How to Launch People

Posted January 5, 2015

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

Most NGOs focus on building and winning campaigns. They might have specific legislative goals. Or they might serve a watchdog function. Or they might amplify the concerns of a marginalized segment of society.

Stocznia, which is Polish for “shipyard,” is a different kind of NGO. It functions like a university. It focuses on transforming people. And in that sense it’s an educational institution – but not like any educational institution you might have encountered in the past.

“With this educational institution we are trying to recruit people, mainly from academia, and organize them for two or three or four years,” founder Kuba Wygnanski explained to me at the Stocznia headquarters in Warsaw in August 2013. “We call it a PhDo as opposed to a PhD. The first day they are here they know they will leave. That’s a big difference with other organizations. But like many other organizations, we have to run programs and protests because nobody’s going to fund us as an educational institution. We’re also incubating projects. But the idea of Stocznia is to equip people with the skills that will stick with them over the long run, for another 20 years.”

The name of the organization is important in this respect. The name “stocznia” connects the initiative to the original roots of the Solidarity movement – the Gdansk shipyard. But the metaphor also applies to the organization’s style of work. “We try to provide people with what you would find at a shipyard: the slope that allows you to launch a ship,” Wygnanski observes. “So, we launch people.”

Stocznia works in five fields: civic participation, volunteerism, social innovation, local community development, and providing a bridge between academia and real life. “We have our own theory of change that is pretty close to what you call in America a think tank, which generates knowledge,” Wygnanski explains. “But we’re also a do-tank, which means that we train people here along the lines of an open-knowledge model so that they can pass the knowledge to other people. We also work for systemic change through political brokerage. In all these five respective fields we’re trying to do as much as possible to create space and do the rule-setting for everyone.”

The aim of Stocznia is to recreate the spirit of solidarity that animated Solidarity. “I’m very much into something at the moment called the ‘script of cooperation,’” Wygnanski concluded. “During the time you were in Poland, it was a necessity, which was very sad in a sense. Your car broke down every winter, so you had to rely on other people. There were so many needs because we were not self-sufficient. I’m not trying to turn back the clock of history and say that that was a better time. But now we live in the worst possible time because we believe that we are self-sufficient and even mentioning that you need help from other people is kind of embarrassing. We believe that we can buy everything. This is like a children’s illness that goes with the first phase of transformation.”

We talked about the impact of privatization, the importance of social trust, and the sheer unpredictability of history.



The Interview



Tell me what you were doing in 1989.


In those days, politically, everything was basically one bloc. And I was working on this famous team that was winning elections where I was coordinating political campaigns, electoral campaigns. Then I worked closely with Henryk Wujec in something called the Civic Committee: Komitet Obywatelski Solidarnosc. I worked with him on technical matters. Then came the so-called “war at the top” between Lech Walesa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, which was completely devastating for someone of my age and my type of idealism. I still believe it was one of the biggest mistakes. It’s not that I took a particular side, although I’m very close with Henryk Wujec and definitely much closer to that side. But the political concept of the so-called acceleration was — I don’t want to say it was stupid, but it was not a good move. But especially painful for me was taking away the Solidarity umbrella from the movement of the Civic Committees. In every revolution, you have this moment of the soviets – the councils — and they might be very different. These were the best Soviets I can imagine in terms of self-organizing. But Solidarity, which at that time was organized hierarchically like any political animal, was afraid of becoming “uncontrolled” by all this civic energy, with all the consequences.

When Wałęsa sent this famous letter to Wujec, actually I physically took it from the fax machine. It said, basically, “you are dismissed.” There’s plenty of space for public issues where you don’t have to be part of party politics. But in those days it was not so obvious. Now it’s obvious, and everybody can speak about it. Back then people were taking very different routes, some of them clearly political. Getting involved with party politics was one of my possible choices, but at that time I thought it’s not for me. The majority of people started to work for so-called local administration. The main recruitment was people from those communities. Some people jumped on the business raft, and that was obviously a golden period because you didn’t need to be very, very smart: there was an ocean of opportunities. The majority of my colleagues with the same educational background, which is sociology, basically jumped on that raft.

