Can Europe Make It?

Put Vaclav Havel in any election today and he would lose. Is that OK?

In our series on the Polish left, an interview on the future of politics in Europe and beyond with the sociologist, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement in Poland, and director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.

Slawomir Sierakowski Tristan Sechrest
21 November 2013

Slawomir Sierakowski. Flickr/Political Critique. Used with permission by Slawomir Sierakowski.

After post-politics 

openDemocracy: Anna Grodzka gave us an enthusiastic account of the transition the Palikot Movement is undertaking into a viable political party. But your organization, Krytyka Polityczna, has resolutely turned its back on this option – could you tell us why? 

Slawomir Sierakowski: I think the distinction between party politics and ‘the political’ is an important one to make. Party systems are typical of contemporary liberal democracy, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be around forever. They’re a social construct, quite a new one, and that’s increasingly apparent. It may be that parties are disappearing. For sure, the political differences among them are disappearing and reappearing as strange anti-political conflicts. The reason is the weakness of the nation state as opposed to the globalized market. This situation allows for only very limited maneuverability in economic policy. The consequence is that when they rule, they realize the same economic policy, so are forced to differ in other policies. So you can choose politicians, but you cannot choose economic policies. A further consequence is that parties have become schools of opportunists. And if the majority is cynical and opportunistic then you face a tragic choice: be the same or lose.

This is why we decided not to form a party. We were expected to, and this is still the most frequent question I get asked in interviews: “Why did you not start a political party?” Krytyka as an organization is larger than most of Poland's political parties. Only the ruling party and the main party on the right are larger in terms of structures, people, and budget. In Poland, the party system also entails the problem of a large barrier between insiders and outsiders. The insiders get significant amounts of money directly from the government. Also, the electoral threshold is among the highest in Europe. Additionally, there are rules about how you can spend this money. In Germany you spend it on foundations: the Heinrich-Böll Foundation, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the Ebert Foundation or Konrad Adenauer Foundation. You have to spend it on expertise, you have to spend it in a serious manner.

In Poland they spend it almost exclusively on stupid advertisements, and they conduct no social activism, intellectual activism - nothing. I used to say that if you blocked the three largest TV broadcasters in Poland, there would be no more politics in Poland. Political parties are like a TV series, like soap operas. You can choose one or the other, but is it really a choice?

oD: So where is the real politics? 

SS: The largest changes have been negotiated in Poland between the government and ngo’s. Real politics - I mean the decision making process - is no longer conducted along a government-opposition axis. It is on the government-ngo axis that real politics lies. So when we changed the law about narcopolitics in Poland, or about quotas for women and men, or about budgetary spending on culture, this was done by us, the ngo coalitions. The same is true of other important struggles: those on pension reform or the proper age for students to begin going to primary schools.

The opposition has no record in terms of changing anything or creating new policies. I can show you how many programmes and books, large and small, we have created on public health, taxes, environmental policy, cultural policy, and so on. No one does this inside party politics: for them it’s ballast, really; to have a mission makes you weaker in confrontation with the cynic. If we took Vaclav Havel and put him in contemporary party politics, he would lose any election he ran in. Is that OK?

I think party politics is in crisis, and I don’t think the change will come from within party politics. I think it will have to come from outside. The symptoms of this crisis are the Indignados and Occupy Wall Street. However, they were not successful because they were social protests, not social movements. This is a big difference. 

oD: Did those protests achieve nothing? 

SS: I’m happy that they happened, because they showed that societies can identify no major differences between the political parties, and that in their absence the public sphere has been thoroughly colonized by marketing, PR and other examples of totally instrumental logic, by these technologies of power, and that there is no substance in it any more. They spelt out this problem, and they invented new forms of communication and ways of organizing people. I think this was very important. 

oD: One of the frustrations with party politics in liberal democracies is a fading social contract. One of the backlashes against this is the re-emergence of right-wing populism. In Poland, is this something your organization sees as a threat to the work it is doing? 

SS: In Poland the situation is becoming more and more similar to the western scenario, because we are becoming more and more western. But at the same time we have some specific peculiarities as a post-communist country. In Poland’s case, these arise as the side-effects of the Round Table Agreement, and how we set up our transition in 1989.

