Gazeta Wyborcza: How is it that, 26 years after our democratic transition, Poles have elected a government that is upending the entire system of liberal democracy and rule of law?
Sławomir Sierakowski: There are many direct causes, like the eavesdropping scandal, President Komorowski’s political suicide, a simple wearing out of PO after eight years in power, we could go on.
Sławomir SierakowskiPolish sociologist and political commentator. He is the founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique). MORE
But the fundamental reason lies in the fact that from the very beginning of the process of transition our political system has been dominated by a dysfunctional conflict between modernization and anti-modernization, as opposed to a proper conflict between two different visions of modernization, between, for instance, left and right. In Poland, one side sees the other not as representing an alternative path for modernizing the country, but as a threat to Poland itself. What PiS is currently destroying is not so much democracy as liberalism. Media pluralism, rule of law, the Constitutional Tribunal, the separation of powers, individual freedoms—these are liberal rather than democratic principles.
The other side sees things as equally bleak: Western democracy is a threat to Poland, to Poles, to the nation.
A democratic victory by anti-liberal forces is possible, and not uncommon. In Western countries, democracy as majority rule through free elections and liberalism as a system of freedoms and constitutional guarantees became inextricably linked only after World War II. Before that, it happened that rule of law, individual freedoms, or independent courts could exist under authoritarian conditions. On the other hand, it is possible for majority rule to destroy individual rights and the rule of law, to establish a dictatorship.
Liberal democracy is a system that gives rise to conflicts and political disputes, but it delimits them within a framework that is unquestioned by all of its participants. The constitution and the Constitutional Tribunal that safeguards it serve as the primary force binding the liberal community; they are the framework within which the system functions.
So now we are observing the destruction of that liberal democratic framework, and that is why the current situation is so dangerous. We are no longer bound together by anything. There is no community. We are divided into hostile tribes. We are in the midst of an unarmed civil war.
I don’t know, but I know that the Minister of Defence, Macierewicz, who is perceived as the craziest and most unpredictable politician in Poland, is in the government because Kaczynski needs someone who will stop at nothing, who will be willing even to send the army out into the streets. There is no other reason to justify appointing Macierewicz to this post. When Kaczynski’s ratings fall below 20 percent, he may come to doubt the sense of elections. Then not only liberalism, but democracy as a system of elected government may come under threat.
Why is this happening to us?
Independence and democracy were handed to us by geopolitics. But we did not develop a true conflict between left and right, a conflict over how we should modernize after communism.
Today, there are three political cultures coexisting in Europe. In the West there is liberal democracy, in East Central Europe we have democracy, but not necessarily liberal democracy, and in Russia and Eurasia there is neither democracy nor liberalism, but authoritarianism.
What differentiates us from the West is the absence of a political left, which was discredited by communism and post-communism and undermined by the Catholic Church, which functions as a great anti-modernizing force.
Here capitalism took on a sharper form than in the West.
Is that because it came to us late and we had to make up for lost time?
Capitalism is always harsher in the periphery than it is in the center. We clearly overdid it in terms of our faith in the free market, which almost never goes hand in hand with the public good. We forgot that there is no freedom without solidarity.
As poor materialists, we became enamored with technical modernization, forgetting about social modernization. As an example: Poland has high-speed Pendolino trains, but it also leads Europe in terms of the number of local rail connections that have been shut down.
Is it only the course of the post-communist transition that explains the recidivism of nationalist authoritarianism?
Richard Holbrooke once asked what the results of a free and fair election would be in a country dominated by fascists, racists, and nationalists. The result would hardly be liberal democracy.
In order for liberal democracy to exist, there have to be liberals, and it seems that we have still too few of them. It is important to underline that I don’t mean economic liberals, because they represent something different, and often something quite opposed. We are talking about fundamental respect for rights and freedoms.
Democracy can be dangerous, because it gives power to the people, and people are not angels. When did the Jewish diaspora become truly threatened by mass anti-Semitism? When empires collapsed and were replaced by democracy. Before, Jews were relatively well protected by authoritarian governments. When those governments ceased to exist and people were able to express their views, they openly attacked the Jews. Democracy can be frightening when it is not limited by the law, the constitution, individual freedoms, and minority rights. Anti-Semitism also erupted during revolutions and uprisings, for instance during the Khmelnitsky uprising. Because that is when ordinary people come to power.
