When revolutions happen bloodlessly, it’s usually because some part of the elite has found its place in the new order. They don’t just open up the gates of the city to let in the Trojan Horse. They become founding members of the Trojan Horse party. They set up kiosks that sell Trojan Horse trinkets. They host TV specials that rewrite history so that the arrival of the Trojan Horse seemed all but inevitable.
In Poland in the late 1980s, Polish sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis began writing about “political capitalists.” These were colloquially known as “red capitalists”: technocrats and enterprise managers who were technically part of the Communist system but had already begun to function like capitalists. Indeed, they were both transforming the system from below and also feathering their own nests to cushion their own personal transitions.
The economic transformation in Poland was, in other words, prepared for in advance. “It is rarely remembered but the market order was introduced in Poland not after 1989 but in 1988, by the Party. The plan at that time was to introduce market rules and privatization — all these new tools – with the support of the Party and part of the opposition,” sociologist Maciej Gdula told me in an interview last year in his Warsaw apartment.
Later, these preparations ensured that the “shock therapy” reforms went through with almost no political opposition. “When Tadeusz Mazowiecki came to power and hired Leszek Balcerowicz to do this shock therapy, the plan was supported by the post-Communists in parliament,” Gdula continued. “There is a great quote from Balcerowicz in which he remembers the first parliament after 1989 when everything he put on the table was voted on without discussion and how this was a great opportunity to implement real reforms. Now there are many political parties and you have to discuss things. But then you had a bill, it was brought to parliament, and it was signed by Jaruzelski in two weeks. Balcerowicz just comes out and says this!”
What Staniszkis failed to appreciate, however, was how deep the collusion went. It wasn’t just about a layer of former Communist technocrats who struck it rich because they used their former positions and their continued political influence to find a place in the new order. “It was also about creating a vast middle class, which is well-paid, which is used to having stable jobs, which operates in a non-commercialized working environment, and which is embedded in a system of social support,” Gdula pointed out. “This middle class and the elite are in alliance.”
The free market certainly contributed to shaping a new middle class. But, as Gdula observed, “the new middle class was created by the state. Social services were kept in reasonable shape. There was no reduction in the staff in the public schooling system or in hospitals. The social services were not privatized for many years during the transformation. Also, there was a huge increase of officers and people working in administration. This was due to reforms introduced by the Polish state related to decentralization and creating a new level of administration at three levels. And of course with joining the EU, the number of administrative officers increased again.”
The role of his middle class, which is dependent in many ways on the state, will prove critical for Poland’s future. Gdula imagined two scenarios. “One is optimistic: the middle class will align with the popular class to secure social standards and social inclusion and to fight against inequalities,” he told me. The middle class, in other words, stands with trade unions and the preservation of a broad social compact.
The second scenario, which he called the “authoritarianization of politics,” resembles what has taken place in Hungary. “This will be present at symbolic level, and related to it will be the real persecution of minorities,” he continued. “It will also hit the social movements and trade unions. When the crisis becomes more present, it will hit us that the government is taking actions against social movements. I’m really afraid of this, especially since the technical means of making such an authoritarianization possible are becoming more sophisticated.”
We talked about his grave disappointments with post-Communist rule, his work with Krytyka Polityczna, and why he finds dependency a more interesting topic to focus on than emancipation.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Actually I don’t remember the exact moment of the fall of the Wall and what happened: maybe because it was already after the changes in Poland, after a whole new government was formed here. My focus was on what was happening in Poland. I was still a little kid, but I was into politics. In 1989, I was 12.
In Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall is not considered a main event in the transition. Sometimes Poles are even criticizing this as a symbol because we consider the Round Table or our elections in June 1989 — the first elections in the Soviet bloc — as the moment of breakthrough. So that’s why we’re not experiencing it as a symbol of change and a moment of collapse.
Of course, I have this image in my mind of people getting on top of the Wall and crushing it and going through the wall. I’m a sociologist, and I’ve studied the sociology of memory. So I know that this is built up as a past image year after year by television.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking on June 4, 1989, the Polish elections?
