Adrian Zandberg at the solidarity demonstration with protesting nurses in Warsaw. Razem photos. Michał Radwański. All rights reserved.
Alex Sakalis (AS): Could you start off by telling us a bit about Razem, what distinguishes it from the other political parties in Poland and how it came about?
Adrian Zandberg (AZ): Razem is an attempt to construct a left-wing alternative in Poland. What has actually never materialized in Poland to date, is a fully-fledged left-wing political party. The field for years and years was occupied by the post-communists. Their economic policies were strictly neo-liberal. When they were in power, they introduced a flat tax rate for businessmen, cut corporate taxes, liberalized labor laws. Not to mention that they eagerly supported the Iraq wars and imperial policies of G. W. Bush. This all functioned under the name of ‘political Left’. And it was extremely frustrating. If someone asked you – what are your political views? – and you answered “left-wing”, you were associated with those post-communist, neoliberal, right-wing politicians and policies.
There had been attempts to organize an independent Left in Poland, mostly on university campuses. Our major challenge was to expand out of the campus. And we have been successful – we have managed to organize a viable political party. This is not exactly easy in Poland: you need to gather 100 thousand supporter signatures just in order to stand in elections.
In the elections we crossed the 3% threshold. It means that we have no representation in parliament, but we gained public funding until the next elections. Passing this hurdle is crucial because now we can, for instance, organize party offices around Poland with considerable and efficient tools for campaigning. And, most importantly, with our activity we managed to open the door for left-wing arguments in the media, gaining a little space to question neo-liberal policies We managed to open the door for left-wing arguments in the media, gaining a little space to question neo-liberal policies and the dominant conservative attitudes held by all the big political parties in the parliament. Of course these are first baby steps. There is a long way from here to the moment when it will be possible to implement a progressive agenda in Poland after a victorious election.
Rosemary Bechler (RB): When you talk about this achievement, you often emphasize the fact that you are building the left from the ground up, starting from scratch.
AZ: We simply don’t have much choice. It’s not that there is a collection of political organizations already existing and we just need to bring them together to make a political impact, as was the case of the New Left in various western European countries after 2008. Compare Poland and Spain, compare our experience and that of Podemos – these are two different worlds. Podemos was born out of a wave of social mobilization that just needed a political form to find representation. Poland is also obviously at a different stage of capitalist development, we have a comparatively low level of participation in terms of trade union and social activism. Razem cannot capitalize on pre-existing social movements: we must function as a party and stir social mobilisation at the same time.
RB: We have been exploring Podemos’ interesting negotiation with the social movements on openDemocracy. There is so much ambition on all sides. But you talk about having a particular challenge with the lack of hope and political aspiration?
AZ: I don’t think it’s unique for Poland. We share that problem with many European countries. There is a growing number of voters who do not have any expectations from the political system, or hope that their votes could really matter, that the promises made them will materialize, that any political movement will stand for the issues important to them.
This voters’ cynicism is not something that “just happened”. It’s a direct consequence of a real lack of choice for many years, when under the pressure of globalization, centre-left and centre-right governments implemented very similar policies. If you don't have a Left that is able to question unjust social relations and give viable perspectives on changing the world for the better, then politics dies. It just becomes an administration where faces and symbols change, but the policies don’t.
This lack of hope is something absolutely crucial: if people don’t regain their hope for a political change that is possible through elections, political passivity will further weaken the progressive camp and contribute to the domination of either neoliberal technocrats, the managers of the currently existing system, or those who question it, but from the right.
This is what happened in Poland. The transition of the early 1990s was implemented under the banner of “we are now chasing the West, and we need to adapt our economy, so there is no alternative”. As there was no credible Left to serve as alternative option, the authoritarian right claimed the field. This is of course a problem throughout Europe: social groups traditionally served by left-wing political parties saw that social democrats have given up on them.
As a result, they gradually turn to the far right which is very efficient in translating economic frustrations into hatred against migrants, against gays, against minority groups of various kinds. Poland is in no way different in this respect, it’s just that these processes took place earlier there and were much more acute.
Celebrating the election results during the election night, October 2015. Michał Radwański. All rights reserved.