At that moment I was very much involved in organizing people. It was an interesting trajectory. When you were here in Poland, I was probably organizing a research project at the Department of Sociology at the University of Warsaw. I had a very unique opportunity because I had been working with the Civic Committee. People started to write from all over the country with all their old stories, sometimes 30 years old. In every revolution a new group comes to power, and this group must shoulder all the hopes of people, all the unsolved problems. That was one side, the demand side. But there were also more and more people on the supply side. When people are self-organizing, there are those beautiful moments when they are altruistic, the historical adrenalin is going through your body, and people are so much more open to doing things that they’d never done before. That was the most important moral dimension of the Solidarity revolution. For some people that’s political, but for me it always was very much about the dignity of others.

During that golden period, I was responsible for dealing with this supply and demand. Obviously everybody was trying to record what was going on. And then it turned out that there was an organization called Klon, a completely separate thing that has existed now for over 20 years. Klon is the name of a tree, a maple. It provides the infrastructure knowledge for the third sector in this country. It is not a formal federation, but it provides all the necessary information in the form of a database. I can’t believe that it’s been around now for almost 25 years. And that, more or less, was my route. I still maintain a lot of communication with different political figures and organizations. With some self-irony, I consider myself the number one broker between the so-called third sector and different governmental or political organizations.


What do you think might have happened if there hadn’t been this war at the top and there hadn’t been the removal of the Solidarity banner from these civic initiatives?


I’m not so naive to say that we would have gone on forever. But definitely we could have worked longer. Obviously right now there is this whole transitionology business, and Poles themselves self-proclaim themselves as a big exporter of this democracy contraband. But it’s idiomatic, these transitions: they are different in each place. In December 1989 I was on the first convoy to Romania, actually with only one other person, so I saw the Romanian version of transition. And I was not very happy about how it might look. Other revolutions have this golden period, but it might last only a few weeks or a few hours. It’s like in sailing: if you turn too fast, you can tip over. But there was still a wind out there for us. Many other things still could have been done in this unique period in Polish history. There was actually a very good mix of the romantic and the pragmatic during that golden period. And that was also part of my frustration at losing that opportunity at that time.

It’s hard to say how it would have looked. Some people are thinking about that. There was a recent book by Robert Krasowski, who wrote about more or less that moment. And Mazowiecki recently also published his memoir. For me, that time was black and white. But now it’s much more subtle. However, I will not change my mind that the “war on the top” was not the best thing. But I’m not good at elaborating a counter-factual hypothesis of how it might look differently. But I believe it could have looked differently and better.


Tell me when Stocznia – Shipyard — began. Obviously from the name it seeks to establish some connection with Solidarity and the origins of Solidarity.


The Shipyard is a new organization, only four years old. I have in my life created and ruined many organizations. One of my problems has been a kind of hypertrophia of de-organization. This maybe is about my time and my age. I was looking for an organization that is resilient enough to be always open to new ideas. Otherwise we are very well trained, also by Americans, in terms of mission statement, vision, blah blah blah. Basically, you have to have a target and go that way. This organization, and it’s hard to see from the web page, is an educational institution. After all these years, I have realized that the best thing you can do is invest in people, and I know it’s so naive, so banal to say that. But the big truths are usually banal. With this educational institution we are trying to recruit people, mainly from academia, and organize them for two or three or four years. We call it a PhDo as opposed to a PhD. The first day they are here they know they will leave. That’s a big difference with other organizations. But like many other organizations, we have to run programs and protests because nobody’s going to fund us as an educational institution. We’re also incubating projects. But the idea of Stocznia is to equip people with the skills that will stick with them over the long run, for another 20 years. We’re trying to train people not so much in skills but in attitudes. We are very careful not to be sectarian. But we are trying to work with people on a different set of values, on a different organizational culture that is very democratic and very fluid. We try to provide people with what you would find at a shipyard: the slope that allows you to launch a ship. So, we launch people.

