Public and Private in Poland

02/18/2015 11:52 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Poles are happier than they've been in years. More than 80 percent report that they are "very happy" or "quite happy," and that number has risen steadily since 2000. But happiness in Poland seems to derive largely from private life. There's not a lot of volunteering, and even the rates of Church attendance have been going down. Although Poles still value democracy as a concept, they have very little trust in their politicians. They also have very little trust in each other. Only 12 percent believe that "most people are trustworthy," which puts Poland near the bottom of the European rankings. These social attitudes also reflect an overall lack of tolerance toward minorities. For instance, only 9 percent of Poles think that homosexuals "ought to be able to arrange their lives in accordance with their own convictions."

These figures come from the most recent Social Diagnosis, a comprehensive analysis of Polish attitudes that psychologist Janusz Czapinski has been conducting since 2000. It's perhaps not surprising that even 25 years after the end of Communism, Poles are in retreat from the public sphere. But this was also the country where trade unionists and intellectuals in the 1980s constantly spoke of the values of civil society. For a time, Solidarity with its 10 million members was a symbol of this civil society. Increasingly, after 1989, the market replaced Solidarity as this symbol.

"At the beginning of the 1990s I was involved in the topic of civil society, which was an East-Central Europe sort of topic," philosopher and diplomat Piotr Ogrodzinski told me when I met up with him after 23 years in Warsaw in August 2013. "The main thrust of my argument was that there is a strong logical relationship between market economy and democracy. I never interpreted civil society simply as a set of NGOs. I saw it as a certain structure of society in which the state is externalized - this is the Hegelian sense of civil society -- so that there is a space for freedom of action. The market is logically a type of such activity. There are certain rules but within the rules there is room for initiative. But that was probably the mainstream thinking of quite a few people at that time, that if you want to have democracy you need to have a market economy. It had a catastrophic result for those who were largely the real authors of the transition, since the power of Solidarnosc was connected to the great industrial plants, which very often proved to be economically inefficient."

But Ogrodzinski has been rethinking the concept of civil society. "If I have time to write a book properly, I would start by criticizing the concept of civil society and try to find another way of expressing certain issues other than the purely economic one," he told me.

One of those issues would be the exercise of freedom and the expression of tolerance. "In a sense I'm proud that Poland, which did quite poorly at the Olympic games in London, did very well as far as handicapped people are concerned," he continued. "The Polish people were interested in the Paralympics. People with handicaps have rights and are using their rights. So, the space for freedom has increased. The same thing is happening in this society's attitude toward women's rights and toward animal rights. A lot still must be done. But in comparison to 23 years ago, there is a much stronger understanding of the need for tolerance. That doesn't mean that everyone is tolerant, but it is a step forward."

Despite progress along this dimension, the overall lack of trust in political elites has also prevented the formulation of new directions for Poland. "Generally speaking, we have a deep crisis of political elites at this point, which is incapable of producing a new concept for changing reality and to organize the political scene," Ogrodzinski concluded. "This is something I'm very worried about. Reading Manuel Castells this morning, I was a little surprised that this crisis of the political elite is not just happening in Poland. It is happening in many other places. It is a sign of the present dynamic that the changes are so dramatic that it's difficult to create a synthetic direction of where you want to go. There are too many options going in different directions."

We talked about how he first got involved in the Polish opposition in the 1970s, his experience working at the Polish embassy in Washington, and why Poland needs a signature product in the same way that Finland has Nokia.

The Interview

When we talked in 1990, we discussed the importance of the notion of civil society changing from one of simply being oppositional to the government to a space in which a number of initiatives take place. Have you changed your thinking about that issue over the years since you published the book?

