The Fetishism of Economic Growth

Capitalism and Communism shared one important principle in common: an almost religious devotion to economic growth. If a Five Year Plan didn’t produce the expected “great leap forward,” Communist officials fudged the figures. If a capitalist economy dipped into recession, economists tried to put the best face on the resulting “creative destruction,” arguing that it would prepare the ground for even greater growth in the future. Both capitalists and Communists treated natural resources as mere inputs to create larger and larger outputs.

Communism has largely collapsed and the environmental movement has challenged the religion of growth at all costs, but the global economy continues to revolve around measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The international financial institutions are all committed to growth. Political leaders, if they can’t produce a rising arrow on the graphs, worry that voters will take their revenge at the polls. Consumers expect bigger and better (or smaller and faster) things to buy every season.

Ryszard Zoltaniecki is a sociologist who has also worked in the Polish foreign ministry, where he served as the ambassador to Greece. When I met him in 1990, we talked about a number of big-picture issues, like the confrontation between Byzantine and Western modes of thinking and the intellectual bankruptcy of “third ways.” It was not long into our August 2013 interview in an outdoor café in Warsaw before we began to address these larger questions, like the European financial crisis. The economic setback, he pointed out, marked the end of an era.

“The few decades of wellbeing, of economic boom, created a situation in which all needs could be satisfied, if not directly then through loans and credits,” Zoltaniecki said. “To continue this development — to build better schools, better hospitals, better health care, better infrastructure — you should have 5-7 percent GDP growth, at minimum. The rest you can get through loans. But what growth rate did we have during the recession? 1-2 percent? The country that has even 3 percent growth is happy. This demanding attitude, which we’ve gotten used to, is the source of the present crisis. Politicians think they should listen to and respond to these demands. They promise that tomorrow will be better. Here in Europe, for decades, every generation could be perfectly sure that the next generation would be better off than the previous one. But that’s over.”

This era of easy growth might be over – for the industrialized world at least – but the assumptions that have gone along with this era continue to maintain their hold. The global economy remains increasingly dependent on financial instruments that have become ever more removed from the production of actual goods and services.

“Nobody has learned anything from the present crisis, which is much deeper than what economists say,” Zoltaniecki continued. “Once again they return to the same virtual money, the same mistakes, the same false consciousness. The politicians provide new promises to the people. They say that it’s just a matter of one or two years and then again we’ll enter paradise. No.”

The world is “trapped in the fetishism of economic growth,” Zoltaniecki maintained, and we have to instead “learn to live with zero.” Such a commitment to zero growth will also require a transformation of the international system. “The only way is to start is to open a debate with the participation of all subjects — banks, NGOs, states — to create new structures,” Zoltaniecki concluded. “To save our civilization, perhaps we have to go through a peaceful revolution to change everything. But those who are the most influential and who maintain control are not willing to do this. They are satisfied. From Citibank’s perspective, everything is fine. It’s just a cycle. The breakdown was a coincidence.”

 

The Interview

 

Let’s start with what happened to you after we met in 1990.

 

Just a few months after our meeting, I joined the ministry of foreign affairs. I took a quite crucial position there. I was the head of the unit responsible for the promotion of Poland abroad. At that time, it was a key issue: presenting ourselves in our new version. Also I participated in the retraining of personnel. It was a relatively short period, less than two years, and then I was posted abroad as the ambassador to Greece and Cyprus. After six years, I returned to the country and regained my previous position. But the situation had changed.

 

Within the ministry?

 

Yes. I had a diplomatic rank. It was natural. Many of our colleagues who were contracted for ambassadorial posts were returning to their previous positions, not in the ministry, but in academy or somewhere else. But I was registered as a diplomat already.

The situation had changed, though. It became much more bureaucratic, much more micro-political. I couldn’t find myself in the new situation. So, I decided to quit. I was convinced by my minister that it was much wiser to take a sabbatical. For the next 5-6 years, I went back and forth between the ministry and other positions. Among others, I was chief executive of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which is the equivalent of the British Council, for four years. For five years I was head of the Culture Foundation, which is supposed to support state budgets in the large seats of culture. I was cofounder of the foundation at the beginning of the first democratic government.

Now I am an academic teacher. I never quit teaching. I joined the Collegium Civitas. I teach international relations and diplomacy. I’m the head of the Academy of Foreign Relations and Diplomacy at the Collegium. I’m also in business.

 

What kind of business?