We basically work in five fields. One is civic participation. The second is volunteerism, doing things for others. Then there’s social innovation and local community development. Last but not least is providing a bridge between academia and real life. We have our own theory of change that is pretty close to what you call in America a think tank, which generates knowledge. But we’re also a do-tank, which means that we train people here along the lines of an open-knowledge model so that they can pass the knowledge to other people. We also work for systemic change through political brokerage. In all these five respective fields we’re trying to do as much as possible to create space and do the rule-setting for everyone.


Let’s imagine that everything goes the way it’s supposed to, at least in terms of the work here of Stocznia. How would Polish society look different in 20 years?


I’m not that omniscient, even though we train people in this kind of predictive technology and we’re obviously analyzing those trends of political, economic organizations. My biggest lesson is that beyond a few things, like demography, we live at a time that is completely unpredictable, starting obviously with technology. We should be suspicious of anyone who says something about what will happen in the future more than three years from now. We know so little.

For us, at Stocznia, crisis is not a small change in the trajectory of growth: it’s a permanent thing. We are Schumpeterians, in the sense that we believe that you have to live with crisis as a permanent feature. So, there is no single life skill you can have. For example, our approach to innovation is not an extravaganza for academics. It’s a survival skill for smarter societies, communities, and so on. So, we have a very different approach.

I very often quote this famous prophecy of Ralf Dahrendorf that the transformation will take six months to change a political system, six years to change an economic system, and 60 years to change a society. That’s on the one hand aspirational. On the other hand, it’s not going to happen during my life! But probably in this country we did as much as possible. I’m not trying to overestimate the work of many people to create the overall structures and conditions for the work of third sector organizations, but we did a lot of that. And I was part of almost all of the work in building this synthetic or organic civil society — the legislation, funding, everything – but you can go only so far with that, obviously in terms of deeper cultural changes. The clock is ticking in generations. That’s what I understand from my own kids. So, 20 years from now, the whole concept of civil society will be completely different, less institutional and more of a process, more personal than organizational, more of a network than a hierarchy. It’s become all about communication. Here in Poland, we have a lot of institutions. But in terms of communication, of being able to listen to each other – as opposed to shouting or even speaking slowly or in monologues – we have a long way to go.

Otherwise, there are a few things that are certain about, such as what the demographers call the grey avalanche: the aging of the population. The biggest problem for Europe, and I’m not very original in arguing this, is probably demography and the dignity of the dying. I have the privilege of going every two years to Yale University, a privilege I don’t always use. There’s always this moment when you arrive from Poland, where you have this feeling of exceptionalism. Even Europe and the United States have that as well. But Europe is becoming a much smaller part of the world. The simple fact is that in 2045 the GDP per capita in China will be bigger than the average in the EU. Geopolitics is changing so fast that you get the feeling that you are living, possibly, at the end of time. My main preoccupation is distinguishing between things you can prepare for, things that are unavoidable, and things that are unexpected.


I’m writing something right now about the disease of short-termism, which is something that you can find in a lot of different structures. But I’m talking about it in terms of our political structures and our economic structures, which are largely liberal in character and basically short-term in their perspective. Regardless of how any individual might look at the world, we’re forced by elections every four years or every two years to focus on short-term results. With the economy, we’re increasingly focused on short-term profit.


That’s true. When it comes to consumer habits, you have to satisfy yourself immediately. Then there’s the political short-termism. Everything has to be now and fast. It’s hard for us to think about humankind, because that’s over the long term. You can sacrifice lots of things in terms of your own life. But you basically are unable to localize yourself in the right moment of a trajectory. That’s why it is so difficult to address the dignity of dying, of being old.