The overemphasis of the concept of civil society is an ideological way of thinking. You can't explain everything with civil society. In the last book by Francis Fukuyama - the first volume of The Origins of Political Order, his very big analysis of political power - he doesn't use the concept of civil society but simply the concept of control. On one side there is centralized power and on the other there are people at large, with a balance between these forces. You need centralized power in order to have the state. But at the same time you need space for the people at large, so that they have a capacity to control the state. There is struggle between these two dimensions. In Hegelian terms, the substance of society is freedom. The more freedom there is, the more you need to have space for people to act -- but in a way that is not destructive to others.

In a sense I'm proud that Poland, which did quite poorly at the Olympic games in London, did very well as far as handicapped people are concerned. The Polish people were interested in the Paralympics. People with handicaps have rights and are using their rights. So, the space for freedom has increased. The same thing is happening in this society's attitude toward women's rights and toward animal rights. A lot still must be done. But in comparison to 23 years ago, there is a much stronger understanding of the need for tolerance. That doesn't mean that everyone is tolerant, but it is a step forward.

If I have time to write a book properly, I would start by criticizing the concept of civil society and try to find another way of expressing certain issues other than the purely economic one.

I thought you were going to mention Fukuyama's other book, Trust, and the recognition that some other element had to be present for basic market relations to be successful and for basic political structures to be representative. He identified trust as this element.

I was rereading this book a year ago, and I was surprised at the extent to which he missed the evolutionary process behind this concept. But still the issue is important in the sense that it is easier to change institutions than people's systems of values. Here the continuity between generations is bigger than expected despite the fact that young people have had different experiences. Largely, this is because thinking is very much a social process, in which we use a common language to answer questions asked by many at the same time. We don't think only in our own heads, but we think in dialogue with others.

With respect to civil society, you mentioned the necessary link between markets and democracy. In 1990-91, that was the consensus opinion. Today, it may still be the consensus among some. But there is a lot of disappointment with political elites and political structures, and disappointment with inequality in society. Has that led you or others to reexamine this link?

First of all, we were looking at an authoritarian state that tried to control every aspect of social life and thinking of the market as the externalization of the state that would create a certain space for social activity by the people. The market was a way of creating a power structure that could oppose the state, with the important element that the state should be under the rule of law. There should be a legal structure that defines the rules of the game.

As far as society is concerned, most of the people in Poland are quite satisfied. And in this sense, they accept reality as it is. You know Polish, so you should try to read the focused studies on Polish attitudes conducted by Janusz Czapinski, which he has done every year. It's an in-depth study of every possible element of social life. In spite of the fact that most Poles are deeply disillusioned with social life, they are very happy with private life, family life. In terms of the dimension of happiness, Czapinski believes that it's the highest ever, starting from when this type of study was first conducted. In other words, a lot of Poles, 80 percent, are quite satisfied with private life, which is remarkable. But they are very unhappy about politics.

There are quite a lot of people who did not manage to adapt to the transition. They contest reality in a very symbolic way with an uncritical dream of returning to what was before the changes. This means having social security without answering questions about who will pay for this social security. This phenomenon is the basis for the Law and Justice Party (PiS) to exist. They've made a tremendous attempt to create an opposition party program. But it's really quite shocking how strongly anachronistic this program is. What's really surprising is that they could destroy Platforma [Civic Platform] simply by pointing out what Platforma has promised to do and didn't manage to do - like a normal opposition party should do. But PiS is incapable of doing this. Instead they operate in the world of symbols.

Generally speaking, we have a deep crisis of political elites at this point, which is incapable of producing a new concept for changing reality and to organize the political scene. This is something I'm very worried about. Reading Manuel Castells this morning, I was a little surprised that this crisis of the political elite is not just happening in Poland. It is happening in many other places. It is a sign of the present dynamic that the changes are so dramatic that it's difficult to create a synthetic direction of where you want to go. There are too many options going in different directions.

There are either too many options or no options at all.

Too many options means that you have no options, because you can't do everything.

As you said, this crisis of the political elite - and the Kaczynski response to it at a symbolic level - is not just in Poland. Hungary is a primary example. But you can see it in other places in this region and not just in this part of the world.

To read the rest of this interview, click here.