RB: Razem has found quite a lot of support already. So how did you address that question of hope?
AZ: For starters, we all need to swallow the fact that neoliberals were very good at giving hope, hope for individual success. We all need to swallow the fact that neoliberals were very good at giving hope, hope for individual success. But after years and years of waiting around and no success materializing, this results in a lot of social frustration. And the big political question is who will be able to respond to this frustration?
For instance, in Poland, you have this phenomenon of people falsely referred to as ‘self-employed’. In fact, these people are just workers: they were made to register their own businesses, so that the corporations that hire them could cut down employment costs. And of course they very often have false consciousness: they really believe that they are venturesome self-made-men on their way to becoming millionaires. One of our tasks is to tell them the truth, which proves them wrong in this, but at the same time gives them real practical hope of changing their lives: acquiring the social security, due access to public services and long-term life stability that they are deprived of at the moment.
In order to fight for these rights they need to get organized, and leave behind the belief that the only way of getting lifetime security is to excel as lone actors in competition against each other. So to give true hope, you need to crash the false hope that neoliberals gave to these groups, introduce them to reality - and show them a down-to-earth practical way out.
Razem protests in front of the Prime Minister's office in March 2016. Michał Radwański. All rights reserved.
RB: But how are we to create new agents for change on the requisite scale in our societies? How do you set about doing this?
AZ: We need to fill the void. Once, if you were a worker and had a problem at your work place, you would go to the union and the union would help you. After Poland’s transformation, numerous branches of the economy don’t have trade unions at all. There are millions of workers who do not have any kind of trade union experience, any kind of collective experience in the negotiation of their wages, or over situations at their workplace. Traditional trade unions can’t break into the sphere of low paid or precarious work such as that of janitors or cleaners.
So what we try to do is to step into the gap. For instance, public universities outsource security services to private businesses which then employ janitors on precarious contracts. What we managed to do, because we are a political party, was to bring the attention of the media and public opinion to these situations. We help the janitors to organize themselves so that their issues become a matter of public debate. We organised a campaign at the very time that the new heads of universities were elected and at three different universities we managed to win the day: precarious contracts were transformed into normal labour contracts. We brought practical change and we won trust.
When we set up our network of party offices, we want to make them social centres, places where you can come and organize into a consumer cooperative or take part in educational activities. We want to put Razem at the centre of social life. In a way it’s a return to one’s origins. We want to put Razem at the centre of social life. In a way it’s a return to one’s origins. How did the social democrats win over the working classes, and convince labouring people that they were a class with common interests? If you look at 1900 Germany, you will see workers’ cooperatives, workers’ sport, workers’ theaters, workers’ self-education - all these spheres of life were politicized. We need to reinvent this spirit.
What combats apathy towards politics among the younger generation? It is when politics is no longer what ‘they do’ but what ‘we do’. Neoliberals split the social world into millions of competing individuals, each of them holding the banner ‘I will do it myself’. It’s not enough to talk about the alternative, we need to show that cooperation works. And that already happens. You see considerable numbers of these cooperative initiatives popping up in many places. I believe this experience is crucial.
RB: The fake self-employed people you mentioned earlier will, however, be individuals in the first instance, won’t they? How do you articulate what the bigger thing is that they might involve themselves in?
AZ: In order for those individual strategists to survive, they need to organize. It’s not the first time it happens in history - traditional left wing movements also tried to bring the dynamics of individual striving into a collective experience. Artisans, in many countries farmers: these were the worlds where cooperatives gave people an experience of collective action. Of course it doesn’t happen overnight. We are perfectly aware that the social changes we talk about are not going to happen automatically once the Left wins an election. We do need to construct social actors on an everyday basis. But it is obviously the responsibility of political parties also to think how to make it easier for those social pockets to grow and how to use the tools of the state to sustain their development.
RB: It could be a great advantage, the fact that individuals will have to opt into collective action rather than society taking it for granted that this is the only thing to do in life.
AZ: What is promising is this new interest in cooperativism. That became stronger after 2008 when many people saw how those who organized cooperatively managed to survive better. I think one of the huge tasks of the European Left is to work out how the state can be used to support those experiments in collective activity.
