“What a beautiful catastrophe” … ?

Jan Tokarski · 10 June 2014

Listening to media commentary covering the 25th anniversary of the first partially free elections in Poland, I couldn’t shake off the impression that older generations – the initiators and participants of those events – are unable to tell us younger ones (and, probably, to each other) what happened that quarter of a century ago. This inability is closely linked to our – if I can use such a phrase – “troubles with the Ttransformation”.

What do these troubles involve? Speaking generally, they involve our inability to clearly express what it was we freed ourselves from, and not to where we are heading. There is no more communism or centrally planned economy, these having been replaced by democracy and a free market. And yet what use is democracy to us, what good this free market? Our elites are unable to satisfactorily answer these questions, because it is difficult to accept their simple narratives of a return to “normality”, about how Poland has once again become an “ordinary” European state. What does normality imply in this case? Who, and how, and in the name of which ideals, defines this concept of normality? Can we talk about France – a random example – being “normal”, after Marine Le Pen won a seat in the EU parliament?

This inability to define “normality” is a consequence of our inability, over those past 25 years, to create a serious meta-political dispute. Political narratives were initially defined by the struggle between “post-commies” and “post-Solidarity” folk, and then – Platforma and PiS party clashes. Paradoxically, the biggest failing of the Third Polish Republic seems to me to have been the failing of the Fourth Polish Republic project. It was, since the Transformation, the only valid attempt at rethinking the foundations of our state, though it did quickly transform into a token of media demagogy. The shameful fate of this concept is a way to measure the failures of our elites: on the one side, those who were unable to recognise the very possibility of formulating some sort of alternative (not even for a liberal democracy, after all!); secondly, those which were unable to define their opposition in a toned-down fashion, so as to clearly show that at stake was reform of the Polish state (as in the original project initiated by Rafał Matyja), and not a bloody political charade.

The success of the past quarter-century (I think we managed to achieve more than we lost in this period) remains therefore something in need of a definition, obscured, unnamed. We toy with phrases such as “a return to Europe”, “economic progress” or “ the building of a free market”. Success can clearly be seen on the scale of micro-history – for example, among small and medium sized businesses, a group which seems to suffer the most intense discrimination in Poland, yet which in so many cases managed to pass muster in terms of independence and self-reliance. Many positive changes also took place in Polish government ministries, even if not in all, where a citizen can now not only be served more quickly and efficiently than ever before, but is also taken seriously, and not as a supplicant trying to interfere with the slow workings of state officialdom. These successes are real, although there is no debate around an overall narrative, one which could encapsulate the period of transformation and Polish society as a whole. Is this due to the ambiguity of the Third Polish Republic’ axiological sphere, without – calling things by their proper names – having held communism to account first? In part, this must be so. I do not think, however, that this is the root of the problem. I would rather look for that in our failure to consider the meaning of “Solidarity”, along with the subjective role of the individual and the collective in history as a key conviction of said movement. In the 1990s, we rather thoughtlessly adopted deterministic narratives from the West. Globalisation and a worldwide free market were introduced in truly Hegelian fashion as a phenomena which were irrevocable, necessary and desirable. Is this not the reason why praise of Transformation is limited to a swaggering demo-liberal affirmation of European normalcy, while criticism of the last 25 years – to conclude that we should have acted “differently” (without specifying how and – much more importantly – at what price)?

Besides, this unnoticed and unnamed symmetry between late heroes of the battle against communism in the political sphere along with the late heroes of the battle against capitalism in the economic sphere is one of the most shocking aspects of our meta-political landscape. In both cases (although it appears they are still talking about “alternatives”) the deterministic theme dominates: in a key historical moment, which decided the shape our society would take, we could have made different choices. It’s as if right now we have nothing left to decide about, as if all the cards have been – once and for all – dealt. We still perceive ourselves as objects carried on the waves of great historical changes, rather than free subjects, capable of influencing them. In this, I think – and not in the reputed resilience of “post-communist arrangement” – lies the burden of Poland’s communist past, which we have failed to fully leave behind.

So, should we view the last 25 years in the spirit of Zorba the Greek, as a “ beautiful catastrophe”? Not at all. It is easy to see all of the things we have managed to achieve in this period, even though the rule of thumb is that the things which work well are much harder to spot than the things which are broken or ineffective. Victories are always ambivalent, paid for with real sacrifices. Only disasters can be interpreted with singular meaning. We have plenty of reasons to cheer the Transformation and the changes it brought, though this cannot be a thoughtless sort of cheer, which would stop us seeing the very real and serious challenges still set before us, as well as a whole host of key things we were simply unable to manage.

This article is a part of Kultura Liberalna’s book “To place Poland in the centre”. See the table of contents here.