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Ost Returns from Poland Tour

Posted on Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Poland became a capitalist country after 1989, though not many people knew at the time just what they meant," says David Ost, the Joseph DiGangi Professor of Political Science, who spent three weeks in Poland for a series of interviews and presentations at a host of events in connection with the 25th anniversary of that country's systemic shift toward democracy and capitalism, as well as the translation into Polish of Ost's 1990 book, "Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics."

That book examines the evolution of opposition movements in Poland's communist era, and explains how and why Solidarity -- an anti-bureaucratic social movement and the first non-Communist Party - controlled trade union in a Warsaw Pact country -- was able to succeed.

In the 1990s, when Ost first began writing about these events, "not many Poles believed it, or wanted to believe it," he says. "Now, however, as they have experienced crisis (and have, for example, the highest rate of flexible, easily-terminable contracts in Europe, and a very low rate of trade unionism), they increasingly know what this means themselves. They have been interested in talking to me to get an informed outsider perspective on events they have lived through, which adds to their understanding of their own history and their own contemporary world."

Ost's next book, "The Defeat of Solidarity" (2005, 2007 trans. into Polish), "looks at the impact of 1989, and the surprising direction the transformation took -- very different than what had been anticipated at the time," he says. "Together with various articles in various other publications, this means that my scholarship as a whole has the transformative moment of 1989 as a central turning point."

With the celebration of the 25th anniversary of these events, "and in connection with the translation of my earlier book, there was a lot of media interest in talking with me, getting my perspective of events," says Ost, who himself spent much of 1989 in Poland and often returns to the country. "What Poles find interesting is my outsider perspective on events. Poland is not a country that many foreigners get to know very well. It is not a language that many foreigners get to know very well. I know the language, culture, people, and history extremely well, and have a perspective on events that embraces typical Polish understandings and brings a global, comparative perspective to bear as well."

Just prior to departure for the tour, Ost was interviewed by Adam Leszczynski of the Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's chief national daily; the interview, published in the journal's prestigious weekend magazine, is available here in Polish and reprinted in translation below.

Once he arrived in Poland, Ost took part in a May 27 conference on social dialogue in European industrial relations, presenting a paper titled "The Growth and Decline of Social Dialogue: Neoliberal Trends in Industrial Relations." That evening, he appeared as a guest on the national TV show, "INFOrozmowa," with Jan Ordynski.

The following day, Ost's newly translated book was presented with a panel discussion (including Ost, sociologist and translator Sergiusz Kowalski, and philosopher Jacek Koltan) at the Warsaw institute Dom Spotkan z Historia (Institute of Encounters with History).

The morning of May 29, Ost was interviewed on the national radio station WNET and that evening served as a panelist at a public debate, "Costs and Assessment of the Polish Transformation," sponsored by the Bronislaw Geremek Foundation. Other panelists were Waldemar Kuczynski, a chief Solidarity economist during the transition, and philosopher Andrzej Leder. On May 30, Ost was interviewed by Tomasz Leszkiewicz for the Historical Journal, www.histmag.org.

The following week, Ost presented a paper, "The Political Art of Tough Economic Choices," at the Krakow Economics University conference, "25 Years of Transformation: Achievements and Challenges," at which former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski was a keynote speaker. At the conference, Ost was interviewed at by Elzbieta Cegla, with the interview published in the Krakow daily Dziennik Polski.

Ost also took part at the Polish National Philosophy Symposium's second annual conference ("Solidarity, Participation, Independent Culture") in Ciazen, near Poznan, giving a keynote address on "The Promises and Limits of Anti-Politics" and participating in a panel discussion on his newly translated book.

On June 9, Ost spoke at a meeting of the Research Seminar group titled "Solidarity: New Approaches to the Analysis of a Social Movement" and later in the week appeared on the national television program "No Jokes," with host Eliza Michalik, on the "Superstacja" channel. He was also interviewed by Jacek Dymek for the journal Krytyka Polityczna.

On June 12, he took part in a panel discussion at the Jacek Kuron Festival in Warsaw, sponsored by the Krytyka Polityczna institute. The panel, titled "Social Europe: Answer to the Crisis?", included Jerzy Osiatynski, a chief economic adviser to the first postcommunist government, and Guenther Horzetzky, State Secretary in the German Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.