I’ll give you an example. In Poland, ideological love of individual entrepreneurship translated into very practical institutions set up by the neo-liberals. If you are unemployed, you are offered a chance to start your own business, and you are given money from the state for your microbusiness start-up. Now why not turn it the other way around? Instead of supporting individual businesses, why not help to gather 20-30 persons together, organize democratically, and then you would qualify for receiving bigger funds Why not turn it the other way around? Instead of supporting individual businesses, why not help to gather 20-30 persons together, organize democratically, and then you would qualify for receiving bigger funds to set up a functioning, viable cooperative? It’s perfectly possible, and practical, and easy to imagine. Such examples of functioning self-organization could be replicated. And that gives very practical hope when you see people who organize their labor in a democratic way, who control their lives, because they do not fight each other but cooperate.
RB: What are the features of your party that have somehow worked in addressing such problems?
AZ: We try to revive what used to be the key strength of the democratic left: the tension between being very practical in terms of political proposals, and very audacious in imagining a more just economic system. The audacity helped to push boundaries of what was possible, the practicality helped to grip people with your vision. Without that tension, which fuels real-world fights, the democratic left is dead, as we see today in many European countries. But balancing between the two poles is tricky. There’s not much use for campus socialists, who just sit and discuss the ‘revolution’. But we also don’t want to repeat the road of those who were so practical that it made them supporters of the Washington Consensus.
Take the Brexit debate. As far as I understand it, the main problem of the British left in the Remain camp was how to say, “Well, we want to remain in Europe, but unfortunately not the current Europe, which is a neo-liberal project.” How do you build a campaign to defend something you don’t believe can work in the first place without a complete revamp? The general idea of a “change” was there, but without details the campaign was completely unconvincing, too hypothetical to organise emotions, to mobilise people.
And the problem is still there. Many left-wing movements talk about a democratisation of the EU. And rightly so. But for the moment what we have is a vague vision which touches the everyday experience of Europeans not in the slightest. Just now, what we desperately need are symbolic but practical steps that can conquer mass imagination. I fully support Varoufakis’ proposals, but I’m afraid that publishing online the proceedings of the European Central Bank is not quite what we are looking for. We must find something as down-to-earth as possible, say the European unconditional basic income, European minimum wage, or any other form of guaranteed minimum income. Do the sums, discuss it, and name a number, say: 200 euros monthly for every household, coming from European social policies. Make an emotional campaign around it, and it would definitely win more people to European integration than (however badly needed) institutional transparency. We don’t want to repeat the road of those who were so practical that it made them supporters of the Washington Consensus.
If we want to win majorities, we need to talk to people who are not that much into political debates, people who are not accustomed to deliberate on trade treaties, people who are living on a week to week, month to month basis, trying simply to find their way to stability in the world they live in. Direct transfers are great for this, as we can see from the example of direct payments to farmers which were the strength of the European integration process when it still had some social ambitions. For the moment we are not moving in this direction and it’s one of the reasons why the far-right arguments are so strong right now. They filled a vacuum. They give false answers - but these are very practical answers.
March 2016 protests. Michał Radwański. All rights reserved.
RB: So many people seem to experience Europe as an abstraction.
AZ: Yet, the reason why social elites are so engaged in the debate is that for them Europe is not an abstraction. It translates directly into their opportunities to have higher incomes. That also tells us something about how the system is corrupted. You cannot point to a single European policy after Maastricht that could easily be identified as standing up for the rights of the common people.
AS: There’s a stereotype about the former communist countries ever since the transition, that once told that there is no alternative to the neo-liberal path they have to follow, these have become totally apathetic, depoliticized societies, despite their very precarious economic situation. But recently, in places like Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, there seems to be something of a political awakening among people who were born in the late 80s and early 90s? Is that true?
AZ: I think there’s something in it. When you look at the people who come together in Razem, these are mostly people in their 30s, who already had experience of the precarious labour market. That contrasted with what they were taught in school: that markets alone will solve all of our conceivable problems, and that individual success is possible for everyone – they have seen with their own eyes that it just doesn’t work. On the other hand, that’s also a generation that has had a lot of international experience, due to the free movement of labour. The social systems of western Europe, while they are in the process of being dismantled and incomparably smaller than they used to be in 70s and 80s, still contrast starkly with those from countries like Poland. All this is why groups looking for an alternative are on the increase.
