Sleepless in Szczecin: what’s the matter with Poland?

About the author

The party of Poland's prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski is, from the evidence of the immediate pre-election opinon surveys, unlikely to emerge victorious in the parliamentary elections of 21 October 2007. Even if it does not, the appropriate frontpage headline in Le Monde in the aftermath might be a variant of its post-9/11 declaration of solidarity: "We are all Poles now".

The global drama and the human damage of the two situations may be incomparable but the sense of engagement and confusion is not. Europe in these tense pre-election days in indeed painfully asking: what's the matter with Poland? Citizens of many countries In western Europe are becoming as acquainted with the bizarre circumstances of Polish politics as are their new neighbours from the large, mainly young Polish diaspora.

The prospect of Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice / PiS) winning a parliamentary majority, two years after it took office in the aftermath of the elections of September 2005, makes many people outside and inside Poland uneasy about the future of democracy in central Europe. In this period, the Kaczynski government - part of a structure of power which includes Jaroslaw's twin-brother Lech as president of Poland - has earned the disapproval of many critics: from international watchdog organisations (over its attacks on the independent judiciary and the central bank, and its infringement of the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities) to local journalists and civil-society groups (over its politicisation of state institutions and curtailment of the media's independence).

The Kaczyński administration's efforts to centralise power have had damaging effects in the public and political culture as well as on social institutions. The everyday language of politics has become full of confrontation, recrimination, and accusation. In the words of the veteran dissident and forensic critic of the government, Adam Michnik, the Kaczynski coalition has employed a peculiar mix of the conservative rhetoric of George W Bush and the authoritarian political practice of Vladimir Putin. This trademark style - polarising, provocative attention-seeking - has contributed to Poland's effective (agreement on the reform treaty on 18-19 October notwithstanding) isolation in the European Union.

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. He served as the executive director of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by Giuliano Amato

Also by Ivan Krastev in openDemocracy:

"We are all Brits today: Timothy Garton Ash's Free World" (7 September 2004)

"Ukraine and Europe: a fatal attraction" (16 December 2004)

"The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?" (8 June 2005)

"Russia's post-orange empire" (20 October 2005)

"The new Europe: respectable populism, clockwork liberalism" (21 March 2006)

"The end of the ‘freedom century'" (27 April 2006)

"The energy route to Russia democracy" (13 June 2006)

"Between elite and people: Europe's black hole" (4 August 2006)

"'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style" (16 November 2006)

"Europe's new Ostpolitik: a Polish echo" (21 December 2006)

In this sense, the election-eve moment in 2007 looks even bleaker compared with 2005. The electoral victory of a populist party is bad luck for any democracy. But the re-election of a populist government - and more, of a government widely credited with a disastrous performance - would feel like more than bad luck or even bad taste. It would be a bad omen, and a new game, for Poland and perhaps for Europe as whole.

What, then, is going on? Is Poland moving back to the 1930s, when democracy was weak, nationalism was strong and people looked for saviours? Will Jaroslaw Kaczynski's electoral success inspire a new populist wave in the region? Will Viktor Orban be encouraged to move further to the right in Hungarian politics, and Slovakia's soft populists shift further in a chauvinist direction? Is this period witnessing the emergence of "Weimar" in central Europe?

The Weimar phantom

In the discourse of European liberals especially, the Polish populist right has acquired the features of what Umberto Eco calls "eternal fascism" in civilian clothes. This "Ur-fascism" has six main characteristics:

* a cult of tradition and rejection of modernisation

* irrationalism and anti-intellectualism

* an appeal to the frustrated middle class

* an obsession with conspiracy, anti-Semitism and anti-pluralism

* violent anti-liberalism.

The raw list makes clear that, as serious as the situation in Poland is, the comparison with Weimar Germany is intellectually misleading and morally questionable.

In present central Europe, unlike Europe in the 1930s, there is no ideological alternative to democracy. The economies of the region are not stagnating but booming; standards of living are rising and unemployment is declining. The streets of Budapest and Warsaw today are floating on a tide not of ruthless paramilitary formations in search of a final solution but of restless consumers in search of a final sale. The widespread populist rhetoric is not matched by populist policies - at least in the economic sphere, where (in Poland and Slovakia, for example) the governments' approach is similar to that of their liberal predecessors.