If everything is increasingly unpredictable, that undercuts our ability to make any long-term plans. So maybe “short term” or “long term” is not the way to look at it but rather simply in terms of predictability and the impact of technology and everything else on that predictability.


Yes, basically the unpredictability or the shock might be a kind of invitation for thinking really long term. I don’t know if you have a mortgage. But for me, it’s this situation where I’m thinking, “This year and last year it seemed like a bad decision to have a mortgage. But everybody is saying I should think in the long term.” This too-fast attitude toward changes probably should teach us to think in terms of trends.

In terms of the how we organize our political systems, we haven’t had a major development for the last two and a half thousand years, more or less. We don’t have a really new concept for the political system, and the world has completely changed. But it seems idiotic to slow down our technological growth.


There’s the QWERTY effect, where our keyboards are set up in a certain way to actually slow down our typing — because when had manual typewriters, if we typed too fast, the keys would bunch together. We developed the ability to technically change that, with electric typewriters and computers, but we kept the same keyboard. It would be interesting to apply that concept of deliberately slowing down technology because otherwise it’s beyond our ability to control it. The question is whether anybody would accept that: governments, companies, consumers.


We have this small growing novelty of enough-ism, of less is more. We incorporated a lot from this Schumpeterian model: a lot of rivalry, egoism. We have such low social capital in this country. We are absolutely on the other side of the pendulum compared with the icon of Solidarity. It’s something that gives you pause. We’re no longer Homo Sovieticus. We’re past the first phase of accumulation of a newborn capitalism. Albert Hirschman has this idea that there are 20-year intervals of people being preoccupied with the private and the public. I’m gambling by saying that we cannot go much farther with the private. Did you know that this city has the biggest number of gated communities in Europe?


That’s amazing.


With this privatizing of space, soon or later people will stop and think. I’m just praying that they will individually and collectively say, “Okay, guys, enough.”

I’m very much into something at the moment called the “script of cooperation.” During the time you were in Poland, it was a necessity, which was very sad in a sense. Your car broke down every winter, so you had to rely on other people. There were so many needs because we were not self-sufficient. I’m not trying to turn back the clock of history and say that that was a better time. But now we live in the worst possible time because we believe that we are self-sufficient and even mentioning that you need help from other people is kind of embarrassing. We believe that we can buy everything. This is like a children’s illness that goes with the first phase of transformation. I’m waiting for people to say “I’m doing this not because of my compassion or because of philanthropy, which is very often based on resentment or even a kind of misanthropy, but I’m doing it because I like it. I like to spend time talking over wine.” I hope we will get to that moment where it’s a matter of choice, not necessity. Obviously I’m afraid of the possibility of going back because of necessity. But it will take time, cultural, generationally, to move forward.


A common critique of NGOs in the third sector coming largely from the Left, although you sometimes find it from the Right, is that NGOs are in some sense the handmaidens of privatization, that without NGOs working in the third sector ways, governments would not be able to engage in the kind of privatization of social services that they organized in the 1990s.


Okay, I made this face, but I’m not naïve. I want to be humble. I spent 20 years trying to understand how this third sector works: its diet, its ecosystem, everything. I know just about everything about the third sector in this country. Obviously there’s a healthy criticism. Many NGOs value very much their survival. Viewed from an ecosystem perspective, their diet is very homogeneous. In this country during the war, in every one thousand people, more than two hundred were executed – and not on a random basis. So, after the war, we basically became a homogenous peasant society. There’s a famous saying that everybody knows how to make fish soup from fish but nobody knows how to go the other way. I’m trying to say the diet of this ecosystem, the philanthropy that feeds it, is mainly emotional. You can raise money largely through a kind of moral blackmail: my kid will die so I need your money for expensive medicine.

Corporate philanthropy is also very weak. The whole American concept of social entrepreneurialism, of a social economy, is growing very, very slowly. Organizations heavily rely on the government. There are more than 100,000 organizations. The median annual income of the organization is 11,000 zloty. So half of those organizations basically do not touch any money at all. And they create a kind of a healthy plank in civil society. Well, you can treat it as proof of strength or weakness, but many of them don’t even touch governmental money. But, again, compared with how NGOs work in France, Holland, Germany, and the United States, the dependency is much less.

