Thursday, 20 August 2009

Radical Democracy 101

The previous week I spent at the seaside with Młodzi Socjaliści (Young Socialists). I had been invited to their summer camp to teach about social movements, ecology, gender, and other "New Left" topics. It fit well. The programme of the camp combined economic and cultural issues with lessons in the history of Socialist movement in Poland.

It was an important encounter, for me personally, especially because of the meetings with witnesses of Socialist tradition. It reminded me of my own experience in the late 1990s. It was sad times, with their overwhelming impression of "there is no alternative," and with the chronic shock therapy passing for "coming back to normalcy" (or even "to Europe"). In 1990s, I felt like Odysseus on the island of Lotus-Eaters: not remembering who I was, where did I come from, and unable to fix a direction.

And then, like Odysseus in a poet's song, I recognised myself in the history of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), with its long and noble tradition of struggle for national independence, democracy, and socialism. Established in 1892, it is the oldest political party in Poland. Until 1948 it was a major party on the Polish scene. Although now it is marginal, its heritage still matters. PPS has never been enmeshed in undemocratic regimes of any sort, either capitalist (before 1939) or -- at least nominally -- socialist ones (after 1948). Its history is a story of failed efforts to build democratic socialism in Poland: after 1918, after 1945, after 1989... But it is not just about failure. Above all, it is a reminder that our past could have been quite different. And our future still can be.

That is why I felt deep intimacy at the camp. Młodzi Socjaliści are a Polish youth movement affiliated with the European Left; they also closely cooperate with PPS. As in the sad 1990s, it still requires a substantial dose of non-conformism to describe oneself as Socialist in today's Poland. I wonder what is more difficult: to come out as gay or lesbian or as Socialist. But, as Hannah Arendt taught us, politics is basically about courage -- or it is rubbish. In the courage of young people proud to be Socialists, there is some irresistible attraction. No wonder their ranks are growing. I am smiling to the thought that this is real politics, after all.

Adam Ostolski

Friday, 7 August 2009

Soyez réalistes!

Demo for civil unions, July 14th, photo by Magda Mosiewicz
Demo for civil unions,
14th July 2009
(photo by Magda Mosiewicz)
Yesterday, I took part in a meeting of Polish LGBT activists organized to discuss the question of same-sex unions. Some activists initiated the discussion in order to establish, which legal form of recognition of gay and lesbian relationships would be preferable. Not that we have a generous offer from any parliamentary party at the moment. The political context is not helpful, to say the least, but even in unfriendly conditions it may be worthwile to take some effort and fix the direction for future struggles. And it is especially valuable that we discuss a common strategy. Ii is a new quality in Polish LGBT movement. The important decisions are less and less the prerogative of a few organizers. Approximately a year ago we started to form an anchored public sphere of our own.

Obviously enough, the question of legal recognition is controversial in the eyes of general public. But it is also potentially divisive within LGBT community itself. For some, gay marriage would be a fulfillment of our emancipation, the symbol of equal dignity and recognition. For others, marriage as such is a survival of patriarchy with no real value, and gay marriage would be a depressive sign of cooptation of once radical movement into the System. For some, the French PaCS is a wonderful, flexible, and open institution -- not limited to gay or straight couples. For others, it is an unacceptable solution, since it is not a vehicle of public recognition, and is even open for non-sexual and non-intimate, purely contractual relationships. For some, separate civil partnerships for lesbian and gay couples is a second-best to marriage, or even a proud badge of difference. For others, it would be a form of "sexual apartheid," effectively creating second class citizens. So, whatever the result of our discussions, some will be happy with it, and some will be sad, disappointed, even hurt.

Unfortunately, there are no progressive forces in power that could create an inclusive system of institutions suitable for people with different dreams, needs and self-conceptions. The question is which solution would open the process of further social change in that direction. Perhaps this is the one that should be given priority. But who really knows which one it is?

What struck me at the meeting was readiness of many activists to subordinate to the notion of "being realistic." Being realistic means not demanding too much, but focusing on small steps that hopefully might be accepted by a majority. In particular, it means not speaking about adoption or marriage. And the acceptance of the Constitution with its apparent ban on gay marriage as the unsurpassable horizon of LGBT demands.

For many people the idea of demanding a change to the Constitution seems unthinkable. I can understand that. In Poland, projects of constitutional change are the domain of the right and especially of the extreme right. They want to change the Constitution in order better to protect foetuses, to end the system of proportional representation, to trim social entitlements to free health care and education, and so on and so forth. In recent years, progressive forces have been mainly focused on protecting the Constitution. Whereas the Right does not lack courage to revolt and demand a radical change, the Left is focused on the conservative task of defending the status quo. For many left-to-the-centre people, the attitude towards the Constitution constitutes a dividing line between decent and undecent politics.

But what if one should be somewhat less "decent" in order to gain anything?

The Constitution of 1997 says in Article 18 that "Marriage as a union of a man and a woman, as well as the family, motherhood and parenthood, shall be placed under the protection and care of the Republic of Poland." It is generaly undestood -- and was meant to -- "protect" marriage as a straight-only institution. But as some lawyers have pointed, it may be understood as protecting straight marriage not only against gay marriage, but also against other forms of legal recognition of straight couples. So even a law establishing civil unions as open for both gay and straight couples deems at the moment too radical. The Constitutional Tribunal may strike it down. That is why civil partnerships as an LGBT-only institution seem to be the most realistic from the legal point of view... of course, unless it is too similar to marriage.