I was for sure in Warsaw. I’ve been living here since 1985. I remember the election campaign. It was something astonishing. On the streets were posters put by the opposition, and that was something new. The media, which were owned and controlled by the state and the Party, commented on these posters. Before, there were posters but they were not commented on, so this was a kind of breakthrough. One of the posters was from the farmers’ Solidarity movement. Along with the Solidarity symbol, they included a scythe and all around were little flowers with red hats. The television referred to this as a symbol of confrontation, that the posters were threatening the Party.
It was certainly something new, but it was also only half democracy. The elections on June 4, 1989 were not fully democratic elections. The next elections, the presidential elections in November and December 1990, were more important. They were fully democratic. This time it was a real campaign. I took part in the campaign in support of the Communist candidate Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz. All the others hated us, including my friends who were supporting Roman Bartoszcze of ZDL (the Polish People’s Party). We had the impression that we were doing something really extraordinary. There was a kind of mobilization. Many groups had big posters, and there were big campaigns on the TV. It was a genuine democratic campaign with all the groups confronting each other on the street, discussing. Then I remember the next three years of democracy as very pluralistic. It was a very conflict-oriented but still pluralistic moment in Polish democracy.
Then, after the post-Communists regained power in democratic elections in coalition with PSL, the farmers’ party, that was the end of this moment of pluralism. It wasn’t because the Communists cut it off but because there were two political camps. The logic of this confrontation between two camps lasted for two or three years. This was the moment of the real institutionalization of the post-Communist division in Polish politics that lasted ten years. After 1993, it organized the imagination of people. In contrast, the first few years at the beginning of the transition were the more interesting for me politically.
Why did you support the post-Communist candidate in the first democratic presidential election?
It was due to my family. My father was an official in the Party, so we considered it natural to support Cimoszewicz. When I think now what the post-Communists did after they got power, not in the 1990s but after 2001, I’m very ashamed that I supported them. They were the ones who supported the Iraq war. They were responsible for the CIA prisons and for the torture that probably took place. They bought the F-16s. I’m still on the Left, but I’m certainly not a supporter of the Communists. Their role in the transformation was huge. In the 1990s I thought of them as critics of transformation. Now I have no illusions. They took part in transformation as part of the new system, and it was like that from beginning. Right now I’m looking at a kind of alliance between the opposition and the Party side. These two forces plus the Church organized the transformation, defining the main aims of transformation and shaping the reality.
Was there a particular moment that led to your changing your mind on this issue of the Party’s role?
It was obvious when this first period ended, when this post-Communist division collapsed. It was a dozen years ago when the post-Communists came to power. They were popularly defined as a force that would redress all that was bad in the transformation as it related to poverty, inequality, privatization, corruption, and the relations between Church and state (including the question of abortion). They were a huge disappointment for people. Of course not all the people that supported them in 2001 considered them real critics of the transformation. The post-Communist party had this image of being good technocrats. They were expected to fix the situation after the rule of the Right with Jerzy Buzek, Leszek Balcerowicz, and the others.
For me the most important moment was their support of the war in Iraq. This was something that I couldn’t accept. They could obviously make mistakes, but this wasn’t a mistake. This was a real political choice, and they knew what they were doing. They were acting against European leaders, against ideals of pacifism, against even common sense. The second thing was that they did not fight inequality. They just accepted the world as it was. They saw poverty as a problem. But they argued that first it was necessary to build a strong economy and then we could think about how to share the wealth.
The third thing was the attitude toward the Church. Ten years ago, the Communists overtly made a second deal with the Church, saying, “We are not touching the issues of abortion or women’s rights. In exchange, you will support us and support accession to the EU. This is something you should do in your own interest. But we know that for some people in the Church it might be hard. So this is a kind of compromise.” That was the third thing that I couldn’t accept.
The sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis wrote about the rise of “red capitalists” in the 1980s, not just technocrats but also managers in the workplace who began to act as capitalists. Did this theory have an impact on how people looked at the Communist Party?
