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We are in between democracy and authoritarianism

Serious concerns are justified, but the cry "this is authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship!" should be used only in the most dangerous moments. Otherwise it stops working, just as it happened in Poland

Wersja polska

Stefan Sękowski: What are you the most afraid of in politics?

Karolina Wigura: Old destructive habits of polarization, demonization of the political opponent, treating compromise as a weakness. These things constantly lead us, Poles, astray. I am not the only one who sees that. You write about it in your book “Żadna zmiana” (No Change), Jarosław Kuisz describes it in his “Koniec pokoleń podległości” (The End of the Generations of Subordination). The recently published “The End of the Liberal Mind”, co‑authored by you, is also partially about it.

The state of the political model, not only in Poland but also in many other Western countries, very much resembles a midlife crisis

What interests me is how emotions can help us to understand political polarization, what is illiberal populism and where does the support for it come from. I have the impression that this topic is largely ignored. Recently, in a TV program, I said something that seems obvious to me, namely that the Law and Justice party (PiS) is not only about social transfers and the destruction of the judiciary but, above all, about identity. And if the liberals want to win against PiS, they must offer something that could be a coherent and inspiring alternative. People started to talk about this idea as if it were some kind of discovery, while some media organisations and think tanks, such as Kultura Liberalna and Nowa Konfederacja, have been saying this for years. This is very distressing.

If we are the only ones who see that, then maybe this feeling is not universal but rather made-up?

The state of the political model, not only in Poland but also in many other Western countries, very much resembles a midlife crisis [laugh]. The existing “software” is not enough but we lack a new one that would allow us to go further. That is why people react to what is happening in a very automatic way instead of thinking about the need for reform. When I observe various types of liberals or left-wing supporters, I have the impression that they are trapped in their automatic reactions to Jarosław Kaczyński. The paradox is that Kaczyński can only act effectively as long as this “automatism” exists.

Which means…?

This radical polarization and the feeling that PiS is unstoppable can prevail because the “other side” is so automatic in terms of reactions, confused and therefore very radical. We, that is the “other side”, behave like puppets in a puppet play directed by Law and Justice. Meanwhile, Kaczyński and his fellows enjoy the fruits of this weakness.

“The other side” is afraid but does not know how to react in the right way?

Indeed, I think that we liberals are very eager to see a lot of irrational emotions on the conservative side in general, and in particular on the side of PiS (although I am not convinced that it is a conservative party – rather reactionary or revolutionary). At the same time, liberals do not see irrational emotions on their side.

Such as…?

There is a lot of disdain and disregard for political opponents. A friend of mine recently said about himself and other liberals that they would preferably send their opponents to the moon. He was not happy about it but I appreciate that he was able to describe it. Many people feel this way but pretend to think differently, while saying so may be an attempt to remedy the situation.

There is a fundamental need for respect. If, for example, we do not start with the question of how to attract people who are more conservative than us, preferably Catholics, to the issue of abortion, then we will never get anywhere. We will still be a radical margin of those who think that abortion is okay, and if someone thinks otherwise, he or she is apparently from the sticks.

When I observe various types of liberals or left-wing supporters, I have the impression that they are trapped in their automatic reactions to Jarosław Kaczyński

How could the liberals convince the Catholics?

In his great book “Life’s Dominion”, dedicated to the debate about abortion and other disputes about the limits of human life, Ronald Dworkin rightly notes that most people, whether Christians or atheists, accept some arbitrary assumptions about abortion. For instance, a lot of more liberal people believe that abortion should be available “on request”, but only until a certain moment of pregnancy. Catholics think that there should be no abortion at all, however they also allow some exceptions if the pregnancy is threatening the mother’s life.

Thus, it is worth realizing that all our beliefs have an arbitrary element. Having realized this, one may consider the issue of abortion on the level of human condition, not ideological polarization. I assume, and I hope I am not too optimistic, that the following statement enables us to move toward a consensus in this matter: “Human life is of great value; there are, however, moments when we have to decide to terminate it, but it would be the best if there were as few abortions as possible”. Starting from this assumption, we can go further and look for particular answers to the question of what to do to make it happen.

