Farmers in fairy-tale land

Poland and the European crisis

Marcin Król
29 September 2013

Lack of truly political decision-making and the demise of philosophical objectivism have landed Europe in the situation it is in today, argues Marcin Król. A lesson could be learned from Poland, where a tradition of economic liberalism and rural pragmatism has enabled the country to weather the crisis.

In order to understand Poland’s position in the world today, one must first grasp the current state of Europe as a whole. The European condition is very closely linked to the issue of democracy. I would even go so far as to argue that Europe and the future of democracy are mutually interdependent. Astonishingly little attention has been given to this issue recently, and it is no accident that intellectuals in France have shown most interest in it (Pierre Rosanvallon or Pierre Manent, for example). Arising directly from this is the question of the nature of the bond between contemporary Europe and America. A debate on the European-American relationship took place several years ago, but the issue is acquiring real significance only now. Inseparable from the European political crisis is also the crisis of the euro, which I would argue is also a crisis of philosophy. In my view, the relegation of the problem of the euro to the field of economics alone is nothing short of dangerous. It is bound up with a decline in European political philosophy that has affected the entire region, with the exception of France. Any remarks on Polish issues can only make sense in this context.


Where are the politicians

On the problem of Europe and democracy, it is worth noting the dramatic change we have witnessed in the very notion of what democracy means. We shall doubtless be feeling its consequences for years, if not decades, to come. In view of this transformation, it becomes almost impossible to talk about Europe at all. Over the past ten or twenty years, a gaping hole has developed in contemporary democracy. The capacity for self-correction, the process through which democracies learn by trial and error, has been stalled. One could say that, regrettably, Francis Fukuyama was right when he wrote in 1989 that the advent of liberal democracy had brought the end of history. Europe’s political leaders were willing to be convinced by Fukuyama, in the sense that they saw no reason to make any further effort, because essentially everything had been sorted out. As we know today, their assessment was entirely inaccurate. The wars in Yugoslavia proved this, as did the most common problems liberal democracy has had to face. Their mistaken conviction underlies the lack of interest in the political aspects of democracy, which has become apparent in the last twenty years. Over this period, we have ceased to deal with politicians – even though we continue to call them this, presumably for lack of any other term. Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and, previously, Tony Blair or (in Poland) Alexander Kwasniewski and Donald Tusk are all, essentially, very similar. They have ceased making decisions that entail any serious degree of risk, support the common good and assist the development of democracy. They have also ceased to be politicians. Victor Orbán is far more political – or at least he is making an effort in that direction – although of course I do not sanction the position he has taken.

The organization, or perhaps the “installation”, of democracy after the Second World War was an extraordinary phenomenon. The First World War, the inter-war years and the Second World War taught us something – which is a rare event in history. But what did democracy learn subsequently? In the second half of the twentieth century, France, Italy and other democracies experienced very serious crises and responded by limiting the number of parties engaged in politics and introducing election thresholds. People also understood that democracy can only be achieved when government makes important decisions that will affect generations to come. The Marshall Plan is one example of this. When it was introduced, it was unprecedented and no one really knew how to implement it. Yet the plan was successfully carried out, albeit in a top-down fashion. This is something we often forget: the Marshall Plan was a government project that lasted a good twenty years. The project established the welfare state and paved the way for thirty glorious years of affluence in Western Europe. This was linked to a political decision: the preference of the welfare state over the liberal state.

This was later undermined by a different political choice, which led to the adoption of policies intended to create the liberal state. In making this choice, Margaret Thatcher proved she was a politician, for she was not concerned exclusively about economic reforms – which were rather the consequence of her political decisions. There are some similarities to be noted between Margaret Thatcher and Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland’s economic reformer of the 1990s. Balcerowicz was extremely effective, remarkable, brave, and tough. But he was not a politician, because he did not consider the indirect ramifications of his reforms. Thatcher’s intentions went much further. She sought to change society, and she overturned it to the extent that even Tony Blair followed in her footsteps. There are those, such as John Gray, who say that the changes she introduced took Britain in the wrong direction, in effect destroying the country’s social infrastructure. Nevertheless, this was a political decision – albeit one whose wisdom is increasingly being challenged. Critical voices oscillate between two opposing stances: should a state be more protective of banking and financial markets, or should it concentrate on a specific vision of what the state should be: whether welfare or liberal? Both these competing ideas have had their adherents, and each position contributed positively in its way, though it has to be said that both are now out of date.