 

The promotion of Polish high tech abroad. We have quite impressive achievements on the conceptual level. The major weakness of our system is that we don’t know how to promote or commercialize those results. Our kids are winning many international competitions in the high-tech field, and then nothing happens. With a group of friends, in cooperation with the patent office, I’ve been developing a structure of international promotion for Polish innovative thinking.

 

You said that you were very idealistic when you read our interview from 1990. What struck you as being idealistic?

 

Just before the break, no one among us could believe that we would change our position so quickly from soft Communism. In the Peace Research Council. which Prof. Aleksander Gieysztor created, we focused on ideas, not on the practical, pragmatic reality. We didn’t believe that there was any possibility to develop real socio-economic or political structures.

 

When you look back at that period and your own thinking at the time, how would you characterize the shifts that have taken place?

 

Amazing. There were many mistakes of course. But generally, in terms of civilizational progress, even progress in the collective consciousness, it’s unbelievable. It took only 10-15 years for us to enter the West, which was our dream. We thought it was an unrealistic dream, but it came true. Of course we complain; we are dissatisfied. But no one at that point could have dreamed that we would reach what we have reached by joining NATO and the EU.

 

But what about your own thinking from that time?

 

We were young. I couldn’t believe that there was any room or space in this country to develop my skills. So my mind was all the time abroad, outside the country, trying to create interconnections. Also, we believed that we were very special, that we had something to say, individually and collectively, that we would be innovative and creative for the whole Western hemisphere. That was a bombastic illusion.

 

What struck me at the time was your analysis of the division between the Byzantine and the West.

 

Byzantine civilization is best represented by Russia, and before that by the Soviet Union. Russia — under the tsars or the Soviets or now — always existed in two worlds, in Asia and Europe. The two tendencies were clashing inside the system, from the time of the first Westernization of Russia, from Peter the Great, who was the first to introduce European elements into Russia. Then, in the second half of the 19th century came the development of industry and the Western sense of ideologies. Then, of course, came the break with the West under the Bolsheviks, and the takeover of Asian tendencies. The old empire, after it collapsed, was recreated in a pathological form as a new empire.

The second wave of this process came at the beginning of the 1990s, in the late Gorbachev period, and then under Yeltsin. There was a research project during the Yeltsin period that polled a random sample of teenagers. They were asked what they would like to be in the future. The majority of girls said: “prostitute.” Well, for them that meant money, cosmetics, good clothes. The majority of boys said: “mafioso.” Now you see Mr. Putin rebuilding the empire slowly but with some success, trying to combine harmonically both tendencies, Europe and Russian. So, this dynamic is still there, and nothing has changed.

 

You also said that there was a clash here in Poland as well between the Western and the Byzantine.

 

Not any longer. The major problem in Poland is the collapse of social capital. Now, we have two political philosophies, and they each want their own state. They can’t cooperate in the same state. It’s part of our historical process. In the 19th century, when European and also American societies were maturing — creating themselves and finding their distinctive identities – Poland had no state. The state was in our imagination. The real state, since we were partitioned, was a state usurped.

For a short period between the two wars, we had an independent state. Then came World War II, and we were occupied again. After that, our state was usurped yet again, this time by the Communists. So, what was the result of all this philosophically? If we have two competing ideologies, when one wins and takes over government, it understands this process as the consequence of democratic governance. But the other ideology sees this as the usurpation of government. It doesn’t see a real state. That’s what you observe now. The supporters of Mr. Kaczynski don’t think we have a real Polish state right now. And when they ruled the country, the opposition thought the same thing.

 

You also identified a certain Jacobin tendency in Solidarity early on.

 

Well, yes, Jacobinism is still here.

 

Where would you locate Jacobinism today?

 

All those who are dissatisfied, who feel betrayed, whose hopes were not fulfilled. It’s also the result of the few decades of Communism. They think that they deserve to have secure jobs, and if they have such jobs, the rest should be provided by the state or some other institution. Someone should provide the goods to satisfy their needs.

 

What do you think will happen with this impulse for security, politically?

 

Look at what’s happening in Europe, even in the United States. People are frustrated. They demand more. That’s the question not of this country or of any other particular country. It’s a certain archetype of Western culture, which we joined. It’s based on the principle of total participation and total consumption. The few decades of wellbeing, of economic boom, created a situation in which all needs could be satisfied, if not directly then through loans and credits. To continue this development — to build better schools, better hospitals, better health care, better infrastructure — you should have 5-7 percent GDP growth, at minimum. The rest you can get through loans.