The Round Table talks were about avoiding confrontation, with members of the old regime and members of Solidarity trying to reach an agreement. The problem was that the post-communists played the role of the left, but they were not leftists. They had big complexes inherited from the former regime, so they chose a very opportunistic attitude towards the Catholic Church. And the Catholic Church thought that it was pay back time for them. So the Catholic Church wanted to dictate the rules, notably for abortion, but also for many other things. As a result we have some of the most conservative laws in Europe, without sexual education in schools, without any regulations concerning in vitro, no laws on same-sex unions.

The post-communists were not leftists also in an economic sense. They were neo-liberals. So we began reforms that were very difficult for a society without a left. This has permanently pushed the potentially leftist electorate to the right.

The choice, as in many countries in the region, was not between left and right, but between right and wrong. And the difference between right and wrong is not a democratic difference. It doesn’t produce a real choice. It doesn’t produce two, three or four legitimate options. And if it doesn’t produce choice, it won’t produce participation.

Take Popper’s idea of the contrast between an open society and a closed society. Paradoxically this is not a democratic idea. This is precisely the dichotomy between right and wrong. When I had my first encounter with George Soros, whom I now count as a friend, I strongly criticized the idea of an open society. Because who in democracy is going to vote for a closed society? You can say that you are for an open society, pretending that you do not take any political position, when in fact you are assuming a political position. So you present your ideas as natural, rational, obvious. It means that anybody who disagrees with you on the definition of the 'open society' is not natural, rational, neutral. This serves to exclude symbolically anyone who disagrees with you.

This anti-political choice (between an 'open society' and 'closed society') may have been proper and very useful in the times of struggling for democracy against autocratic regimes like communism, but the very same distinction reproduced inside the regained democracy after '89 endangered pluralism and democratic politics.

It also worked as a self-destroying prophecy. That is because if you divide politicians in this way and organize elections, then an 'open society' party must sooner or later be followed by a 'closed society' party, and this happened almost everywhere. All the anti-political ideas like 'open society' or 'third way' produced a right-wing backlash. Orban, Meciar, Klaus, Kaczyński, even Bush are examples of exactly this mechanism.

When there was no choice at the start among liberals, social-democrats, conservatives and other equally legitimate options, but instead of you had the a priori correct founding fathers of the new democracies who had taken the 'open society' option, everybody who had been for different reasons ‘against’ immediately turned up together in the camp of populists. Including people who could have supported the Left or less radical options, if they had not been irritated by the symbolic exclusion (added to the economic exclusion).

The plebiscite about the transition was not the pluralist vision that we promised each other in 1989. So-called “Shock therapy” economic policies were not neutral and not debatable in my country; however they produced a large number of excluded people. So what could they do? They could only vote for populists. In Poland and in other countries in the region, you had a backlash - a rightist backlash - and the conflict was not between left and right but between rational transition people or “transition elites” and populists. It was very dysfunctional. To end the anecdote: Soros showed some respect for this critique, which in turn made a strong impression on me.

So I would say that the transition went through three stages: first of all, the neo-liberal revolution; then you have the rightist backlash; and the third phase is synthesis, as Hegel said, it’s a kind of post-political synthesis, and Tusk is a good example of it.

The return of a socially engaged intelligentsia 

oD: Would you attribute a lot of the national crises across Europe to problems resulting from such a false synthesis? 

SS: In Krytyka, we observed this problem involving the illusion of choice given to us in the transition period, and we said ‘let’s reinvent the left’. It will be good to have a left, we feel that we are leftist, and we don’t want to postpone saying so. And furthermore, this would be good for democracy, because you would then have a real choice.

And then we realized that the problem is much wider. It’s not only a matter of reinventing the left, it is also a problem of how to reinvent politics, or ‘the political’ as Chantal Mouffe writes. So if the public sphere is so colonized by the instrumental logic of the market, and the party is just another product, or just another company or soap opera, we asked a third question: why does society tolerate this type of politics, or post-politics?

And we answered that the problem must lie with the environment people find themselves in. Societies are so individualized and so oriented by the market towards competition that people do not trust one another enough to co-operate. In such an imperfect situation, instead of co-operating to improve it, everyone competes with one another, trying to adapt to this imperfect situation individually. This kills societies. Instead, you have something like 'the modernized version of the state of nature where everybody fights with everybody’. There is a fundamental problem with the whole process of social bonding.