In your book “Wynalazek nowoczesnego serca” (Invention of the Modern Heart) you paraphrase Hobbes: “Fear of death and suffering is a fundamental element necessary to get out of the state of nature, but when people live in peace and prosperity, its power fades away in the face of a constant search for novelty, which is deeply rooted in the human nature”. Is this about us?

Hobbes is my favourite philosopher. Certainly, a few things that he wrote are very much about us. The first one, which appears not only in his philosophy but also in the thoughts of many other classical philosophers, is the idea of a dominant emotion in each society. On the basis of this emotion, one can construct all other things and keep the state stable. In Hobbes’ interpretation it was fear. This was due as much to his philosophical predecessors whose works he had read as to his personal experience of the English Revolution. We live in different times and in a different society. That is why the dominant emotion is also different – I will gladly tell you more about it later.

The second thing about Hobbes, which says a lot about us, is his concept of human nature. It is often said that Hobbes considered man to be a bad creature. This is not a correct interpretation. One can rather say after Hobbes that people are like children. They are not very bad but certainly have very strong passions and a very short memory. I often think about this short memory in the context of us – Poles. In 1989, probably at least some people knew why they were leaving communism and where they wanted to go, but on the way, we forgot about it. It was then that our worst political habits came to light, resulting in such ideas as sending the other part of the nation to the moon.

We, that is the “other side”, behave like puppets in a puppet play directed by Law and Justice. Meanwhile, Kaczyński and his fellows enjoy the fruits of this weakness

Didn’t this start right after the fall of communism?

Already in the 1950s or 1960s, Juliusz Mieroszewski wrote that Poles are strongly divided into two groups. I suppose that various bad habits have emerged quite early. Jaroslaw Kuisz writes in “Koniec pokoleń podległości” that they originate, to a large extent, from our history after 1795, when almost 200 years of a cyclical collapse of the Polish state and foreign occupation began.

Hobbes wrote in his last book “Behemoth” that political order is stable as long as people stick to the dominant emotion that keeps everything in order. With time, they start to get bored and their emotions split, diversify and merge again, the process that Hobbes compares to the merging of burning torches. That is when the state or political system can collapse and when the revolution comes. 2015 was such a year in Poland. It was obviously more subdued than the English Revolution, because in general, as a European culture, we are becoming increasingly peaceful. However, the mechanism is similar.

Doesn’t that contradict the statement that the fear of revolution is to protect us from the radical steps that undermine the state?

Hobbes believed that there are different kinds of fear and that some of them are good for the stability of the state and others are not. He considered the fear of sudden death to be the result of the experience of revolution and thought that it could work well with reason and counteract the revolution, while superstitious fear, for example, was considered by him as detrimental to the state and order.

And what are Poles afraid of today? I do not think they are afraid of the revolution. They are afraid, and this is the result of their historical experience, of a foreign occupation. In 1989 we escaped from it, as well as from the poverty and humiliation that comes with it. Here, too, it is worth mentioning Hobbes: he believed that the emotion which makes us move away from the past must be connected with hope. Our hope was that we would live like in the West; that we would be the second France or Germany, and this of course could not happen. Not so fast. This hope evaporated over time.

Was it replaced by a new hope?

After 2015 it was replaced by something paradoxically opposite. PiS was building a concept of “Polishness” as if it were in opposition to the hope of catching up with the West and love of it à rebours.

Do you mean reluctance?

It is based on the assumption that since we have loved the West so much right up to this point, now it’s time to hate it. In fact, in this way of thinking there is no independence or sovereignty at stake, although we have been hearing so much about those qualities. It is yet another dependence, only this time it is dependence in reluctance.

So it is the same point of reference against which we create our identity?

Yes, it has not changed, but the vector of emotions has reversed. If you approach this matter in a psychoanalytical way, one can say that PiS’s criticism of the West contains certain amount of self-aggression. If we have been so servile toward Germany and France and considered ourselves inferior to Western people and cultures, we should now be ashamed of our behaviour. But this is very difficult to admit. It is easier to criticize the West rather than ourselves.

So what kind of fear toward the current government makes sense?

After 2015, many voices were raised that Poland has become an authoritarian country. Personally, I think that something different happened. Poland has found itself in a no-man’s-land. It was like that strip of land between the former East and West Berlin, where nothing was built. On the one side there was authoritarianism, and on the other side – democracy.

