On Thursday, July 20, the Polish parliament passed a package of bills in an attempt to gain control over the country’s judiciary. The timing was perfect: at the peak of the holiday period, the government expected a smooth vote and little public reaction.
During the hours of live broadcast from the parliament, there was a growing sense of being immersed in a historical reconstruction similar to the 1920s, when an increasingly autocratic regime pushed a similar law. A century later, in an EU state, a ruling party was trying to convince the Polish people that crushing insubordinate justices was the democratic right of elected governments.
The parliament voted on the bill; the ruling party suppressed dissent in the room and proceeded with the rest of the agenda for the day. Later on that memorable night, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, lost control, accusing the opposition of murdering his late brother, Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash in Smolensk.
As the atmosphere in parliament grew steadily more fractious, Kaczyński went up to the lectern (without the Speaker’s permission) and shouted to the opposition MPs: “Do not wipe your treacherous mugs with the name of my brother. You murdered him, you scoundrels.”
This was how the parliament of a country with a not-so-distant memory of authoritarianism, one whose political elites still trace their roots back to the Solidarity movement, voted to end the separation of powers. Law and Justice’s power grab was carried out in the name of “ensuring ordinary people get the justice they deserve” and “removing post-communist apparatchiks” from the courts.
This, of course, bore little relation to reality: the judicial branch had undergone a radical generational change since 1989. Regardless, each of the government’s three bills increased the power of the Minister of Justice, who, within the current legal structure, is also the Prosecutor General. The government was attempting to remove the top judges in the country — proposing that their successors would be nominated directly by the Prosecutor General. In short, if the bills had been enforced, it would have provided for government control over the judiciary.
At first, those who opposed the measures found themselves disoriented — what did this mean; was it the beginning of a kind of dictatorship? And how could it be stopped, when the ruling party controlled the Sejm (parliament), the senate, and the presidency? Who exactly was the opposition?
Chain of Light
Within hours, the opposition made itself felt on the streets. Dozens of civil society organizations, joined by parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces, created tens if not hundreds of events, marches, demonstrations, and sit-ins.
The mobilization revolved around two issues: first, the outrage at the direct politicization of the Supreme Court and the potential impact on free elections; and second, the demand that the president veto all three bills — a scenario which, at the time, seemed implausible.
The protests took many forms. Razem, the youngest and most vibrant left-wing party, organized several events, protesting against the bills while at the same time remaining critical of the prevailing system.
The parliamentary opposition held its own demonstrations, with lineups of establishment politicians preaching predictably neoliberal slogans. Interestingly, there were also demonstrations led by feminist leaders of the Black Protest — one of the biggest feminist mobilizations in the country’s history, against the planned abortion ban of October 2016.
Probably the most successful protest, both in terms of numbers and inclusive spirit, was the series of “no-logo” demonstrations known as the “Chain of Light,” where organizers explicitly banned political emblems.
Thousands of Polish citizens gathered, carrying candles, listening to live music, and singing the national anthem. This formula offered an important outlet for those who did not feel ready to align themselves politically. At a time of crisis, before we respond intellectually, we tend to be guided by emotion: the need to express an outrage that has not yet been formed into a political orientation.
To the great surprise of most of those involved, the mobilizations ended in success: the president conceded and vetoed two out of three of the bills drafted by his former party, a decision which must have been — both politically and psychologically — extremely difficult. It seems unlikely, as some have speculated, that Law and Justice orchestrated this turn of events, which has left them weakened. Even if they had, they could not have anticipated the scale of social mobilization.
But the mass demonstrations are only a first step. Poland’s political scene is obsolete, with most of its parties lacking political clarity, let alone ideological coherence. In such circumstances, anonymous mobilizations end up being co-opted by the establishment.
This was largely the case with the Black Protest — the same opposition parties that had previously supported strict anti-abortion laws grew in the polls after the protests. Without a fundamental alternative that can command popular support, the success of social movements will serve merely to reinforce the image of establishment politicians as the legitimate opposition.