But what growth rate did we have during the recession? 1-2 percent? The country that has even 3 percent growth is happy. This demanding attitude, which we’ve gotten used to, is the source of the present crisis. Politicians think they should listen to and respond to these demands. They promise that tomorrow will be better.

Here in Europe, for decades, every generation could be perfectly sure that the next generation would be better off than the previous one. But that’s over.

 

That’s the case in the United States too. 

 

Right now, Poland is getting a large amount of money from the EU, which will last at least until 2020. We invest this money in infrastructure. But later on, when this money will be stopped, and it will be stopped, then the question will be how to maintain this infrastructure. Spain, Portugal: they invested a lot in infrastructure but not in the real economy.

 

The real economy being?

 

I’m very primitive in this definition. I learned that money is the attribute of the product. Now money has nothing to do with the product. It’s virtual. You make money without any industry.

 

Like financial services.

 

Some of these products I don’t even understand what they are. I don’t understand my minister of finance. It’s a very strange jargon. Perhaps it’s on purpose that they speak a language that people don’t understand. The only way to repair the situation is to return to the real economy.

 

Manufacturing? Agriculture?

 

Services as well. But in a new way. Not in the 19th century way. It’s a different kind of manufacturing.

 

Behind your analysis, I hear a deep critique of growth economics.

 

We have to learn how to live with zero. We are trapped in the fetishism of economic growth. If the United States has zero real growth, taking into account inflation and debt payments, what does that mean? In the collective perception, it’s a tragedy. But it just means that the level is identical with the previous year. That’s fantastic.

 

It’s one of the shared characteristics of capitalism and communism. They were both slavishly devoted to GDP growth.

 

We have to liberate ourselves from that way of thinking.

 

Is there any political formation in this country that supports that idea?

 

When I used to talk this way, there was silence. There would be no comments from journalists on radio or from people in public meetings. They couldn’t understand what I was talking about. But now more people are talking a similar way. There’s simply no other way out of this situation.

 

The parties that sometimes talk this way are environmental parties.

 

Yes, but they are the anti-globalists, and I’m not an anti-globalist. I’m not against the market economy. I’m a liberal. But to preserve our civilization, we must find a way out. Otherwise, this civilization will collapse. We Poles witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism, which were supposed to be eternal. We witnessed the election of a Polish Pope. Perhaps we will also witness the collapse of this civilization.

 

You expect this in your lifetime?

 

I am afraid so. Nobody has learned anything from the present crisis, which is much deeper than what economists say. Once again they return to the same virtual money, the same mistakes, the same false consciousness. The politicians provide new promises to the people. They say that it’s just a matter of one or two years and then again we’ll enter paradise. No.

 

People talk about Schumpeter and economic cycles, that we’re simply down in this cycle and we’ll eventually come back up.

 

This is misleading optimism. It used to be like that when the economy was based on something real. Now it’s based on financial operations.

 

Some people call it casino capitalism.

 

Yes, this is casino capitalism. So perhaps we have to look for a new development, a new relationship between international subjects. International conventions are based on the principle that the major subject of international relations is the state: the Vienna Convention, the UN, the EU. Still, the state is subject. Now we have big corporations. Compare the budget of Bulgaria and the budget of Exxon. These corporations act outside the system of international law. They destroyed the Gulf of Mexico. In the best case, the president of the United States may call the president of BP and ask politely for reparations. But there is no mechanism forcing the president of BP to do anything. Yes, there are civil court cases, but their lawyers can get them off.

 

Most people, when faced with the dire prospects of your predictions or the expectation that this virtual economy will continue uncontrolled, respond that the only force that can intervene is the state.

 

It’s only the state, still, that can do anything. But we are living in a banking civilization. Because of this gap between economic needs and economic possibilities, everything is coming under the control of banks. Perhaps there is something we should do to control the banks other than to impose bureaucratic rules. We have these strange entities called rating industries. If they say a country earns a “B” instead of “A,” everything collapses in that country — in Spain, for example. These are the real movers.

 

I asked you whether you saw any political forces on the horizon here in Poland, and you basically said no.