I don’t buy this language of privatizing services. Maybe we read different books. But my understanding of what we need right now is basically closer to this whole concept of the welfare state and welfare society. Probably before the war I would have been a member of the Polish Socialist Party, but not afterward. So I would say that the idea that you can force a state to provide services is basically harmful. There are some elements of a guaranteed minimum run by the state. But you should see the way the state is running services! I’m very much advocating a participatory model, a new model. I’m just hoping and praying that Poland will leapfrog over those elements that have been so well described: street level bureaucrats, non-profits for hire. We know those lessons. The question is whether we can get to the other side where the role of the NGOs is not only taking government money and basically fulfilling their expectations but also establishing a new social contract in which the NGO is working both as an advocate and the provider of services. I’m not in favor of a monoculture in which everything is run by the state or through the market.

Actually, NGOs are the last fortress against marketization and privatization. Take, for example, the question of older people. The state has such limited resources. So, immediately there was created a private market of retirement homes, those places where you can shut your eyes and say my older parents are being taken care of. Again, you have a third sector organization that, at least in theory but also in a majority of places in practice, treat people not as a way to make more money but basically with dignity. So, I believe in delivery pluralism that includes not only NGOs but also yourself, your family, your community. Everyone is needed to put the thing together.

But I also agree that there is a lot of criticism of NGOs. I’m probably the most vigorous critic of NGOs myself, in terms how they might be lazy, bureaucratic, not visionary enough, blah blah blah. It’s a long list of criticisms, that’s for sure. With this 25th anniversary coming up it would be a very good moment to not so much reset our thinking but to at least take another look at the way we are thinking. Probably you have read Krytyka Polityczna, who themselves are NGOs, so they have to be very careful with this kind of generalization. They argue that civil society and the non-profit sector was a part of this transformation, but it was not well equipped to be a political force. In a sense, they say NGOs are toothless. But for us, not being part of party politics was not a sign of impotence but a virtuous choice. Many NGOs keep themselves as far away as possible from party politics, though they treat themselves as kind of a complement. I can imagine, however, that they are silent where they should be much more vocal. It’s also a question of media in this country, which has hijacked a lot of the debate. Poland has probably the strongest private independent media in the region. You can talk about what this independent media means. But a lot of the watchdog work done by NGOs in other countries is performed here by the media.


You’ve pointed out that the impulse to retreat from the public sphere, to “cultivate one’s own garden,” is strong here in Poland, not just in the number of gated communities but also in people disengaging from politics and public debate. You also mentioned the theory that this goes in cycles and that there will be a shift in the opposite direction. What do you see as signs that there might be a shift ongoing right now?


It’s a paradox. We live in a world with more technology, more Internet, and so on. And my feeling about technology and civil society is at least ambivalent in Poland. It’s just a tool. But it also steals time. And here in Poland, the Internet is represented as a bad scenario — not as a common-good, Wiki-type of approach but the opposite, what is called “narrowcasting.” People divide themselves into homogeneous tribes and then set out to slam each other behind this screen of anonymity. So, it’s not about conversation. It’s about this kind of group hunting. There’s also this “clickivism” that everybody knows about. That just wasn’t possible during the Solidarity era. Everything had a certain weight to it; everything had a value. Now everything has become too cheap, too shallow, too fast.

On the other hand, the Internet also obviously represents incredible possibilities for the democratic access to knowledge, for cooperation, for overcoming censorship, whatever. It’s a completely new coat of armor for civil society, and I hope one day we will discover how it can really be used.

