Polish middle class has turned their back on ethos. Words like “the state”, “the intelligentsia”, “social justice” became anachronistic. They are proudly expressing their cynicism. An interview with Sławomir Sierakowski.

Grzegorz Sroczyński: Do you watch Elżbieta Jaworowicz’s programme?

Sławomir Sierakowski: I rarely turn on the TV.

GS: “Damn it! Twenty years after transformation and we are needed only when it’s time to vote in the new elections”; shouts an angry woman from Sosnowiec.

SS: Why is she angry?

GS: The communal house she lives in was sold to a businessman for at a ridiculously low price. 40 flats for 400 thousand PLN. They had kept it secret, so the residents wouldn’t use their preemption right.

SS: Are you really surprised? It’s common practice. The factory went bankrupt but there are some blocks of flats left. Nobody knows what to do with the people who live in them, so they get sold together with the houses. “Inevitable costs of transformation” – luckily we have a proper euphemism for that. It’s been going on for years.

GS: That’s my point. Years have passed, our Gross Domestic Product has gone up three times, we are a member of the EU and Jaworowicz in her programme keeps presenting the same people, the victims of capitalism. I used to get irritated by this show, I thought it was pure populism. Today I feel ashamed that such things keep happening.

SS: ‘’Sprawa dla reportera’’ had the opinion of an exotic nut show. But nobody else wanted to treat those people seriously.

GS: The leftists for example.

SS: Newspapers for example.

GS: That’s an overstatement. I myself wrote plenty of articles in the 90s about the state farms that were in decline. The press was full of this stuff.

SS: And what were you thinking then?

GS: That the transformation has to be painful.

SS: That’s cruel.

GS: Indeed.

SS: Have you noticed that the phrase ‘’the costs of the transformation” sounds similar to “the costs of the revolution”? That’s exactly the same dangerous way of thinking. Bad things are happening, people are suffering, but it is inevitable. One day the sun will come out again and everybody will lead a happy life. Throughout those 20 years we have released ourselves from feeling responsible too easily. State farms have stopped being the problem of other people, instead they have become an impersonal “cost of the transformation”.

GS: Have you heard of “the tenements cleaners”? We have been writing about them for a year now.

SS: I have. There are plenty of similar cases. Talk to people working at Krytyka Polityczna’s residents section.

GS: The story is always the same. An elegant bank or a businessman take over a tenement together with its residents.

SS: Not residents but “meat filling”, because that’s what the residents are called.

GS: That’s right. Meat filling. Then they hire Mr Ś. and Mr Ż, notorious “cleaners” from Poznań, whose job is to get rid of that filling. And the story goes like this: cutting off water and gas, demolishing the walls, scattering bugs used for fishing bait on doormats, hanging dead rats in the windows. Or a prank like this one: in the house on the Stolarska Street the cleaners drilled a hole in the floor of one of the apartments, stuck a hose inside and flooded professor Stanisław Kozłowski’s apartment below. He hadn’t agreed to move out.

SS: That’s an offence prosecuted by law.

GS: No it isn’t! ‘’We are redecorating and we have the right to drill holes wherever we want –that’s their response. The police read the authorisation issued by the owner of the tenement and say that their hands are tied. The officer used the phrase “sacred property ownership law”.

SS: That’s another phrase, which works as a good explanation for our negligence. What is property? It’s a social relation. It does not exist without people. So this law is not sacred at all. It is secular. To make the ownership sacred you have to forget about people first.

GS: Why does our state turns a blind eye on its citizens being hurt? Why do we, the nation, agree to it? Do you understand it?

SS: ‘’The state’’ is a bad word in Poland. You will rarely see it in the dictionary of political transformation. The state should constantly struggle to become smaller. As well as not to block the entrepreneurship of Mr Ś. and Mr Ż. As a result of this way of thinking our state is indeed weak and we even try to make a virtue out of it.

GS: Do you know the story about the pensioner and the bailiff? It was once on our first page. It’s unbelievable.

SS: Yes it is.

GS: Bailiff Ryszard Moryc took over the pensioner’s account with 28 thousand PLN, all of her life savings. By mistake. The debt belonged to another person of exactly the same name. Moryc admitted that he had made a mistake, but he didn’t return the money. He claimed that it was not his responsibility. “If you wish you can go to court with it”.

SS: Why are you so surprised? I am not.

GS: How is it possible for an educated lawyer earning 36 thousand a month to behave like that towards a pensioner he had mistreated?

SS: How old is he?

GS: Thirty something.