In fact, Jaroslaw Kaczynski's economic policy is notable by its absence: what he has instead is an anti-corruption policy. He and his PiS seem to believe that the "reform" Poland needs amounts to arresting some of the rich and the powerful (preferably in front of the TV cameras). This government-by-spectacle reveals the source of the PiS's "success": capturing the imagination of the losers of the transition without threatening the interests of the new middle class. But it also indicates where the heart of the current political turmoil in the region lies: not in the strength of the right (whose support barely exceeds more than 10% of eligible votes) but in the political impotence of the liberals.

The question that should leave liberals from Szczecin to Santander sleepless is not "why is populism on the rise?" but "why is there is no substantial anti-Kaczynski mobilisation in Poland?"

The troubles of transition

What turned Polish liberals into intellectual and political heroes in the 1980s was their anti-communist anti-politics. At the core of their failure today is their post-communist anti-politics. By presenting their policies not so much as "good" ones but as necessary ones, not as "desirable" but as "rational", liberal elites - in power, and now out of it - left society no acceptable way to protest or express dissatisfaction. The result is that liberalism has become the identical twin of the status quo - and this makes it defenceless against the attack of the Kaczynski twins.

Among openDemocracy many articles on Poland's politics and governance:

Adam Szostkiewicz, "The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

Karolina Gniewowska, "The Polish minefield" (23 September 2005)

Neal Ascherson, "Poland's interregnum" (30 September 2005)

Marek Kohn, "Poland's beacon for Europe" (25 October 2005)

Krzysztof Bobinski,"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

Neal Ascherson, "Catholic Poland's anguish" (11 January 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "The Polish dictionary" (22 August 2007)
It is the ambiguous nature of the post-1989 transition - rather than liberal ideology per se - that is at the centre of the current revolt against liberalism in central Europe. In historical perspective, the transition was D-Day for central Europe. Post-communist societies did it all - peacefully transforming the communist system, building democratic and market institutions, producing economic wealth and - finally, in 2004 and 2007 - joining the European Union.

At the same time, many lives were destroyed and many hopes were betrayed in the time of transition. By the late 1990s, the typical Polish suicide-victim was not a teenager in an existential crisis but a married man in his early 40s living in one of the myriad small towns and villages where state firms and farm bankruptcies combined with the collapse of the old welfare state to produce a particularly searing kind of despair. The fact that the major winners of the transition were the educated and well-connected members of the old nomenklatura only drained the transition of moral acceptability.

The original sin of the post-communist democracies lay in the circumstances of their victory: one that belonged to the anti-egalitarian consensus of both the communist elite and the anti-communist counter-elite. In the complex transition dance, ex-communists were anti-egalitarian because of their interests, while liberals were anti-egalitarian because of their anti-communism.

The troubled child of this union, visible in Poland today, is not post-communist pathology but a profound transformation in the nature of liberal democracies in Europe (and not only in Europe). Poland, a pioneer of the transition in 1989 and after, is once again in the vanguard: it is revealing that the cold-war liberal democracies of western Europe can no longer serve as a model for central Europe.

No choice, but a voice

In the new environment of global economic competition and an integrated European market, economic decision-making has in practice become disconnected from the reality of electoral politics. The demise of the welfare state has eroded the foundations of the classic, post-1945 liberal democracies. This process has a particular configuration in central Europe, where (as David Ost argues) the post-transition weakness of the labour-force contributed to a situation where emerging class conflicts became articulated as conflicts over identity rather than interests; this reinforced an illiberal political culture that haunted the region's democratisation process. The logic, in Ost's view, is that democratically minded pro-market reformers who wish to avoid illiberal outcomes should have supported the mobilisation of anger around class (not ethnic, national or minority-group) conflict.

Instead, post-communist liberals adopted a strategy of demobilising society in order to ease the institutionalisation of the market. This, the prioritisation of capitalism-building over democracy-building, is at the heart of the current rise of democratic illiberalism in central Europe. Liberals succeeded in marginalising and excluding anti-capitalist discourse as a preventive measure, but at a cost: the opening of space for political mobilisation around symbolic and identity issues. This created the conditions for their own political defeat.

The political dialectic of the transition was a double-whammy to rationalism. First, the more rational the economic policies became, the more irrational were the electoral politics; the more liberal ideas and practices advanced, the more the vulnerability of liberal parties increased. Second, this exclusion of economic decision from democratic process combined with new trends - a changing media-politics relationship and the ascendancy of a bold popular culture - to undermine the rationalist foundation of liberal policies.