This stems from our history. The patron of my organization, Polish philosopher Stanislaw Brzozowski, was attacked for supposedly “Russifying” the Polish soul in the novel Flames. But Brzozowski wanted to provoke Poles to think and described the fate of a man who refused to live within a system of values that recognized only resistance and betrayal, which was the state of our political culture in the nineteenth century. If you did not want to exist solely on the plane of resistance and betrayal, you had to escape Polish culture.
The unhappy nineteenth century gave us an identity that was essentially militaristic. Just like in the army—either you are with us, or you are against us. That was all that mattered. And this is an anti-liberal structure that does not allow for difference, it excludes the possibility of empathy and tolerance towards those who think differently. It reduces difference to betrayal. We were too frequently soldiers and too rarely citizens. Who was supposed to build a liberal democracy in Poland? Our eternal insurgents?
Why is it that 26 years was not enough time for Poles to become citizens?
What experience do we have of practicing liberal democracy? In the Second Republic, democracy lasted only six years. Then Pilsudski carried out the May Coup in 1926 in order to save the country from the nationalists, but he sacrificed democracy.
Kaczynski also has a sense of mission straight out of the nineteenth century. He is like the nationalist version of Pilsudski. He is attempting a reverse coup: he is trying to democratically overthrow liberalism. Driven by his mission, he is sacrificing our rights in order to protect Poland against the deterioration of the Third Republic. In order to have liberal democracy in Poland, we would first have to get rid of our “Pilsudskis”. People in Poland still take their historical uniforms out of the closet and dress up in them. Instead of maps reading “Poland,” we should rename ourselves “Poland Militant” once and for all.
What sense of community are we left with after the democratic transition? After 1989 the modernizing elite consciously raised petty egoists, because we had to build capitalism. And those people who failed to find their place in the new system were left with the only community that they knew—national, militaristic, insurgent, symbolic. And of course, the Church community. Where were those who felt wronged supposed to find respite, relief, solace? Kaczynski, PiS, the Catholic Church, that whole camp consists of father figures who seem thoughtful and caring, ensuring safety, explaining the world, and people are flocking to them and the community they represent. And that is a rational choice. Let’s not be surprised at how someone could have voted for Kaczynski or Duda. Of course they could.
Poland had a chance at some measure of social modernization through communism, but unfortunately communism came to us from the East, not from the West. There was more Russian culture than German philosophy in the Polish People’s Republic. Polish communist intellectual Tadeusz Kronski said in the 1940s that Poles would come to Marxism with the help of Soviet rifle butts, not books. This was a lost opportunity for modernization.
But how is it that the nationalist Catholic camp has such an advantage over liberal citizens?
They aren’t really all that strong. And we aren’t really all that weak. Several times in recent weeks almost 100,000 people have gone out into the streets. That is a very good start.
Kaczynski was completely caught off guard by the scale of the opposition to his government. He had not counted on this at all. We have cut his popular support down at least 15 percentage points relative to what it would have been without the protests. After a month in power, Tusk’s party had an approval rating of over 50 percent. Kaczynski has been practicing demonstrations for years. He had the money, and the party organization, and the structures necessary to bring people out into the streets. And now people are demonstrating spontaneously, they haven’t been brought out by any party. They’re coming out to defend the Constitutional Tribunal and the public media, a very abstract institution and very compromised media that have long been politicized by various camps. And yet people feel that their rights are being violated, that they’re being deprived of their freedom of speech. In Warsaw, I spoke to about 20,000 demonstrators. We will surely not surrender — I see that in the eyes of people at the demonstrations.
