This article was originally published in Dissent – magazine of politics and culture.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] was born in the last year of so-called “communist rule” in Poland, just before the Polish United Workers Party dissolved, hastily drafted economic transition plans became effective, and the first partly independent elections took place in the Eastern Bloc. It’s this last occasion—the elections of June 4, 1989, when Solidarity won 99 percent of the seats they could legally take in parliament, according to their agreement with the Party—that Poles have been celebrating as #25yearsoffreedom and that President Barack Obama congratulated us on in Warsaw yesterday, with his full retinue of black helicopters and TV cameras in tow.
The Western media is exuberant. “It’s freedom you won for the world, Poland!” is the message we hear as we listen to the radio, scroll through Twitter feeds, and read news pages from Al Jazeera to Fox. But did we? We young Poles are a generation that neither knows the taste of rationed food and police beatings nor identifies with the grand narrative of winning freedom and “bringing the Soviet giant down to his knees.” So what do we, the proud post-communist people, born in 1989 or later, actually celebrate?
[quote align=’left’]We were born into the world of TINA: in Poland, “there is no alternative” became not only the slogan but a very palpable reality during the post-1989 economic transition.[/quote]Freedom of the press—the one I’m exercising now—is an obvious gain. The right to unionize, organize, and protest are, too, as are our democratic constitution, free elections, and membership in the EU. Not having to be drafted into the army (if you’re a young, able-bodied male) and serve your mandatory twelve months is another relief. To our parents and grandparents, then—the men and (often forgotten) women of Solidarity; those of both the Polish United Workers Party and the opposition who made possible the Round Table Talks and free elections—we owe many thanks, as we are often reminded. Thank you.
But freedom of the press doesn’t translate to universal freedom of speech or of artistic expression; church- and state-sponsored censorship are alive and well, and not a single month goes by without one artist or another being harassed for not conforming to standards of patriotic morality. The right to unionize is undermined by near-unanimous media portrayals of unions as bands of rioters and schemers, not to mention the sole group responsible for economic mishaps and slow growth. Moreover, under new labor regulations, and with an increasingly large portion of the workforce working part-time or “flex” jobs, less and less workers can actually even join unions.
The right to protest is granted to everybody—at least after several unfortunate years when LGBTQ groups were barred from organizing the Pride parade—but this right is abused by neo-Nazis and the rest of the far right, who never miss an opportunity to pass off anti-Semitic and homophobic marches as displays of patriotism. Constitutional protections against discrimination, meanwhile, are shaky; it was only earlier this week that Anna Grodzka, the first transgender person elected to parliament, won the first legal battle against hate speech. The thousands of gays and lesbians harassed and beaten in the streets by far-right hooligans and the immigrants who have had their homes set on fire by racist groups haven’t been so lucky. The same can be said of rape victims forced to bear the children of their rapists because—in a bow to the Catholic church—legal and safe abortion was rendered technically impossible early in the 1990s (the first of many future wins by the conservatives ruling Poland after 1989). But it’s not these so-called “moral issues” I wish to discuss. It’s the shape of the economy and the country we as a generation inherited that poses the biggest challenge today.
We were born into the world of TINA: in Poland, “there is no alternative” became not only the slogan but a very palpable reality during the post-1989 economic transition. Factories either went bankrupt or were quickly privatized; people lost their jobs either way. The number of people dependent on unemployment benefits or pensions soared, as did the crime rate and inflation after we applied “shock therapy.” The whole agriculture sector was on the brink of collapse as state-owned farms employing hundreds of thousands people became an instant anachronism in the new free-market economy. But the country recovered relatively quickly, and the economy started to grow again. That only drove our leaders and international organizations to call for further privatization of the public sector. Increasing “job market elasticity” and scaling down the welfare state, they said, were the only viable options.
What was a supposed inevitability in times of great change and turmoil, however, couldn’t possibly be the policy for times of peace and prosperity. Or could it? Today, we are living in moderately rich and stable economy, and yet cries for further privatization, liberalization, and foreign investment have hardly subsided. We’re still told that we have to “increase productivity” and “educate ourselves according to market demands.” And perhaps we would—if we weren’t already working two jobs and cramming in an education on the side. But whether we get that education for free (in what remains of the public higher education system) or in the ever-growing numbers of private schools, our prospects are equally dim, judging by the labor market we’re supposed to conform to. Despite what education we have, we are never given real work opportunities before the age of thirty. In the meantime, more than half of us between the ages of twenty and thirty work on what we call “junk contracts”—under-regulated, insecure part-time jobs with no health benefits or social security that enable employers to pay minimum wage and treat full-time workers as unpaid interns.
Locking my entire generation into the school system helped reduce unemployment rates, but effectively made us dependent on our parents. (Government scholarships or subsidies never factored into the equation; as recent data shows, the government spends less on such programs than on bonuses for officials in just one agency—ironically, the one that takes care of our future pensions.)
Of all the freedoms Poland won twenty-five years ago, it’s the freedom to emigrate that is perhaps most often used: almost 2 million people have left Poland since we joined the EU in 2004.
It’s not surprising that Polish families in the UK, as they join the ranks of the middle class and have children, decide to stay; with the privatization of early care, difficulties in obtaining childcare benefits, and intense competition on the job market, couples in the same age bracket in Poland are choosing not to have children at all, which has provoked the biggest demographic crisis in modern Polish history.