The problem we have in Poland, and I think not just there, is that while this neo-liberal consensus is cracking open and caving in, the Left is not yet an adequate political force to build on this disappointment, unfortunately. There are conservative nationalist forces who quite efficiently capitalized on the crisis of neo-liberal capitalism. These are two fronts on which we have to confront our political enemies: the neo-liberal camp defending the status quo and the nationalists who are trying to become the force challenging Poland’s current model which developed over the last two decades. Tough as it is, to confront them means to address parts of their constituencies with our message, in order to attract them to our new left-wing project.
Polish Razem Party calling the Polish Prime minister to publish Constitutional Tribunal verdict, PM's Office in Warsaw, March 11, 2016. Czarek Sokolowski /Press Association . All rights reserved.
RB: Can you explain how the main political parties and Poland’s social movement fit into that dual trajectory?
AZ: The division is often inside institutions. Take the governing party, Law and Justice. It is a right-wing conservative party, with a former Santander Bank CEO serving as minister of development, and with a certain authoritarian streak. But it is now trying to sell itself as a party that will expand social policy. And one should say here that they have implemented one important policy change: £100 (500 zloty) benefits for every child, for families that have two or more kids. According to data gathered by the World Bank this will have a really huge impact on childhood poverty, and poverty in general.
RB: Do Law and Justice do this to differentiate themselves from the Civic Platform and show that they do fulfil their promises?
AZ: That’s one thing. But they do it because they want to keep pro-social voters. When you look at what enabled them to win the elections, they did more than just mobilizing social conservatives and national Catholics, the traditional camps that stood behind the party. First, they capitalized on the fact that people were tired of the corruption and political inertia. But crucially, they also sold themselves as exponents of social change, those who will make a turn in social policy, and managed to drag into their camp an important body of pro-social voters. And this is the group we need to fight back for the Left.
It is feasible. Law and Justice sells a package: a certain, quite incoherent pro-social turn, bound together with authoritarian attitudes towards democratic institutions. This includes anti-gay sentiments and attempts to introduce harsh anti-abortion laws. If it were to materialize, it would be a complete disaster. And many people who voted for Law and Justice will simply stop supporting them when they start putting women in jail for abortion.
The main opposition camp around Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) and .Modern (.Nowoczesna) is simply a 100% neo-liberal throwback to the world of the 1990s. They believe that our economic transformation was a great success: Nowoczesna wants to introduce a flat rate of taxation; they want to change taxes in a way that would privilege the richest 10% and take this money from the rest. The huge street protests against the government are organized around these political powers, but on the other hand, huge groups of people participate in them not out of attachment to regressive taxation or out of love of the compromised Civic Platform politicians, but simply because they’re angry at what Law and Justice does. And the Left can win them over, too.
RB: Even if they are middle class?
AZ: Some of them are middle class indeed. But the middle class in central and eastern Europe is very different from western Europe. Is a teacher who earns £400-500 per month a middle class person or not? I’d rather say they’re remnants of what used to be intelligentsia. And many of them, I believe, are future voters for the Left. We want to win them over – but not at any price. One thing that we at Razem will not do – and this frustrates Polish media pundits a lot – we will not stand on the same platform as the neo-liberals and say: “The only problem we have is Kaczyński. If we just get together and oust him, everything will be cool”. No, it won’t be cool. Returning to the world order before the last election is not a solution. Kaczyński is a symptom showing that these policies simply did not work.
March 2016. Michał Radwański. All rights reserved.
RB: Yesterday you were talking about the socialists in Poland’s history who inspire you.
