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"We need to bring back the sublime in politics." An interview with Jan Sowa

Sociologist Jan Sowa discusses the anti-government protests, the forgotten legacy of Solidarity and the decline and fall of politics in Poland.

Polish sociologist Jan Sowa (right). Vimeo.

Claudia Ciobanu: Prof. Sowa, I am interviewing you in an effort to find hope in the activities of the opposition to the governing Law and Justice party in Poland.

A genuine left-wing party, Razem, was born in Poland shortly before the 2015 parliamentary elections. But after an initial period of growth they seem to be stagnating.

The Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD), which organised mass anti-government protests in response to Law and Justice's attacks on the rule of law, is full of enthusiastic people but its rhetoric seems devoid of any impactful political content. Is there any hope?

Let's start with KOD: can something be salvaged out of the enormous energy created by this movement in the protests of late 2015/early2016?

Jan Sowa: I believe KOD are making a mistake when they distance themselves from politics, when they say 'we are not a political movement, we are a movement of civil society'. I think the 'civil society' discourse is a dead end. It has never worked in Poland despite being very widespread.

The idea of 'civil society' implies distancing from various situations and conditions: we are not men and women, rich and poor, city-dwellers and people from countryside, we are just equal citizens. The problem is that Poland is an extremely divided society, in both material and cultural terms. KOD do not take into consideration the real composition of this country: they expect a cleaning lady that makes 1,500 zloty per month and her boss who makes 15,000 zloty to come together at the weekend and march to defend the Constitutional Court. They expect people to abandon their condition and embrace a false unity.

KOD is dominated by the middle class. It's easy for the middle class to abstract from their material situation because their material situation is not so bad. They don't talk about inequality because it's not their problem. Their problem is free speech, freedom of assembly, the Constitutional Court, Poland's image in the European Union, etc. They want to present themselves as 'civilised'. The middle class rally around this post-colonial idea of introducing 'civilised' norms.

I don't want to say there are no problems with the Law and Justice attack on the Constitutional Court - there are - but the root of the problem is not at the symbolic level, it's in material predicaments.

When you look at the history of Solidarity, you find the same kind of disagreement between intellectuals and workers: for the workers the most important condition was dignity at work and material things, for intellectuals it was freedom of speech and political organisation.

Workers wanted independent trade unions and intellectuals were telling them that this was not realistic, and to infiltrate existing structures instead. There's this wonderful interview with Adam Michnik conducted by Daniel Cohn-Bendit in late 1980s in which Michnik says that, luckily, he was in prison at the time of the August agreement in Gdansk (following strikes, the agreement led to the creation of Solidarity), otherwise he may have persuaded workers not to form independent unions and Solidarity would have never been born.

What is happening today is a continuation of this debate. KOD represents a continuation of the discourse of the pre-1989 intellectual grouping the Workers' Defense Committee (KOR) – they even do it consciously, you see it in the name KOD that is a play on KOR.

I find the apolitcal discourse of KOD futile. Every time there is a major issue, like the nurses are striking or there is a controversy about refugees, KOD say they take no side (they just defend the rules of the game). Taking no side is also a political decision. There is no escape from politics in the modern world. Once you have the possibility of engaging in the decision-making process or in a protest movement, every act – taking part as well as standing by – is a political attitude.

I think KOD are in fact a political movement, but they insist that they are not. Because politics is about negotiating our being-in-common. Actually, I think it would be very good if the current opposition parties like Civic Platform or Nowoczesna (a new neo-liberal opposition party created in 2015) disappeared and we had a centre liberal political party represented by KOD. They're not my cup of tea, but it would be better if they represented the centre in Polish politics.

CC:  But KOD will not rid us of Law and Justice...

JS: The biggest problem in Polish politics today is not PiS, as much as I disagree with them, but the duo PiS-Civic Platform (the former governing party). Why I would never do what KOD did, to march together with Civic Platform and Nowoczesna against PiS, is because it's the rule of the 'liberals' that led to the victory of PiS.

'Liberals', during their hegemony (I don't mean only Civic Platform, but also the social democrats that were in power before, who were also neo-liberals, and the liberal media too), said that if you're poor then it's your fault and fuck off, don't make it a political problem.

