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  1. These things happen meaning
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  4. What’s Next? | Lapham’s Quarterly

Even more disturbing is that such slogans take root not only in peripheral regions of the world, as in the post-communist countries, but also in countries recognized as driving forces and beneficiaries of globalization. In view of the public vote in the established and new democracies, identity politics now affects the stability of the world system that evolved after the Second World War and the demise of -the case of really-existing socialism. Another reaction to the consequences of neoliberal policies is the detoxification of egalitarianism.

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Just like the politics of identity, it is also a natural self-defence against the exclusion and inequality resulting from globalization and the effects of the demise of the welfare state. The detoxification of egalitarianism takes place on two levels, intellectual and practical-political. On an intellectual plane, scholars like Thomas Piketty[2] and Anthony Atkinson[3] argue that the greatest danger to stability and growth of any social system are severe and growing inequalities in the economic status of their citizens. In this way they attempt to dispel the bad name which stuck to the idea of egalitarianism for several decades.

Equality also comes back into political practice. It inspires the Alterglobalist movements in underprivileged and exploited countries of the southern hemisphere. As neoliberal policies affect also the countries of the northern hemisphere, Jeremy Corbyn's successful bid for the leadership of the Labour Party against his neoliberal post-Blairite opponents may be read as a political reaction to their impact and consequences.

An even more spectacular example of the detoxification of egalitarianism has been the tremendous, though squandered success of Bernie Sanders in the contest for the presidential candidacy in the United States in For the first time in the history of the US an abashedly socialist programme won significant support.

More evidence of the revival of egalitarianism in political practice is to be found in the rise of the Greek Syriza, the pan-European movement DIEM led by Yanis Varoufakis, as well as the Spanish movement Podemos, all born in protest against the anti-democratic and neoliberal policies of the European Union.

The political dynamics in Poland, a country riven by political paradoxes, diverges from the above pattern. The process of detoxification of egalitarianism in this country is carried out not by left-wing parties but by a nationalist conservative and xenophobic movement which presents a textbook example of a populist authoritarianism.

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The key to the astounding success of contemporary forms of exclusivist politics in Poland is that its proponents learned how to attract support simultaneously from two sources, i. The conglomerate of ideas similar to these exploited by the Polish party Law and Justice has also opened a way to Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and fuels the agenda of numerous exclusionary movements in Europe. The thus emerging political hybrid of exclusive egalitarianism presents the most serious challenge both for the left and liberalism.

The present Polish political condition is shaped to a significant extent by the self-perception of the liberal parties and their understanding of their social tasks. They seem not to take seriously enough the moral and political obligation stemming from the imperative of freedom advocated by them. For, from the very beginning of socio-political transformation of the country, they have deliberately limited their political tasks to the creation of a middle class and disregarded the cultural and political condition of wider social strata.

This policy has eventually brought about their political marginalisation. Similarly, the Polish political left, though claiming a leftist label for themselves, in fact pursued a neo-liberal agenda, and suffered an analogous fate.

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The public space has been filled by radical, nationalist and fundamentalist political parties. Below I outline some elements of the history of these political developments and argue that the grave error committed by Polish liberals and the left, which led to their political marginalisation, was to disregard the idea of social equality. What needs to be stressed, however, is that the hegemonic dominance of the neoliberal view of society and economy which followed the demise of communism, was universally perceived as historically inevitable by both liberals and the Left themselves, and it is this perception which left them with very little or rather no choice in designing their political agendas during the first decades of the comprehensive transformation of the post-communist state and society.

Moreover, the perception of the leftist parties became an unsurmountable barrier to their recognition as legitimate political forces. The negative perception of the leftist ideologies affected the post-communist parties, which were presented in public discourse as tainted by the sin of their illegitimate communist origin; the same applied to the new socialist-leaning formations. The de-legitimation of political egalitarianism in any form inhibited any pragmatic cooperation between the left-leaning parties and the liberals, which eventually marginalized left and liberals alike.

This was the vacuum filled by the nationalist extremist movements.

