The time has come to change the story we tell about contemporary Poland. The 25th anniversary of the first free elections in its modern history appears to be a celebration which has Polish citizens smiling, but at the same drinking from the cup of bitter experience. Many of the heroes who created the free Poland of today hand their disappointments down to the generations that follow. Those who try to say anything positive about the inception of the Third Polish Commonwealth are often not just seen as naïve, but as hypocrites lacking in any form of social sensitivity.
In recent years, many renowned intellectuals have subjected contemporary Poland to severe criticism. Marcin Król recently confessed that it was wrong for him to have promoted the idea of rampant capitalism, his words earning him the respect of many. However, Król didn’t have any real cause to confess guilt. As far back as May 1988 [sic!] he warned us about the vulgarity of 19th century laissez-faire tendencies becoming widespread. He steered us towards the idea of liberalism which has social responsibility built into it, and called for politics in which values and virtue were championed “which may not have anything to do with enterprise, but do not need to be opposed to it either”.
The debate around the perceived failure of Poland’s post-communist Transformation is typical, Poles being used to centuries of dissecting failed uprisings and battles. All they have now done is swap the old dilemma “to fight or not to fight?” for questions like “to privatise or not to privatise?”.
And yet all these negative assessments of Poland’s liberation from communism are nothing new. It is enough to look back five, ten or fifteen years, at the times just after the Transformation, in order to find similar statements made then by Jan Józef Lipski or Jacek Kuron, while also revisiting the most influential journals published in Poland and abroad. The influential magazine Paryska Kultura celebrated the first five years of freedom with the words: “Things are, of course, better than they were under communism. Too many people in Poland, however, have mistaken freedom for lawlessness, free market economics for daylight robbery, while the idea of democratic discipline is nowhere to be seen. People seem to have lost their minds.” Not much earlier, Paweł Śpiewak in the pages of “Przegląd Polityczny”, in no uncertain terms summarised the failure of the Liberal-Democratic Congress and of Donald Tusk himself, asserting that liberals “have lost, believing in the primacy of the economy and its causative role”. The journal “Znak” published the transcript of a discussion about the achievements of the first decade of freedom under the massively underwhelming title: “Could have done better”. Another five years on, when in the pages of “Więzi” Wojciech Arkuszewski tried to elaborate on the outcomes of the first 15 years of the Transformation – counting among these an increase in general monthly income, life expectancy and reduced infant mortality rates – he was quickly taken down a peg or two by his own editorial colleagues. He was accused of ignoring the problem of unemployment, along with the “alienation of wide social circles”. These examples show that anyone who thinks that elites over the past 25 years have not addressed the social harm caused by the process of liberation from communism is simply wrong.
Government “Windmill video clips”
Perhaps Poles are unable to mobilise themselves into further action without first propagating a negative vision of the period of Transformation? If this is the case, then the infamous promo film featuring Donald Tusk, made for a reputed seven million zlotys, with Paul McCartney singing his “Hey Jude”, would have simply vanished into thin air. Any sort of suggestion that the current Polish state has failed, whether put forward by the Left or the Right, in part feeds on fictional data. An obvious example of this is the question of rising inequality, which is often referred to. Let us then take a careful look at the evidence. According to Eurostat, between the years 2005 and 2012, inequality in Poland has dropped, not risen. It would be honest to mention that some economists have questioned this cheerily optimistic data, stating that the measuring criteria used to assess inequality (the so-called Gini coefficient), is inadequate when applied to Polish realities. There were suggestions that we should instead use the more valid stats from the Main Bureau of Statistics (“Household budgets”). Even if we apply this adjustment, the conclusions are similar: the disparity in income among Poles has not increased in recent years.
Overall assessment of the complex phenomenon that is social inequality, using solely analyses of wages, is too simplistic a dissection of reality. Apart from income, subjective perceptions of quality of life are also of importance, as well as whether citizens feel they are treated with dignity by the state and their employers. Here, the forming of a singular opinion is even more difficult. If, however, the patient is not doing too well, then of greater importance is a correct diagnosis of illness – hence, why does the feeling of success appear to continually slip through Polish fingers?