In other words, irrespective of how we view the two major European projects, or on which side we stand (indeed, today we are not in a position to stand on any side at all, since neither has direct bearing on the present), a vacuum has ensued. There is now no European project to speak of and the emptiness is profoundly depressing. It can even be sensed at the level of the European Commission. Back in the 1990s, Jacques Delors had the courage to compile a text in which he warned Poland and Hungary in particular not to go down the route of neoliberalism because this was not the way for Europe. Traditionally, Europe is closer to the model of the welfare state than to the neoliberal state, or at any rate closer to the model of a “social state”. It is no coincidence that Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first non-communist prime minister, attempted to replicate the German formula of the social market economy. Later, however, Poland made no further conscious efforts to select any kind of political route. This vacuum has meant that, in relating to Europe, we relate to a particular kind of financial organism, with its own way of dealing with economic issues, although even this provokes considerable skepticism.

The point is that the European Commission and the European Parliament pass many low level directives that indeed are often useful, although they can sometimes be absurd. They do so quite efficiently, sometimes improving our quality of life; however, any political initiative to introduce a high-level democratic project for Europe remains lacking. Yet this too should be the purpose of the Commission, and of all institutions engaged in building the European community. Indeed, not only has the Commission failed in this respect, but by electing Herman Van Rompuy and taking other similarly substantive decisions, it has shown that it has no desire to set the tone for the lives of communities or designate common European values.

This necessarily has its consequences. In some countries, not only is the nation state becoming stronger, but there are signs of clannish tendencies. Over the past two or three years, there has been a growing mood in Germany that the country is a “great nation”. Surely, fifteen years ago, a German would have been embarrassed to suggest such a thing? Equally, fifteen years ago, Radosław Sikorski would not have had the nerve to address the Germans as he did in his Berlin speech of December 2011, when he said that he feared a inactive Germany more than he did a powerful Germany. Indeed, it would not have occurred to him to do so. These tendencies are becoming evident in other countries as well. While there is no serious threat at the moment, discourse on what it means to be a real Finn or a real Slovak – and similar movements in Austria, Denmark or, indeed, France – show what can turn up in a world marked by a paucity of political thought.


Where is the West

Consider the US. If we recall the enthusiasm with which Barack Obama was elected, we can see that America has remained a wellspring of social change. Despite the mediocre quality of its politicians (take the Republican presidential candidates for 2012) and the fact that the debate there is conducted at a predominantly practical level, America seems to have preserved an internal capacity for democratic renewal. The Americans are making efforts to offer solutions to some of the problems that democracy raises, while using deliberative methods and practices. In Europe, these things are seriously discussed only in France, where threads of argument on the crisis of participation and representation are being picked up. In Poland, the only writer addressing this and attempting a discourse on representation is Andrzej Waśkiewicz. Other than that, there is no discussion on the issue at any level beyond jeering at MPs – which you can see anywhere.

All this is happening because the notion of the West as a common political space is in decline. If the West were under threat, it might wake up; but for the time being, for all intents and purposes, it is no longer a functioning entity. Even the Iranian issue is unlikely to galvanize it, because, in France, Iran will not be an issue worth dying for. This has major ramifications, since after the Second World War, Europe existed only within the framework of the West. Without the West – without the Atlantic connection – Europe’s first loss could be the United Kingdom. If Britain goes, Europe will become the divided continent described by Fernand Braudel as a “Europe of vodka and wine” – in other words, a Europe of relative stability and development at one end, and of trouble and uncertainty at the other.


Where is reality

The US is likely to preserve the democratic model in a pragmatic way, without the support of large-scale ideas, while injecting a certain vigor into its democratic structures. But I can see little hope of the same happening in Europe. Here the connection between philosophy and the euro becomes visible. The fluctuations of the euro are, in a way, the consequence of postmodern philosophy. I say this only half-joking. I am disinclined to agree with Leszek Kołakowski that postmodern thought should be relegated to the dustbin in its entirety. Not at all. Its elements remain culturally important. However, in general, postmodernism has had a highly negative effect on philosophy because it called into question something that lay at the very foundation of western philosophy, and which to some extent remains the cornerstone of American philosophy, at least among the students of Richard Rorty. In other words, postmodernism questioned the existence of the objective world. One could say, with Isaiah Berlin, that the existence of the objective world was first questioned by the Romantics, who gave recognition to the individual’s point of view. Before the era of Romanticism, there was no such thing as the notion of a subjective perception of the universe. It remains a fact that each one of us views the world differently; yet we sense that we are talking about the same reality. The postmodern watershed challenges this perception.