Here’s there’s also been a kind of civic revival, this urban phenomenon of people working in very small territories, smaller even than cities. There’s a recent book by Benjamin Barber, If Mayors Ruled the World. It’s people thinking about something larger than the individual actor, but not as big as the nation. Right now a lot of things focus on the very small, on the question our “our garden,” if you like. The question of public space was so relevant in this whole Occupy movement, which was ignited by the combination of the Internet and public space. This lowered the risk of every public action in the public space, which is: what if I will be the only one to show up? That risk was basically reduced to almost zero.

But this kind of energy also functions like a fuel, and it can turn into real anger and real hopes, and everybody controls the match. Especially in Poland it’s like gasoline, and you see the fast eruption of energy and then nothing. That’s the biggest question right now – how this kind of eruptive, leaderless, unstructured energy can be somehow channeled into something new. Even in our organization Stocznia, we are trying to do this because, although almost all of us are sociologists, we are very much anti-sociologists in the sense that we don’t try to be too smart around young people. After all, we don’t know very much. We try to understand, to be patient.

We had a group of these young people recently, 20 of them. They were walking in that corridor for half an hour because no one, not a single one of them, said “let’s start.” That would have been a kind of signaling that there was going to be a structure, somebody saying, “now you speak.” Whatever democratic habits are here means that we have a structure. But they are almost obsessive about not having speakers. That’s the biggest single trick for our new political future is how to deal with that. You cannot steal this energy. There’s a famous saying from the Spanish indignado movement that they developed because everybody was so impatient and asking, “What’s it all about, tell us!” So, they replied, “We are going slow because we are going far.” They say that it’s not so easy, that they don’t have the answers. It’s not a traditional revolution that has its own utopia. They know it has to be something completely different.

But back to your question. This kind of urban activism is about physical territory – trees, places. Young people already grasp that they don’t have anything that is certain, anything they can invest their time and energy into. They know that even having two diplomas will not guarantee a job, so they have to rebuild their security structures within smaller communities. Now it’s much more about fun. But sooner or later they will rediscover a different structure of reciprocal altruism, a different set of scripts that allow them to form a survival strategy for the future.

Also governments in democratic countries no longer can rule hierarchically, by carrot and stick. They have to be much smarter. They have to build completely new methods of communication — not manipulating but trying all these Wiki approaches: crowd sourcing, crowd funding, and so on. Some of it is basically public relations. But more and more governments — and I believe Poland will be one of them — will say, “Okay, given the nature of the problems we face, there is no single objectively right solution invented by the academics. The process is part of the solution. It’s more about agreement.” So you have more and more of these small social agreements. In the United States you have a lot of these policies that nudge people. It’s risky, but the government knows that it has to find another way. It might be completely devastating for democracy, especially in the Polish situation, because it depends on those who know how to use this process. You might end up with a kind of vetocracy. People are organized around concepts of fairness and justice, and they say that they will not pay more for transportation, for health services, to send their kids to school. You get the “revolt of the masses,” as the title of the famous book says. People demand comfort. The world in front of us is basically much more demanding, and you cannot win democratic elections in this country by promising people more suffering. You have to give something. But you can’t manipulate them, sell them false promises. There has to be a new contract between us and them, more deliberative, more everyday, more participatory, more standardized, more diversified.


Social innovation is important as one of the five areas here in Stocznia. When I talk to people here in Poland about economy, almost everybody mentions that innovation is a problem. It’s not so much the actual innovation but the commercialization of innovation. They also mention that 1.5-2 million people are leaving the country, especially young people, the people most likely to be innovators. Strategically, how can that be turned around?


We talked about “exceptionalism.” Poles are exceptional in that we have a well-established reputation for being smart and entrepreneurial in an adaptive sense. In the 1970s someone who was in the States gave me a button that I was not intelligent enough to understand at the time, but it was obviously offensive — “I are smart, I are Polish” — which means that we are smart even though we are not able to grasp it. But we have this reputation for being adaptive, smart, working against the rules. Part of our survival during all our complicated history was that we were very smart in avoiding rules. Even now the problem is that after 25 years people have a problem understanding that we live in a different country and stealing from each other, like sharing tickets on the bus, is no longer fighting with the Communists. It’s basically stealing money from each other. But people still follow these scripts that say that avoiding the rules is smart and gains you respect. Politically, it’s probably the biggest single problem for governance in this country.