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In view of these developments, and in view of the detoxification of the concept of social equality, can the left re-appear on the political scene if it manages to find a way to reclaim the idea of equality stolen from it by the new form of political particularism? The attainment of this goal may be possible only if liberalism were able to perceive the revival of the left as a way of safeguarding its own role in future local and international politics, while the left saw an alliance with liberalism as a way towards implementing their agenda. In other words, both liberals and the left should dispel the political apparitions which blur their perception of social realities and stand in the way of their collaboration.

A first major step in this direction should be dispelling the ominous aura through which liberals perceive the ideals of social equality. Each meeting with Adam Michnik is invariably a stimulating and instructive occasion. This witticism, though hilarious, is obviously false. Yet it is interesting as a symptom of the attitude Polish liberals adopt towards all kinds of emancipatory ideas. It is evident that Michnik continues to be haunted by the apparition of the really-existing socialism he knew all too well from his struggles against it.

His opinion can be interpreted as a belief that the all-embracing socialist project eventually failed due to the grave mistakes of the doctrine by which it was inspired. As a result, the purportedly universal emancipatory project led to deeply flawed social or economic practice and, consequently, to an unprecedented oppression, thus belying its professed emancipatory intentions.

One may grant the obvious: the disaster brought about by the system of really-existing socialism had to do with its irremediable errors in understanding human nature and society. One error was the overoptimistic belief that human beings will be capable, if not of completely renouncing their possessive instincts, then at least exercising self-control over them.

Another mistake, related to the previous one, was the failure to understand that the efficient organization of productive efforts capable of satisfying human needs cannot be achieved through an administrative suppression or the eradication of human possessiveness. Examples of successful egalitarian economies suggest, however, that not all rational interventions in economy are doomed to fail and that it is possible skillfully to harness human greed for the advancement of societal aims.

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This suggests that a middle way between complete control over human freedom and the lack of any restraint is a viable option. The middle ways, however, may be found between various extremes. When Tony Blair arrived in Washington to one of the famous seminars where the concept of the so-called Third Way was forged, he was allegedly unsure which way to go in the huge building where the meeting was to be held.

Blair himself told this anecdote to justify his political decision to take the middle way between socialism and liberalism. It meant giving up the idea of the social-liberal welfare state and accepting the neoliberal, though misleading belief about the harmful effect of political interference in the economic sphere. This anecdote is symptomatic of the mode of thinking which spread among left-wing formations in many countries.

They seem to have concluded, like Michnik, that a search for alternative ways to the neoliberal way is no longer possible. It consisted of a new set of values and aims which were to supersede slogans of liberty, equality, and fraternity, perceived as antiquated. According to widely held opinion, however, the Third-Way design for the New Left initiated a political practice which turned out to be perilously similar to her older sinister sister TINA. The proponents of the Third Way acted as if they have forgotten that the virtue of liberal democracy is not that it guarantees the avoidance of mistakes, but that it facilitates their identification and elimination.

It is probably for this reason that, so far at least, it has failed to excite a support matching the persuasiveness of liberalism itself. Yet left-wing and social-democratic formations in many countries, especially in Great Britain and Germany, found the idea compelling. So did their Polish comrades. One of the stereotypes about the Polish political spectrum was that the Left was monolithic, while the Right was internally divided.

The left-wing monolith, however, meant not only a despotic way of ruling the party by its leaders, who thought they knew better than the rank and file, but also the imposition of an ideological uniformity. Their adoption of the ideology of the Third Way drove from their agenda all remains of the emancipatory substance. Traditional, already archaic working-class content and postulates were eliminated from its ideology, while the new social problems were pushed out of sight.

Public opposition to the decision was disregarded and the internal critical voices were silenced. Eventually, the Democratic Left Alliance paid the political price for endorsing neoliberal policies and the ill-advised military intervention in Iraq, while individual members of its leadership faced accusations of complicity in the unlawful and immoral practice of renditions and torture. After the decline of a monolithic post-communist left and the growth of a variety of leftist movements and ideologies, this observation also became relevant in the Polish context.