AZ: The strength of the Polish Right is in large part a result of the fact that they managed to sell their symbols and their narratives of history and it has made them so popular that it went mainstream before they capitalized on that in elections. I think one of the biggest mistakes on the left in Poland, was that it did not engage in creating a historical counter-narrative. We rarely tried to retell the history of Poland, show off our good guys and how they were right. The Polish Socialist Party (PPS), I was suggesting, is a perfect example of this neglected tradition that could be used to form a leftwing narrative. It was a democratic socialist party, born in the late nineteenth century, created a mode of patriotism that was inclusive and anti-nationalist in so far as it was multicultural, multi-ethnic, based on the common good. If the Left had not vacated this terrain, the Right would never have been able to colonize it and claim patriotism as “theirs”. If the Left had not vacated this terrain, the Right would never have been able to colonize it and claim patriotism as “theirs”. And this is an emotionally important sphere: people are attached to the place they live and think about this attachment as something very important.
RB: Particularly, perhaps, your chosen target constituency?
AZ: Yes. Imagined community is often the only community that many of them have. Now the problem is that nationalists have coopted this symbolic sphere to turn it into a hate-mongering, anti-minorities political project. We need to take it back.
The last chap who really attempted such a revival was Jan Jozef Lipski in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He tried to rebuild the Polish Socialist Party. Unfortunately he died at the beginning of the Polish transition. And for many years I’d say that the independent Left neglected this episode. We try to make it obvious that this is the tradition that Razem is a part of. Indeed, we are probably the first attempt on the Left to implement this historical policy on a wider scale.
RB: Another history of Poland is possible?
AZ: It’s badly needed.
AS: I’d be interested to know how you approach the issue of the Catholic Church, such a dominant institution in Polish life. They have a huge amount of power, even over legislation. Do you engage with them, oppose them or ignore them?
AZ: We need to distinguish two things: on the one hand we have the hierarchy of the church, the bishops, on the other hand we have people who describe themselves as Catholics. Of course the hierarchy, the top tier of the Catholic church is very right wing. They support policies that are lunatic, we say that openly. But if you look at the opinion polls, you will see that the majority of Polish Catholics do not agree with what the hierarchy teaches about sex, abortion, contraceptives. The influence of bishops over Polish society is overestimated and much weaker than it used to be ten or fifteen years ago. The Polish Catholics are internally differentiated: mostly traditional and conservative, but rarely very dogmatic, and you can easily find among them groups that discuss gay marriage and women’s rights, and which are open for dialogues with the Left.
Just to name a recent example: When recently the church hierarchy and Law and Justice leaders supported a law to totally ban abortions, we organized big street demonstrations in twenty cities in Poland. Some Catholics of course supported the new law. But at the same time, there were very numerous voices from within the Catholic community saying that this proposal is an error, that it should not be implemented in state law, that those Catholics who want to promote sexual ethics and their attitudes towards abortion should not use the state to exert pressure on those who are not members of the church.
There have been calls on Razem to “fight the Church”, to become an “anti-Catholic force”, on the grounds that otherwise Razem would never be able to realize its programme. I don’t buy that. My answer is: we are as clear as we can be on the policies that we promote, on gender equality, on minority rights, on a secular state, but the confrontation about this takes place in the sphere of politics. Razem will not let itself be put in the position of blanket opposition to the church. Our main political opponent is on the Right, and our allies are often progressive groups within the Catholic Church who are themselves critical about the unholy alliance between clergymen and the right wing. We want a secular state where both those who are Catholics and those who are not, feel at home. That type of proposal will, I believe, gain more and more support among active Catholics. It is visible already now: there are active Catholics who are openly saying that they don’t see Razem’s programme for the secularization of the state as a threat, but rather as a chance to revive their mission. These voices are still minorities, that’s clear, but very interesting minorities and ones deserving a mention.
Protests against the proposed total ban of abortions. Hangers were symbols of the protest action. Michał Radwański. All rights reserved.
RB: Can we return to Razem and ask you about the kind of leadership that the leaders of Razem seek to provide?
AZ: We try not to build the party around a leader. This is the political model that quickly kills democracy within an organization. If an organization is centered around one person and that one person is a real ruler, as often happens in Polish political parties, it erodes. If you look at the level of participation, the level of intellectual debate within the organisation, it is surprisingly non-existent. This is a consequence of the one person leadership model that many parties adopted 10 – 12 years ago.