But in terms of innovation, we are objectively smart. I’m not saying that we’re smarter than others, but we are smart. But this smartness was channeled toward adaptation as an innovation in terms of systemic or even small-scale change. There might be some historical cultural reason for that. One of them is the practice of patenting. Another is that people think that the broken link with innovation is universities not providing their famous discoveries to industry. It’s true that it’s a broken link. But especially in social innovation, the most fascinating for me is that innovation actually appears in very uncommon places. Part of the mission of Stocznia is to think of innovation as a kind of spiral that begins with having a prototype, then validating it, then scaling it up. It’s a very complex division of labor. Some people are very good in drafting things on napkins, but they are completely unable to write any kind of proposal. So we don’t have this full cycle, we’re never fully connected.

As for academia, the hard fact is that not a single university, or perhaps only one, is close to even the 400th position on the Shanghai list. I have a reputation for being a critic of the university. But I think it’s one of the few structures that’s been almost untouched after these 25 years. It’s still hierarchical, Byzantine, very individualistic. That’s one of the problems. Scientific innovation is a collective work. We might have brilliant professors, but we need to focus on young students participating in cooperative innovation, like producing a part for the space shuttle as a group effort.

Part of this story is also that we have very low social capital in terms of trust. You keep your patent information to yourself – because you don’t trust other people. One of the bad messages of the market reforms was that the only real avenue toward quality is competition. Sure, there are plenty of examples of this, so I’m not dismissing it completely. But some kinds of problems are much better organized and solved on a cooperative basis than a competitive basis. We’ve completely dismissed that. Maybe it’s because after those 50 years, we don’t even have a concept of a public space along with private space. We don’t have a concept of communal space. Between the wars, Poland was actually the place where many people from the other side of the world came to see how we organized society.

There are some inhibiting factors when it comes to innovation, but it might change. Obviously those wagonloads of money from the EU can make a difference. We haven’t, though, proved that economic efficiency and democracy are correlated. Many countries are much better performers than Poland when it comes to the economy. Our last hope lay in a sense of democracy, in an open society that fosters innovation because we are open, deliberative, and talking to each other. In the global division of labor, it’s our last hope. And these European bureaucrats have woken up to this concept of social innovation as well. But if you compare different industries, from aircraft to medicine, those that were mostly subsidized were less innovative than those outside of that kind of financing. With public money we don’t have a basic concept of high-risk funding. But we are slowly experimenting, and people are coming to understand this concept that it’s okay to fail if you are persistent. It’s a learning curve: you always fall and rise. We just have to overcome the cultural stigma against failure and the association in the world of finance between failing and stealing money.


When you think back to what your worldview was like circa 1989 when you were working in the Round Table negotiations and then with the Citizen’s Committee, what has changed dramatically in the way you look at the world?


Maybe I ought to write a book about this! It’s a tough question, and I try to avoid saying simply that I’m less naive now. But at another level, I like to be naive. I am a daydreamer. That’s a part of many people working in NGOs. Obviously if you don’t keep your feet close to the ground, it can get risky. But the nicest thing about NGOs is that they’re still a place where you can dream. And it’s a problem when there are not enough daydreamers in NGOs today. Not enough people are saying, “Why not?”

But I still believe that change is possible, I’m very optimistic, although it’s less predictable. As St. Augustine said, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” I don’t have any silver bullet type of answer.

Fukayama’s thesis of the “end of history” was probably the biggest mistake you can imagine. History is so fast and so unpredictable. We just have to accept that.