Ost concluded his tour on June 14, first as a guest on the national radio station RDC, and then participating in a long interview for the journal Kontakt, a "left-Catholic journal" of social affairs.

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DAVID OST ON QUARTER-CENTURY OF FREE POLAND:  "You Weren't Stupid"

Adam Leszczynski, June 27-28, 2014 - for Weekend Magazine of Gazeta Wyborcza:

In 1989, no one betrayed anybody. There was no real choice between Balcerowicz [the architect of neoliberal shock therapy] and a capitalist welfare state, as such a choice was disappearing also in the West - says Prof. David Ost.

"We were stupid," writes Marcin Krol, not long ago, reassessing his views of the Polish transformation. And legendary underground leader Karol Modzelewski notes how "inequality is glorified today in free Poland, with people told that the unemployed and poor are themselves responsible for their own fate."

Yet everything that Krol and Modzelewski are saying today was apparent already yesterday, if one had the proper perspective. Like the American political scientist did. Already ten years ago, David Ost described, in The Defeat of Solidarity, what led to the fact that working people in the broad sense of the term - the engine and force of the revolution for freedom - came to be treated by their leaders as dangerous impediments to modernization, pushed to the margins and into the arms of populists and radicals. We interview him here.

 

Adam Leszczynski: You know us well. You watched the 1981-82 carnival of "Solidarity," and you saw the new Poland moving far away from its ideals, as intellectuals abandoned the workers with whom they fought for a better system. Now, when we celebrate a quarter century of freedom, I ask: perhaps the Poles succeeded after all?

Prof. David Ost: The question shows that you too think in black and white terms: either success or failure. One needs to look at what Poles did differently than they wanted to do in 1980. And at that time "Solidarity" was certainly not fighting for capitalism. Nor were they doing so in 1989.

 

"Solidarity" fought for full shops. Things were to be "like in the West." And today they are - though many people can only admire the shop windows.

- Because "Solidarity" didn't notice that the West changed a great deal in the 1980s. When it arose in 1980, social democracy was still powerful, in Europe and the world. Its era was coming to an end, but Thatcher had just won the elections and there was still no "Washington consensus," the neoliberal rulebook of economic transformation.

 

I once interviewed its creator, economist John Williamson. He said that it was only about necessary reforms.

- These are jokes. Capitalism has changed world-wide. After World War II, the term "capitalism" was not even used much in the West. We called it "democracy" or a "free market system," because under the influence of strong trade unions this capitalism had grown a human face. Now, when it is clear that the system has evolved, and produces a previously unimaginable level of inequality, more and more we talk of capitalism.

In the 1980s I once spoke with Edward Lipinski, an economist already in his 90s, a socialist since the 1905 Revolution. He told me he thought western Europe was more socialist than communist Poland! He was then active in KOR (the Workers Defense Committee), working for the toppling of the communist system, because for him the alternative was what he had seen in the West. When he and people like him talked about introducing "capitalism" into Poland, they had social policy values in mind, above all.

 

So in Poland we got the kind of capitalism we did because it came at that particular moment - 1989, the peak of Reagan and Thatcher's success - and not earlier? They imposed this system on us?

- Not quite, because in 1989 there were many domestic supporters of the new model, and social-democratic tendencies in Poland had significantly declined.

Did a social democratic alternative have any chance at the time? Well, certainly a lot less than if the transformation had taken place earlier, for example during the period of martial law. I'm afraid I cannot agree with the late economist Tadeusz Kowalik, when he wrote that in 1989, Poles had a free choice of what kind of capitalism they could have. The time for choices was in the 1970s. By the 1980s we already had globalization. Asia began to compete in the production of high-value products and western industry experienced its first major difficulties in adjusting. It began to export factories to the Far East. With globalization, capitalists could break their social-democratically enforced and hitherto profitable alliance with their workers. They began to pay less, demand reduced social legislation. Yes, social-democratic models of capitalism still existed in 1989, most notably of course in Scandinavia. But even there they were going through a profound crisis at the time.

Poles back then looked to a market economy through the prism of the experience of real socialism. Just recently I've been reading through Polish economic journalism from the late 1980s, early 1990s. Few were writing about west European systems. The model was America.

