Can Europe Make It?

From civil society to political society

“You can avoid paying attention to politics only until politics starts paying attention to you.” Thoughts gathered at Team Syntegrity 2017 in Barcelona.

Agnieszka Wiśniewska
13 July 2017

Agnieszka (right) in the row of 'critics' in the foreground. Team Syntegrity 2017, Artchimboldi, Barcelona. For many years now I have been meeting activists in Poland and in Europe – people working in NGOs, social movements, informal environments and cultural institutions. Some are embedded in professional western NGOs that resemble corporations, some occupy theatres or take over factories. We keep on talking about our actions, engagement, about our goals. Recently, we have started talking more about politics, because it looks as if the time when civil society ran in parallel or completely separately from politics is coming to an end. It looks as if the time when civil society ran in parallel or completely separately from politics is coming to an end.     

Maintaining virtue in NGOs

Civil society is a great idea. In a perfectly liberal-democratic world, where parliament really represents society and its diversity, where politics (and the space between politics and business) is not always populated by the same people, and where political parties articulate interests and develop ideas (or at least take seriously what think tanks are telling them), instead of just serving citizens the daily pulp called ‘message of the day’ – that’s where civil society can do a lot.


Making an icosahedron.It can create a space to engage people in defending different values, in scrutinizing those in political power (in such an arrangement, guardian, ecological, feminist or social equality organizations deliver a wake-up call if problems arise, and mobilise citizens so that politicians, enlightened or not, have to deal with a given topic). It can also organize people with hobbies or those who love their local area. All of this can be done by civil society in a perfect world. But as it happens, we do not live in one. 

In our world, and this is clearly visible in Poland, social organizations, i.e. those that formally constituted the NGO sector, but also those working informally, have been reduced to playing the role of patching up holes in places on which the State has given up. Activists work with kids from difficult neighbourhoods, care for those with handicaps and bridge educational inequalities. The city halls or ministries sometimes even help them by providing some money – because this is good business for both cities and the State. Activists usually do more for less.

At the same time, in our world, we have been persuaded that politics is ugly (or maybe it has itself shown us its ugly face, so that no decent person ventures there?). Civil society was to be strictly non-political, and to keep politics at a healthy distance. This even makes sense, since back in the 90s in Poland we had an opportunity to have true politics, democratic elections and local authorities that were close to the people… And so we understood the division of labour. It was theoretically sound.

Unfortunately, something went wrong. Politics has become a media spectacle, and the social associations and foundations have succumbed meanwhile to an ailment known as grantoid NGO-isation. Law and Justice’s rise to power tipped the balance in our country (and Orban’s in Hungary). That ‘innocent’, apolitical time is now over.

The City is Ours, Zagreb is Ours

People working within social movements and organizations abroad tell me about many years of striving for the current conditions in which their actions can take place. Friends from Croatia managed to create the Kultura Nova foundation, which supports social organizations working in the culture sector. They convinced the Ministry of Culture to support them. In Zagreb, they created Pogon, an independent culture centre which is a non-profit public cultural institution, based on an innovative civil-public partnership model. The founders and managers of Pogon are activists from the union called Operacija:Grad (Operation:City) and the city of Zagreb.

I was so envious of the team from the Croatian capital as they showed me all those organizations and all those independent spaces – such as Jedinstvo – places created to host festivals, debates, expositions by all those who wish to organize one. After a while it turned out, however, that even though my friends worked themselves to the bone, there was always a risk that a takeover by new authorities could turn all they achieved to dust. They told me: “Everything which the artists and cultural sector representatives have accomplished in recent years has been trashed in a matter of just one week”.

So in the spring, I met a friend from Zagreb. Excited, he told me that a team of activists are going to take part in the elections: that it was not enough to ‘do civil society’ any more. In May Zagreb je naš! (Zagreb is OURS!) got almost 8% of the votes in local elections.

I heard similar stories from friends in Barcelona. In their case, mobilization was facilitated by the economic crisis. Today, some of them are running local politics after their Barcelona en Comu made it into the local authorities. The team from Zagreb was inspired and supported by their friends in Barcelona. After years of joint work in this environment, our contacts and mutual support are on the rise.