It’s obvious in the media-dominated political landscapes in which we now operate, that you do need some recognizable figure who can play the role of a symbolic anchor for people asking, “who are those guys and what do they want?” But this does not mean that this phenomenon should be automatically reflected in the structure of the party. So we don't have one person leadership on any level. We have collegiate organs. On a central level, we have a 9 person executive group in charge, and that’s similar at the regional level. Another mechanism we use to secure us from this strong leader model is to say that no one can hold one party position for longer than a single parliamentary term, that is 4 years. That ensures that people are replaced, so that we have change internally.
RB: How do you stop the middle class elite from rising to the top nevertheless?
AZ: That’s a huge problem, the typical domination of a movement by the intelligentsia. That’s because it’s the intelligentsia who have acquired all the cultural capital, they have time on their side and all those tiny elements that contribute to their domination of movements. And it’s not easy to control. To be honest, we have thought about organizational forms that might restrict this, but we haven’t come up with any good technical solutions.
There are some tiny tricks we try to use to mitigate this domination, though. During national council meetings, where all the major political decisions are made, we have a rule that no contribution to the discussion can be longer than three minutes. This is important in terms of making politics a bit more equal because the people who have middle class backgrounds have enormous power as a result of their eloquence. Plus, restricting the time also forces you to go straight to the point.
Voting during a general meeting of the Warsaw branch of Razem. Michał Radwański.All rights reserved.
RB: It must make it a considerably more pluralist organization?
AZ: Less than we would like. But it gives a bit more space to more people who will have a chance to have their say, rather than just listen. Another tool we sometimes use is a quota on the basis of gender for a discussion. That makes some kind of compensation for those inequalities that confront society at large, while impacting on how we function internally. We experiment with these mechanisms.
RB: Why do you have ‘party sympathizers’?
AZ: There is always the question, do you want to have an activist organization or a mass political party? There is always the question, do you want to have an activist organization or a mass political party? Mass political parties were very efficient in promoting social change over the twentieth century, but they have their own problems, mainly with the passivity of the base. And we all know how that ends. On the other hand, the sense of commitment is extremely important. It is often neglected, but the political strength of democratic left movements in the twentieth century was mostly due to its ability to attach communities to the political project. This was lost after the wave of deindustrialization – and we need to rebuild this mechanism.
The two forms of membership reflect this complex situation, but they arose not from some highly theoretical thinking, but for a very practical reason. We saw people who wanted to help, who wanted to pay fees, but who openly said they would not be able to participate in the decision-making processes. Many other people simply can’t be official members of a political party because it would threaten their jobs: in Poland it’s not unusual to be sacked for your activism. Being a sympathizer, if they are asked whether they are a member of any political party, they can say, “No, I’m not”.
RB: And your regional representation?
AZ: We want to ensure that the organization is not dominated by middle class people living in Warsaw, so we have this regional mechanism that does not allow one part of the country to dominate the national board and the national executive. Much of the mass political strength the current governing party was able to gain traded on this strong sentiment of people living outside big cities that they were not represented.
This is important for us too. Last month, every week practically, I spent two or three days in smaller towns, in those areas where politicians rarely show up unless there is an election in the next thirty days. Then they arrive by coach, spend ten to fifteen minutes shaking any available hands and move on. So what we do is to regularly organize open meetings in those places. We meet with groups of people who sympathize with Razem, who may have voted for Razem or who are just curious about what we do. We talk for an hour or two and by the time we leave, it’s not unusual to have a new branch of Razem in that town. Often that’s the only branch of any political party in this small town.
A few weeks ago in Małopolska region I was in a town where there is this local mayor who has ruled it literally for the last twenty-five years. In the last elections there was no opposition candidate, because everyone was too afraid to set one up – the mayor openly threatened them saying, anyone who tried would know soon enough why they shouldn’t. So that’s the kind of political life we have outside big cities: the interconnections between local political elites, local business elites, also the local church simply dominate the governing set-up and make it impossible to have any political debate on budgets, on what should or shouldn’t be supported by the public fund and so on. This is the kind of world where we try to make an intervention.