It is a catch-22 situation, isn't it? Perhaps we should finally stop thinking about what is and what is not constitutional, and focus on what is actually desirable. We have a chance to learn to be truly realistic, and demand the impossible.

Adam Ostolski

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Between East and West

Polish Shades of GreeenPolish Shades of Green is a collection of articles edited by Przemysław Sadura. It is an attempt to situate the condition of Green politics in Poland in different contexts: historical, sociological, and political ones. It sheds some light on the potentials and barriers for greening the Polish political scene.

The book was originally written in Polish, but now there is also an English translation available on the website of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. I am not going to summarize it here, since the texts speak best for themselves. But I think it worthwile to write a few words about what it means for me that this book is now being published in English. It is, from my point of view, first and foremost an exercise in cultural translation. Especially the legacy of social movements is different on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and I think it gives way to many misunderstandings.

I wrote for the book a text entitled "Between East and West." My purpose was to understand, how the meaning of 1968 was different on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Although the Eastern and Western protest movements of the 1960s had a lot in common, what emerged from them was rather different. In the 1970s, the communication between "new social movements" in the West and the "democratic opposition" in the East might have been quite intensive, but their ideologies and sensibilities were at the same time more and more distinct.

The true counterparts of Western grassroot movements emerged in Poland only in the mid 1980s. In her text, Ewa Charkiewicz writes about her participation in the environmental movement "Wolę Być" (I Prefer to Be). Her focus is on how the Wolę Być (and other social movements) experienced the fateful year 1989. In her narrative, personal memories combine with sharp analysis. Environmental, pacifist, feminist, and LGBT movements had already existed before 1989, and activists of those movements experienced the fall of ancien régime in their own way, different from apparatchiks, to be sure, but also different from leaders of Solidarność. Since the political scene since 1989 has been divided between Solidarność on the one hand, and the successors of Polish United Workers' Party on the other, a space for Green politics simply did not emerge. Step by step, protest movements became parts of the "civil society." They have become "professional," turned into "non-governmental organizations," and learned how to apply for grants.

The present condition of social movements turned into NGOs is analysed by Agnieszka Graff. Being professional is not only a stage of maturity, but also a political condition with serious implications for grassroot democracy, independence from state (or market) power, and ability to articulate social anger. In all these respects there is a setback. And that explains why the basis for Green politics is so weak.

I focused on the texts by Ewa Charkiewicz, Agnieszka Graff and myself, since I believe there can be no social or political change without thriving grassroot movements. I hope the publication of this book in English will help to understand the differences in the situation of Green movements in both parts of Europe.

Adam Ostolski

Monday, 3 August 2009

Human Rights and Beaux Arts

Land of Human RightsFriends from the Austrian city of Graz have published a book entitled Land of Human Rights: Artistic and Activist Strategies of Making Human Rights Visible (edited by Laila Huber, Judith Laister, Anton Lederer, Margarethe Makovec and Oliver Ressler). It is an international collection of essays dealing with one of the most salient problems of today's world: how to make human rights visible. There are chapters devoted to issues of migration, labour, exploitation, precarity, and so on. The editors of the book state their purpose on the cover: In a world of images, visibility has become a political necessity. Whoever wants to achieve changes in society, must not only make him or herself heard but also seen.

Obviously enough, we live in the midst of a "visual turn" in our culture, social communication, and theory. It goes far beyond the notion of the "society of the spectacle." Images are neither friends nor enemies by themselves. It is rather the visual culture that constitutes another field of struggle, wherein we encounter images as our possible, or impossible, allies. We not only find ourselves enslaved in, manipulated by, or alienated into images, but also empowered by them. Wherever there is alienation, there can also be intimacy. And even visionary politics is ultimately about vision, and its visibility.

No wonder it is so urgent to think about human rights and their visibility in this new context. We need art and artistic practices as a vehicle of social change we are striving for. And I would contend that in the realm of human rights artistic practice is not just a vehicle -- it is a site of strategic intervention. We need to make human rights visible not because we do not hear about them enough. Quite the opposite, we are all too often overflooded with corrupted "human rights" discourse.

How can images be a remedy for corrupted speech? We saw it a few years ago on the occasion of Abu Ghraib. The war in Iraq was thouroughly decorated in "human rights" concerns. In Poland, many liberal intellectuals such as Adam Michnik considered the invasion as a "war to end torture in Iraq." And there was no word, no speech capable of contradicting this conviction. Only after a dozen of months, when the photographs of Abu Ghraib saw the light, did the speech of warmongers become slightly less self-assured.

We need more visual interventions of this sort. We urgently need to scatter the smokescreen of "human rights" discourse clouding the European Union's border and migration policies, especially the activities of the Frontex agency. We need to countervail the newspeak of those "free to choose" with images of actually existing neoliberalism. So we need activist and artistic strategies, and we have to further our strategic reflection. The reader Land of Human Rights is an impressive contribution to this task.

Adam Ostolski

PS. There is also a modest contribution by Joanna Erbel and myself: "The Artist-Citizen: New Directions in Political Art in Poland." We write about transformations in artistic practices accompanying the political and economic transition in Poland. We record a recent shift from a liberal and individualistic understanding of human rights to a broader vision of rights implicit in social and artistic struggles. Enjoy!
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