A friend from DiEM25, Srećko Horvat told Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique): “Influenced by the experience of Barcelona en Comu and so called 'rebel cities', this coalition is not only bringing new and radical politics back to Croatia, but they have succeeded in something which was until now unimaginable in the Balkans: by bringing together 5 new progressive green and left political parties, Zagreb je naš! has proved that only by creating a broad front of progressives is there a chance to get out of our current deadlock.”

In Romania, the Demos platform wants to enter party politics. Andreea Petruț from Demos said: “Additionally, we think that to implement our political agenda, we need both channels: the political party and civic activism in support of our values”. Then she added: “many members of our platform have been organising, participating in or at least supporting those protests.” Why do they bestir themselves? Because “the political environment in Romania is starting to become more toxic”.

I remember Polish urban movements participating in the local elections in 2014. They entered the fray when some of the activists there also felt that it was the only way to bring about change, to move one’s proposals from the basket labelled “good ideas” to the one called “zoning plan”.

The problem there was that some of the urban movements in Poland really badly wanted to remain ‘non-political’. They stood in local elections, but they wanted to work ‘alongside politics’, and it was difficult to tell what they meant by that. Maybe it was all about avoiding conversations about politics, i.e. seriously discussing one’s views. In the end, the city council members in Warsaw, elected from the list of Miasto Jest Nasze (The City is Ours), one by one abandoned Jan Śpiewak their leader.

It won’t do itself

We all know a neoliberal story about the rich getting richer and the affluence trickling down, magically, or at least automatically, onto those less rich, and even entirely poor. But this is not what has happened, nor will it ever happen.

The same goes for waving a magic wand when it comes to civil society. We can create hundreds, or even thousands of excellent local initiatives – in culture, in remembering forgotten history, or testing alternative economic solutions. But these experiences, or effects of these actions, will not automatically go anywhere near the parliament, where the law is written, nor the city hall, where city planning is carried out; nor will it go into the European Parliament or European Commission, where the legal framework for the EU and its members is being forged.  

Team Syntegrity 2017 opening question.I told the European Commons Assembly the same thing in November last year in the European Parliament. Brussels was then a meeting point for activists dealing with the “commons” (one of the hottest topics of the last few years – it is all about common goods, such as city spaces, but also available housing, culture or all those skate parks built by local communities, or city gardens planted by activists). Since the European Parliament has created an intergroup focusing on the “commons”, it was possible to hold this large meeting in Brussels.

Of course, we talked a lot about our experiences, we showed pictures of all those excellent initiatives, but by the evening something had snapped. The organizers invited myself and Lorenzo Marsili to meet the participants of the Commons Assembly. We are both members of DiEM25 Coordinating Collective. The evening meeting showed that those who had so far been talking about individual ‘activist’ experience, now wanted to speak about the looming Brexit, Trump winning the elections, populism gaining momentum – and what to do about it. Many said, over and over again, that they do not ‘do politics’, that the ‘commons’ are neither left nor right-wing (but let’s face it, they are definitely left). It was clear that we could not avoid talking politics any more. The old wisdom has it – you can avoid paying attention to politics only until politics starts paying attention to you.

Poland is similar. In spring 2017, a coalition of NGOs started demanding that the European Commission applies Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. The head of Amnesty International Poland, Draginja Nadażdin, when speaking to Krytyka Polityczna said “We won’t be silenced and we won’t be intimidated by the accusation that we are telling on the government. We criticize the situation that needs critical appraisal.”

Organizations which had so far not criticized the authorities, even though they tried to assess the impact of the situation in the country, this time unequivocally stood against the policies of the Polish government. The authorities then launched a counterattack against the NGOs. This is typical of the populists, as documented by Jan-Werner Müller in his What is Populism?, and as illustrated by Victor Orban and his recent ‘Foreign Agents’ law.

I believe that, for years, the arrangement between politicians and civil society in Poland was clear. Politicians did not pick on the NGOs as long as NGOs did their work – work which the State did not want to do. And NGOs did not pick on the politicians too much, because it was clear that sooner or later, one would have to find ways to work together. This was convenient for politicians – the smaller organizations, which often financed their activities from money assigned by a given ministry or the local authority, could barely afford to wage a war with those in power. This characteristic division of labour has been in operation since the1990s, even though it finally turned out that the NGOs took upon themselves more than they should have.