Today, as philosophers, Peter Sloter-dijk, Chantal Mouffe and Slavoj Žižekare inflicting the most serious damage. Obviously, I have no desire to silence any of them, but when I say they are causing damage, I mean that they are shooting themselves in the foot by putting an end to philosophy as a discipline. Over the past decade, numerous books have been written about post-philosophy, the future of philosophy and similarly speculative topics. If you put an end to philosophy and settle on something they call “narrative”, then the problem of the existence of the objective world ceases to be an issue. I remember the comment Jacques Derrida made after the events of 9/11. What was this? he wondered. Well, what exactly was it supposed to be? Two massive buildings had been destroyed by terrorists. What more is there to say, philosophically? This is scarcely a topic for discussion. If you do not acknowledge the fact that on September 11th, 2001 terrorists flew two airplanes directly into two buildings in Manhattan, and that political consequences ensued, then you can indeed say a thousand and one things about what happened, and we shall all end up being drawn into some kind of narrative. And narrative is fiction. It is true that Nabokov once said “be as faithful to your fiction as you are to reality”, but then he was a writer so he was entitled to make this kind of remark. And, of course, in terms of writing his observation possesses great significance and wisdom. But one cannot sensibly say that a political fact, or the European currency, are fictions. That is, we have taken an exclusively postmodern stance on the issue of the euro.

We are hearing that Greece has received an injection of 132 billion euros. In other words, Greece has been paid a sum that exceeds Poland’s annual budget. This is not the objective expression of any kind of reality. It is in the realm of fiction. It is madness that the chief executive of the Bank of Scotland, which was bailed out by the British state, is considering taking an additional multi-million pound bonus. All this is happening in a dimension that is quite simply unreal, because if it were happening in the real world people would end up in prison, as they would if they committed a theft, perjury, and so on. The meetings held by the eurogroup are also essentially a fiction. In reality, it is a matter of trying to ensure that things do not culminate in a single dramatic incident. The intention is to fragment, to provoke a number of smaller events, and thereby avoid the impression that anything sensational is happening. It is a question of avoiding the panic scenario we saw in the case of the Lehman Brothers or the stock market crash of 1929.

The Greek street protesters are fully in the right. Since Greece joined the eurozone, the Greek people have not been offered any political vision, any choice between a liberal or welfare state, or indeed any other model. Consequently, consecutive governments misused EU funds without censure, the Greeks were happy, experiencing no particular sense of belonging to Europe, and – seeing the creative accounting being tolerated by other countries – had no need to develop any sense of guilt on those grounds either. So, who failed? In my view, Europe was responsible in that it treated everything as a kind of fantasy, and for years considered Greek debt as something irrelevant. The European Commission was aware of it but imagined things would “turn out alright in the end”. Turning out “alright in the end” is a fairy-tale outcome. Similarly, the actions taken by the European Commission have the quality of an unraveling story with no basis in reality, other than the conviction that, somehow, the economy will survive. But its competitiveness is becoming increasingly doubtful.

Strikingly, we live by this fiction. We notice it when confronted by dramatic cases, such as in Norway, after a madman went on a shooting spree and the Norwegians realized that they were not living in a perfectly safe, calm and gentle social environment, and that something fundamentally unpleasant can occasionally happen. It is absurd, but something tragic has to take place for this to be properly understood. Apart from exceptional instances such as this, Europe continues to function in a postmodern reality, especially in the field of finance.

This is the point: the postmodern story surrounding the euro is in some way the result of postmodern philosophy or the expression of a worldview in which objectivism has been lost. For if we examined things from the point of view of the objective universe, as we did thirty or forty years ago, Greek debt would be instantly identified as a danger. We would realize that appalling things are happening. I am not an admirer of Leninism, but I do believe that an objective world exists out there and that it can be analyzed from differing points of view. Because, if we say that it does not exist, we fall hostage to our own narratives and we are dealing with a lost cause: we can no longer do anything.

