I am on the road from Gdansk. It’s been an intense few days. Last Tuesday, I joined the Occupy Wall Street demonstration for a bit. By Wednesday, I was in the Gdansk shipyards, where Solidarity confronted the Party State in 1980, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. I was interviewed for the Solidarity Video Archive, giving my account of the work I did with Solidarity and my understanding of the great labor movement. Immediately after which, I was taken to Gdansk University, where I gave my talk, this year’s Solidarity Lecture, “Reinventing Democratic Culture.” It opened the All About Freedom Festival. Over the weekend, I visited my family in Paris, and now I am flying over the Atlantic on my delayed flight to Newark, hoping I will get back to New York in time to teach my 4:00 class, The Politics of Everyday Life. It has been a packed week.
Unpacking my thoughts is a challenge. A new social movement is developing in the U.S., with potentially great impact. In Poland, a new generation is confronting the Solidarity legacy, trying to appreciate the accomplishments, while also needing to address new problems. Yesterday’s elections in France and especially in Poland were important. Yet, just as important for what was not on the ballot as for what was. Everywhere, there seems to be a political – society agitation and disconnect, with the politics of small things potentially contributing to a necessary reinvention of democratic culture.
I have many thoughts and will need more time to put them into a clear perspective. Here, just a start. I have a sense that things are connected: not falling apart, rather, coming together.
In the U.S., the central ideal of equality has been compromised in the last thirty years. From being a country with more equal distribution of income, property, education and respect, than in other places, which Tocqueville took to be definitive of the American democratic condition long ago, it has become a country of gross and increasing inequalities. With dramatic flair, the Occupy Wall Street movement is making the issue visible, resetting the terms of public debate, from the conservative issue of taxes and debt to the more progressive problems of unemployment and gross inequality. There have been, of course, many individuals and groups who have been trying to bring these issues forward, from the respected Nobel Prize winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, to labor unions – transit workers, public employees, the AFL-CIO. It is intriguing that a relatively small but dramatically inventive social movement has focused the issue. Its political potential points to the importance of imaginative gestures in getting media attention and changing public debate, very similar in this regard to the Tea Party.
In Poland, Solidarity is gone and forgotten, but also constantly present. The two major parties emerged from Solidarity. The leaders have in common experience in the opposition to the Communist regime. The major parties are to the right of center, one based on patriotism, identification with Catholicism and nation and skepticism about Europe, PiS, Law and Justice. The other party is the pro-Europe, pro-business and pro-market PO, Civic Platform. The election presented a clear 19th century choice, between Conservatives and Liberals. Only minor parties presented 20th century social democratic alternatives.
My hosts, and the professors, students and the members of the general public in my audience repeatedly expressed dismay about their choices. It’s not that they felt that there were no differences between the parties. It’s that the differences didn’t seem to address the problems of our times.
Following my talk, during the question and answer period, a young woman expressed the problematic situation. She saw that there was a serious debate between the parties, but she couldn’t understand how the debate included her. She may have been put off by the ultra nationalism of one party and the market fundamentalism of the other, but neither party addressed her and her peers concerns. She didn’t know what to do.
I, of course, told her that I wouldn’t advise her on voting (which she actually seemed to be asking for), other than to make the general statement that I am a strong believer of choosing the bad over the worse, with the proviso that I wouldn’t choose between two competing faces of totalitarianism (two Nazi Parties, I think I said). But then I returned to the theme of my talk, linking the politics of small things to the challenge of reinventing political culture. The Solidarity movement revealed the power of the politics of small things.
I highlighted my basic theoretical position as it emerged from my observations of Solidarity.
When people meet and speak in each other’s presence, and develop a capacity to act together on the basis of shared commitments, principles or ideals, they develop political power. This power is constituted in social interaction. It is realized in the concerted action. It has its basis in the definition of the situation, the power of people to define their social reality. In the power of definition, in the politics of small things, there is the power of constituting alternatives to the existing order of things. When this power involves the meeting of equals, respectful of factual truth and open to alternative interpretations of the problems they face, it is democratic. As Arendt has theorized, such meeting, talk and action constitute political power as the opposite of coercion. As Goffman investigated, this power is constituted in the expressive life of the involved people. Power by acting together, expressively created, is a power that has been highly consequential.
My talk was about how I saw this in the 1980s, specifically when I was last in Gdansk to observe the trial of three Solidarity leaders, Bogdan Lis, Wladyslaw Frasyniuk and Adam Michnik. I used my reflections on that experience to show how such power is playing a key role in the politics in the U.S. and the Middle East today, drawing upon analysis that is systematically developed in Reinventing Political Culture.
The irony was that this applies to Poland now as well, as the population and the political leadership seem to have lost sight of what was accomplished in the Solidarity Movement. I tried to answer the Polish student’s question, and quite a few others developing this point. Actually existing democracies, such as Poland and the United States, need recurrent social movements to keep them alive. As the conflicts in Polish politics is being played out by people who were involved in the struggles of those times, the principles of those struggles provide untapped resources for those who are critical, or feel disaffected from the present political scene.
During my weekend in Paris, I thought of this as well, as I talked about the primary elections in the Socialist Party and the upcoming general elections. Politics seems inadequate, as the problems the democracies of Europe face seem quite profound. The popular movements and disruptions in Spain, Greece and England were not particularly creative, as Solidarity was, but they are a clear expression of a fundamental problem, not only economic but also political.
And in this light, from a distance, I read with appreciation Ermira Danaj’s contribution to Deliberately Considered. Here, in a most dramatic way, we see concerted action making democracy possible in a pretty extreme circumstance.
In Gdansk, I also took part in a public discussion of a brilliant documentary film, Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky. It is an excellent work. The film portrays the kind of neo-Soviet state with a democratic opposition that Russian has become. It also presents a great study of an amazing character, the richest man in Russia, turned into a prisoner, turned into a dissident, locked in battle with an equally impressive character, Vladimir Putin. The power of small gestures was remarkably revealed in the film. This power of gestures in the new media age is quite important.
Final note: the power of mediated gesture is what I saw on the first day of this intense week, in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is in the creative gesture that the alternative to the order of things and mindless disorder is to be found. More about this in my next post. I will try to work on it after I teach in a few hours and after a good night’s sleep.