These profound changes in the public sphere mean that many of the young Poles who (according to opinion surveys) are massively against the policies and values represented by the Kaczynski twins will not turn out to vote against them: they simply will turn them off. In the choice between what Albert O Hirschmann defines as "voice" (an attempt to reform the system) and "exit" (the effort to escape it), the majority of post-communist citizens go for exit. What makes them cynical about participation is that they experienced "transition democracies" as regimes where voters could change governments but could not change policies. (As the pop collaborators Maxim + Skin sing: "we don't have a choice but we still have a voice".)

Thus, the liberals' strategy of depoliticising society provides the answer to the "sleepless in Szczecin" question about the absence of anti-Kaczynski mobilization in Poland. Poland's membership of the European Union also contributes to the new anti-politics of central Europe's middle classes: "why bother to vote, when we are already in the EU?" is their common wisdom. These days, voting is the business of the losers; the winners have business.

In the 1930s, only a few chose to defend democracy because the many lived with the illusion that a better world is possible "under communists or fascists". Today in Poland, only a few choose to vote because the majority believes that change "for good or for bad" is not possible.

The heart of Europe, again

The key to a proper understanding of the nature of the current crisis in central Europe in general and Poland in particular may be not Weimar Germany and 1933, but West Germany and 1968.

In 1968, as today, a social crisis arrived after two decades of successful economic recovery and a period of amnesia about the past. The turmoil was unexpected and frightening. The crisis of democracy was rooted not in the failure of democratic institutions but in the success of the project of modernisation and democratisation of post-1945 West Germany.

Then, as now, there was talk about the hollowness of democratic institutions and the need for moral revolution; in Germany then as in Poland now, there were appeals for a "new republic" and appeals to discard the politics of soulless pragmaticism; then, as now, there was a major transformation in the cultural and geopolitical context; then, as now, the word "populism" was in the air and people demanded more direct democracy.

Then too, as now, there was an obsession with "authenticity". Student-radicals fought then against the lack of authenticity of bourgeois society, conservative populists fight today against the lack of authenticity in the liberal elites. Student-radicals then were obsessed with the hidden power of the capitalist corporation; the new Polish radicals are obsessed with the over-powerful uklad.

But here, the similarities end. Then it was the young that revolted; now it is the old. 1968 allowed the young to "consume" the revolutionary experience that led to the revolution in consumption practices. The current "populist revolution" is shaped by conservative sensibilities. What the new self-proclaimed "revolutionaries" in central Europe fear is not the authoritarianism of the state but the excesses of postmodern culture and the collapse of traditional values. They are nostalgic, not utopian; defensive, not visionary.

In 1968 the spirit of the time was individualistic, emancipatory and libertarian. The "masses" were demanding participation and voice. Students spent sleepless nights discussing the problems of society. This is not the case today. Now, unlike then, the challenge of the system is coming not from the left but from the right; the new "utopia" is not global solidarity but national exceptionalism. What conservative populists demand is not a voice but a national leader.

The revolutionaries of 1968 had passion for "the other", those who are not like us; the populists of today have passion for those who are like us, for their own community. In a sense the populist revolution in central Europe today is a revolt against the values, sensibilities, symbols and the elites of 1968. In the modern age, nothing is more revolutionary than what only yesterday seemed the height of reaction.

What makes the populist revolt today appear like a non-identical twin of the student revolution of 1968 is that both moments mark not the death of democracy but its profound transformation. In each case what is at stake is renegotiating the relationship not simply between liberalism and democracy but between capitalism and democracy.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski could yet (as the late-campaign opinion polls indicate) lose power in the aftermath of the election, and the political history of post-communist populism could yet end in bathos and banality. In that event, the history books may relegate this period to a footnote: "In the first decade of the 20th century, several populist parties in central Europe enjoyed a transient victory. They succeeded in mobilising the anger of vulnerable and ageing societies threatened by social and cultural insecurity. But the populist governments soon lost power and fell victim to their own conspiratorial fantasies."

But even with such an outcome, we should still try to answer the question "what's the matter with Poland?" if we want to understand "what's the matter with Europe's liberalism and democracy?"