The Smoleńsk air tragedy of April 2010 where 96 Polish government representatives, including President Lech Kaczyński, lost their lives on their way to a memorial service of the Katyń massacre, brought Poland to the attention of an international audience. International and Polish media characterised the scenes in Poland of grief and protest in the months following the crash as indicative of a nation divided between an enlightened secular neoliberalism and a traditionalist, religious nationalism. This was, of course, a simplification that served as a basis for more complex and developed arguments; however, in defining the de-politicised framework for the memorialisation of Smoleńsk and the governing of Poland, it also dictated the conclusions to be reached.
As in this picture (below), taken during the protest against the ‘defence’ of a memorial cross – a ‘defence’ mounted by right-wing and religious protesters, against the government’s plans to remove this cross – erected in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw in the summer of 2010, two sides were identified on the Polish political spectrum, and people slotted themselves into the categories formed: the righteous, religious and nationalist ‘defenders of the cross’ versus the secular and liberal counter-defenders. Their differences were clearly irreconcilable – hence the need for the significant presence of the state-as-facilitator. Visualisations like the one below, of a tangible divide between two competing visions of the modern nation-state – and, thus, of the continuing importance of, and need for, a neutral, rational and centrist government – are easily picked up and encouraged by the media (Polish and international alike) and by politicians’ slogans. They are, after all, a variation on an already well-known theme, which maps out a teleological (neo)liberal progression for all nation-states to follow.
The ‘defenders of the cross’ probably did not deserve any sympathy for their outrageous accusations against anyone who did not subscribe to their values, but, equally on the part of the (neoliberal) elites, there was no effort to understand, and no empathy for, what the defenders’ motivations were in acting the way they did. The connection was not made between the defenders’ frustrated defence of the cross and the short reliving of Polish nationalism delivered to them by the grand burial of the President and his wife at Wawel Castle in April 2010. By August 2010, when the most frequent ‘clashes’ of opinion were happening outside the Presidential Place, it was forgotten that the Wawel decision worked to reassure many parts of the Polish population that the Polish nation was very much alive. Yes, the Wawel decision presented PiS’s narrative of staunch (yet familiar) nationalism as legitimate, and yes, it subscribed to Lech Kaczyński’s right-wing insistence on conceptualising patriotism as a return to a well-known and idealised past. But it thus also set itself against an unpredictable and foreign modernity. The memorial cross outside the Presidential Palace served a similar role, as symbol of a Polish nation which had to be reclaimed from foreign entities only seeking to exploit it. Of course, in this case, the ‘foreigners’ were those not convinced by the defenders’ narrative, yet this narrative was, nonetheless, communicating something important: a lack of security with the new modernity.
Chantal Mouffe offers a reminder of the relation between neoliberal globalised changes and an increase in right-wing sentiments across Europe:
„it is necessary to acknowledge that, for several decades, important changes have taken place in European countries without real popular consultation and discussion of possible alternatives. It is therefore not surprising that a sense of frustration exists among all those who have not profited from those changes, or who feel that they are jeopardising their present conditions or future prospects” (Mouffe 2005: 70).
The problem of a lack of communication, then, seems to be widespread. According to William Connolly’s conceptualisation of the international system’s ‘ethos of sovereignty’, the de-politicised discourse of impasse between Right and Left in the modern nation-state is no small part of the workings of neoliberalism. This ‘ethos’ is the dynamic which informs political decisions aiming to privilege an elite portion of the population in the name of a greater good, in the tradition of the modern nation-state (Connolly 2007: 26). In doing so, it also privileges a specific type of (non)communication between this elite and those who are governed. This is the logic, which requires that a dead President be treated as sacred and memorialised accordingly. It is a logic, which also expects those who are governed to subscribe to (rather than participate in) the government’s discourse of ‘normality’, of grief for the deceased leaders (Godzic 2010). It is a logic, which is supported by the hegemonic structure of the neoliberal world order, but is not exclusive to a particular political agenda: there is no real disjuncture between a liberal and traditionalist Poland in this sense, since both are geared towards securing the Polish state’s position on the world stage, foremost through economic inclusion. In confrontations as in the picture above, the root of the problem – the de-politicised no-man’s-land of (global) politics and of the state – remains intact.
Mouffe points out that it is impossible to divorce the influences of global neoliberalising dynamics from the local politics of nationalism. The problem of an increasingly jingoistic nationalism and the lack of liberal understanding towards it are not limited to the Polish political scene. This is the reality in a world characterised by a ‘post-political consensus’, which assumes a divide between ‘good democrats’ and ‘others’, allowing ‘people to assert their virtuous nature through an act of rejection’ (Mouffe 2005: 68). There is a lack of understanding of the frustration felt by a significant portion of the population towards the neoliberal world order and its promises of fast-paced progressivism. This is not to defend what in many cases reveals itself as a racist and ruthless nationalism, but rather to understand how it can so easily persuade large portions of a population which only recently would have been ready to vote for a ‘progressive’ rather than a ‘nationalist’ agenda (Gazeta Wyborcza 2010), and how these populations are disempowered by the hegemonic discourse of the neoliberal ‘post-politics’. In a debate where one can only belong to either of two sides – each side’s arguments mercilessly simplified for the benefit of political sloganeering or news soundbites – there is no space for political participation, for democratic antagonism, for re-interpretation. Rather, politics is reinforced as a no-man’s-land, a space which continues to legitimise the status quo and which continues to deny any real progress.
William E. Connolly, ‘The Complexities of Sovereignty’ in Matthew Calarco and Steven DeCaroli (eds.), Giorgio Agamben: Sovereignty and Life (Stanford University Press, 2007), pp. 23-42.
Gazeta Wyborcza, ‘Wybory 2010. TNS OBOP: poparcie dla PO – 52 proc., dla PiS – 33 proc.’, 26 Apr 2010 [online], accessed: http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/Wiadomosci/1,80708,7815599,Wybory_2010__TNS_OBOP__poparcie_dla_PO___52_proc__.html, 06/08/10.
Vanessa Gera, ‘Battle over cross reveals culture divide in Poland’, 18 Aug 2010, Associated Press, accessed: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/08/18/1781013/battle-over-cross-reveals-culture.html, 20/08/10.
Wiesław Godzic, interviewed by Dominika Wantuch, Gazeta Wyborcza, 15 Apr 2010 [online], accessed: http://yogin.bloog.pl/id,5772028,title,Wieslaw-Godzic-Media-stworzyly-atmosfere-konca-swiata,index.html, 15/05/10.
Chantal Mouffe, ‘The “End of Politics” and the Challenge of Right-wing Populism’ in Francisco Panizza (ed.), Populism and the Mirror of Democracy(London: Verso, 2005), pp. 50-71.