Eastern European racial capitalism

Romania’s economy is built on the expropriation of unfree Roma labor. It is time for reparations.


On the grounds of one of Romania’s most famous monasteries, Cozia, stands an intriguing well. The inside of its walls is decorated by four statues, depicting the heads of a Hungarian, an Ottoman, a Wallachian Prince, and an enslaved Roma man. If the first two represent the enemies that the third defeated, the presence of the last statue might seem surprising. Historian Petre Petcuț, however, proposes an explanation: the Roma enslaved by the Cozia Monastery might have provided the labor for the 1517 renovation works that also saw the building of the well, a labor chronicled in the statuary record.

That the presence of this statue might come as a surprise is due to the collective forgetting and denial of Romanian chattel slavery. Indeed, the Cozia Monastery is the setting for the first historical mention of enslaved Roma on the territory of modern Romania: in 1388, Wallachian Prince Mircea the Elder gifted the Monastery 300 enslaved families. From the Middle Ages to the final abolition act of 1856, the unfree labor of the Roma was essential for Wallachia’s and Moldova’s economies, while racialized precarity is part of Romanian capitalism to this day.

A regime of coerced labor

The Roma in Wallachia and Moldova, two of Romania’s precursor states, were enslaved by the Crown, by the Orthodox Church, and by the nobility. Many were forced to labor in the fields and to maintain the vast domains of noblemen and monasteries. Others worked as skilled craftsmen, an economic domain that was virtually exclusively Roma during the Middle Ages. Some of them, as well as the Roma enslaved by the Crown to mine precious salt or pan for gold, would lead a nomadic lifestyle. Regardless of where they worked and by whom they were enslaved, the Roma all shared the same condition. They could be sold, gifted, sexually abused, or punished in any way the enslaver desired. And, according to the law, their children would be born into slavery.

During the Romanian Middle Ages, the Roma were marked as different because of their origins, language, and religion. As scientific racism was developing in Europe and the Americas in the 18th century, Roma enslavement too became racialized. But, as with other examples of slavery, racialization came as “part of a labor regime with an elaborate infrastructure.” Unfree, violently coerced labor built Romanian monasteries and courts. The crops, gold, salt, and craft and luxury products that created the wealth of noblemen, princes and the church were similarly the result of enslaved labor. This accumulation of wealth constituted the foundation of modern Romanian states’ capitalist economies and markets.

The study of capitalism’s dependence on unfree labor has a long history, especially in the Atlantic world. One of its milestones is the 1944 publication of Capitalism and Slavery, written by radical historian Eric Williams, later the first prime-minister of Trinidad and Tobago. In this book, Williams argues that not only had the Industrial Revolution been built on the labor of enslaved Africans, but abolition itself came when it was an economic necessity for the British Empire.

There are, of course, major differences between the histories of slavery in the Caribbean and the Romanian states. But, in this respect they are similar. After centuries of Roma resistance and maroonage, Romanian noblemen and politicians finally abolished slavery in the mid-19th century. This happened against the background of moral pressure from Western Europe, as the “shame” of being the last slaveholders on European soil was a common trope in abolitionist discourse. But it was also the result of economic pressure and part of the transition toward capitalism. In the same Western Europe, wealth was being produced in large-scale agriculture, factories, and trade. A mode of production based on enslaved labor could not function this close to the core of the capitalist world. Modern Romanian entrepreneurs needed employees, not enslaved people tied to monasteries and noblemen. Perhaps more importantly, early Romanian capitalists also needed the essential skills of nomadic craftsmen, especially the Roma blacksmiths. For them, abolition was followed by constant efforts at forced sedentarization and employment.

Roma laborers under capitalism and communism

It is no surprise that the Roma received no property or compensation after emancipation. “Free in the double sense” of being able to enter employment and having nothing else to sell but their labor power, they had no choice but to work for their former masters. Either at the center of budding industries or precariously employed in agriculture, Roma labor remained foundational to the Romanian economy. Some emancipated Roma continued to practice their crafts through towns and villages, but by the end of World War I, most were replaced by industrial production.

The Roma were nevertheless still marginalized within, or excluded from, the working class. Racialized differentiation and violence culminated in the horrors of the Porajmos. Afterwards, communism partially interrupted the precarization of Roma laborers. Through industrialization and collectivization, marginalized Roma workers were offered permanent employment. This employment, however, was in heavy industrial and agricultural labor, with still insufficient remuneration. Moreover, the “colorblind” communist approach to ethnic differences meant that racism was merely swept under the rug. This exploded after 1989, when pent-up racial resentment, together with political and economic uncertainty, triggered ethnic clashes throughout Romania, including anti-Roma pogroms that continued into the 2000s. Having entered communism with little to no property, Roma families also had little to gain from Romania’s rabid privatization. With no employment and no intergenerational wealth, the Roma were once again marginalized within Romania’s newly capitalist economy.

This economy nevertheless still depends on precarious, underpaid, and seasonal employment. Especially in constructions or agriculture (be it industrial or small-scale), informal employment predominates, without contracts, taxes, or social protections. Despite the stigmatizing discourse accusing Roma people of laziness and of lacking a “culture of work,” these sectors of the economy would simply not be profitable without precarious labor. Because of its structural expropriation of marginalized labor, capitalism coopts and reproduces racialized differentiations within the working class. In Romania, the Roma occupy these precarious margins as the result of centuries of slavery, economic coercion, racial violence, and geographic segregation. Of course, the masking of such structural divides under moralizing discourses is not without its purpose. By blaming the Roma, Romanian workers can look down on an inferior class that makes their own position look more stable and keeps them from identifying the structural sources of Romania’s poverty and corruption.

Toward reparations?

In the Americas, awareness of how slavery and colonialism built the wealth of the US and Europe led to calls for reparations. If the coerced work of African Americans made the US into what it is today, then they deserve a bigger slice of the pie; or, at the very least, acknowledgments and apologies. In Romania, this consciousness is still being born, due to the tireless work of Roma and gadjo (non-Roma) activists and scholars. Still, reparations are already being demanded. Political activist Ciprian Necula puts forth a “rough calculation,” as “an illustration of a potential direct contribution of the Roma over the centuries as slaves:”

“266,335 (slaves [recorded as being emancipated]) x 471 (years) x 365 (days) x 5.4 Euro (minimum [wage] per day) =247,249,700,235 Euro”

This is the money that the Roma did not receive for their work. As Necula notes, this is higher than Romania’s GDP, showing the “dimension of the contribution of Roma – with their own hands and skills – to modern Romania.” Margareta Matache, an activist and Harvard researcher, is another prominent supporter of reparations. She highlights the lack of acknowledgement and reconciliation efforts from the Romanian state, from the Orthodox Church, and from Romanian civil society. All these add up to a continuation of racial violence, one that erupted to new heights during the Covid pandemic.

Eastern European whiteness is complicated and ambiguous, but, at least in Romania, it can be better understood as what Matache calls gadjo-ness. Gadjo-ness is built on a foundation of anti-Roma racism and through an erasure of histories of violence and oppression. Gadjo-ness is also embedded in a material system, placing some in positions of domination and economic advantage over others. Romania (and not just Romania) was built, sometimes quite literally, by enslaved Roma people, and gadje benefit from this to this day. This history of Romanian slavery, of Eastern European racial capitalism, and the consequences that it has on European anti-Roma racism to this day can no longer be denied.