If you look at the Polish GDP, you might really believe that we are a solitary green island in the sea of countries that saw their economies shrink. But the problem is that much of this growth happened in big cities only. It’s not just about the impoverishment of the world beyond, it’s about the total lack of opportunity to render your life stable. This is a world where having the minimum wage is the ceiling of your aspirations on the labour market, where a ‘trash contract’ (a Polish version of zero-hours contract) is the typical form of employment. Our task is to bring some hope to places where there isn’t any.
March 2016 protest. Michał Radwański. All rights reserved.
RB: Who do you look to as allies in the international movement?
AZ: We see ourselves as a part of the wider movement against austerity that emerges after 2008. Some, like Podemos, attempt to build new parties, others – like Corbyn – try to win over traditional left-wing organizations. Some, like Podemos, attempt to build new parties, others – like Corbyn – try to win over traditional left-wing organizations. Noteworthy things have started to happen in central and eastern Europe too. I’d say Združena Levica in Slovenia is a very encouraging phenomenon. Things that are happening now in Serbia and in Macedonia are very interesting. And you can see a pattern in those movements – political mobilization of people who are in their thirties. Had you asked them five or six years ago – will you be active in politics or do you have leftwing inclinations, many would say “nah”. But today precarity, the crisis of neoliberalism, the threat of the far right turn them into activists. These new movements differ dramatically from the political behemoths that occupied the centre-left and that we have watched one by one fall into deep crisis. This has a special flavour in our region, with the bankruptcy of the post-communist parties.
The new movements often share a similar desire to reform the EU. When you look from the Polish perspective, for years we heard just two narratives about Europe. Liberals say: “We are modernized by the EU and this is our ultimate aim, so we’ll accept everything Brussels says to prove that we are worth it”. And the right wing believes Europe is a threat for national Catholic Poland which shouldn’t have entered this horrible progressive thing in the first place.
The problem is that the European Union unfortunately bears no resemblance to a “horrible progressive thing”. The EU today is to a large extent an organisation dominated by business interests. There is no vision of future among European elites, let alone a progressive project. What we see is just a never-ending crisis management. Good things about the EU do exist, but these have been created by previous generations. Since Maastricht it’s a downhill ride on an inclined plane. But those on the Left who eagerly applaud the disintegration of the Union ignore that for any left-wing project to be viable we need a united Europe in order to exert influence on the global economy. Most nation-states are simply too weak to efficiently counter the corporate interests. In particular that’s the case of central and eastern Europe. Hence the dream of sovereignty that the current governing party peddles in practice ends up with them supporting TTIP. The dream of sovereignty that the current governing party peddles in practice ends up with them supporting TTIP.
RB: Doesn’t European solidarity have a crucial role to play in avoiding creating a left patriotism which is simply voluntaristic?
AZ: I don’t think there is any contradiction between left patriotism and internationalism. Quite the contrary, I think in order to have a viable European project, we need exactly this kind of internationalism that mobilizes the energies that local patriotisms have and transforms them into something larger. And sure, such a Europe is badly needed. The EU may last without tax harmonization, without a common social policy, without a common investment policy countering the negative effects of the Eurozone – but we will see more and more cracks, and the EU might slowly evolve into an inert organism that no longer influences reality.
This also has its geo-political consequences, very bad for countries like Poland. We are quite afraid that Brexit might trigger what is sometimes called a multi-speed Europe. That means a zombie EU, and a strong integration of the western European core that would simply unlink central and eastern European member states. For our countries that would be a major setback. All that has been lost due to European integration – markets wide open, practical inability to implement industrial policy, hardly regulated capital flows – would remain, but all the benefits, like structural funds, would probably gradually disappear.
And in the long run it also means an end of the big promise of Europe as a continent-wide peace project, guaranteeing us stability. Once again we would become a part of the world suspended somewhere between the West and Russia. That’s definitely the last position we want to be in and the problem with the current government is that they absolutely do not understand that. They see themselves as an ally of forces pushing towards the disintegration of Europe. They are not aware of the long-term consequences of a coalition with Euro-skeptical conservatives from Britain or Orban’s Hungary that are actually blinking with one eye to Putin. I think some of them believe that Poland might benefit from this new, disintegrated world – just like the anti-European Tories’ project for Britain. But I doubt if Britain will be strong enough to play this game, and I’m rather sure that Poland wouldn’t.