Her perspective was a most sophisticated version of the popular version – the right-wing critique of transformation that pointed to the phenomenon of “red management” of the economy. The right wing, of course, claimed to finish the transformation through decommunization: “we have to change the Reds for normal people, for our people.” Staniszkis used some popular emotional perspectives to build a broader theory about the reproduction of elites that was rational in some way. The elites were trying to construct their interest in the new global order. At the end of the 1990s, she was claiming that it was over. The “red management,” the nomenklatura, was not able to control the transformation. They were losing ground in the competition with global capital.
I think this is wrong in one crucial point concerning how the elites were able to control the political process to gain support for what they were doing. It was still democracy, not authoritarian rule. It was not China. How were the elites able to create support for their actions? The Right and the Left have the same answer: ideology. There was a transition ideology. Adam Michnik was saying that we have to stop the ideology of communization, the ideology of the witch-hunt, and instead build a democracy that is gray, not black and white. The Right was using this black-and-white rhetoric, with the Communists as the “black” guys. They were using very sharp distinctions, a highly moral discourse, the same kind of discourse that Adam Michnik was using in the 1970s and 1980s. But when Michnik became one of the most important public figures during the transformation, he abandoned this strong moral language. Or, he used it only to control who is “rational,” who should be listened to, in order to exclude the far Left and far Right from power and from public space. So, the Right had this idea of how the elite was able to hold on to power.
The Left response was for many years that elites controlled the political process also through ideology, but it was the ideology of the free market, of the “naturalness” of market relations. All this rhetoric, of course, was about going back to normality, abandoning any discussion of the model of capitalism. According to this ideology, there was only one way to organize things under capitalism: privatization, reduction of deficit, cuts in public spending, etc.
But this was only half the truth. Of course ideology played a role, and Adam Michnik was important. But it’s also clear today that the media played a central role. At that time there was one big newspaper not owned by the government: Gazeta Wyborcza. It really shaped all the public discourse. There were only two channels of public TV and one very weak private television channel, Polsat. Today, Gazeta Wyborcza is not the same newspaper. You can still buy it in the shop, but it has lost the symbolic power it had in the 1990s. Now it’s one newspaper among many. And TV is no longer the same. There are plenty of channels. And you have the Internet, which is really important now. All the people in the 1990s were saying that the Internet is changing everything, and nothing happened. But after 10 years, the change has really come. We see now that TV is losing audiences and money. Today, and this is my thesis, we no longer have a mainstream. In Gazeta Wyborcza there’s a pluralism among the journalists, sometimes leftish, sometimes neo-liberal. You can find anything there. It wasn’t like that 10-15 years ago when there was a strict line at the newspaper.
Though it’s hard to say that there’s a mainstream, this doesn’t mean that communication is more free. It’s more pluralistic, but there are important actors who are influencing the discourse. Those important actors are politicians. The politicians are more important than 10 years ago. Donald Tusk and Jaroslaw Kaczynski are very important. They don’t say much. But when they enter the public sphere, everybody listens very carefully.
Ideology was important. But an even more important process was the creation of the middle class. Both right-wing and left-wing critics of transformation don’t like this story of the middle class because it undermines their critique and shows that there is some kind of broad social force that has benefited from the transformation. I made a study based on Marxist assumptions about how to investigate social structures. To make a long story short, the study shows that the middle-class bubble is growing. The middle class has a larger share within the labor market, while at the same time the industrial class or working class has been shrinking. There was a real deindustrialization in Poland. Unemployment for the working class rose, and their income shrank. At the same time, the middle class was growing bigger and getting more decent money. We cannot forget this when we speak about the transformation.
The second point in my opinion is more interesting. While the market created some middle-class positions – such as all the new professions in public relations, marketing, and new corporate services — the core of the middle class has been built up by the state. The market is delivering some places for the middle class. But it’s also delivering very low-paid jobs in industry and services. When you walk through the suburbs of Warsaw, every single house has its own bodyguards. These are the low-paid jobs created by the market: the privatization of security. But in Poland, the new middle class was created by the state. Social services were kept in reasonable shape. There was no reduction in the staff in the public schooling system or in hospitals. The social services were not privatized for many years during the transformation. Also, there was a huge increase of officers and people working in administration. This was due to reforms introduced by the Polish state related to decentralization and creating a new level of administration at three levels. And of course with joining the EU, the number of administrative officers increased again.