Probably nowhere in the world was it possible to consolidate different ideas and social tasks into a consistent programme which would unite diverse groupings left of the centre. Alterglobalists, feminists, environmentalists, anti-racists, advocates of the neutrality of the state with respect to religions and worldviews, supporters of the equal status of people with different sexual orientations, exemplify various trends of the contemporary left.

What’s Next? | Lapham’s Quarterly

They are, however, represented by such diverse political formations that they are difficult to unite. Nor, despite the possible long-term gains, do they wish to unite. Their unwillingness to enter any substantial cooperation with each other may be explained by means of the political dividend expected from division. The dividend in question has to do primarily with the capital of public recognition in each political grouping, as assessed especially by leaders who, blinded by their political narcissism, hope to gain traction through exposing themselves to electoral choice, irrespective of the realistic calculation of their actual chances.

A political party that would put all these ideas on its banners could not count on popular support in Poland.


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Nor is there anything exceptional about this. It would be rather unusual if any of the existing parties decided to fight openly for the rights of the homosexual minority, because in this way they would become the butt of right-wing ridicule, which easily wins plaudits among the homophobic social strata. Similarly, placing hopes on winning public support through pursuing ecological and alterglobalist ideas seems unreasonable because the Polish public is deeply convinced that their country needs more globalization and more energy-consuming jobs.

The common belief is that since Poland is unable to create them by itself, it should seek them in other countries, or bring them home by opening its economy to the foreign capital. This is only possible, however, provided that the wages of Polish workers are kept at a competitively low level. The problem is that young and talented Polish workers do not want to waste their youth working for competitive, i.

At present, the problem has become even more complicated because young people do not want to wait until the liberal economic regime decides to raise wages in this country: thanks to the European Union they have already found better-paid employment abroad. Those who have stayed home are not enthusiastic about the jobs created in Poland by foreign investors, nor about the workers from China, Ukraine, Korea, and even North Korea imported to perform them.

The growing gap between the drive toward modernization at the lowest cost possible and legitimate social expectations may become a positive discouragement for foreign investors who, initially tempted by cheap Polish labour, would be unable to make the Poles work for extortionate wages. For the above reasons the future Polish left, if it were to pull itself together again, will face tremendous challenges: very few Polish politicians would like to be regarded as a representative of the unemployed, queers, lesbians, feminists, alter-globalists, or ecologists. The political aesthetics which nowadays play the hegemonic role in Polish society make it virtually impossible to compose and sincerely advocate such a comprehensive emancipatory agenda.

God forbid! The other event was the campaign by the Roman Catholic Church, supported by the radical Right, aimed to tighten even more the existing anti-abortion law. The above-mentioned, privately communicated opinion by Michnik may be interpreted as one of the numerous symptoms of the conscious self-limitation of liberalism in the carrying out of social emancipatory tasks.

His words also exemplify how liberal doctrine in confrontation with Realpolitik generates compromises which undermine the political power of any idea. Polish liberals had a very limited understanding of the emancipatory potential of liberalism. In the economic sphere, they advocated freeing the economy from state interventionism, but very few other freedoms appeared on their agenda.

This attitude became apparent in the signing of the concordat with the Vatican, critically assessed by secular-liberal circles; or in connection with religion in state schools, introduced in a non-constitutional way by the first non-communist government; or in hanging crosses in schoolrooms and in the Parliament. It is apparent that the degenerative evolution of liberalism has resulted from the desire of its exponents to preserve the existing political order without regard to its social consequences.

By refusing to address them as possibly divisive, liberals have effectively prevented themselves and their potential allies from placing those issues on the political agenda. Bertrand Russell spoke with irony about the nineteenth-century French freethinkers who readily took advantage of all liberal freedoms but sought their wives among religious women, treating their faith as a guarantee against being cuckolded. The paradox is that religion is not an obligatory subject, but pupils attend this class under the pressure of custom.