Anthropological Quarterly 77.4 (2004) 871-875
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This is a counter story to those that viewed the collapse of socialism as the creation of a tabula rasa. In the early 1990s, privatisation and the creation of new property rights were made central to the installation of market democracy and kit-form capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe. Progress could be judged according to how far a state had relinquished its old powers, which in turn could be seen in the number of new private enterprises or the amount of foreign direct investment. Unlike other accounts of the transition, Katherine Verdery has no problem in starting from the premise that private property was a profoundly ideological concept that served to embed these countries in global transformations in labour, value and the accumulation of capital. In addition and also unusually, the author is one of the few commentators to take seriously the fact that socialism had its own property system with its own rules, estates and powers.
The importance of the shift in emphasis is made clear through a detailed ethnography of the experience of land reform, as seen through the eyes of peasant households, sharecroppers, agricultural associations and state farm directors in a Romanian village called Aurel Vlaicu. The result is an at times moving account of the difficulties people faced in establishing 'effective ownership' over land throughout the 1990s. For some, this struggle simply proved too great and [End Page 871] they ended the decade resigned to the sale of their land and embittered that what had once meant so much to them had turned out to be worthless. The persuasiveness of Verdery's account is that it draws on her first hand witness of the socialist system, its collapse and the transition beyond. She is able to show how the collective farm worked, how the former owners simply reclaimed their old lands in 1990, how the center attempted to place some order on the whole process so that everyone got at least something and the finally, the fairly depressing consequences of its failure to ensure this happened. The 'reconstitution and the constitution' of property as the main land law put it, was supposed to lay the foundation for prosperity via a mixed system of commercial and family farming. And yet, as the book concludes, for the majority of Transylvanian villagers, this simply never happened.
For Verdery, the ability to convert land into a valuable, income generating, status-giving asset is not only a matter of individual skill and capital resources. As the author demonstrates in an abundant series of case studies, establishing significant value is also a product of social relations. The fate of the first post-collective agricultural association, for example, was heavily determined by local suspicion that it was 'just another collective' and that its managers would similarly enrich themselves off the backs of the members. Acutely conscious of this 'trust deficit' the association's managers did all they could, at least in the early 1990s, to prove that they were not just another collective. In practice, this meant paying the members so much by way of rent that there was virtually nothing left for investment, thereby undermining the long-term viability of the association.
Verdery is keen to set the struggles over land in Aurel Vlaicu in the context of the wider social and economic transformation of central and eastern Europe. Foreign advisors and international organisations played a significant role is pushing for privatisation and almost every country in the region embarked on some such reform. In this regard, 'The Vanishing Hectare' is a good account of individuals and groups not doing what was expected of them. Verdery's closeness to the village and her repeated visits allow her to answer questions that others couldn't. Why did former the landowners insist on the return of land in plots that were often several miles apart? Wouldn't it be easier for farming if the land...