Another factor leading to their skewed vision of capitalism was the individual experiences of many Poles who worked abroad. In terrible conditions, without the support of trade unions, usually off the books and for little money - yet when converted into Polish zloty at the black market rate, it was worth a fortune! And so people who had contact with real capitalism associated it with bad working conditions, but also a lot of value.

The other problem in the late 1980s was the scarcity in Poland of ideologues and intellectuals trying to work for a different form of capitalism.

 

Why? During the first "Solidarity" much was said about the social economy. The original "21 demands" from "Solidarity's" founding 1980 strike, constitute an expansive benefits package: the state is supposed to provide daycare, housing ... What happened to make our oppositional elite change so easily into faith in Balcerowicz?

- Reading Polish journalism from the 1980s, I see a huge change in how people talked about workers - and in general about lower classes - before 1989 and after. Throughout the 1980s the opposition supported every strike and every social protest - without going into details, without asking if the protest really made sense. Then suddenly there was a 180-degree turn. Since it is now "we" who are in power - "Solidarity," the emanation of the nation, exercising power on behalf of the working class - no strikes should be allowed. Both Adam Michnik and the Kaczynski brothers, who have agreed on little else, agreed on this.

 

They were given a democratic mandate. And they knew that reviving the economy required tightening belts.

- Except that it is was not the elite or the intellectuals who had to tighten theirs. The choices proposed were very class-based.

Shortly after martial law, opposition leaders started saying that that the road to democracy lies not through collective participation, but through private property. Valuable resources of the 1980s underground press were devoted to publishing books by Friedrich Hayek. Whereas previously the opposition slogan was: "There is no freedom without solidarity" - with a small and large "S" - now it was replaced by: "There is no freedom without property."

 

The idea was to build a durable social foundation for democracy. Everyone has something, so we all have an interest in the stability of democracy.

- This approach stemmed from the discovery that collective commitment can be very unstable. The 16 months of the first "Solidarity" [August 1980-December 1981] were a period of incredible social participation. People wanted to collectively take part in governing, to speak their minds at meetings, and so on. But after martial law [December 1981] that enthusiasm was crushed. This is why by the late 1980s the view that democracy must be rooted in ownership gained such support. The new view was also intended as a way of stigmatizing as "irrational" all demands directed at the new government.

This was the time that Polish intellectuals began realizing their class interests. The new regime was an opportunity for them. They no longer needed to be employed by the state. In their pursuit of their own interests, they could invoke world developments as legitimation, for all around the world the Fordist era of massive industry and mass production was coming to an end.

 

People in Poland don't use the word "class," as it smacks of Marxism.

- This is a misunderstanding. Capitalism is a class system. It depends on the reality of classes. In a class system, one group gains at the expense of another. Owners seek cheap labor, seek to maximize their own interests against the interests of others.

 

You, an American, are telling Poles that Poland is a country divided by class. But we like to think that we have collective, Polish interests. That the interests of the intelligentsia and the workers are not substantially different.

- That's just self-deception, though of course an intellectual today who has to work on "junk contracts" in several places at once just to survive might not see that.

Still, things are changing. The young generation has no such resistance to openly talk about class differences. And not only the youth: overall in the last decade Poles have begun to speak more about social classes. I hear this, for example, in the trade unions. A year ago, I even met a "Solidarity" activist praising Marx! They draw from their own experiences, and from colleagues in the West, where people have thought in terms of classes since the time of Dickens. Things became blurred in the 1950s and ‘60s, when workers in the West advanced materially, to a point where radicals often regarded them as part of the establishment.

But now the problem of class has returned, because globalization has so benefited elites. Except that intellectuals have become disaccustomed to this category.

In Poland after 1989 class disappeared from public discourse because the new authorities feared a social explosion. Wishing to avoid mass protests, they understood they needed to provide an answer to the feelings of insecurity caused by job losses and plant bankruptcies. This answer was the new ideology, according to which: "Each individual must rely on his own energy and strength. If you cannot succeed, you're a loser."

Despite this new individualism, class talk still managed to break through, but in strange ways. In 1989 and 1990 this phrase was very popular: "We are building a system in the interests of a class which does not yet exist." And do you remember that everyone kept talking about a mythical "middle class," which was supposed to arise any day now?

 

"Take matters into your own hands." "Discover the power of your own money." And yet what's wrong with enterprise? With people setting up their own businesses?