It’s not that the country we’ve inherited is poorer or more corrupt than the one our parents lived in just after the transformation. It’s that we’ve been robbed of our past—we don’t belong to any national myth anymore—and we’re being robbed of our future. It’s that twenty-five years of aggressive free-market reforms have circumscribed the horizons of young people, especially those who don’t live in Warsaw and don’t have the luck of having rich parents. The “shock therapy” of the transition period took away many people’s jobs, savings, and security, but in the name of future prosperity—which finally arrived, to some extent, in the 2000s. “Shock therapy” measures of today—like attacks on public universities that are not “market oriented” enough, or the introduction of more and more unpaid internships as a stopgap for youth unemployment—carry no such promise.
As children of TINA, we’re orphans of ideology. The only ideology there to greet us twenty-five years ago was the meta-ideology Francis Fukuyama went on to call the “end of history”—a questionable moniker for the process of exporting democracy and market reforms to the peripheries. The “end of history” was the gospel of the Polish transition.
In shrugging off the remnants of communism, Poland also relieved itself, in large part, of social security and public services, which rhymed too much with socialism. Fighting “totalitarianism” and “communism” became conflated with fighting all the remnants of a responsible welfare state. Yet the omen of socialism is still alive and present. It’s for the fear and loathing of the previous system that Poland adopts every neoliberal recipe that is put on the table—even if it’s a recipe for disaster, as the youth in Spain, Greece, and the United States (who experienced the pains of private education, poor job opportunities, and student debt well before us) can testify. Disregard for the previous system is understandable, although not entirely universal: the divide is growing between the elites who harp on the former Polish People’s Republic’s censorship and backwardness and those in less privileged classes who have a certain nostalgia for the days of state-sponsored vacations, free healthcare, and public schooling. The myth of the malicious, totalitarian Poland of the past remains strong because it’s politically useful: when “communist” Poland was so bad, how could anyone dare to rebel against the free and democratic policies of today’s government? “Surely, you don’t want to go back in time?” is the question aimed to pacify any young dissenter. In such a politically constricted environment, the economic crisis and social insecurity has only advanced far-right groups. They claim they’re the Polish indignados, the Polish Occupy—while crying out loud against “eurocommunism” and “homo-fascism” and cheering on liberalization.
[quote align=’left’]Fighting “totalitarianism” and “communism” became conflated with fighting all the remnants of a responsible welfare state.[/quote]Surely we can, and hopefully will, stop somewhere on this path and say, “Enough is enough.” But here the problem of non-existent ideologies looms again. It’s the left that has the language and tools to solve the present crisis, both in the center and in the peripheries. But in a country where the parliamentary left is the offspring of the same Polish United Workers Party whose end we celebrate today, and where all other “lefts” have been stubbornly and methodically weakened by post-Fordism, de-unionization, privatization, and the increase of national chauvinism and religious fundamentalisms, there’s no point of reference for my generation to turn to other than God or nation-state. The results are not encouraging: just last week, the chauvinistic, sexist, and ultra-religious Janusz Korwin-Mikke—representing the Congress of the New Right (KNP), a parody of American libertarianism—was elected to the European Parliament by the votes of young people in Poland. Meta-ideology won.
In these sad conditions, though, there’s also hope and possibility for a left revival. It’s perhaps the only element of today’s festive atmosphere that makes me want to raise a glass, too. In the absence of established progressive politics, there is plenty of room to build, and that’s what is happening now. New forms of civic and urban activism are emerging; young people are establishing cooperatives, publishing books and magazines, and fighting for the environment; people are working to change their conditions and surroundings, starting, literally, in their own backyards. Urban activism is the rallying cry of the day, with more and more people working to rejuvenate industrial wastelands in their cities, from Warsaw to Łodź.
“It’s micro-politics, it’s only local, it’s just privileged youth fighting for more hip cafes and bike lanes,” some will say. Perhaps that’s part of it. But it goes beyond that. In Wrocław there are activists challenging the city’s racist policies towards the Roma community and fighting the gentrification of the city center more vigorously than any group has in the past decade. Smaller cities and towns are working towards re-establishing local services and working with underprivileged kids, especially where state and municipal care are lacking (for example in Cieszyn on Polish-Czech border). Artists and precarious workers in the creative industries are finally unionizing and putting pressure on the government, successfully, to work towards establishing basic social security for members of arts community—of whom Poland is proud, yet unwilling to support.
In a country where “left” and “socialism” are used mostly as invectives, it’s necessary to take these words back, but also to work tirelessly for a just, equal, and open society starting in our own communities. As children of post-communism—which, as Boris Buden famously remarked, is a state of prolonged infancy, where the real political task is to produce some form of adulthood—let us use the juvenile energy and potential for more rebellious, progressive, and non-conformist thinking. That is still the left’s work, even in a country where we’re told that the left failed and history ended. Let the pundits say so. Even if there’s no real “left” to be seen, there’s space to build something new.
As children of TINA with no ideology to turn to, solidarity is all we have left. Perhaps it’s not ironic in the country where Solidarity won freedom. Yesterday, everybody congratulated us on the freedom we won for ourselves and the world. Now we have to change gears and use the freedom my generation so proudly enjoys to build solidarity.
This article was originally published in Dissent – magazine of politics and culture.
Solidarity Prize award ceremony / Gala Nagrody Solidarności
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of free Poland, the first ever international Lech Wałęsa Solidarity Prize was presented in Warsaw on 3 June. The award went to Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of Crimean Tatars.
Photo by J. Cieślikowska / MFA