wished to appropriate. Also at issue, I believe, was the larger—and very painful—process of seeking meaning for ruined lives. All the villagers and especially the elderly, who lived through the devastating experience of collectivization that many felt as a live amputation, are struggling to recast and revalorize the past 40 years. For these purposes, ideas about work, possession, social embeddedness, and community are vital.
After the judge's decision, feeling subsided except among Ionescu and his few allies, who protested that the judge was a "communist" and the legal process in Romania a farce. One of them complained that the so-called collective interest should not overwhelm respect for correct procedure. Others summed up the collective-vs.-individual issue by observing that Ionescu had erred in thinking he could take on the whole village. More unnerving was the word that spread from those opposed to Ionescu's plans. Several villagers had sworn, it was said, that had he won the trial, they would have burned down the granary rather than have it become his. From this we see clearly the depth of the passions the case aroused over matters of owning, public vs. private, destruction, and appropriated work.
The above discussion has shown that many of the villagers preferred to maintain a situation of ambiguous and overlapping property rights rather than promote their disaggregation: instead of entering the exclusive private ownership of any one person, the granary remained "ours," with pieces of our work embedded in it. The reasons for this preference, I have argued, relate in part to the benefits villagers saw in having a collectively owned structure they could use in the absence of proper storage facilities of their own; that is, the lack of a storage and distribution infrastructure directly affected their interest in the building. At least as important, however, were people's sentiments about work, self, and the acceptable appropriation of the fruits of their labor—sentiments marshaled in revalorizing fractured lives and recreating meaning. It was not villagers' preferences and strivings, of course, but those of the judge that determined the trial's outcome. And although her reasons emphasized defense of the public good—which she did not see as resting in individual private property relations—more than ideas about self and work, "property" for both her and the villagers emerges with a distinctively collective coloring.
Because judge's and villagers' preferences intersected in the judge's decision, most villagers had the sense that justice was done. For them, the trial built credibility for the legal system and the larger political order behind it, legitimating certain communal values over those of exclusive individual ownership and gain. These values were reinforced not because of a corrupt, captive, or Stalinist judiciary, but because the trial mobilized deeply held senses of self and valued notions about community.
What does the discussion in this chapter suggest about ownership, about the relations we think of as property, and about the transition? First, it underscores the truth, easily forgotten, that property is about social relations, relations among persons rather than between persons and things. It shows that one cannot set things off as wholly separate from the persons who exercise prop-
erty rights, for property is also about self and definitions of selfhood: it is about relative investments of activity and of self in things, and about the sense of worth entailed in these investments. Property is therefore about the boundaries between self and nonself—and, as this discussion has shown, such "self" is not necessarily individual, but can also be collective. Property understood collectively lacks the clear edges of an ideologized notion of exclusive private ownership; it is, in this sense, fuzzy.
Second, the discussion suggests that post-communist ownership patterns generate these kinds of fuzziness because of the complexly overlapping rights, obligations, and claims that emerge from communist property relations. These rights and claims have just begun to crystallize into routines and practices, and what should be "bundles of powers" are still far from empowering. In part, property remains fuzzy because people prefer arrangements that obscure individual liability and separate obligations from assets in conditions of general economic uncertainty (Stark, 1996:1019-1021). We might express the point in a metaphor: just as the crystallization of a snowflake depends on the ambient temperature, the crystallization of exclusive private ownership depends on the ambient conditions and the relations among actors in an overall field of power; thus, to see the snowflake itself as representing property is inapt (we might say it is just the tip of the iceberg). This point and the preceding one together suggest that to understand post-communist property, we must look beyond both things and the rights claimed to them, focusing instead on meanings, relations, and powers.
Finally, this discussion shows the transition as a process in which new constellations of possibility and constraint work on notions of value, both inherited and emergent, to produce post-communist property regimes with only a messy relationship to their Western blueprint. The changes inaugurated in 1989 created new fields of action in which communism's legacies—such as forms of collectivism—are not simply reproduced; they are revalorized within the struggles that mobilize them. Before Ionescu's trial, if a different kind of person with a different project had bid on the Vlaicu granary, it is quite possible that the villagers would not have defended collective rights with such vigor. After the trial, however, I believe that definition of rights became more robust. Here is where ethnography—ethnography not just of but in the transition—is unparalleled as a path into histories of the future.
Appel, H. 1995 Justice and the reformulation of property rights in the Czech Republic. East European Politics and Societies 9(1):22-40.
Comisso, E. 1991 Property rights, liberalism, and the transition from "actually existing" socialism . East European Politics and Societies 5(1): 162-188.
Cornea, A. 1993 Directocratia remaniazu guvernul. 22 5(16-22 March):7-8.
Frydman, R., and A. Rapaczynski 1994 Privatization in Eastern Europe: Is the State Withering Away? Budapest/London/ New York: Central European University Press.
Frydman, R., A. Rapaczynski, J.S. Earle, et al. 1993 The Privatization Process in Central Europe. Budapest/London/New York: Central European University Press.
Ghani, A. 1996 Production and Reproduction of Property as a Bundle of Powers: Afghanistan 1774-1901. Paper presented at the Agrarian Studies Program, Yale University, New Haven, CT.
Gluckman, M. 1943 Essays on Lozi Land and Royal Property. Rhodes-Livingston papers, no. 10. Livingston, Northern Rhodesia: Rhodes-Livingston Institute.
Hann, C.M. 1993 From production to property: Decollectivization and the family-land relationship in contemporary Hungary. Man 28:299-320.
Kiss, Y. 1994 Privatization paradoxes in East Central Europe. East European Politics and Societies 8:122-152.
Lampland, M. 1995 The Object of Labor: Commodification in Socialist Hungary. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Staniszkis, J. 1991 "Political capitalism" in Poland. East European Politics and Societies 5(1): 127-141.
Stark, D. 1992 Path dependence and privatization strategies in East Central Europe. East European Politics and Societies 6(1): 17-54.
1996 Recombinant property in East European capitalism. American Journal of Sociology 101 (4):993-1027.
Verdery, K. 1994 The elasticity of land: Problems of property restitution in Transylvania. Slavic Review 53(4): 1071-1109.
1998 Disambiguating ownership: Rights and power in Transylvania's decollectivation. In Property Relations: Reviewing the Anthropological Tradition, C.M. Hann, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.