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  • Writer's pictureIrina Percemli

Survival and survivance: the struggle of the oppressed around the world

The survival of languages, cultures, and native communities is a widespread concern in contemporary societies. In this article, Irina Percemli contemplates how the struggle for survival stems from a world order based on oppression, exploitation and inequality, reflecting on lectures from the Europaeum Winter School.  


Irina Percemli


Survival is the primary concern of any living being on our planet. But when we talk about survival in the context of human societies, it is not only about the straightforward struggle against physical threats, but also political, cultural and linguistic survival. 

Many cultures, languages and communities today are on the verge of extinction. Being myself a representative of the Gagauz (a very small Turkic minority in the south of Moldova), I was highly enthusiastic to take part in the Europaeum Winter School at the University of Tartu, called “Survivance and Survival: Theory and Method”


Survival’s meaning is obvious, but survivance, for me, was a concept unheard of until now. It is a term used in Native American studies, coined by Gerald Vizenor, a cultural theorist. With some saying it combines the words survival+resistance or survival+endurance, the term denotes the agency and active effort of the native communities to shape their lives and refashion their cultures for the modern age. Vizenor came up with this term to counter the defeatist image of passive “survivors” subsisting in the ruins of their heritage or the past.


At first, I was expecting this school to give me concrete strategies to preserve and revitalise my native language, as my own presentation for the school was about the Gagauz language, identity and politics. But as we progressed through the intensive one-week programme, engaging with scholars and students from the fields of anthropology, linguistics, art studies, sociology and political science, I started to reflect deeper on the interconnectedness and similarities among many seemingly unrelated issues in different parts of the world. 


In this article, I try to connect the dots, using my insights from the lectures and seminars to show how different topics converge and intersect, exposing the core problem of our world — a system based on power relations, exploitation and inequality. Of course, capturing the brilliance of every expert and participant within this brief word count is impossible. I will use examples that were most striking and illustrative for me to demonstrate that the necessity for survival stems from oppression. And this oppression is what we need to address before anything else. 


Whose survival?


As wars continue to rage in Ukraine, Palestine, Sudan and many other corners of the world, the concept of survival adopts a tragically literal meaning — survival against the threat of physical extermination. Interestingly, the Winter School chose not to engage with these matters. Instead, it focused more on the aspects of cultural and linguistic survival in many other parts of the world. It is not clear whether it was an accidental or deliberate avoidance of sensitive topics, but I think it is essential to acknowledge the struggle of people persecuted and killed by the state and military interventions right in front of our eyes every day. Their fight for survival is the gravest of all, and it was off-putting that an academic event with an evident post-colonial angle omitted the neo-imperial and neo-colonial powers of today. 


Still, the lectures offered a fascinating glimpse into diverse struggles: reclaiming sacred objects by the native communities, reviving endangered languages, navigating the precarious world of gig work, and confronting collective trauma. One workshop, led by Dr. Marton Rovid, delved into the racial injustices faced by Roma people. Notably, a student presentation by Symrun Razaque tackled the critical issue of women's survival.


Looking closer, a pattern emerges. Those fighting for survival are invariably the oppressed: ethnic minorities, linguistic minorities, and marginalised groups such as the Roma, who have endured centuries of slavery, discrimination, and racism. The root cause? Social injustice and entrenched power structures. These themes resonated throughout the event. 


Going beneath the surface


Examining these groups further reveals another link – their powerlessness. It's no coincidence. Power is systematically stripped away, their very oppression serving to maintain the status quo. From Roma slaves in Romanian kingdoms to the exploitation of women under patriarchy to the extraction of resources from colonised lands – all fueled by the need to sustain a system built on oppression. Like endangered species, these groups aren't victims of random misfortune; their struggles are human-made crises.


