Can Europe Make It?

Stealing the spectacle

A new Polish xenophobia cannot be explained only by political economy, but also needs to be understood in terms of political aesthetics.

Adam J Chmielewski
4 August 2016

Polish nationalists burn flares to mark Independence Day in Warsaw, Nov., 2015. Far-right organisations march under anti-migrant slogan,'Poland for Poles,Poles for Poland.'Alik Keplicz /Press Association. All rights reserved.For some time now Polish public space has been systematically filled with numerous xenophobic incidents. They are staged, with increasing frequency, by radical nationalist, racist or outright neo-Nazi groupings who jointly call themselves patriots. The membership in these groupings is rapidly growing. Gradually, they are turning into a sizeable volunteer army resembling the Hungarian Jobbik. As a result of the general elections in 2015, they have parliamentary representation as well.

Revenge of the oppressed?

In various formulations, the disturbing frequency of racist incidents in Poland is usually explained away. Most generally, the growing popularity of xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideologies amongst Polish youth is rationalized by pointing to the economic conditions responsible for their many forms of social exclusion: the adoption of xenophobic attitudes by a considerable part of the Polish youth is allegedly a consequence of their exclusion from the labour and consumer market, while membership in these extremist groups is supposed to work for them as psychological compensation for this economic denigration. Racist ideology is supposed to provide them with a vicarious repayment, achieved by means of denigration of others whom they perceive as aliens or outright enemies. In other words, xenophobia in Poland is to be understood as yet another example of the revenge of the oppressed.

This explanation seems plausible, but it suffers from two errors. One has to do with its economism, the other with its literalism. The error of economist reductionism in explaining recent xenophobic events in Poland is that it perceives their authors and actors only as disappointed consumers. Although it may be adequate in individual cases, overall it is misguided and misleading.

For human beings are not only the products of the circumstances of their social environment: they contribute to the circumstances too. To paraphrase a well-known thinker, this economistic doctrine that people are the products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is people who change circumstances. People are products of conditions which are partly produced by themselves. That is one thing.

The second is that the world created by people is not composed only of material goods, access to which is open to them in unequal measure. The human world consists also of symbolic goods which are also subject to various policies of distribution, far from egalitarian. A new quality in Polish xenophobia is that it is indeed adopted and propagated by disappointed consumers; but the source of their disappointment is not the limited access to material, so much as to symbolic goods. They are hungry not only for new sneakers and stuff (or, like in the past, for Jewish houses, shoes and pillows), but for public recognition. For this reason, the new Polish xenophobia cannot be explained only by political economy, but also needs to be understood in terms of political aesthetics.

Public recognition

The contemporary culture of visibility imposes two demands upon its participants: in order to be in contemporary society, one does not only have to have the means of subsistence; no less important is to be perceived as someone who can afford them. Contemporary culture is a culture of appearance in which the objects of rivalry and consumption are not only material goods but, increasingly, images and symbols. Images and symbols are a precondition for a successful social existence, that is, an existence recognised and acknowledged by others. The predominance of the culture of visibility is responsible for the fact that images, or spectacle of various kinds, have now become goods no less sought after than material ones. Ours is thus a culture of demonstration and ostentation; it is a culture of spectacle.

Functioning in the regimes of contemporary societies involves a continuous rivalry for goods both material and symbolic. In this culture, the dominant mode of production is about the creation of images, the construction of spaces for their functioning, as well as the distribution of those goods in those spaces. Naturally, not everyone takes part in these processes to the same extent. Rivalry over goods, material and symbolic alike, is shaped by patterns of conduct propagated by the media. Despite the popularity of social media, these processes are overwhelmingly influenced by the official public media. They dictate, in the last instance, the contents and nature of the dominant message, as well as the pattern of a proper, i.e. socially acceptable form of participation in the public sphere and consumption of its symbolic goods.

Two pictures of xenophobia

For several post-war decades, Nazi ideology and symbols have been effectively banned from Polish public space. With the liberal-democratic transformation of the country, and freedom of speech associated with it, racist and xenophobic ideologies gradually revived and grew in the recesses of society. Over the past few years, however, Poland’s xenophobic groupings have found a way to use the official public media to propagate their racist ideology nationwide, without incurring the heavy costs formerly associated with it, and with impunity. They have learned how to highjack symbols and spectacles produced and distributed by the official regime, and to turn them to the service of their own cause. In other words, they fight the established regime of visuality by deploying its own weapons: they are having a free ride, and making the best of it.  