Let us assume that all of the allegations made against Mateusz Kijowski (the social leader of the Democratic Defense Committee, the organizer of the demonstrations) in the tabloids and on rightwing websites are true—his delinquency in child support payments and everything else. What would that actually mean? He is a perfectly ordinary person, not some kind of crystal figurine, and it was he who organized the Democratic Defense Committee (KOD in Polish), and it is he who brings thousands of people out into the streets. An ordinary man, not a dissident hero like Kuron or Michnik. The dissidents were a historical miracle, and it is difficult to imagine the end of communism without them. But ultimately it is ordinary people who decide. Without Walesa there would have been no Solidarity. The dissidents had to have Walesa precisely because he was no angel. Kijowski is much worse news for Kaczynski than some new Jacek Kuron.
What is the source of Kaczynski’s strength, given that he lost eight consecutive elections over the past eight years before his most recent victory?
Up until now, Kaczynski has formally held power only for two years. But in fact, he has controlled Polish politics during the entirety of the transition. It was he, after all, who determined all the areas of conflict: de-communization, lustration, Smolensk, the “system,” and now refugees. He lost elections, but he still ruled. Other Polish politicians could only react and respond to the challenges he threw at them. Donald Tusk played offense only on the soccer field—in politics he was always on the defensive.
It is not a coincidence that Kaczynski lost eight elections, but his leadership of PiS was never questioned.
Now Kaczynski has lost his monopoly on street demonstrations, social protests, and expressions of community aspirations. And also on being a victim, on martyrdom, and that is an important element of identity and a key political instrument in our country. Someone has stolen his Sorcerer’s Stone. He is even losing his monopoly on pathos.
Liberal and civic values like individual freedom, tolerance, and rule of law are soft and weak in comparison to nationalist and religious values, faith and a sense of belonging, symbols and figures of leaders and saviors. How can you be sure that their defenders will have enough strength and tenacity to persevere?
I have only one answer: Because we are Poles. Under Polish conditions, soft values become hard. The anti-communist dissidents, our own historical miracle, were typical Polish romantics. The Comandos (militarism again) were Poles in the truest sense. Perhaps that’s why there was such an effort to push them out with the anti-Semitic campaign. It’s Mickiewicz who ignited everything. At KOD demonstrations we sing the national anthem—who would have expected that? We are Poles, too, and our potential for community formation is just as strong as theirs. Poles can get hit in the face once or twice, but the third time they’ll hit back. We also grew up in the courtyard and we also know how to fight. We are once again living in a romantic time, a time of intensification. I have never been so active, spoken or written so much.
Aren’t you worried that the Polishness that is giving the anti-government resistance its resolve is just a form of mythomania?
It’s not mythomania. The demonstrations are frequented by translators of postmodernist literature, accountants, taxi drivers. Ordinary people are buying the national flag and singing the anthem. These are the same type of people and they’re equally willing to fight for what’s theirs in a good cause. They understand very well that it’s not Kaczynski but the EU that guarantees Poland’s independence and freedom.
The EU is coming up against the wall and it will have to decide whom it is integrating and how. People prefer Brussels to Niedzica (a small town in Poland), where Kaczynski concluded his anti-EU pact with Orban a month ago.
Poles are attached to the EU. It is a concrete thing for them. When a truck driver’s strawberries rot at the German border because we’ve been thrown out of Schengen, he won’t vote for PiS again.
I am not counting on Kaczynski and his cronies coming to their senses, but I believe that voters will. I expect that if PiS continues on its current course, within a year its approval ratings will dip below 20 percent…
But poll numbers do not elect Parliament…
But PiS will begin to disintegrate. People will start to fall away from him as soon as they are confronted with defeat and denazification. Today they are cowards and martinets, but tomorrow they will not want to be held accountable once they are no longer in power.
The more decisively Kaczynski moves forward, the more he risks losing. PiS is five percent fanatics, 15 percent cynics, and 80 percent conformists.
And what if it comes to open authoritarianism? What if they enact anti-terrorism legislation like the American Patriot Act, limiting freedom of assembly or allowing detention without court oversight in cases of suspected terrorism or threats to national security? What if they start beating people in the street?