We are somewhere in between. Moving the limits set by the constitution on a whim and “removing screws from state institutions” are very dangerous actions. Serious concerns are justified but the cry “this is already authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship!” should be used only in the most dangerous moments. Otherwise, it stops working and this is exactly what happened in Poland, where nobody listens to the screams about the end of democracy anymore, although right now, with the so‑called postal elections, we are dealing with a very dangerous moment. Not every kind of fear is good. The panicky fear of Law and Justice is harmful. Robert Krasowski once wrote that this fear makes liberals act as if they saw a cobra. It paralyzes them. The issue of the boomerang-like project designed to tighten up the anti-abortion law is, in my opinion, a deliberate action aimed at paralyzing us, liberals, with fear.

We have heard about the introduction of Fascism in Poland several times.

That is exactly what I mean. Unlike the panicky fear, “good” fear of PiS actions should be associated with the awareness that we have to learn how to warn citizens and convince them to listen to us. There is no point in feeling offended by them (or even insulting them) for disrespecting us.

Is the opposition fixated on Law and Justice? After all, even in the case of abortion, we are dealing with a civic legislative initiative proposed by conservative organizations that are against PiS.

Of course, these are often people who are disappointed with Law and Justice.

And what are Poles afraid of today? I do not think they are afraid of the revolution. They are afraid, and this is the result of their historical experience, of a foreign occupation

And the legislative initiative itself is also not convenient for PiS.

And that is why for five years nothing has been done to tighten Poland’s abortion laws.

Does the opposition say it is a Law and Justice’s bill because they associate everything with Law and Justice out of a panicky fear?

When such a fear dominates, everything becomes connected with everything – even Kaja Godek becomes linked to Poland leaving the EU or a dictatorship. Maybe it is worth mentioning that 2015 is also the year when the liberals lost their position. For the older generation of liberals who built the Third Republic of Poland, it means combining the loss of the state they built, their great achievement, with the loss of their personal biographies. This panicky fear has to a certain degree a biological basis. They are afraid that their life will end before the Law and Justice party is defeated. This must be a terrible feeling that I did not understand for a long time.

Then my own middle age came, and I finally understood how suffocating this emotion can be. From this emotion, I think, an alarmist attitude follows, but I blame the alarmists for having followed this fear without thinking about it in terms of political strategy. It is not enough to have legitimate concerns. It is also necessary to be able to convince others to do so. For my generation of liberals, the year 2015 is also a terrible loss. We thought we would be ministers, deputy ministers and God knows who else, and we are where we used to be – on the margins. Our “revolutionary generation” can go out on the street with a flag at the very most.

Did the philosophers you write about say something on where this leads to?

I do not know if anyone did. Loss is the dominant feeling of modern society. We wrote about it with Jarosław Kuisz in the article “The Pushback on Populism: Reclaiming the Politics of Emotion” published in the “Journal of Democracy”. The emotion of losing the world that we know due to the incredible acceleration of progress, which we have been experiencing for several decades, is very new. I do not think that some classical philosopher wrote about it.

The classics, on the other hand, said other things that are worth reminding today. They said, for example, to have respect for emotions. For a long time, liberals have seen emotions as something suspicious, something we should not take into consideration. Of course, they have good reasons to think so: they draw conclusions from the 20th century, which was extremely cruel and when the manipulation of emotions was the order of the day for German Nazis or nationalists who led to the war in Yugoslavia.

But the conviction that emotions are uninteresting and suspicious is also based on the powerful influence of the 19th century psychological thought that emotions belong to physiology. Emotions were said to be of no mental substance, to be unintellectual and thus easily replaceable with rationality and mind.

The issue of the boomerang-like project designed to tighten up the anti-abortion law is, in my opinion, a deliberate action aimed at paralyzing us, liberals, with fear

That is why it is time to dust off the classical philosophy. This is what the “Invention of the Modern Heart” is about – I wanted to show that the classical philosophy we have read over the years without raising the question of emotions actually is a treatise on emotions. When I started studying Hobbes and Montesquieu, my colleagues asked me: “Why do you write about them in the context of emotions if they had nothing to say about it?”. In fact, they have said a lot about emotions, only that we were reading their works differently. We need to return to the emotions and listen to what they are, not only examine them. The latter is not a solution, because politics is also about building emotions, and not just about what people want to tell us.