This is not only a leftist diagnosis - conservatives or liberals say the same. Conservatives would say that it is a failure in community thinking; liberals would say it’s a dearth of social capital, you know, like 'bowling alone', this idea which is very popular. And leftists could say, it’s a problem of social engagement. So whatever you choose, the whole spectrum agrees that it is a problem with social bonding. So we said that we have to 'reinvent the social', and produce social glue among people, learn how to organize ourselves, how to create common institutions that will shape engaged attitudes.

So the form which we took ten years ago was that of an engaged intelligentsia. This kind of organizing of people came back to us after ten years not only as a form, like creating magazines, organizing movements, organizing social actions and so on, which was very attractive and very romantic, but it came back also as content, a kind of political philosophy.

We have been quite successful in creating institutions in Poland. However, the country's largest party is right wing, the largest opposition party is also right wing, the Catholic Church is so strong. But the largest institution in my generation and generally in meta-politics is leftist. This tells you something about the future, I hope. This is how we interpreted the story here – the transition.


A Krytyka meeting in Krakow. Flickr/Krytyka Polityczna - Klub w Krakowie. Used with permission from Slawomir Sierakowski.

oD: Anna Grodzka’s piece talked about how the left in Poland has detached from this idea of a Polish cultural identity, and how “Polishness” itself has been linked to both the established parties and the Catholic Church. As you describe it, in that space there is no left. So you are basically creating a left from scratch rather than reinventing a left.

SS: Anna Grodzka is a very specific institution in Polish politics. She is the first transgender member of Parliament in Poland, and that’s a big symbolic change in Polish politics, so I support her. 

oD: How has the media covered you?

SS: I think for some people it is still incomprehensible and unreasonable that we did not enter party politics. But the Krytyka movement has all these institutions – a publishing house, cultural centres, all those social clubs in all those small cities in which we offer the only cultural access people have. As Krytyka, in Poland alone, we organise almost 1500 social and cultural events per year. This being the case, who would want to exchange this for stupid TV bickering? But this is exactly what political parties are doing.

If you have a genuine mission, then you can only be weaker in this type of competition. If you have ideas, if you don’t want to adapt yourself to these brutal, stupid conflicts, which are about nothing. These phenomena that preoccupy us either serve as a political cover for the hurt the financial markets do to people or are deployed as political religion to seduce people. 

In my country, people have been discussing the lustration process for twenty years, debating how to treat former secret agents. Twenty years! Can you imagine? This was the largest Polish debate: “Who should be lustrated?” Not the economy, not the European Union. Agents. 

Then the morning after, suddenly everybody forgot about agents and so now we have Smolensk. This is the most important thing in Polish politics. Did Russians shoot our President or not? About one third believes that it was not an accident and the whole brouhaha is about Smolensk. I’m sorry but I cannot do it. I cannot push my activists, that is - take them from the places in which they really are doing good things for the people, and send them into the stupid conflicts in which politicians do their everyday work. 

oD: The Polish Church, meanwhile, functions in a much more political role… 

SS: Do you know what Bishop Pieronek told me some time ago? At that time I was participating in the largest of our beach festivals, which takes place in a large tent. It is something for people to enjoy, in a sort of holiday atmosphere. I had a discussion with this Polish bishop, one of the most popular Polish bishops, and he said and I quote, this is an exact quote: “Gender ideology is worse than Nazism and Communism.” This bishop, I should say, is not in the right wing of the Polish church: he’s part of the left wing of the Polish church. This is the “open church” as we say in Poland. Can you imagine? At a time when even the Pope says, “who am I to criticize homosexuality?” - in Poland all you can hear is that gender ideology is worse than Nazism. Has gender killed anybody? Thrown anyone into prison? So the problem with the Church is that they are interested only in the public sphere, which is both good and bad: Who is ruling? Who debates the rules?

But they are not interested in what we really do in our lives. Our society has become almost identical to western society. People have abortions, they live in gay partnerships. They even adopt children here. And nobody cares. It’s only a question of money. You can buy your freedom here. If you are well educated, if you live in a large city, if you have money, then you have everything you want. And the Catholic Church is not interested. They are such hypocrites. They are interested in who rules. One of Krytyka's leaders, Kinga Dunin, called it: 'the privatization of freedom'. Freedom is now like a commodity, distributed according to your social class. If you have money and cultural competence, you can make decisions about yourself. You can ignore the public sphere. So this situation demoralizes people because it teaches you how to engage in doublespeak – you do act differently in your home from how you conduct yourself elsewhere.

