A Profound Sense of Loss

Karolina Wigura and Jarosław Kuisz on political emotions in Poland since 1989

It’s a good thing that the thirtieth jubilee of the political turnaround of 1989 is finally ending. For some Poles, it was hard to bear. The memories of joyful moments have been buried under bitterness about the current situation.

Explanations for the disappointment about the democratic turnaround in the former Warsaw Pact have been sought for a long time. Political, economic, and cultural reasons for post-communist populism have been named. In Poland, the decision for a radical liberalization of the economy is most frequently criticized. Only recently have cultural resentments been added to that. For example, east German AfD voters have said their sympathies are because people “from the West” still treat them like “second-class citizens”. Quite apart from whether it is true or not, in Eastern Europe a mood predominates that makes it impossible to feel unmixed joy when thinking about the year 1989.

But can the cause of today’s discontent be reduced to mistakes that were made in the course of the transformation? Hardly, one must distinguish. A look at the political circumstances in various countries of eastern Central Europe shows that, despite all the similarities in terms of these societies’ liberal or illiberal condition, there are great differences. One would almost like to paraphrase Tolstoy’s famous sentence: “All liberal democracies resemble each other; but every illiberal democracy is illiberal in its own particular way.”

There is no simple explanation why some countries of this region have trodden an exemplary democratic path today, for example Slovakia. In Poland, the criticism of the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) focuses on the violation of elementary standards of the rule of law. In Hungary, the Fidesz Party of Viktor Orbán received so much support that he could achieve the alteration of the constitution that he wanted, fully legally. Nonetheless, it would be hard to speak of a lost battle for democracy in these countries. For example, in 2019 the Polish voters decided that the Senate should go to the opposition and the Sejm to the rightist-conservative PiS. In Hungary, an opposition politician won the election for Governing Mayor in Budapest – a triumph over Orbán.

At the same time, however, the success of populists in many Western countries – like Donald Trump in the USA and the Brexit-supporters in the United Kingdom – are all too reminiscent of what is happening in Poland and Hungary; we can not avoid to look for an explanation that applies to all these cases. At the base of this stands an aspect of human nature people like to overlook in politics, namely emotions. More precisely: it is about a feeling, a particular feeling – the feeling of loss.

If we think about societal changes, we like to focus on the gain that they will bring us. Our gaze falls more rarely on the social and personal costs. After 1989, millions of families in eastern Central Europe experienced simultaneously a dynamic upswing and a collective drama. Even if they were among the winners of the turnaround, the changes turned their lives inside out. It was a paradoxical and ambivalent experience. In Poland, which remained untouched by the financial and Euro crises of 2008, the resistance of a large part of the society against liberal democracy arose not despite its gigantic success, but rather – on the contrary – as a result of precisely this success. Just as, in his “A Tale of Two Cities” that played in 1789, Charles Dickens wrote of a “period of light and of darkness”, of the “spring of hope” and the “winter of despair”, the year 1989 brought revolutionary progress, manifested in the development of infrastructure, the increase in social mobility, and improvements in living standards, but a pervasive feeling of insecurity, on the other hand. Compact worlds of life fell apart, and even the self was lost.

The loss in question, thereby, has not only an eastern European, but also a global dimension. “1989” means not only the end of the epoch of communism, but also the beginning of an unprecedented acceleration. Globalization got going and with it world-spanning trade. Technological progress enabled formerly unimaginable mobility, as well as faster and more comprehensive communication – a development culminating in the Internet. To this came rising standards of living in many societies and a radical drop in child mortality.

One wants such progress, but at the same everything should remain as it was in the “good old days”. That’s why the Polish government constantly repeats that it will not allow the traditional family to be destroyed. And that’s why Trump won the elections with the slogan “Make America great again”. If illiberal, populist politicians enjoy great popularity, then less because their voters hate the opponents than because the former successfully tap into the reservoir of anger and frustration that is tied to the losses. Authors like Steven Pinker, who use statistical data to show that we live in the best of all worlds up to now, go unheard. They speak to the rational mind, populist politicians, outfitted with a sensitive feeling for disappointed hopes, growing resentment, and budding xenophobia, place their bets entirely on feelings.

Can there be a political answer to the feeling of loss that does not cast doubt on belief in liberal democracy and the rule of law? What would be needed is a new balance between the sentimental gaze at the past and the hopeful outlook on the future. Currently, the mythologizing gaze at the past has the upper hand. Fear of the future dominates, and what is lacking are positive visions for the coming decades that appeal to all. Technological utopias remain insufficient, because they leave people cold. Where breakneck progress becomes the rule, we will have to increasingly practice our dealings with losses. And this includes empathy and understanding: a person who is a victim of exclusion should be able to empathize with others: with ethnic and sexual minorities, but also with political opponents. Where societal dialog lives, liberal democracies stand solidly in the face of the authoritarian excesses of populism.

In 1946, George Orwell described in an essay a “new intellectual phenomenon” that he called “catastrophic gradualism”. This was the conviction that history obeys the principle of succeeding calamities and that each century is just as bad or almost as bad as the preceding one. Today the fairy tale of the inevitable victory of the populists is making the rounds. The belief in the freedom of the individual and with it in liberalism must be upheld. But this can be done only out of a deep trust in people’s ability for self-determination. The future must appear open and as an opportunity, if we don’t want to be sucked into the vortex of a dangerous determinism. Even the greatest magical moments of democracy, as 1989 was, would not have been possible without hope.

This texts is a shortened version of an article that appeared in the Neue Züricher Zeitung on 14 December 2019. It is printed here with the permission of the NZZ.Karolina Wigura and Jarosław Kuisz are heads of Kultura Liberalna, a media organization, think tank and NGO based in Poland, that promotes liberal and democratic values.You can contribute to Kultura Liberalna by making a donation.