 

Well, there is one force. But it’s sick. You know what Mr. Orban has done in Hungary. From his perspective — and I know him personally and he’s not a bad guy — he decided that there was only one way to stop the decline, to stop the destruction. But this way is sick. Once you get things under your own control, you become greedier. And it’s a straight path to authoritarian rule. It’s part of our nature. Mr. Kaczynski and PiS would love to repeat the experience. He is somehow fascinated by Mr. Orban. But this is not the way.

The only way is to start is to open a debate with the participation of all subjects — banks, NGOs, states — to create new structures. Practically, we should build a new UN. I gave to my international students an exercise I called “united continents.” The assumption was that UN had collapsed, and they tried to create a new idea. To save our civilization, perhaps we have to go through a peaceful revolution to change everything. But those who are the most influential and who maintain control are not willing to do this. They are satisfied. From Citibank’s perspective, everything is fine. It’s just a cycle. The breakdown was a coincidence.

 

You were quick to say that you’re a liberal. I’m curious which liberal traditions that exist today that you find sympathetic?

 

This is a unique country. The development of the collective mind here for the last 25 years required the cohabitation of two contradictory elements, liberalism and conservatism. In the west, it’s two different worlds. Here it’s like Demo-Republicans. It’s a very strong tendency. We’re quite conservative in our symbolic perception of the surrounding world. At the same time, we are tolerant. We are quite often aggressive in our declarations but not in our behaviors. With such a big gap between these philosophical tendencies, we should have permanent riots.

 

But you don’t.

 

No.

 

The political structures are inadequate to address the questions you are raising. Democracy is short-term and subject to the influence of money.

 

You are touching on another crucial element of the problem. The present logic of the democratic process was formed in the second half of the 19th century. What is the major interest of the politician? To develop this project further?

 

No.

 

Right: it’s to get reelected. In the 19th century, the term of office was between four and six years. At that time, 4-5 years was a perfect enough time frame to create and implement a project. Also, the nature of the project — even building a railroad or establishing a communication system — was simple enough to be understood by a politician with average intelligence. Now, when we debate biotechnology or some medical issues, issues that touch minds and souls, look at the faces of the politicians in the United States and Poland — what can they hope to understand?

Our current Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whom I like, goes to Brussels, and the subject is climate. There are only two seats around the table for him and his secretary with the papers. Tusk is intelligent. But for God’s sake what does he know about climate change? And he makes decisions that are very difficult to reverse.

There was a very interesting professor at Hebrew University who I think has passed away. He advocated a new Platonic style of democracy that would allow only those who reached a certain level of competence to enter the decision-making sphere. Because life is so complicated.

 

Many people would say that back in the early 1990s, leaders around the world brought in the experts on economics, and what did they do? They supported the financialization of the economy.

 

Well, yes, that’s the question of experts. You in the States, or the Russians or the Chinese, are lucky because you can buy and control experts, make them work exclusively for yourselves. But the majority of states are mid-sized. You remember the flu that threatened Europe? In France, experts advised the government to buy vaccines. They spent billions of euro, and then they had to throw it away. The experts were acting as secret lobbyists for the pharmaceutical companies. So, how to trust experts?

 

How do we create an independent group of experts?

 

I’m not smart enough to give the answer. But we have to try to optimally combine the legitimacy that is a result of the democracy process with knowledge, competence, and honesty. Honesty is a crucial thing.

 

One model that impresses me, in retrospect, was the Round Table model that brought together people from different sectors.

 

In Hungary it was a triangle.

 

What do you think of that as a model?

 

You’re right, that’s one possible model. We turn the parliamentary logic of democracy into permanent debate. They call it deliberative democracy. In Denmark they have achieved quite a lot with this constant consultation, of discussion and decision-making also. The Round Table debate should be an element of decision-making not just providing counsel or advice.

 

I want to make sure to ask you some questions about Greece, where you were ambassador. There are several versions of what went wrong in Greece. One is that the Greeks took too many vacations and didn’t work hard enough. The other is that German bankers made a lot of money on the loans they made to Greece.

 

Both. Let’s start with financial aid to Greece. This was not money to be invested. It was just returned to the banks to repay loans. It was a kind of a trick. On the other hand, Greece was accepted as member of the European Community more than 30 years ago. It was right after the restoration of democracy. There was a perception that they were crazy and it was much better to have a crazy man on the inside rather than the outside, because inside is easier to control. It was a time of economic prosperity, of an economic boom. At that time in Brussels, they knew perfectly that the Greeks were stealing money, falsifying reports. We were writing this in our dispatches from Greece. But it’s a small country. It provides a little over 2 percent of the total product of the EU. In Brussels, they thought, “The Greeks are thieves, but we can manage.”

