Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Strange Silence of Liberal Poland

Occupy Movement European solidarity map

[full version of the Guardian CiF piece published on October 24th 2012]

After 1989 Eastern Europe was supposed to join the club of so-called ‘normal countries’. From now on, we were told, there will be free speech, a free press and free debate, all prevented during the years of communist oppression. But in practice, this free liberal debate has become a strange unison. Whenever someone in post-communist countries wanted to criticize the style of capitalist transformation, their voice was either ridiculed, or cut out, or rather, made inaudible. We were all now to become middle class, found our own little enterprises, consume and shut up. Anyone today trying to discuss any solutions to the current crisis other than accepting austerity measures is dismissed.

So when Przekroj (“Slant”), a prominent Polish news weekly, after undergoing several typically 90s and 2000s chaotic political shifts and even more erratic makeovers, going from one owner to another, was all of a sudden given over to a left-oriented editorial board last winter, there was suddenly a strange breeze of fresh air blown into a public debate. In Poland, a debate usually, like in most post-communist countries, divided evenly between neoliberalists and nationalists. Yet, after several months, with the circulation shrunk by roughly 50% (later it was revealed it was 25% only), the editors were sacked, and within a fortnight replaced with well-known specialists in entertainment and lifestyle press.

The leftist Przekroj was trying to initiate a debate about capitalism and its crisis in a country that didn’t dare to use a class language supposedly discredited by its use in the previous system. It interviewed trade unionists and spoke about strikes and opposition against austerity in a committed way. They interviewed critics of America and Israel, wrote on the “rebel cities” of David Harvey, the Occupy movement, Indignados, or last year’s riots in the UK – and took them seriously, unlike most of the liberal media, including Gazeta Wyborcza, founded by the previous oppositionists, who after ’89 did their best to dismiss welfare state or fight for workers’ rights.

Wait a minute, you might ask, wasn’t it a union, Solidarity, who were the architects of the great freedom of ’89? What happened to them? You’d be surprised: when recently the union, or rather what’s left of it, protested the raising of pension threshold by Donald Tusk’s neoliberal government from 65 to 67 years, their previous leader Lech Walesa said in an interview that in the PM’s place he’d have sent truncheons to these ungrateful spongers. Such robust protests were legitimate if directed against a dictatorship, he said, but couldn't be tolerated in a modern democracy. "Tusk works behind the desk, what does he know about being old and having have to work in the coal mine?” – one of the protesters was quoted, but not in liberal outlets, busy condemning them for greediness, but on a blog run by an English leftist in Warsaw. Class is on the agenda, but the media refuses to talk about it.

This protest, as well as recent strikes of nurses, was a rarity, because in the whole ex-bloc the culture of protest died off with communism. It’s sufficient enough to look at the map depicting the Indignados & Occupy solidarity marches on October 15 2001, which was nearly empty east of the Iron Curtain, with tiny, 100-200 people-strong groups in Warsaw, Bucharest or Prague. There was a better turnout in Slovenia or Croatia, but this they owe to a much better-remembered tradition of Titoism and the left was always stronger in there. Yet Eastern Europe – the Balkans and Baltic states especially – has been hit very hard by the crisis. Latvia has experienced economic collapse on the scale of Greece. But there is no Latvian Syntagma Square or a party like SYRIZA.

In Poland there’re two kinds of protests – the old generation of Solidarity, or the post-89 youngsters, protesting against internet censorship ACTA, can gather thousands. Yet the only reason the jobless or insecure young took to the streets was the fear of free culture being taken from them. This in a situation where the state thinks only of liberalising employment legislation, tax-cuts and privatisation. Leszek Balcerowicz, who introduced shock therapy at the beginning of the 90s, talks today of “swollen public sector”, while his old comrades Sachs and Stiglitz say they were wrong. Nobody in Poland is exposing the ATOS company, who will soon be taking care of “benefit reform” in Eastern countries, but the UK knows their results very well. It is a shame that Poland, so far masking the crisis’ toll through mass emigration, EU subsidies and manufacturing goods for Germany, doesn’t want to debate capitalism.

But now, Przekroj’s solution to the jobs crisis is “it’s everywhere, it’s enough to jump on a bike”, similarly to much British coverage, and amongst articles about luxurious living and design toasters. Needless to say, after the announcement of the editorial change, the internet was full of pleased liberals, finally having a chance to express their Schadenfreude. If this is how current events are talked about, when the crisis really hits home, Poland will be taken unawares.