For, in a relatively brief period of time, a significant reversal has taken place in Poland. The change may be illustrated by means of two contrasting pictures of the same xenophobic groupings which have been propagated by the Polish public media at different times. Around 2010, after one of the brawls staged by soccer hooligans following a match in Warsaw, Polish TV repeatedly showed swathes of neo-Nazi youngsters, having been contained by the police, cuffed and lying face down on a sidewalk. Several years later, however, the same media are not showing this humiliating picture of the buttocks and shaven heads of neo-Nazis felled on the sidewalk, but, literally, quite the reverse: their angry faces shouting patriotic slogans. A second aspect of the reversal is a natural follow-up of the first: the media do not focus any more on the coarse physicality of the members of the neo-Nazi groups, but on the contents of the message they propagate. In this way the official media find themselves serving, willy-nilly, as a megaphone for their racist ideology. Neo-Nazis upset the present political governance of Polish public space, by turning the ideology upon which it rests against the regime itself.

The nature of the transgressive acts committed by xenophobic groupings in Poland has also undergone a significant transformation. They cannot any more be likened to or equated with mundane banditry, quotidian racism, or typical stadium violence. Currently, their actions are  aimed not at physically assaulting people of different colour or religion; nor do they serve just to release their youthful frustrations. But there is a new quality in the transgressive events that they stage, that may be illustrated in the following way. If one paints a swastika on a wall, one does it under the cover of night. If one physically attacks a person, one does it with a face covered by a low hood or a mask. This is because such actions are violations of the existing law. But when one defends the innocence of Polish children or the chastity of women, or the memory of Polish patriots, one does it walking tall and proud. For the defence of these values, even if done in a way which violates accepted norms, is seen as a commendable thing. The praiseworthy nature of those actions is inscribed in the ideology of the existing regime of political correctness.

How it’s done

The following examples illustrate how they do it. Some time ago xenophobic groupings prevented a Member of the European Parliament, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, from speaking in Poland. They argued that Cohn-Bendit had once acknowledged being aroused by adolescents with whom he had been working decades ago. His confession, made in an excessively frank interview, has been construed as acknowledgment of paedophile inclinations. So they argued that a paedophile does not deserve respect or public recognition as an authority. In view of the fact that shortly before the incident the state authorities had announced a stringent anti-paedophile policy, while the official media went on a rampage of paedophile-bashing, it has become impossible to deny the xenophobes the right to protest against the appearance of this politician, unless one is willing to risk the accusation of excessive leniency towards paedophilia. Few would accept such a risk.

Polish neo-Nazis openly express their negative opinions about Muslims and refugees currently striving for safety in Europe. Politicians, media moguls and Roman Catholic Church leaders are unabashedly talking about the refugees “flooding” Poland as a result of the European Union’s decision to allocate them amongst the member states. State authorities openly warn of the danger of unknown microbes which might be brought to Poland by the refugees. And racist incidents and pronouncements are becoming perceived as a legitimate preventive action aimed at preserving the purity of the national substance and faith. In view of all this, it is virtually impossible to counter these racist messages: official pronouncements of the state and the church representatives are being employed by racists as a demonstration of their righteousness, and at the same time used as a shield from prosecution.

It does not happen too often to a sociologist, whose business is to investigate social problems, to become a social problem himself. However, this precisely is what happened to Zygmunt Bauman, a sociologist of international renown. Some time ago he was vilified by a group of neo-Nazis at a public lecture in Poland for his collaboration with the secret services of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. No one, Bauman himself included, denied that, as an officer of the Polish army established in the Soviet Union at the time of war, he worked for an institution controlled by the KGB. Ever since the beginnings of Poland’s political transformation, the official media consistently denounce any pro-communist leanings as criminal in nature; nowadays this includes also any pro-Russian inclinations. In such circumstances it would take tremendous courage to defend Bauman, and to oppose the neo-Nazis who posture as genuine defenders of Polish patriots murdered in a distant past by the communist regime, once supported by Bauman himself.