Then the crisis came. As long as Europe provided additional tranches of money, there was no way out. On the other hand, although cuts in spending were necessary, they were not the solution. They represented only a marginal amount of the money needed.

When you travel across Greece, you see hills. It’s a hilly country, and the sides of hills are cut into terraces. In the good old days, there were olives, oranges, and pistachios growing on those terraces. Now there’s nothing. So, perhaps it’s time for the Greeks to return to the hills to produce something. Or they can do trade. They know how to do this.

 

That’s a good political slogan: Return to the hills!

 

Probably all of us have to return to the hills.

 

You said that you wrote this information down in your memos.

 

Memos, ciphers: all the ambassadors from the EU countries did this.

 

What other learning experiences did you have in Greece?

 

It was a very strange and very important time. We applied to the Greek presidency for membership in the EU. I was the leader of the process. We were also preparing ourselves for NATO. My experience was very specific. I was very young and quite open. Quite quickly I was adopted by a few major Greek ship-owning clans. So I saw many sides of Greek life. I spent practically all my weekends on the sea on multimillion-dollar yachts. My friends in the ministry still cannot forgive me.

Greece is a beautiful country, probably the most beautiful country, but it is populated by the strangest people. There’s a joke about Greece. When God created all the countries, different angels were responsible for each country. When all the angels saw how beautiful Greece was, they complained to God. After short consideration, God said, “Wait a moment, and you will see how I will populate the country.”

 

What do you think the future of the EU is at this point?

 

The EU is an idea. For some dogmatic reasons, German state leaders and individual leaders of the commission equate the future of the EU with the future of the currency. The EU can survive easily without the euro, or with a double currency. That’s the best solution, to have a double currency.

 

So, you don’t think Poland should adopt the euro.

 

I’m divided. I just returned from Estonia and Latvia. Latvia still has a national currency. Estonia adopted the euro, and the prices went up 30 percent immediately after adoption. The same happened with Italy. Of course, it makes the jobs of the ministers of finance much easier, given the growing competence of Brussels.

 

It’s easier but they have less control. Well, it’s easier because they have less control.

 

Precisely! So, I’m not very strongly attached to the idea of the euro. There is one way to save the euro zone. Exclude Germany. But I think we have much more important challenges than the issue of currency.

 

The larger economic crisis, the democratic structures…?

 

If we’re talking about the future, and possible civilizational collapse, demography plays a very important role.

 

Is there a particular research project you’re working on right now?

 

Public diplomacy. The methodology and evaluation of results.

 

Here in Poland?

 

In comparative perspective but focused on Poland. I have the broadest experience with public diplomacy here. For the last 20 years I was doing public diplomacy.

 

Do you have any preliminary results?

 

Yes, but it’s a very long discussion. We are doing a lot of research in Germany and Poland, and the distance between the two has gotten much wider.

 

In terms of public opinion?

 

Yes, popular thought.

 

I visited the German border near Poland, and they told me how much trade was going on.

 

Yes, a lot is happening on the practical level. It’s cheaper on this side of the border.

But the problem with Polish public diplomacy is that we believe that with the proper tools, we can change global public opinion. Italy, for instance, has a lot of problems. As if Berlusconi were not enough, there’s trash in Naples, the mafia, public corruption. The most well-known Italian chamber orchestra is coming here to give concerts all over Poland. Do you think it will balance the question of Berlusconi and corruption?

 

Probably not. But maybe if they have a food festival and –

 

Yes, we know all that, and we love Italy for all that. But it doesn’t balance these other things. I remember when just before accession to EU, unexpectedly some voices from Holland rose against us. It was a question of the political game inside Holland. They were always a strong supporter, but then there was a change in power and they started to object. I was at the Adam Mickiewicz Institute at the time. I got a phone call from the presidential palace. The president asked me if I heard about the problem in Holland. I said yes. He said, “You’re responsible for the problem, you have to do something.” But they accused us of being irresponsible and not paying back our debts. They said that when we sign contracts, we very rarely keep to our side of the bargain. We have an inefficient system of justice. None of this has anything to do with Polish culture, which they appreciated but…

 

Back to German-Polish relations. The issue of the small German minority here —

 

It’s solved.

 

So, what’s the basis of the widening of public opinion?

 

The economic crisis. You can find people in the States who say that all Mexicans are dirty thieves. It’s a mechanism of depreciation.

