Across Europe last Saturday there were ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which launched the process that eventually grew into today’s European Union. Poland was no exception, though here the events were emphatically not supported by the current government. In this context, the anniversary celebrations became de facto opposition demonstrations, which is a sign of how much Poland has changed over the past few years.
The EU has long been popular here—enormously popular, in fact. The referendum on the accession treaty held in 2003 registered 77.6% approval (with 59% turnout—high by Polish standards). Starting in 2006, the Pew Research center has been running a comparative survey on attitudes towards the EU, and Polish support has declined since then by 11 points: from 83% to 72%. Still, Poland has been at the top of this chart every single year. A recent survey commissioned by Gazeta Wyborcza showed that if a Brexit-style vote were held here, the “remain” side would win easily, but with “only” 61% of the vote. The Poles are still the undefeated champions of Euroenthusiasm, though even here Brussels is losing some of its luster.
Another sign of where things stand was on display during those 60th anniversary celebrations/protests. One the one hand, there were gatherings all over the country, and in virtually every town square at noon people gathered to sing the European anthem. In Warsaw, this was combined with a march along the city’s emblematic “Royal Way,” leading to Castle Square and the Old Town. Every opposition political party, several of the country’s leading media outlets, and a who’s-who list of activists and cultural figures joined together in sponsoring the march. At first glance it seemed quite impressive.
I spent most of the event watching from an excellent vantage point, atop the bell tower of St. Ann’s Church. This allowed me to capture the entirety of the crowd, which looked up and waved for a “group portrait” taken by the professional cameraman whom I was conveniently standing next to.
Speaking from the stage, the editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Jarosław Kurski, said that the ten thousand people gathered here were a much better representation of Poland than the current foreign minister. Maybe so, but 10,000 strikes me as a disappointingly small number for such a well-advertised event. This was half the size of the event for Women’s Day on March 8, and less than a tenth the size of the record-setting pro-choice demonstration held on this same site last October.
This reveals, I think, a key aspect of the current political dynamic in Poland. This country has a reputation for big protests, marches, and strikes, and even today the level of public mobilization here is higher than anywhere else in the region. But in keeping with the pattern seen even back in the 1970s and 1980s, that activism really only rises to the fore when people are faced with very concrete challenges to their personal well-being. For the most part, Kaczyński has been smart enough not to push up against those sorts of issues. His strategy has been to focus on dismantling or undermining all the institutions and norms that sustain liberal democracy: the independent judiciary, the public media, the constraints of parliamentary rules, NGO watchdog groups, etc. Acts of opposition to the government’s assertion of control in all these areas have simply been ignored or dismissed as the ravings of “elites” who don’t understand the “real Poland.” The result of this strategy has been that opposition to the state carries very little real danger (there’s little opportunity for anyone here to become a martyr for the cause of democracy), but also very little chance of accomplishing anything. If you want to ignore politics and just get on with your life, it’s been possible to do so. Kaczyński demands active support from those who want to serve in the state sector, but for everyone else he just encourages demobilization and apathy.
This is where the anti-liberal authoritarianism of the 21st century has learned a great deal from the models from the 20th century. Nazism and Stalinism demanded a lot more, but the post-Stalinist communism of the 1960s and 1970s allowed people to carry out their private lives without all that much interference. That’s the system that’s being rebuilt now. It’s one in which most people, most of the time, can live their lives without worrying about politics. The government would love to
have your support, but if they can’t get it, they only ask that you go about your business and leave politics to them. This is a system that promotes disengagement rather than active obedience or enthusiasm.
Of course, those in targeted minorities (whether ideological, national, sexual, religious, or whatever) will feel the power of the authoritarian state. Sooner or later even those in the majority will experience the consequences of anti-liberal democracy. By then, however, the institutions and structures that they could have used to protect themselves will be gone. That’s when we will see the really big crowds once again, but they won’t be as polite and celebratory as they were last Saturday. Nor, I fear, will the authorities be as passive.