The same lesson comes from politicians. When Donald Tusk was in the opposition, he was pro-choice, he was very liberal, but you know what happened? He couldn’t go through the threshold of five per cent, so he couldn’t enter parliament. This made him conservative. And so he became a conservative. Now, he’s even becoming a social democrat because he thinks that will suit him better. The same thing, but in another direction, happened with Palikot. He was a member of the ruling party, a hardcore rightist, and a homophobe - for example, he would have regarded Anna Grodzka as someone who should be excluded. But, being the businessman that he is, he decided that maybe there was more space on the left, and that it was more advantageous for him to create a leftist party, rather than another rightist party.

oD: So is there no way of building some sort of progressive movement in the public sphere?

SS: I’m saying that we want to take the battle to the private sphere. The state behaves as though it does not want to take into consideration how people really live. The law and life itself are more and more discrepant. The law, you know, says, ‘oh you cannot have abortions’. Only Poland, Belarus, Albania and Russia offer no recognition for gay unions. Can you imagine? The law is more and more like a relic of the past. And the people live as they want.

oD: How do you reinvent the social in order to bring the law back to legalizing what people are doing?

SS: If politics is so disoriented, I want to stay in society and work in society. I want to be with the people and not with the politicians. I think that is the mission of the left.

oD: So the role of the Left in Poland is only in society and not at all in the political arena?

SS: Stick to the people.

The future for social integration, Europe and beyond. 

oD: And not just in Poland? This is another very interesting thing about your organization. It is not just based in Poland, is it?

SS: When we were strong in Warsaw, we wanted to go out into the provinces. It’s easy to be strong in Warsaw, but in the provinces…it’s not so easy. So once we were strong throughout Poland we decided to go, not west, which is easy. Let’s go east, this is the place where our experience may be useful.

We have a magazine out in Ukraine, but we don’t want this to be a Polish-Ukrainian magazine, but a Ukrainian-Ukrainian magazine, so they do it as they want. And now we are not a Polish organization anymore, and I love it. Ukrainians and Poles are in the same organization. And now we have a Russian branch, not so advanced as in Ukraine. And we see that we have our own Iron Curtain, the Schengen Curtain. The Schengen border is an iron curtain. It’s such a stupid border. I don’t want this border to exist there. It works against Europe, because it makes Ukrainians feel much further away than they really are. There is no big difference between Ukrainians and Germans and Poles. In fact, they are the same, so why these boundaries?

I think that Ukraine is stupidly neglected in Europe. In Poland, we understand, because we say that they are the same as us and so they should be in the European Community. OK, so if there is a crisis and you cannot take them into Europe politically, then do it socially and culturally! If political integration is not possible, then it is surely the obligation of Europe, the obligation of Paris, Berlin, London and other capitals, to integrate Ukraine on the social basis. Organize scholarships, support NGOs, organize exchanges, support universities, do whatever you can do for this society to be with us. And now you have a border, this border works so that every third one of our guests from Ukraine is stopped at the border. Why? They do not come here to steal cars or something.

It doesn’t work, so we try to influence the government to teach the customs officers not to persecute people, because believe me, they do. Poles unfortunately feel they are better than Ukrainians. If we have a complex regarding how the Germans see us, then we immediately transfer this onto our relations with the East.

And there is also a pragmatic element to what we do. There would be no independent Poland without independent Ukraine – Jerzy Giedroyć's great idea. We have understood this. So we said, ‘OK we must forget about Polish cities like Lviv or Vilnius.’ They were the most beautiful Polish cities – the most beautiful – we don’t have such cities in Poland anymore. Krakow is maybe the only one. ‘But let’s forget it, for the sake of our future, because otherwise we will always fight with each other. We will have blood baths all the time. So there will be no independent Poland without an independent Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus.

But there is also a second rule which must be understood in Europe. That there will be no democratic Russia without a Europeanized Ukraine. Whenever Russia has the possibility to grab Ukraine, its imperialist tendencies overcome its democratic tendencies. So if you want to have good democratic relations with Russia, you should open Europe up to Ukraine. So in November, Ukraine will sign a treaty with the European Union, and I hope that will happen. And I think that Ukraine is one of the really key places in the world today.

Website of Krytyka Polityczna (Polish)

Publication of Krytyka Polityczna (English)

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