So, where should we focus our attention when talking about survival? Let's look at languages, for instance. Linguists estimate that over 3000 languages today are endangered. That makes up 43% of all the languages spoken in the world today. With thousands facing extinction, some argue this is “natural selection”. Academics race to document them before they disappear. Indigenous communities argue that extinction concerns not only language but also culture in all its aspects.  However, this focus completely omits the deeper structural reasons behind the endangerment of languages: the history of colonialism and capitalist development. There is a simple truth: the language is “dying” when there are no speakers left. And what might be the reasons for that?


Take Gagauz, a Turkic minority language in southern Moldova, my own heritage. Russification policies, driven by Tsarist and Soviet imperialism, stifled its preservation. Today, revitalisation efforts face hurdles. Russian remains dominant in commerce and education, offering little upward mobility for Gagauz speakers. As Gagauzia remains Moldova's poorest, non-industrialised rural area, the language becomes associated with poverty and a lack of education. Here, Professor Julia Sallabank's point rings true: we must challenge this association. Perhaps economic empowerment for oppressed communities should precede language revival efforts?


While aiming to empower marginalised communities, language activists and academics are often influenced by hegemonic ideologies that further disenfranchise community members. The very concept of "taming" a language – defining, classifying, and documenting it – is a Western construct mirroring the colonial project of "one nation, one language." Addressing endangered languages requires acknowledging the lasting legacy of colonialism and state violence, which is still present in places like China's Xinjiang province, where Uyghur communities are oppressed by the state.



Tweet by Dr Gerald Roche, an anthropologist at La Trobe University, researching language politics in Asia


Another battleground is the restitution discourse – reclaiming cultural artefacts stolen or appropriated during colonial times. Activists fighting for their return are framed as "plea makers," while Western powers returning them are positioned as "benevolent actors." This narrative conveniently overlooks the historical context of capitalist plunder and the ongoing economic exploitation of the Global South. A deeper analysis exposes this power imbalance, revealing it as a continuation of colonial domination by other means.


Ideologies of division and disguise


As seen above, the world order we live in today is based on exploitation. But how does this system persist? There are structures to maintain it, which grant benefits to some people, even if not to the same degree. States and corporations are the apparent winners, along with those who enjoy a relatively privileged position within the system, forming a kind of "labour aristocracy."


Ideologies also play a significant role. In her lecture “In the Name of the People”, Dr. Lucie Piekarska argued for a post-colonial approach to studying populism. The tactics used to divide people today echo those employed by colonial powers. Populist narratives offer simplistic answers and a sense of stability, especially to the discontented, deflecting attention from the core issue – growing inequality and exploitation. Populism is a tool for wielding power, mirroring colonial strategies.


In addition to the ideologies that divide people and legitimise inequalities, there are also ones that disguise reality, obstructing the fight against exploitation. Dr Annie McClanahan's analysis of contemporary literature highlighted the romanticised portrayal of gig workers as free and mobile, akin to sailors of the 19th century or truck drivers. The reality is starkly different. Gig work such as Uber driving or delivery translates to underpaid, precarious jobs with immense competition and control disguised as freedom. 


In contrast to romanticised novels, an art installation by Eugenia Lim called “On Demand” gives voice to actual “independent contractors” — people who work in the gig economy and tell their stories. These workers are not free; they struggle to survive on the edge, further exploited by a system in which we, the customers, become complicit. They come from already disadvantaged groups – immigrants, refugees, specific ethnicities, often women.



An art installation “On Demand” (2019) by Eugenia Lim, made in collaboration with workers from the gig economy: a pedal-powered video work considering work, labour, solidarity and movement


To sum up, the survival of languages, communities, and entire ethnicities is inextricably linked to oppression. This oppression forms a crucial part of the current world order, built on the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful. It's about economic exploitation at its core. From the struggles of marginalised communities worldwide to the vast majority who own a minuscule fraction of global wealth, this is no accident. It's all connected – a legacy of colonialism and exploitation that still continues today in our neoliberal variation of the capitalist mode of production. Only by addressing this broader picture can we understand why so many people and groups today are struggling to survive. 


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