At the end of April, Rafał Trzaskowski banned the anti-EU nationalist march, which was to take place on the fifteenth anniversary of accession. He gave construction work as the reason for the ban. It reminded me of the previous nationalist march on the occasion of the Independence Day. After the court overturned the ban on the march issued by the former mayor of Warsaw, the European Union flag was burned during the demonstration.
It provoked outrage, even calls for prosecution of the perpetrators or at least to forbid these shameful acts in the future. As a federalist, I am happy to be able to let Union flags burn. Better to identify with organisations that do not try to send their opponents to prisons.
Praise for the prohibitions of nationalist marches as well as calling for the cult of the flag, came from circles that consider themselves liberal. Of course, liberalism is a broad etiquette under which various visions and revisions are located, and it can always avoid criticism, pointing to examples that do not fall under the term.
I am not interested in the circles of the conservative Civic Platform, which has so much in common with the liberals that they can support it because of fear of PiS. The praise I am writing about came out of the circles of people professing liberalism as a struggle for social progress. In this sense, the legacy of the Enlightenment, the left is also liberal in Poland, although it does not like the label for reasons that are not fully explained.
The need for oppression would seem to be foreign to liberalism, but it is one of the basic features of modern liberals. One of their favourite strategies is instruction. Adam Michnik instructs the LGBTQ community that temporarily they should not fight for their rights; Agata Bielik-Robson teaches Razem that it should be like Krytyka Polityczna; Razem teaches journalists that the bourgeois criticism of the party harms the cause. Having read all this, it is difficult not to write a lampoon. As a good liberal, I decided to teach bad liberals how to be better.
Teaching is not a distinct specialty of our compatriots. For example, the liberal American media has mastered the monoculture of outrage with Donald Trump. Trump’s outrageous behaviours happen several times a day, so on the CNN website we find dozens of comments to more tweets, unpalatable jokes, leaks about these distasteful jokes, inappropriate statements, etc. We also can learn how we should not act when one president of the USA.
The constant performance of tiring duties has been described in the literature. Jan Potkański recently stated (in Polish) that the dominant trend of Polish liberalism is masochism, manifesting itself in a post-colonial attitude towards foreign institutions, such as the financial markets. Masochism is not limited our country or province. The Masochism of the Left, which makes intellectuals cough for belonging to the privileged elites, is not much different from the American masochism of being white or being a man.
Failure to be one of the oppressed, which liberalism intends to free, is considered to be the original sin and, at the same time, indelible.
It would be a false accusation that the liberals do not have a positive programme. Unfortunately, they do; this program is “authorities and values”. As in the case of instruction, the relationship between both and traditionally understood liberalism might seem distant. We all remember what the grandfather Kant wrote about the authorities (he wrote that they are bad if someone does not remember them) and I suggest to trust, in this respect, Kant’s authority.
Values are semantically empty. The only reason we share them is that everyone can understand them however they like it. For some, the right to life prohibits abortion, for others it prohibits euthanasia, and for another group the death penalty. Freedom can consist of flat taxation, marijuana smoking or decent wages. It is not enough that liberal values mean nothing at all, but their apparent conclusiveness frees us from thinking.
They direct us straight to the Platonic heaven, but every heaven is just a residuum of religion in discourse, an empty place that we could not fill with content. The liberal ideals of free discussion, in which important social issues are decided, remain unfulfilled because as the liberals engaged in the cult of values they do not discuss anything.
Underlying is a belief that values have a specific content, though we don’t know what they are. But authorities know them, and we must believe that they are right – believe that what they say results from the values we believe in.
Hence all these tiring attempts to establish and defend authorities, often importing them from abroad, to tell us about our problems. Complaining that young people do not have authority is lined with a dark desire to destroy thinking. Authorities do not serve anything else. The responsibility of the liberals has traditionally been to question the authorities. Meanwhile, unfortunately, the position of authority appeals to the liberals because they want to put themselves in it.
The problem of the stink of didactic authorities and liberal media is much deeper than just the ineffectiveness of such propaganda. People who are interested in it are convinced of the liberal position, looking in the press or visiting their favourite websites to gain support for their views.
The model in which we inform people about what to consider, however, is fundamentally illiberal. It brings up a dispute between liberalism and conservatism, a sectarian war with conflicting views that we celebrate in our circles. This is completely consistent with the prohibition of nationalist demonstrations, but it is difficult to call liberalism.
It was the illiberalism of this structure that made it lose its emancipation potential, which historically constituted the strength of liberalism. In return, it plays emotional blackmail: whoever is not with us does not do well.
This blackmail is to support a whole range of illiberal requirements that are all around us. We have lost a large section of the youth, and we have pushed the rebellion into conservatism. The radical wing of 4chan or Polish Wykop, which in 1848 and even in 1968 would be liberal revolutionaries, is now the right wing.
At the same time, contemporary liberals like to renounce the grand narratives as a creation whose oppressiveness has already been exposed by Lyotard. The problem is that these narratives have just brought liberalism its historic successes.
The current complaints are that the political opposition in Poland does not have a counter-narrative against PiS, and that this is part of a wider problem – opponents of the radical right are not able to use their most effective weapon.
Nevertheless, where great narratives are still in use, they remain effective – as we have seen recently in the example of the #MeToo movement, and earlier on the example of the struggle for marital equality (except Poland, Poland follows the West like an unfashionable gentleman – always a few steps behind).
Coming back to insulting the liberals, the behaviour of the late Polish intelligentsia is very similar to the young generation, from which it differs politically. It deals with the reproduction of generally accepted memes, usually created abroad, and avoiding the production of content, which – being novel – could arouse opposition or prove controversial in the liberal world.
Smugness, a resistance to criticism and the ability not to engage in serious discussions with the growing right are common to the entire liberal spectrum regardless of political views. Liberals behave like first-year schoolmates who are worried no one likes them because they are so smart.
In fact, people do not like them because they are mechanically repeating forged formulas. As liberalism fades, it takes on a shape similar to religion, requiring from its followers less and less understood sacrifices, made not so much in the name of reasonable reasoning, but simply from the necessity of ritual repetition of certain views, for which once there were reasonable reasons.
The thoughtless reproduction of liberal dogmas, which has become the domain of liberal discourse, is harmful even when these same dogmas are right. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
The reproduction of dogmas, on the one hand, kills thinking as a process (more important than the accidental errors and deviations it generates), and at the same time serves to keep the liberal elites in power as priests of the dogma.
This is also evident at the micro level in Facebook discussions where liberals, and especially politically correct leftists, correct their opponents with excessive zeal: in attacking sexist caricatures and pictures, or in boasting of deviations from liberal norms that would justify aggression against perpetrators.
Bad methods to defend a good cause become all the more funny the more liberals lose power, which allowed them to perform symbolic violence. Liberalism in this form must end and must be replaced with something new.
And this could end now if the sowing of defeatism was not considered to be a low and unworthy occupation.
So, if I were to go beyond pure negativity, I would advise my liberal friends and foes to like the chaos which encapsulates the world. This chaos results from the questioning of the new order, and in the overthrow of order lies the germ of the future freedom which the previous order has smothered.
Instead of identifying with the order that is passing, you can join in its replacement. It is bizarre for a situation in which a radical right is carried out by revolution, and the emancipatory ideals of liberalism find their place only in the trenches of reaction.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.