 

And that’s going on in Polish-German relations.

 

Yes. They need to say these things to confirm their positive definition.

 

And do you notice the same process between Poland and other countries?

 

Czechs. They dislike and depreciate us because they feel better that way. They’re a small society, so we don’t object. Let them think what they think.

 

When we talked before, you said that the only political party you had much hope for, and it wasn’t a big hope because you didn’t think it would last long, was the Peasant Party of Mikołajczyk.

 

It was a certain hope. But at the time of Mikołajczyk, even though the PSL was rooted in the peasantry, the character of the party was much broader. When they regained their identity in free Poland, they unfortunately focused exclusively on the peasantry. They isolated themselves from the town.

 

The current peasant party…?

 

It’s the same. It’s closed off. It’s a kind of interest group. They are too small to get power by themselves but strong enough to be this decisive small element in a coalition. Their business is to get as many ministerial posts as possible.

 

People have told me that Poles vote against parties and politicians, not for them.

 

Yes, elections are plebiscites.

 

Will that motivate people to vote against Kaczynski?

 

They won’t vote for him. But they are so disappointed by the present government that participation in the election could be very low. And the constituency of Mr. Kaczynski is very disciplined. He could win an election, but I doubt very much if he will be able to form a government.

 

The last question: in the region as a whole after 1989, we saw the triumph of liberalism

 

Then the collapse of liberalism, then the return of liberalism.

 

So, where are we now for the region as a whole?

 

It depends. There have been ups and downs in Hungary, in Slovakia. Slovakia with its small, traditional culture, is probably doing the best. They introduced the euro, built up a good service and tourism sector. This also took place after the authoritarian breakdown with Meciar. In Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia I’m rather optimistic. These are small countries with high labor culture, with educated populations. After a short breakdown, they will find their way. Much worse are Romania and Bulgaria. Slovenia is a small country with a crisis now, but they will find a way out, like the Baltic countries, except Lithuania. When you drive through Lithuania, you feel like you’re in the Soviet Union. The infrastructure hasn’t been touched.

 

Lithuania is a bit bigger than Latvia or Estonia –

 

It’s much more politicized. They’re in a constant quarrel with us. There’s lots of bad blood between us. They are trying to find their identity. In Estonia and Latvia, it’s clear. They’re Nordic.

Here in Poland we don’t know who we are. In the development game, the definition of identity is crucial. It’s not about hard economic indicators but soft dispositions. Why are we not successful? We are almost 40 million people with a rich history. But we are not ambitious. We do not have a strategic goal. We want to survive peacefully. We’re focused on well-being. Our ambition is to build a house in the countryside.

 

There’s the famous distinction between Poland and Russia – “peace” here means both “peace” and “room,” while in Russia, it means both “peace” and “world.” Poland is more modest.

 

That’s a good linguistic example. Our wellbeing is our microcosmos, our heimat. In general, we don’t have an expansion instinct. We only want to have a car, an apartment, to have all basic needs covered.

 

This would be a good country then to follow through on your plan to have zero growth.

 

That’s exactly what our prime minister said. He will not introduce any big ideologies, any revolution. His ambition is to provide warm water in the tub.

 

The last three questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed since then in Poland, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?

 

7.

 

Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?

 

7.

 

Looking into the near future, how do you evaluate the prospects for Poland, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

5.

 

Warsaw, August 12, 2013

 

 

Interview (1990)

 

A sociologist by trade, Ryszard Zoltaniecki has studied political processes locally in Poland and symbolic forms in European culture more generally. On this latter topic, he is trying to uncover a general theory of European culture based on archetypes that have remained stable since the Middle Ages though their symbolic expression–from illuminated manuscripts to TV situation comedies–have changed.

He is also Secretary of the Peace Research Council, a body associated with the Peace Coalition, and a special advisor to the Minister of Culture on European Affairs. I asked him why the Peace Coalition, if it truly wanted to change its image, elected a Communist bureaucrat as its head. He replied that the ministry obviously decided that the Coalition was not terribly important and that this was a sufficiently innocuous position for a former peace bigwig. And what about Zoltaniecki’s own decision to become involved in the process? He had originally been persuaded to take the position by the previous president of the Polish Academy of Science (Gieysztor). He had hitherto regarded the Council as a special propaganda instrument of the foreign affairs branch of the Central Committee. But now, he sees potential. “It is much easier to destroy an institution than to recreate it. The question is whether we are able to reshape the character of the peace movement in this country.” If he judges that such has not happened by the Fall, he will resign his position. What will be indications? If groups such as Freedom and Peace (WiP) and the Helsinki Watch committee decide to join. So far, they have not. As for Walesa, his support was enlisted in an essentially devious way.