What Staniszkis and the Right were saying about the manipulation of the elites, with the opposition and the Party agreeing to make a deal, is to a certain extent true. But it’s not only this. It was also about creating a vast middle class, which is well-paid, which is used to having stable jobs, which operates in a non-commercialized working environment, and which is embedded in a system of social support. This middle class and the elite are in alliance.
I have a good example from the theater. I made a study of how people from different classes experience theater. Our first assumption, based on Pierre Bourdieu’s theories, was that there will be a division between upper class and middle class. The upper class would be more oriented to more intellectual, avant-garde theater and would criticize more popular, comic, easier theater. We were astonished to find out that people from the upper class — from the dominant sector like the entrepreneurs or sometimes the lawyers — did not criticize theater that was oriented toward entertainment. They said that the theater should be open to normal people, and it should amuse people. Meanwhile, people from the working class are not going to theater. Sometimes they went on school trips to the theater, sometimes they have interesting ideas about how theater works. But they are not theater visitors.
The complexity of this kind of alliance between the upper class and middle class applies to alliances in politics as well. For instance, there was a consensus that social services in health should be commercialized. When that process started a couple years ago, the only protestors were the nurses, the lower echelon of the working class. Physicians, who are part of the upper class, stayed silent because it didn’t affect them or, if it did, they possibly would profit from privatization. A comparable process is happening in education. The government is trying to save money on education by reducing spending and the number of jobs for teachers.
Right now there are some objective processes that are undermining the world of the middle class. This is now affecting administration, which is no longer growing. The government is trying to keep the number of administrative jobs as low as possible. This might be a new chapter in our history. There is a possibility of a new conflict or configuration. The middle class, for instance, might ally with the popular classes in defense of social services. When health care or education is privatized, there will be barriers to access for people without money. Will the middle class make this alliance over the issue of access, or will it stay in alliance with upper class?
I’m afraid that the middle class will stay in alliance with the establishment, but the alliance will not be at the level of interests but rather on the level of imagination. The middle class will imagine that “we are better people and are somehow elevated above the others.” This is the fascist scenario. I’m not saying there will be swastikas. But this imaginary alliance of middle class and upper class can be formed against the working class and all minorities and people who are not part of the system such as the poor or the Roma or the LGBT community. It has happened in other countries in the region. This is the worst-case scenario.
The 1980s were the most interesting decade in Poland. Many things were happening then. The most important moment was Solidarity, which is interpreted as a sign of something new, that society was against the Communists and against the old order. But Solidarity was a part of the system. The whole idea of constructing a “third way,” of building something between capitalism and socialism or building a good socialism, this egalitarian imaginary was also a part of the old system: it was a dream of the previous system.
What happened next was Martial Law. Martial Law is interpreted as the crushing of society — but only for the moment. Civil society was present again in 1989, and it was the same civil society. Except that I think it wasn’t like that. Many things happened between the declaration of Martial Law and 1989. Those eight years were crucial. What happened during Martial Law was, of course, the crushing of the Solidarity movement: not just crushing structures and putting people in jail but also crushing the imagination, all the people who supported Solidarity. It also came out that not everyone supported Solidarity. Some Solidarity activists discovered that they were fighting alone. In one interview, a Solidarity activist described coming home from prison. She didn’t have a key to her apartment, so she knocked on a neighbor’s door. She wanted to ask if maybe they had keys to her apartment. But all the doors were shut. No one wanted to talk to her. Her experience was not exceptional. Many leaders discovered that they were not widely supported and that society was not all behind them. A conservative religious friend of mine, when he heard about Martial Law, he grabbed his Bible and went to the university to go on strike and discovered that no one was there.
There’s another thing to mention related to Martial Law. It was not only the crushing of the opposition. It was also the crushing of the Party as a political force. The army took all the important positions from the Party and started to govern the country. It was the end of the Party as a kind of parallel society. At the time there was this idea that under socialism, if there wasn’t democracy, there was at least a Party democracy that served as a substitute. But this substitute was not there any more. So, Martial Law was the crushing of two leftist forces. The new party leaders, like Wojciech Jaruzelski, were thinking that everything would be put into order again after Martial Law. They were looking for ways to improve the economy, how to organize it anew – and they of course failed. There were three of four years of new economic reforms before they figured out that it didn’t work. It was comparable to the situation in France when, after the strikes at the end of 1960s, the government intended to use old institutions and old means to create a new order. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello give a good account of this. The old tools turned out not to be good, so the elites started to search for new tools.