First we had the liberals who undermined social policies and exacerbated poverty through their decisions, demonising the left at the same time as promoting totalitarian thinking (the standard liberal straw man: you start with social justice, you end with gulags). Then, the paternalistic PiS came and capitalised on the anger generated – because the left had already been destroyed.

With every election it gets worse. Look at Kukiz (a party formed in 2015 around rock star Pawel Kukiz, an important force in the current parliament): they are even bolder than PiS in terms of their symbolism and discourse. They stand for a police organisation of the country. Women in kitchens, migrants out, we Polish men will make all decisions. What could happen next is to have a Nowoczesna-Civil Platform government after PiS, and then not PiS again but Kukiz, together with ONR (far-right National Radical Alliance) and all sorts of other fascist forces.

We are facing nowadays an old dilemma: socialism or barbarism, just that today it's social democracy for socialism and right-wing populism for barbarism.

CC: This dynamic is not at all unique to Poland though.

JS: Since 1989, Poland has lived through several populist outbursts and every time the commentariat decried that it was because we don't have enough political culture, political traditions, well-established institutions etc. – because of communists or the Germans or partitions or whatever. It was also said that we lack proper 'civil society'.

These culturalist explanations seemed to hold some water until this year when we had Brexit and the very real prospect of Donald Trump becoming US president. You can say many things about the UK or the US but not that they lack political culture or a democratic tradition. The very opposite is true: these are the countries quoted as the paragons of democratic traditions and institutions. But the same things are happening there.

Another problem is widespread faith in the middle-class as a cornerstone of progressive politics. In the UK, with Tony Blair, Labour became a middle-class party. So some of the leftist voters who didn't identify with Labour any more ended up voting Brexit. I believe it's a mistake to try to build a left-wing party mainly on support from the middle-class. This is the problem in the UK: popular classes do not identify with Labour, they see it as a 'saloon party'.

Razem supporters demonstrate against Polish PM Beata Szydlo, March 10, 2016. PAimages/Czarek Sokolowski. All rights reserved.

CC: But can you win elections without the middle class?

JS: Of course you need votes from the middle class but you cannot make pleasing the middle-class the main foundation of a left-wing political strategy. I believe it's in the interest of the middle class to vote for the left, for stability reasons.

We are facing nowadays an old dilemma: socialism or barbarism, just that today it's social democracy for socialism and right-wing populism for barbarism. It's obvious that capitalism is unable to stabilise itself in a liberal equilibrium. It's always falling on one of the sides. When people are not hungry, metonymically speaking, the liberal system can be stable. When they get hungry, they turn to the sides.

What is happening today is that material conflicts, which cannot get resolved in material terms because the discourse of the left has been destroyed, get transferred to symbolic registers. What kind of registers depends on the context: in Poland, it's hate against Russia, Germany and refugees. In the UK, it's against Europe, in the US, it's against Mexico. In the Philipinnes, they have none of these so they turn against drug dealers. The only way to stop this is to allow the conflict to play out in the material sphere and to end it through redistribution. This would fight the root cause, not the symptoms, of populism.

For this reason the left should stop being ashamed of being left and speak about material poverty and class divisions – both within nations and between them such as the North-South split in the EU - not about falsely unifying ‘civil society’.

It's as if we had nuclear weapons and they had machetes, and they were winning.

CC: Razem is doing that in Poland. 

JS: Yes, they are. We also have to get rid of the anti-right obsession: we are always told we have to defend the liberals because they are the only defense against the right. That's not true! Precisely the opposite is true: the rule of the liberals is creating the conditions for fascism to grow (not that they support fascism, but they create the conditions of possibility). No, we should say 'we are the left, we think redistribution should happen, we think the rich should be taxed, we think big capital should be taxed, the free market should be regulated, and we have empirical arguments to show this works'.

CC: What should Razem do now in order to grow further?

JS: It seems to me Razem has had a good strategy until now. I was not sure at first, but now I think it was a good decision to distance themselves from KOD and from the opposition politicians that took part in KOD marches. There is no reason to hug the leaders of Civic Platform when they are a part of the problem.