- Nothing. The problem was the absence of proposals and ideas for those who could not and cannot do so. For these were the people who have been captured by the political right. Ever since about 1992, the right has increasingly become the voice of the excluded, all the time providing the most absurd yet dangerous prescriptions, saying that things are bad because Poland is ruled by "alien elements," by "others": communists, liberals, atheists, and that the only solution is to unite around "the nation."

 

In March, Gazeta Wyborcza conducted a special survey, asking Poles to assess the anniversary of the 1989 regime transformation. Those who had the most positive assessments were those who had economically succeeded: managers, the well-educated, entrepreneurs. Poland's success, it seems, has been the success of one group.

- That's perhaps a slight exaggeration... But yes, one group did win.

I am not accusing intellectuals emerging from the old system of being cynical. After all, they could very well imagine themselves as being workers too. Everyone was employed by the state, the state was the source of resources for all. They could very well feel that they were not betraying anyone by building a system in which all active people had a chance to succeed. That was just democracy.

But the intelligentsia somehow did not notice its own privileges. It had knowledge, skills, and contacts, all of which constituted formidable assets in the new system. The starting point of the worker was completely different.

But of course, in the 1980s people everywhere tended to imagine the postmodern world very optimistically. I myself first touched a computer perhaps in 1984. It would be the end of dirty factory production! The end of unhealthy, harmful work environments! People thought we are leaving the world of gigantic industry and that everyone will have a chance to fulfill themselves, realize themselves, in better work conditions. And so the Polish intellectual could very well think that if he or she had a chance in the new system, so did everyone. That by making money, he's only setting an example for others, and that his old comrades from Solidarity could follow.

It was in this way that for many years the post-1989 elites reassured themselves and others that they acting on behalf of all.

 

Despite everything, Poland is today a richer and more democratic country. It is part of the West. It is a collective success.

- That is true. But Poland really had an opportunity to build a system based more on widespread participation. During the first "Solidarity" period, people participated in governing, were active in unions, and thought a great deal about public matters.

When people here tell me today how Poles are simply an individualistic and distrustful people, I remind them that your most important feature back then was then cooperation. In 1989 it was possible to do much more to be continue to support collective endeavors, to be more supportive of community rights, of groups proposing diverse forms of collective ownership. Cooperatives, for example, have deep roots in Polish social thought. In 1981 people often talked about the work of Edward Abramowski, the sociologist, psychologist, syndicalist and theorist of cooperative from the turn of the last century. They didn't talk much about him in 1989.

The belief in individualism, the new mantra about individuals now having to take matters into their own hands - these demolished something that Poland already had.

 

But maybe we are wrongly identifying the guilty? Perhaps it is not the Solidarity elite, but martial law which crushed social ties and taught people individualist survival skills, to do anything in order to survive.

- In the 1970s people said that Polish society was also selfish and atomized, crushed by communist power - and then "Solidarity" broke out. I once asked my students in Poland to interview one of their grandparents, someone who had worked for significant times both before and after 1989. The results surprised all of us: it turned out that most people felt work was better during the communist system. Yes, supplies were sporadic, there were constant shortages, but people felt that they were part of a group. Today, work is a place of suspicion and rivalry.

Poland, however, is changing. Today even "Solidarity" and OPZZ [the former pro-communist trade union federation] have broken past their historical distrust and now protest together. The conflict over ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, sparked widespread mobilization in 2012. Today cities introduce participatory budgets, and I'm continually reading in Polish newspapers about local community initiatives and protests, such as the recent successful referendum campaign organized by citizens of Krakow to reject their city's petition to host the Olympics.

 

So how, in the end, do see you Poland these 25 years later?

- Neither black nor white. On the one hand, it has been a great victory, for the former system denied people fundamental freedoms. On the other hand, Poland after "Solidarity" could and should be a much fairer place. But you should not only keep asking about the past. Try to build a better Poland, in line with the best of your imagination.

* Professor. David Ost - political scientist, professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, author of several translations of Polish political thought in English. For over 30 years an observer of the mass democratic opposition and of the Polish transformation. The author of The Defeat of Solidarity," published in Polish in 2007; and just last month his 1990 book, "Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics," was finally published in Polish translation by the European Solidarity Center.

 


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