No-logo movements have proven their worth when negative action is needed: blocking unconstitutional legislation, expressing outrage at a barbaric anti-abortion law. They are conduits for broad alliances, maximizing social engagement and buying political actors time to come up with the right strategy.
This can be invaluable at a time of political crisis. But in the long run, they cannot create an affirmative agenda or political capital for progressive reforms. If we are to end the vicious cycle in which establishment parties benefit from anti-establishment mobilization, we need to make our resistance openly political.
Consensus is Not at the Center
In order to reassert politics, context is crucial. The economic transformation of post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe was accompanied by what Naomi Klein famously described as a “shock doctrine.” As she recalled, as late as 1992, 60 percent of Polish citizens still opposed privatization of heavy industry.
Jeffrey Sachs, who advanced these policies, claimed he had no choice, likening his role to that of a surgeon in an emergency room: “When a guy comes into the emergency room and his heart has stopped, you just open the sternum and you don’t worry about the scars.” While Sachs himself has significantly modified his approach and revised his neoliberal stance, his Polish counterparts, now prominent leaders of the opposition, remain stuck in the early ’90s.
Nearly three decades on, we see that those scars certainly haven’t healed. By voting for Law and Justice in 2015, the electorate showed that neoliberal politics had run its course, leaving far too many people without jobs, hope, or a future. What Chantal Mouffe wrote about centrist politics still holds true today:
Consensus at the centre allows populist parties to appear as the only anti-establishment forces representing the will of the people. Thanks to clever populist rhetoric, they are able to articulate many demands of the popular sectors scorned as retrograde by the modernizing elites and to present themselves as the guarantors of popular sovereignty.
The difference is that the two available options are not, as they are in several Western countries, the center and the populist right. The Polish “center” — currently forced out of power — is now economically farther to the right than any comparable force in the West. Its politicians still believe that more privatization is the response to all social ills.
Law and Justice, on the other hand, is a self-proclaimed anti-establishment party with an increasingly autocratic style of government. The more obsolete and irrelevant the liberal camp becomes, the easier it is to promote a narrative which appeals to the “losers” of the transformation era.
Kaczyński mastered this art, and thrives in the current simulacrum of political debate with his party on one side and the “privatization is salvation” camp on the other. Law and Justice’s attempt to take control over the judiciary is just the latest step on the path to soft dictatorship — and it plans to go much further.
Faced with yet another constitutional crisis, many voices on the Left ask whether socialists should defend the institutions of liberal democracy, especially when they are often dysfunctional. Socialism is unthinkable without democracy, and yet, when it comes to defending basic democratic principles, the Left is divided.
Those active on the front lines of the struggle for justice — blocking evictions, fighting anti-abortion laws, organizing workers, and investigating the powerful — know that the courts side with the rich. It is all the more difficult to defend liberal democracy when it means standing side by side with the authors of the shock doctrine.
That is precisely why the recent mobilization to save an independent judiciary constitutes an important breakthrough in our political landscape. It was a multi-dimensional, politically varied wave of protests, which catered to a wide layer of social actors who were together in expressing their anger and readiness to act. And it succeeded — in ways few would have expected.
The liberals now say we should form a united opposition to fight Kaczyński — of course they do. With such an unpopular program, “us versus them” is the only game they can win. But there can be no genuine progressive politics within such an alliance. The response to Kaczyński must be to strengthening political plurality, not reduce it; to draw more precise and meaningful political divisions rather than blurring them.
Maria Janion, an eminent literary and cultural critic, for many years argued that the Polish economic transformation has not been matched by an evolution of symbols, rituals, and cultural practices.
She stressed that the emotional movement of the masses needs to mature into an intellectual movement, or else it inevitably devolves into frustration and chaos. The Polish left has to analyze this situation carefully and draw lessons from both the new, unexpected co-operations and stark rifts that emerged in the process.
The country is divided on many levels, and yet, over the last two years, we have witnessed a genuine reawakening of the Polish people, who have shown they are prepared to fight for a better future. Our task is to make sure that this energy is not wasted, that they have the political — starting with their vote in the next elections.