Does it mean that the rationalistic Enlightenment project did not fully work? We have assumed that politics should have a rational, technocratic dimension, and it turns out that this is not the case.

The Enlightenment project was not so rationalistic at all. We only have been reading it like this for so long, while the Enlightenment is a very interesting “project” about emotions. David Hume, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant have a lot to say about emotions. It is because of the influence of the 19th century that we read the Enlightenment in a reductionist and harmful way, and from an extremely rationalistic point of view.

Why do we not like emotions?

Because of the experience of the 20th century and the 19th century, which has taught us to think of emotions as something non-intellectual. Moreover, the liberals have sinned a lot by building their projects, which have become very widespread and pretended to talk about emotions while they were talking about something completely different.

Such as?

Jürgen Habermas and his concept of constitutional patriotism, in which Habermas makes a strange move to turn a rather basic human emotion, i.e. love for one’s own group, patriotism, into love of a legal document. That is, Habermas proposes to change our emotions into an intellectual appreciation of the law. Or let us take an example of Martha Nussbaum who claims that when we implement a comprehensive Socratic pedagogy, which she considers a combination of criticism and empathy, everyone will become tolerant, pluralistic, and liberal. One may ask a question: “If someone familiarized himself with the Socratic pedagogy, can’t he or she be conservative?”. In that case, what kind of pluralism is that?

These projects became very popular, and for a very long time, when political reality did not cause us major problems, we could rely on these categories. Populism is like an alarm bell, telling us that what we have thought about the world, politics, society and its education, were in fact pious wishes.

The classical philosophy that speaks of passions and emotions teaches us humility toward them. It is not without reason that at some point in the “Invention of the Modern Heart” I quote Michael Oakeshott, a conservative, emphasizing that it is about humility toward something we do not fully understand, something that cannot be fully learned, something that – in a language that is very popular today – spreads like a virus and we do not exactly know how.

We must return to the emotion of loss and translate it into such feelings that will foster a better, more pluralistic community

What should be the reasonable approach to emotions in politics then?

Modern politics would not be harmed by a little more humility toward emotions and their consideration based on real experience – not the superficial one, based, for example, on the click-through rates. I think that the assumption of the classical philosophy to look for dominant emotions and choose those that work best with reason, and try to shape them, is valuable. It is not possible to do a lot here, but it is possible to do something.

What kind of emotions are these?

As we wrote in the “Journal of Democracy” and as I wrote in the conclusion to “The End of the Liberal Mind”: if the feeling of loss is that dominant emotion, not only in Poland but also in the world, if today we see mainly the costs of our undeniable progress, as Raymond Aron wrote, then there is no point in pretending that this emotion does not exist. We should try to translate it into other emotions that are more clear, with which we can work better.

The first ones to understand this feeling of loss were the populists. This is the result of their insight and political talent. However, this is not a reason to praise them, because then they started to translate this rather vague emotion into more clear feelings that I, as a liberal, cannot like: fear of a stranger, aversion to otherness, resentment toward the richer West.

We must return to the emotion of loss and translate it into such feelings that will foster a better, more pluralistic community. The most important of these feelings is empathy. What do we do when our loved ones suffer from a tragic loss, for example, a death of someone close to them? We take care of them as if they were sick. Empathy is an emotion that can give us a new opening for the future. If, of course, we manage to work it out not only for those with whom the liberals are already on the same page – racial, sexual, cultural minorities – but also for those who are our political opponents, with whom we find it most difficult to sympathize, i.e. the supporters of the populists.


The interview took place on April 30, 2020. Translated by Marta Jakubowska / Marcin Chruściel

is sociologist, historian of ideas, and journalist. She is Member of the Board of Kultura Liberalna Foundation and assistant professor at Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw. She studied philosophy, sociology, and political science at University of Warsaw and Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich. She was co-director of the Polish Programme at St. Antony’s College at Oxford University, entitled “Knowledge Bridges: Poland—Britain—Europe” from 2016 to 2018.
is a political scientist, editor, columnist and journalist. He is vice chair of the Nowa Konfederacja (New Confederation) think tank, a regular contributor to Do Rzeczy magazine and a host at Polish Radio Lublin. His articles appear in publications across the political spectrum.


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