Finally, the political situation that, as Romanians said, turned ‘toxic’, the disillusionment brought by lack of change, and the general dissatisfaction took over. How long can one ‘do’ debates, workshops, festivals, write reports? 25 years of work and very little to show for it. We in Poland have been given some little bits – participatory budgets, election lists quotas, Culture Pact. Some people amongst us got jobs in public institutions and in city halls. Great! Local authorities can learn a lot from activists, and vice versa. But this is all too little, considering the challenges. And when Law and Justice came to power even these little bits became unreliable, and the third sector – excluding the part deemed ‘proper’ – became no longer a nagging petitioner, but an open enemy of the authorities.

Challenging the ‘apolitical’

There is an interesting discussion going on within the Polish NGO portal – should the NGOs go into politics or not? In it, Jan Mencwel, an activist from Warsaw, reminded everyone that, “there is a false and disturbing conviction, damaging not only for the third sector but also for the form of public debate, that there is a clear moral distinction between social and ‘political’ actions – the former is pure, impeccable and altruistic, the latter being a dirty game.”

The discussion about NGOs and their ‘political turn’ is not necessarily about each and every NGO setting up a political party or joining one, or about all civil society representatives now having to run for public posts. It is about – as Mencwel duly noted – “questioning the ‘apolitical’ as the major virtue of a social activist.”

Such challenging of the apolitical stance is well under way – in Barcelona, Zagreb and, as we see, in Poland. What we witness is what we, in Krytyka Polityczna, inspired among others by Paweł Załęski’s Neoliberalism and Civil Society, would like to call a transition from civil society towards a political society.

When last year the Friedrich Ebert Foundation invited us, among other NGOs, to co-create one of the topic sessions in the Academy for Social Democracy – which was supposed to teach and to network various progressive activists, both members of political parties, as well as people working for NGOs and informal groups – our colleague Michał Sutowski suggested that we focus precisely on ‘political society’. By that we meant all the different kinds of people’s organizations – including parties, NGOs, campaigns and many others. We asked: how can they respond to current politics challenges, share their experience and create a practical synergy in changing political reality?

When we published the first issue of Krytyka Polityczna 15 years ago, using the bad word ‘political’ in the title, people thought we were crazy. Politics is confined to political parties – we heard. Maybe that was why, for the next 10 years, Sławomir Sierakowski has had to answer the question: when are you going to set up a party? We never did. But some of us went into politics. We are in political parties, we work in city halls, we run in elections. Both then as now, we conceive of the ‘political’ to be broad – to be a sphere of influence, exerted by different means, over public and social life.

Three months ago in Rome, DiEM25 presented the New European Order program. A month ago in Berlin, Yanis Varoufakis announced that, should the need arise, people from DiEM25 were ready to run in elections with this program. It is now a conversation about going into politics, following new rules, as they are sketched by citizens.

DiEM25 is not a think tank which just writes a programme, publishes it on their webpage and waits for somebody to use it. It is up to its members to decide if DIEM25 should establish an international party. When I talked to them in Berlin, some are having doubts, some quite the contrary. It is clear, however, that a conversation about changes in Europe is no longer one in which the words ‘politics’ and ‘citizens’ cannot be used in the same sentence. It is now a conversation about going into politics, following new rules, as they are sketched by citizens.

The idea of an apolitical civil society made some sense back in the 90s. In Krytyka Polityczna, since its inception, we have made a fuss about it, considering the ‘apolitical’ to be a scam. Today, the idea of a civil society has run out of juice. It does not fit the zeitgeist.

Political society is making its entry on stage. In parts of Europe it already sits in local authorities, where it is getting ready for parliamentary elections. Igor Stokfiszewski once wrote about the ‘political turn’ in culture. It is time to write about the political turn in civil society.

This text was written during the Team Syntegrity meeting organised by openDemocracy. Conversations with people attending the meeting were most inspiring and I heartfully thank everyone who contributed.

Translated by Katarzyna Byłów-Antkowiak

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