It is rarely remembered but the market order was introduced in Poland not after 1989 but in 1988, by the Party. The plan at that time was to introduce market rules and privatization — all these new tools – with the support of the Party and part of the opposition. There is a great text by Andrzej Walicki about liberalism in Poland written in the middle of 1980s. He was here in Warsaw talking to people in intellectual circles. He said, “I am astonished that everyone is liberal! They are the most vigorous and interesting people in intellectual salons – on both sides.” When Tadeusz Mazowiecki came to power and hired Leszek Balcerowicz to do this shock therapy, the plan was supported by the post-Communists in parliament. There is a great quote from Balcerowicz in which he remembers the first parliament after 1989 when everything he put on the table was voted on without discussion and how this was a great opportunity to implement real reforms. Now there are many political parties and you have to discuss things. But then you had a bill, it was brought to parliament, and it was signed by Jaruzelski in two weeks. Balcerowicz just comes out and says this!
It sounds like the discussions at Magdalenka between the Party and Solidarity during the Round Table discussions – forging consensus across an apparent political divide.
Of course Magdalenka was part of this. And the Church also was playing an important role as the most important non-Party institution supporting the Round Table. Of course the Church profited from the transformation. Religion was put back into school. The Church got back property. It also regained great symbolic power. During the Communist era, if we put aside the Stalinist period when there was a great conflict between the Church and the Party, there was was a long cohabitation between the two institutions, with occasional moments of strife. In the 1960s, there was a great dispute over relations with Germany. The Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka was very anti-German and was fighting over the western border of Poland. Then the Polish bishops sent a letter to the German bishops saying that they were very sorry: “we forgive you and ask for forgiveness.” This was in direct opposition to the position of the Polish state, which was: “We were the victims and we ask you to accept the border.” This was the reality of cohabitation.
But the situation changed in the 1980s. Jaruzelski knew that he needed the support of the Church. He worked on a bill to regulate relations with the Church – there hadn’t been any such regulation after 1945. Jaruzelski also convinced the Pope to come to Poland, at a time when it was not a popular destination for politicians! When the Pope came in 1988, it was not against the power of the Polish state: it was to some extent to support Jaruzelski and the regime. So, in many ways Jaruzelski was against isolationist policies.
There were also important processes on the side of society, especially at the political level. There were important new political movements like the pacifist organization Freedom and Peace (Wolnosc i Pokoj or WiP). They were well organized, and they were popular. Their popularity was connected to the rejection of obligatory military service. There was an ecological movement as well, which was also related to WiP. And there were, of course, radical groups inside Solidarity, like Fighting Solidarity (Solidarnosc Walczaca), which challenged the old oppositional elite by arguing that Solidarity leaders represented the old way of doing politics and were not radical enough. From the point of view of these radical factions within Solidarity, the organization’s leadership wanted to have talks with Communist when the Communists in fact should be shot. The elites within the opposition felt that they were losing power, losing their ability to govern the movement. They were seeing the rise of new factions, new movements. They were also searching for new ways to keep power. The talks between the Party and the opposition, with the help of the Church, were a tool for maintaining governance of the situation. The situation was: we have to talk to each other or we will lose power. This uncontrollability was the matchmaker between the opposition and the Party.
It’s very interesting what happened to all those leaders who used human rights as a point of reference. They became very realpolitik. Adam Michnik was one of the leaders for whom the idea of human rights was the most important, and he became a supporter of the Iraq War. He was not interested in investigating the issue of the CIA prisons. Even after everyone knew that CIA had its own prison here in Poland, Michnik did not speak out against it even though he should have if he was thinking about human rights issues. There is only one hero in that situation. Jozef Pinior, who was responsible for Solidarity’s finances in the 1980s, has been very interested in CIA prisons and torture. Otherwise, these activists easily put aside their ideals, and it’s just the very Left that has been critical.