Normalisation and situationism

These examples demonstrate the extent to which the political regime in Poland has created, perhaps inadvertently, the ideological conditions which allow what was until recently unacceptable and shameful, to be perceived as acceptable, normal and praiseworthy. Xenophobic groups make skilful use of selected items of the dominant ideology, and take advantage of a regime which, somewhat taken aback, realizes that it no longer has any means to condemn or prosecute their racist ideology.

Racist groups profess ideas not much different from those of the Polish political class. The difference lies basically in emphasis and employment of novel techniques in making their views public. The above examples also demonstrate that the proper aim of racist actions is not, for example, to defend the innocence of children, or the chastity of women, or the dignity of patriots. Their true aim is a hostile takeover of the public space produced by public institutions and media, along with their messages, so that they may put them to the service of their own political purposes. In this way the overall interest of these groups is being achieved: they are winning public recognition and are being treated seriously by a system which until recently did not even deign to acknowledge their existence.

In other words, Polish xenophobic groupings are successful thieves of the spectacle staged by the establishment. By taking over and instrumentally deploying the ideological and symbolic messages of the official regime, they have managed to focus public attention on themselves, thus enabling themselves to appear in the very media which, not long ago, did not bother to notice them. It is as if the Polish radical right had been diligent readers of Guy Debord and the radical leftist situationist movement of the 1960’s.

Against literalism

As for the error of literalism in interpreting the new wave of xenophobia in Poland – it seems that xenophobic motivation is being treated by these groups mainly as a means and an instrument for achieving public recognition rather than as an aim in itself. I shall try to explain this by means of yet another example.

According to a well-known folktale, the first wish the fisherman addressed to the golden flounder was to turn the waters in the lake into vodka. In the second wish, he demanded waters in the sea to be turned into vodka. When the golden flounder asked about his third wish, the fisherman, already whoozy, blurts out: “Oh, give me a bottle of vodka and bugger off”. This anecdote conveys an important truth about Polish customs: the private organization of leisure in Poland is barely possible without alcohol. (Inevitably, forms of entertainment which grew up around the Polish mode of alcohol consumption have been reflected in popular culture, especially fiction and film, past and present. It is worth noticing an important shift in this terrain, though: during really existing socialism heroes of the Polish cinema were usually workers and guzzled vodka, while during really existing capitalism they are, as a rule, employees of advertising agencies who permanently sip wine.)

The mode of organization of public events in Poland displays an analogous addiction problem. It is impossible to stage them without an appeal to patriotic and religious ideas and symbols. Just as the fisherman cannot think of anything more desirable than an abundance of vodka, the engineers of public life, similarly, cannot imagine public events without a reference to patriotic, nationalist and religious symbols. No wonder, then, that leaders of xenophobic groups, similarly, realize that for their purposes an appeal to selected bits and pieces of the dominant ideology is most effective. This is so for two reasons. Firstly, as in the case of an alcoholic, nothing else comes to their minds. Secondly, no other ideology could be equally effective. This shows to what extent we are all ensnared in the very same ideological trap. 

It is likely that the majority of the rank-and-file of Polish xenophobic groups actually do believe in the exclusionary ideas they propagate. It is also likely, at least at the moment, that a significant part of them, especially their leaders who engineer new forms of political action, treat these ideas more as slogans to be shouted rather than injunctions to be implemented. Xenophobic slogans are ideally suited for this purpose: until recently a suppression of xenophobic ideology has been one of the pillars of the official ideological regime which simultaneously suppressed its own repressive nature. The cynical game of the neo-Nazis, who are currently winning recognition for the transgressions they perpetrate, enables them to remind the established regime that it has been repressive and oppressive, and demonstrates what it had been repressing and suppressing. With both parties locking themselves into a deadly feedback, the stability of the regime is undermined, and the more it is shaken, the more attention it devotes to the source of its instability.

The peril in this deadlock is that it resembles playing with fire in a munition storage. For it is easy to predict that the next stage in the racist game will be testing how far they can go. In view of the weakening of national and international institutions, it is highly likely that they will go a long way.

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