Then they will last less than a year. We’ll have a repeat of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but everything will be accelerated. If they turn to violence, they’re done for. Poland is not Hungary or the Czech Republic. Under communism the Czechs had 300 dissidents, the Hungarians maybe 30, but we had 30,000 in the Solidarity underground. Politically, Viktor Orban is in the center—he has Jobbik to his right—and it is from the center that elections are won. Kaczynski is not in the center.
Because of Ukraine, people understand that a conflict with the West means the threat of Russia.
When you talk about why it is that PiS won in Poland, you’re a pessimist, saying that our liberal democracy lacks liberals. When you talk about the fact that we’ll get rid of them, you’re an optimist, you say we can do it.
The more decisively Kaczynski moves forward, the more he risks losing. PiS is five percent fanatics, 15 percent cynics, and 80 percent conformists.
There are three reasons why I think so. Firstly, dissatisfied members of society outnumber PiS supporters. Secondly, they do not have the power of the Soviet Union to prop them up, as the communists did. And thirdly, we can draw on the experience of the dissidents and Solidarity—this is a very strong tradition of collective resistance.
PiS has truly taken the place of ZOMO, the communist-era riot police, and the ordinary people from KOD have taken the place of those who drove ZOMO away.
What should the post-PiS order be in Poland? Do the deficits in community identity, which as you say brought PiS to power, have to be overcome?
We cannot remain trapped in this unfortunate divide between an “open society” and a “closed society.” One pole has collapsed; if the other follows, perhaps a new division will arise, one that more closely resembles the left-right split. We would withdraw from the culture war and return to the classic class division. When the new political parties Razem and Nowoczesna were founded, I wrote that this is exactly what was happening—these are two parties with opposing economic programs, which have the potential to organize economic interests in society.
There will be no electorate for the left in Poland unless the role of the Catholic Church is diminished. The Church redirects class conflict into the culture wars. It is impossible to return to people’s material intersts without weakening the Church. It is not a coincidence that people are more mobilized by gender politics than they are by the precariat. This won’t change on its own.
Besides, Kaczynski has taken care of social concerns. He promised free money and subsidies for children. This is a type of Peronism for the middle class. But Beata Szydlo deceived voters, claiming that she had a package of social legislation ready to go, when in fact none of those laws are ready. So says every member of parliament. No one knows what the child subsidy will actually look like, who will get it and who won’t, whether it will really benefit the most underprivileged, rather than the middle class or the rich. The tax-free allowance is not progressive.
How can the social democratic left find its place in a post-PiS Poland?
The left’s primary principle should be that it fight liberals only when they are in power. When the government is in the hands of rightwing conservatives or autocrats, liberals are its allies. If we wince and our grimace becomes grounds for refusal to participate, we risk being aesthetes rather than politicians. We risk having a Weimar Republic.
Let’s go back to the question of Poland’s future political landscape…
There are no miracles. We may never have a clear right-left division based solely on material or class interest. Both sides will have to make significant concessions, because such is the state of social consciousness.
How does the situation in Poland fit into the global debate about so-called turbo capitalism, that is, the degeneration of financial capital, the widening scissors of wealth and poverty, financial capital controls, which are like the tail wagging the dog, inclusive capitalism, etc.?
Our elites are increasingly aware of this issue. Both the left and Kaczynski reference Piketty, whose work we published in Polish. Gazeta Wyborcza has changed its line. If you looked at what you were writing ten years ago, you would be quite surprised. And you thought we were the crazy ones.
Unbridled globalization can be harnessed only at the supra-national level. For Poland, the answer is European integration. No single country can deal with the financial markets and large corporations. The road for Poland—and this is also true for the left—is through Europe. The European Union is coming to this realization. The EU will pick itself up and may make a jump towards a common fiscal policy, an increased centralization of power, and the principle of one citizen—one vote, or no taxation without representation, subjecting the markets to democratic control.
But no one in Europe will die for Poland, and PiS is giving us a moronic conflict with the EU over constitutional principles, refugees, and national interests.
Kaczynski has come to us at a terrible moment. If we find ourselves alone, then Poland is in for partition between economic globalization and Russia.
The interview was published in Gazeta Wyborcza on January 16th, 2016. Translated by Maria Blackwood . Featured photo by Albert Zawada / Agencja Gazeta.