Why did Krytyka Polityczna happen here when it did?
Some people in Krytyka Polityczna (KP) would say that it was because of the traditions of public intellectuals and the intelligentsia involved in public issues since the 19th century and that we are continuing this tradition. This is partly true. Many people in KP feel strongly about this tradition. But it is also, for some people like me, about disillusionment with establishment left-wing politics that made us look for another way to represent what is important in left-wing politics. There is also the important impact of new social movements, which were in fact losing force in the 1990s (with the exception of feminists). But for some people KP was a more interesting and effective way of acting publically than a social movement. We’re not a big organization that brings 100,000 people onto the street. We take part in some social movement struggles. For sure, we form some kind of front together. But KP is something distinct.
Those conditions were present in Hungary. So, why did it happen here and not in Hungary?
Slawek Sierakowski. Perhaps he would not like being mentioned as a driving force. But Slawek was a devoted charismatic leader organizing other people, providing the spirit of collective action. He was giving people the hope that if they act together they will get somewhere. I wouldn’t identify Slawek as the main driving force, but he has been important. Leaders are not everything, but leaders are important. Without his determination, we would have many small initiatives, but we wouldn’t have people coming together to act.
How would you describe the explicit political strategy of KP?
Some of the aims established 10 years ago by KP have been achieved. It’s no longer crazy to say you’re a leftist here in Poland, or that you’re against war, or that you don’t consider nationalism to be a natural perspective, or that you are for taxes and against inequality. You can use class language overtly and not be considered someone from the past. We really did introduce critical language and left-wing perspectives into public debate. Of course we would like to be more listened to, to be more popular. We would like to hear party leaders sincerely using our language. But it’s at least a success that this language can be present publicly.
It’s hard, when you’re not a huge organization like a trade union, to be present in the same form and doing the same sort of activism for more than a few years. But when we think about KP today, we are trying to make it an institution that will last for decades. We are trying to make it a constant and important element in public space in Poland. It would be very easy to fulfill many people’s expectations and enter formal politics. But it would probably be a great catastrophe. We could possibly get 2 percent. Or we’d be eaten by some post-Communist leader. Many of the people criticizing us would be happy to see us fail and declare us just another failure of the Left. We would rather avoid this catastrophe. Of course we are not saying that we are not interested in politics. We are interested in left-wing politics, and we see our influence over the longer term. We have a big publishing house. We just established an Internet daily that is becoming influential and popular and in a medium that is growing in force. We are optimistic about this. We established an institute for advanced studies one year ago. Now it is developing new research on Poland, on the transformation, on creating new practices in certain areas like culture and social policies. We are trying to build an organization that will be present in intellectual, political, cultural debates over the long run.
The third thing is our relationship with social movements. We are more present in this network of organizations at the level of local politics. These urban movements are a pretty important actor in social life in Poland today. Some critics will say that we are not present enough. This is a problem of organization. We are a network of people who are present in many actions. Sometimes they are identified strictly with KP and sometimes they are acting as independent actors with many affiliations. Sometimes KP’s role in all this is not so clear.
We’ve seen a decline in support here in Poland and throughout Europe for market economics and for democratically elected politicians. Do you see this as evidence of the exhaustion of the liberal model of democratic capitalism?
For almost a decade and a half in Poland, the question of where do we go was obvious: toward capitalism and the European Union. Right now it is not clear where we are going. The EU is not in good condition. We still believe in it in the economic sense, but we are losing faith in the political future of the EU. I have this impression that Poles believe that staying inside the EU is a good strategy but maybe we should not become too involved in the EU and thereby profit from what is currently happening. This is both an insufficient and a dangerous strategy. It keeps us out of the decision-making. It keeps us away from what is happening inside the EU and between the EU and the rest of the world. We are at a moment in politics when we are acting like children – not saying too much about difficult issues, not going deep into the problems of the EU, not addressing the problem of the crisis.