I don't think the success depends solely on Razem's strategy. There are a few important things that may or may not happen that are absolutely out of their control. The first is how coherently PiS is going to advance the pro-social agenda: if they really do it, it will be very difficult to get them out of power because they win elections with this agenda (their core support, which comes from nationalistic voters, is around 15-17 percent but they gain support when they play the social card).

When they were first in power in 2005, they did not follow through with their social agenda. I think they are essentially right-wingers that stand for property, capitalism and free markets. It's no mistake they made an ex-banker the minister of development. Their main economic idea is national capital: but again that's capital, just that it's national. They are incoherent. Morawiecki (the economy minister) thinks the bigger the pie, the easier it is to divide it. It's not true: the bigger the pie, the bigger the rich grow and the more difficult it is to take even a piece of the pie away from them.

The second important circumstance that would influence the political situation, no matter what the left does, is whether the coalition around PiS falls because of internal conflicts, which exist.

It's impossible to say in a few simple sentences what the left should do. Things are changing very quickly. We live in deeply paradoxical times: very dark but also beautiful and promising. There is a real revolt of the masses, against the establishment, the elites, everywhere in the world. It's really unfortunate it takes this right-wing shape, but certainly it's a kind of emancipation.

CC: We had all these democratic, egalitarian mass movements popping up over the last years in so many places, across Europe, in the US, in North Africa... they had a lot of energy, a lot of ideas and still they didn't manage to push through and get into power, no matter what political context they were in.

JS: What happens is that we do have a bottom-up mobilisation against the political establishment, for democratisation, for redistribution. But we do not have the political institutions and procedures that are able to articulate this into policies. It could be that we don't have them because we haven't created them yet. But it is also because the 1 percent do not want to have such policies. The system is dysfunctional for society as such but it is very functional for the elites who use all their resources to keep it this way.

What is also true is that the liberals have completely lost 'the sublime', by which I mean a cause, something bigger than us, bigger than our everyday calculations. The reason that Brexiters won was because the defenders of the EU didn't have any vision or values to propose to the voters, they just fought back with calculations. We live in a culture of repressive desublimation, to use Marcuse's term. We do not speak of love, but of sex and body parts. On the one hand, people like it, on the other, life is hell without the sublime. We need to bring back the sublime in politics. The left needs it.

What is always astonishing for me is how the academic left has got incredibly complex and well elaborated ideas about politics, but somehow we cannot do politics with them. The right-wing, on the other hand, has got several simple ideas that work: the nation, God, tradition, heroes. It's as if we had nuclear weapons and they had machetes, and they were winning. On the left, we may have the sublime, but ours is much more complicated.

I think there are two simple ideas we could propose. One is the universal basic income. It's a simple idea and it's materialistic. The left should definitely work in the materialistic field. In order to do politics, we have to solve the material problem: if people are hungry and uncertain about their futures, we cannot persuade them to be nice to refugees.

And then there is the democratisation of parliamentarism, which should be easy to push. Everyone is in favour of democracy, even Law and Justice or the church would say they are democrats. Great, so let's use that, let's just redefine what democracy is. Let's distinguish between democracy and parliamentarism, and maybe start at the local level: do we really need representatives to make decisions concerning the neighbourhood? Maybe not.

The left should really be on the side of the politics of truth. That is, to speak to people about their immediate situation and address their real everyday problems.

There is a problem with housing, let's address that and let’s put our common resources to communal housing. A problem with small incomes, let's address it, let’s work towards a basic income. And provide people with at least a sliver of the sublime – a hope and a vision of dignified lives in the name of progressive ideas that would give them a feeling of belonging to a cause and not just being cogs in the global accumulation machine.

About the authors

Jan Sowa is a Polish sociologist, dealing mainly with critical social theory. His latest book, Another Commonwealth is possible (Inna Rzeczpospolita jest możliwa), revisits the Solidarity movement as a founding myth of post-socialist Poland. Sowa argues that Solidarity's social justice agenda was intentionally left aside by democratic Poland's founding fathers, to destructive consequences, and that reviving it is beneficial and possible.

Claudia Ciobanu is a Romanian freelance reporter, contributing regularly to global news agency Inter Press Service. 


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