Zoltaniecki essentially sees the peace movement as an expression of intellectually-conceived peace issues. Though he spoke on the topic of peace research, I always got the sense that the futures of peace research and the peace movement were more or less identical in his mind. Here is his view of Polish peace research: “It should be a collection of intellectuals from various groups and we should concentrate on intellectual activities: reports, seminars, exchanges of students. We should make peace research an academic issue. Until now, there had been no atmosphere in Poland for peace research.”

Peace never had very high popularity in Poland, with all Western peace groups assumed to be part of the KGB. Only human rights groups were considered autonomous. What about all those groups that the head of the Peace Council showed me? “They were created to give people the illusion of civic participation.” Zoltaniecki has been at his post for 20 months now, and doesn’t really think that much has happened.

His work for the government is not terribly political. He focuses on establishing exchanges of students and professors between Poland and Europe. Since he knows some “Eurocrats” in Brussels and other key educational personnel scattered across the continent, he is able to set up these crucial contacts. TEMPUS is the name of the EEC program for educational contacts and 20 million ecus has been assigned to both Poland and Hungary for the remainder of 1990. So far, he is working on a triangular relationship between University College of Dublin, Padua (Italy) and Warsaw University. Western lecturers will also be coming from various countries to teach at Warsaw University. Most of the resources will be concentrated in Warsaw with some going as well to Krakow. Formal application was made by Poland to join the Council of Europe at the end of February and a decision will be made sometime this year. Hungary and Czechoslovakia will follow quite quickly. But, he noted a little sadly, very little has been done to accommodate Poland’s political and economic institutions to the EEC.

We then talked about his own politics. “I don’t like politics. I am too Burked.” By this he meant that he was too much an adherent of Edmund Burke, the English conservative. “I hate Jacobinism of all forms,” he continued. Though he joined Solidarity in 1981 after returning from the States, he now accuses the movement of “neo-Jacobinism.”

“Poland will develop into a post-Communist national democracy,” he said. “Power will be more moral but still monopolized. Like in the Mexican situation. Here too, you have a party identified with the country. Walesa’s handshake was enough to put people into Parliament.” Walesa, he believes, wants a two party system with only very minor parties: a center-left and a center-right. Zoltaniecki doesn’t see many other capable politicians emerging. Geremek, he notes, has changed since working with the Jesuits (Zoltaniecki is no big fan of the Church). He no longer talks, he delivers speeches. Michnik he sees as simply a demagogue whose favorite saying is “I will destroy you!” Power, he says, is changing people tremendously. As for the possibility of Walesa becoming president, “if that happens, I emigrate.” But the only political choice, he says, is to follow Walesa or create small tendencies. Onyszkiewicz, he notes, tried to run counter to Walesa and has since become relegated to less important tasks (he was at one time the leading Solidarity spokesman; now he is one of the ministers of defense).

His own political choice is the Polish Peasants Party, the one modeled after the post-war party of Mikolajczyk. Although admitting that it was a residual party and had to disappear sooner or later, he argued that it would be a “good soft check on reform. It can provide the ideological and moral background for a future politics.” With the EEC cutting back on agricultural subsidies, won’t a strong Peasants’ Party in Poland make Polish integration into Europe that much more difficult, I asked. On the contrary, he answered: with the rise in prices of Western European agricultural goods, Poland’s relatively cheaper produce will be the opportunity for its great leap into Europe. Poland’s international trade will prosper, not only to the West, but also to the East and the Soviet Union. “Surprisingly, the Soviet Union can appear as the most reliable and most healthy economic partner.” In the 19th century, he notes, Poland made a lot of money selling textiles to the Russians. Today, Polish clothes can still compete as well as its light industry. Furthermore, Poland has a system of roads and railroads that could maintain such a trade. He doesn’t want to exaggerate the importance of the Russian market: it can also function as the huge Chinese market functioned in the post-war era–a great big illusion.