More and more sociologists and analysts are coming to believe that the correct criterium which separates Poles into winners and losers, following the period of Transformation, is not so much wealth, as the ability to think, to create relationships, as well as class and educational status. In short, Poland’s divisions are not related solely to economic distinctions or the kinds of jobs people hold down, but also cultural and social capital. In this sense the “two Polands” (Poland A and Poland B) which Polish commentators like to talk about do in fact exist.
And perhaps for the same reason it is not the government produced “video clip with windmills”, but rather the film “Traffic cops” (“Drogówka” by Wojciech Smarzowski) which is an accurate portrayal of reality in contemporary Poland. The film attracted huge numbers of audiences. Its portrayal of a corrupt police force and the complete failure experienced by the hero in challenging the systematic status quo – reminiscent of the struggles of protagonists from the “cinema of moral unease” so characteristic of Poland under communism – is therefore seen by many viewers as an accurate depiction of life in present-day Poland.
A revolution in dignity
Do the toxins produced by communism still continue to trouble us? This is not unlikely. After all, it is stateless societies which tend to manifest a deep need for cultural egalitarianism. Any sort of building of hierarchies, even if these arise out of self-realisation and the hard work of individuals and civic groups, must meet with attacks from others around them.
A substantial challenge facing us is the creation of a society based on mature liberal values. A society in which economic advancement of one group does not equate the pauperisation of another. This demands a much more profound understanding of the realities surrounding us. The attempt to eradicate all forms of inequality is in itself honourable, yet it is doomed to bring us nothing but a new sense of frustration. The real problems facing Poland will continue to go on unresolved. And tales ending with the moral “gloria victis” will simply be passed down onto future generations.
We have at our disposal other forms of narration, related to the process of Transformation. It is enough to take a closer listen to the stories told by those who towards the end of communism took the first, wavering steps into enterprise, in order to understand that this shift was at the time perceived as a revolution in dignity. Individuals who, at a micro scale, started up their own businesses, experienced sudden, drastic changes. They no longer felt the sense of absurdity so common to life in the People’s Republic of Poland. “Waldek became Mr Waldemar”, goes the anecdote by Krzysztof Bielecki, who thus talks about a friend of his who purchased a truck and set up his own transport company. With the money he thus earned, his friend became involved in projects which supported the local community, among these a cycle race for children. All this took place before 1989. Such individuals were beginning to believe in their own abilities, without becoming “capitalist monsters”, as they are often depicted within current discourse.
Hearing such stories, the odd person might burst out laughing, with disdain. Unfortunately, such reactions only confirm that the language created by Polish elites to describe reality is severely limited. And that it is sorely weak in terms of pluralism. At present, it is clear that the previous generation did not develop a solid template for social engagement that was other than dissident in format.
The young people of today, faced with a host of new problems (short-term employment contracts, the question of whether to go to university, the cost of mortgages), require robust, natively produced templates which give hope for the improvement in living conditions and show how to go about achieving these in new, modern circumstances. Existing templates have their roots in the times of Transformation, around 1989, exemplified by thousands of personal testimonies. What we now need is legitimate interpretations of the Third Polish Commonwealth, which do not lament over lost causes, nor those which mindlessly delight at the achievements of the last quarter of a century. If we fail to conduct a thorough summing up, long-term plans for a shared future might become replaced by a mutually disappointing and disheartening argument between “parents” and “children” of the Transformation era.
And yet, a different script is much more likely to be followed. The one in which another generation of young people simply repeat another deeply embedded cultural coda. They will emigrate, leaving their motherland as if after another failed uprising.
This will come about as a “result” of outmoded forms of thinking, obligingly provided by previous generations of their very own compatriots.
This article is a part of Kultura Liberalna’s book “To place Poland in the centre”. See the table of contents here.