What does the Polish situation have in common with all this? Poland has proved to be a curious phenomenon. Our economic stability is astonishing, certainly, and we have Leszek Balcerowicz (whom I do not propose to idealize) to thank for this. His reforms made people believe in the meaning of money, the running of businesses and economic enterprise. Consequently, a large proportion of Poles have become self-employed. I recently met a secondary school teacher from Biała Podlaska, who not only teaches, but also owns two shops, while her husband runs a third.

In the first place, Poles believe in the existence of an objective reality in which money can be made. They do so far more than other Europeans (or at any rate some other Europeans). This is the first attribute that makes us different. The second is that Poles have not grown to believe in Europe as any kind of norm. They have, however, come to think of Europe as a comfortable place to live, take a holiday, do business, travel easily, buy, sell, and so on. So there is a sense in which the euro crisis matters little to Poland. Objective conditions also contribute to this – the quality of production, accessible distance, as well as standards that encourage European companies to move their production facilities to Poland rather than Asia.

As long as Poland maintains the conviction that a real world of enterprise does exist, alongside real working people and real money, Poland stands to become a beneficiary of the European crisis. In connection with this, the Polish government should introduce at least two significant reforms: in pensions and the Agricultural Social Insurance Fund (KRUS). This is the bare minimum. These reforms would ensure that the country could stand on its own two feet for an extended period. Furthermore, pension reform would play a considerable part in improving Poland’s image abroad. There is, of course, a further need for reforms based on deregulation, as well as for a major transformation of the administrative system, often called the “bureaucracy”. Administrations are unsatisfactory worldwide, but the Polish system is particularly dreadful and demands serious restructuring. If these changes are successfully implemented, Poland will benefit. As long as we remain with our feet objectively on the ground, we will know when we are making a mistake. We will be able to admit to it. Then it will be possible to assess things from the point of view of an observer who perceives facts, rather than one who is building a narrative.

The frame of mind that has kept Poles well away from narratives and fictions continues to astonish me. A specific primary impulse is responsible for this: the fact that Poland’s initial reforms were very well designed. After the Mazowiecki government we had a very good prime minister: Jan Krzysztof Bielecki. He was succeeded by another equally good prime minister, Hanna Suchocka. After that, the government was taken over by post-communists from the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) who did nothing at all, and as a result of which things have not been too bad. Nevertheless, the original impulse unexpectedly set the direction for change and Poland began to aspire to the German ideal (which was what Poles imagined Germans to be: hard-working, house-proud and law-abiding). It was an ideal that possessed all the positive attributes of developing civilization.

In Poland, this helped to establish a mentality paradoxically linked with the rural working class as a social group emerging into the economic and political field. This has proved significant, because people linked with this group are generally very pragmatic, even to the degree of a criminal disregard for the law. At the very least, they are likely to show tendencies redolent of nepotism and primitivism. Yet the fact that this group has come to dominate business and has taken over important positions – the ownership of property and so on – has proved to be a good thing and contributed to Poland’s success. Thankfully, farmers do not believe in narratives or post-modern fables. The effect of this has been the very pragmatic approach we have witnessed. As a social group, the rural working class – who were, at times, a liability and a burden on Poland – are disappearing, so there will be no need for any major revolutionary upheavals.

The impulse provided by Balcerowicz, alongside good initial government, the lack of any sense of lost contact with reality – indeed the very firm grip on reality which the peasant tradition has given us – all this has located Poland in a different world. One could say that this world is by its very nature retrograde, and I have no idea how things will look in twenty years. The generation now aged about twenty-five is no longer “the product” of Balcerowicz’s reforms – unlike those running the economy. The Balcerowicz generation will not be around for much longer, and it is hard to predict what the newcomers will be like, how the upcoming generation will develop, how job shortages will affect them, how this and other factors will shape them, and what Poland itself will be like. At present, the regressive quality that characterizes our country (and affects the economy considerably less than our frame of mind) is making a positive contribution to development. I would define it as a “pragmatic realism” emerging from a combination of the Balcerowicz tradition and the headway made by people of rural origin. Hence the unusual position of Poland within Europe. Until a new and qualitatively different generation of leaders matures in Europe, the situation is unlikely to change.


We thank Eurozine for translation and promotion of this article.

The author is a Polish philosopher, the founder and the first long-term Editor-in-chief of Res Publica Nowa. The article was originally published in Visegrad Insight vol. 2 (2) 2012.