Poland is not representative. We had constant economic growth since 2007. There was some slowdown in the growth, but it was constant. We also had constant increases in incomes. We had really great investments due to money from the EU. In 2012, we got 10 billion euro – and it was a kind of Keynesianism. It was a form of freeriding: we were getting money from others and not increasing our debt. In fact, this was a decade of prosperity that can be compared to the decade of the 1970s when it comes to growth of consumption, incomes, and investments in infrastructure.
But at the same time, we’re not asking questions about the EU and the kind of social model that we want. We’re not asking questions about immigration, as if this doesn’t concern us. But we will hit the wall. In a few years, sooner or later, the crisis will come here and we’ll have to confront the reality of all the problems in the European model.
The other issue is the relation of social forces within Polish society. What will the middle class do? Here I see two scenarios. One is optimistic: the middle class will align with the popular class to secure social standards and social inclusion and to fight against inequalities. The second scenario is the authoritarianization of politics. This will be present at symbolic level, and related to it will be the real persecution of minorities. It will also hit the social movements and trade unions. When the crisis becomes more present, it will hit us that the government is taking actions against social movements. I’m really afraid of this, especially since the technical means of making such an authoritarianization possible are becoming more sophisticated.
There is a third level of concrete policies, and here I’m more optimistic: politics on the local level. Discussions on education and urban planning are becoming more and more open to social needs. In the 1990s, the reforms were shaped by ideals that sometimes went against the need of people to have a good living standard. Now that’s gone. Even Donald Tusk is saying that he’s not going to introduce reforms that make people suffer. All this language of suffering — of “let’s think about the future and let’s forget about our needs” — is not very popular, especially as it functions at this local level. At the local level, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. When you win, everything seems to be going your way, but then the city cuts benefits to some socially vulnerable groups or it cuts money to theaters, as is the case now in Warsaw. Then you have the impression that everything is going bad, and you lose and everything is like the 1990s. It’s a constant struggle.
Have you had any major second thoughts over the years in terms of your political positions or how you look at the world?
For sure. When I think about my vision of politics eight years ago in 2005 or 2006, I was thinking more in terms of establishing a hegemonic narrative. I was thinking of politics in terms of organizing the imagination and organizing the symbolic framework for people to interpret their experiences. Winning in this respect was the essence of politics for me. In terms of theory, this was close to constructivism: everything is related to language and the language is the most important environment or condition for change.
My perspective today is more related to concrete politics. I’m more oriented toward politics as a clash of social forces that is to a certain extent independent of language. I’m no longer thinking in terms of a great narrative framework that you use to win in politics and establish your vision as the hegemonic vision. Rather, I see politics as a multiplicity of actors that can be brought together to produce social change. Of course you need some language to organize the alliance among actors. But you cannot create it from scratch. That’s why I’m talking about the middle class as a real force in social protest. There are real middle-class trade unions.
Ten years ago I was more into thinking about autonomy: the language of emancipation was a natural language for me. I thought that: we are not autonomous because we are in the power of neoliberal ideology, we are not independent because of capitalism, we are not independent because of the power of the Church, and we should emancipate ourselves.
Now I’m more into the language of dependency. Dependency is more interesting as an ethical idea: we are dependent on others, not only politically but also in terms of our social life. I’m not so into the idea of choice. The most interesting things in our lives are not a matter of free choice, like having children or being in love or choosing what we study. What is more important happens after that, when we are forced to do some work or we are criticized by others. This dependency is also related to questions of solidarity, and ethical questions like how to organize education, health care, and access to networks that provide good quality of life. This also relates to real politics. When you think in terms of dependence and access, you are looking for actors who are also interested in the same thing. They can be different from you. They don’t have to be leftist. They can be liberals. But you are looking for allies to make some kind of political confrontation: a political action to establish a certain institutional order. This kind of thinking is closer to me today. It’s far less inspiring . It’s also less appealing as a political idea.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed here, or not changed, since that period of time until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
It’s not a complete disaster. So, 5.
The same period of time, same scale, but your own personal life.
8. I’m criticizing the system, but I also profit from it.
Looking into the near future, evaluating the prospects for Slovakia in the next 2 or 3 years, how would you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
5. I was thinking to give 3, but that would be against what I was saying about these two possible futures.
Warsaw, August 7, 2013