I asked about his previous work in political sociology. He did a study on institutional codes in Polish locales. He identified two different spheres: the well-developed planned sphere and the local reality of dependency, clientelism. So, for instance, the government would develop sophisticated production schemes based on particular plans and then destroy those very plans by distributing the goods by way of a patronage system. A schizophrenic situation emerged in which behaviors and attitudes were divorced from one another. The government behaved in an anti-collective way out of keeping with its professed attitudes. The Polish population mirrored this behavior-attitude split. One example would be the articulation of pluralistic beliefs and the exhibition of authoritarian attitudes.

In his present work, he has worked to define so-called “Byzantine” structures as they differ from “Western” structures. In the West, for instance, the anti-government rebel is surrounded by a certain romance: Thomas a Becket, Camus. Under the Byzantine system, however, the tsar is head of both church and state and therefore to be anti-government is to be anti-moral as well. Bolshevism, he argues, has only changed the symbols: here too, criticism of the Communist party or government is a criticism of moral rectitude. Another characteristic of Byzantinism is the lack of any concept of personal ownership. Finally, under Byzantinism, the line of greatest importance runs from personal at the bottom through the collectivity to the institution. In the West, he argues, the line runs the opposite way.

Poland, Zoltaniecki argues, lies somewhere in the middle of these two conceptions. Therefore, certain Western democratic institutions have been established. Yet, like under Byzantinism, to be against Solidarity is to be against society; to be against Adam Michnik is to be against Michnik’s notion of civil society and, therefore, civil society itself. No one in Poland, he argues, really wants greater participation of the Polish people. What about the ESOP plans, I asked. He had nothing but scorn for what he called “third ways.” “This is a central intellectual conceit invented by intellectuals who didn’t like the cruelty of capitalism. Nobody likes capitalism who has any sense but a market economy is necessary. What is the role of the intellectual in a market economy? What can they do when all decisions are made at the bottom? They can only manipulate. The third way allows a role for such people. Without market principles, the third way simply means the re-establishment of a centrally economy. Someone like Bugaj simply doesn’t want to let loose of political control over the economy.”

The Western tradition, according to Zoltaniecki, further divides into Latin and Northwest reformed. Poland, he feels, is caught between three traditions–which by the way more or less correspond to the three powers that divided Poland for 123 years from 1795 to 1918 (Prussia, Russia, Austro-Hungary). Poland therefore suffers not just from schizophrenia but something much more complicated. “This may be very creative in poetry,” he notes, “but not in economics.”

 


1 Comment

  1. “Spain, Portugal: they invested a lot in infrastructure but not in the real economy.”

    I am not confused by Mr.Zoltaniecki’s off the cuff remark, since he corrects any misunderstanding about “real” economy as he continues the dialogue. It is telling, however, how the monetarist fiat financial sector has blindfolded much of the world into thinking they are the “real” economy. It is also telling how Mr.Zoltaniecki has no faith that investing into infrastructure will not create a hardline asset based economy that would be “resilient” (the latest term since sustainable). It is also interesting that Mr.Zoltaniecki sees zero growth as the antidote (if not the antithesis) of failed economic expansion and intensification, yet he misses the fact that concentration and consolidation would make democratic power relations a centralized economic monopoly under financial elites and another neo-liberalizing oligarchy must follow in turn.

    It is not surprising that Russian youth might see blackmarket persona as their role models for successful capitalism that might fulfill their wishes against the austerity they experience, but it is not so easy to see how educated adults are blinded by the more sophisticated versions of the same types…in silk and black tie markets of finance.

    I don’t mean, myself to be misunderstood. Mr.Zoltaniecki provides some very insightful expressions of the “realist” phenomena that is currently parading as liberation capital and balanced book economies. But simple description can become lethargic acceptance all to easily. It is disappointing not to hear an actual hard line strategy of independence and confidence from Polish critical thinkers, instead of a complete sigh of relief that the dream of entering the emerald cities of the West has finally come true (but somehow fails to fulfill the dream). There is so much vision buried in his understanding of what is happening, but the idea of an actual mission statement seems traumatized by its own “resilient” personal history.
    Poland is caught in the middle, all right, but it is not between byzanthium and the monetarized West. I would say it is between its own identity from the past and its uncertain future. Poland has always had a liberal idealism grounded by a conservative conformity, that is not really a contradiction to those that know it personally. However, As Mr. Zoltaniecki does suggest fairly clearly, the Polish are caught between partitions and conditioning factors. It seems this can be characterized as being either occupied or preoccupied with contending external ideologies…, so much so that they have forgot to be Poles!

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