Warsaw, August 19, 2013


  1. of interest:
    Fast-Capitalism And Society

    “This text is concerned with how integralist sensibilities have been translated into a broad-based politics by a cadre of committed partisans, most conspicuously by Jean-Marie Le Pen and his associates. These political leaders have shrewdly discerned ruptures in the experience of belonging that threaten various registers of European identity. They diagnosed a distinctive condition of alienation based preeminently on cultural rather than socioeconomic forms of estrangement. Two interwoven phenomena have played a crucial role in politicizing integralist fears and aspirations: first, the unfolding of advanced European political and economic integration that is manifest in the project to create a multiracial and multi-cultural European Union; and, second, the onslaught of what I term “fast-capitalism,” a corrosive “productive” regime that transforms the conceptual and the relational power of “society” by subverting fundamental moral claims, social distinctions, and material dispensations.”
    Integral Europe:
    Fast-Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism
    Douglas R. Holmes

    1. ….and on topic from the same text: (quoted)
      “The aggressive programs of liberalization and structural reform–initiated by the weakening and collapse of the Bretton Woods agreements and then advanced in the 1980s under the guise of Reaganism and Thatcherism–have accelerated the flows of goods, services, labor, and capital on a worldwide scale. As Karl Polanyi (1957) pointed out many years ago, far from being natural or inevitable, “the market is an instituted process.” Within the European Union the three hundred or so legislative provisions that resulted from the Single European Act (1986), in concert with the “convergence criteria” for monetary union established under the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty (1992), are the means by which a “borderless” European capitalism is given ever increasing speed and freedom of operation among its member states.9 Though it is the outcome of very clear programs of technocratic reform, once given life this regime has elusive and far-reaching consequences,…”
      ntegral Europe:
      Fast-Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism
      Douglas R. Holmes

  2. Joseph Schumpeter’s innovation as core capitalism has some targeting merit to it but essentially ends up as the path of least resistance in apologia for a system that has no absolute boundaries or directions. It is all too often abused for its equivocation between creative selectivity, potential renovating /innovative variations and the oftentimes abuse of the phrase “creative destruction” as legitimation and justification for excessive inequality in market command economies. I would also caution about uncritical adaptation of the ideal urban Mayor model for social capital, since we can openly admit that Chicago USA has a political history that betrays that formula.

    I would recommend anyone from Poland or Eastern / Central Europe to try to access The Consumer Society: a History of American Capitalism (Paperback)by Peter D’Alroy Jones. It is a more comprehensive assessment and any “launching” of democratic capitalism from a free form of open education would benefit greatly from this single / expedient shortcut to understanding the dimensions of a very compromised method of competitive cooperation, and its eventual inversion of cooperative competition that leads to competitive exclusion and small group domination all over again.
    Good Luck!

    1. [Interview Statement]”But if you compare different industries, from aircraft to medicine, those that were mostly subsidized were less innovative than those outside of that kind of financing.”

      Critically speaking this is an empirical fallacy. The public sector financing depends largely upon necessity and all the variables of success include sideline dead ends as well. In the private sector market many essential needs are simply neglected because there is no return on investment (ROI). More importantly we only see the final pattern that hits the market, not the potentially massive competitive waste and failures that are no longer visable because they simply lost everything and are now excluded from the assessment of achievments. The private market often benefits by selecting from the more variable allotment of “dead ends” generated in public sector research, and the potent critical category of private gain at public cost (PGPC) is generally ignored when private interests make exorbitant claims about their efficiency and effectiveness. In the last assessment the public sector does well when competing against the inefficiency of public programing; and the inverse is equally true. They must balance each other and eliminating either side ends up with perverted incentives and moral hazards as a result. It is a reciprocating systemic and without the balance power relations become distorted.

  3. One last comment off of reflecting on this quote:
    “I very often quote this famous prophecy of Ralf Dahrendorf that the transformation will take six months to change a political system, six years to change an economic system, and 60 years to change a society.”
    Keep in mind that each year is a 60 year anniversary of some starting point, lesson learned, and less remembered or unfinished.
    Critical corrections are never 60 years away!

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