SS: Then he belongs to the generation that was raised in free Poland. He’s been fed stories about competition instead of cooperation. About initiative, not offering help. About taking care of his own business rather than the virtues of justice. Has he mistreated anyone he perceives as serious or important? No, he has mistreated “the cost of the transformation” – some powerless pensioner. Not someone he can watch in the series about middle class, he is aspiring to. It’s not someone he can share his perspective with. It’s not someone he’s been thought to respect at the university. He is supposed to respect a businessman in a tie, a broker or a famous actor.

GS: I think that we lack empathy. Coldheartedness is spreading in Poland.

SS: But he will say he has empathy. And he won’t lie. Polish people have an ocean of empathy in them. The problem is that instead of using it towards other people, we would rather use it towards ideals that are already dead. What has become commonwealth in Poland nowadays? The Warsaw Uprising! The language of a community is brought back only for such occasions. Not here and now in our everyday life, between you and me or our neighbours. It exists somewhere in history. That’s where Poland exists as well, our involvement and our compassion.

GS: We do not feel compassionate about some- one that is standing in front of us, but about a child fighting in the uprising?

SS: The heroic Poland in general. Of the old days. Because it’s easier. That’s how our christened capitalism works. On the one hand we are advocates of free market and individualism, on the other we are conservative when it comes to the lifestyle. It is easier to pity the crucified Christ rather than our neighbour. An unborn child rather than a woman facing eviction. We can invest all of our good will in dead ideals and release ourselves from responsibility for what is happening here and now. After the fall of communism we assumed that caring about common good is characteristic of communist mentality. The young Poles were trained to compete with others. Creativity. Where’s cooperation? Cooperation at school is associated with cheating. That bailiff doesn’t seem to feel responsible for human beings. He lacks words, concepts, which he simply has never heard.

GS: What words?

SS: Lets look at the concept of “social equality” for example. It hasn’t been used in Polish discourse for 20 years. You can try and go on Tadeusz Mosz’s radio show on economy and use the word “equality”. The response of the experts taking part in the show, who are always cracking jokes, will be “Ha, ha, lets also talk about the equality of stomachs in this case, shall we.” It’s a language that blocks any discussion.

GS: Here is what a sociologist Barbara Fatyga says for “Gazeta”: “We have raised a generation, which is far better educated, but does not think about their privileged social position in the categories of serving the others. They can only see their individual privileges. We though we would be able to build middle class without the ethos. And we have. That is why different areas of life are in such a bad condition.

SS: I agree. We have built our middle class not only without the ethos, but even against the ethos. Those who respected it were ridiculed men wearing sweaters. Good old followers of the ethos from the Freedom Union contra pragmatic and understanding the modern spirit liberals from the Liberal-Democratic Congress. The ethos became a part of anachronistic dictionary. The term “intelligentsia” became ridicu- lous and out-dated. As much as “trade unions”, “redistribution of income”, “social justice”. Those concepts were perceived as hindering Polish modernisation. We’ve stopped believing that, as a society, we should help each other carry our burden, feel responsible for each other and in this way create the success of the transformation. We assumed such thinking were only some old-fashioned tales told by Jacek Kuroń. Middle class has been raised in egoistic not altruistic ethics. And that is the main difference between Poland and the West. People are proud of their cynicism. Have you noticed that? They think it’s something to be proud of, boast about.

GS: Can you give any examples?

SS: Czarzasty is one. Urban is another one. Palikot uses it as well. Hofman. Kurski, who can be lying straight to our faces confident that the “stupid common people will buy it”. Here is another example, a characteristic one: a guy from the employers’ organisation who “doesn’t give a shit about minimal wage”.

GS: Cezary Kaźmierczak, chair of the Entrepreneurs and Employers Organisation used this phrase in his official letter to the head of “Solidarność”, Piotr Duda.

SS: Duda demands that the minimum wage should be raised…

GS: Today it’s 1181 PLN after tax.

SS: … and the number of junk contracts shoud be limited.

GS: We are European record-breakers. 27 per cent of employees in Poland are people with junk or temporary contracts. It’s 65 per cent among young people.

SS: And what the chair or the employers’ organisation has to say about it is that he doesn’t give a shit. If you raise minimum wage and limit the number of junk contracts, we will transfer our businesses abroad. He boasts about it!

GS: Here is what Kaźmierczak writes to Duda: ‘’We will take our companies abroad, we will sing contracts only with freelancers or omit the law. What can you do about it? Not a thing.”

SS: Let me underline that he is not some ran-dom guy. He runs a well-known PR agency, so he knows really well what he can and cannot say and how his words will be received by the circles of employers he represents. We can assume that such is the atmosphere there. Have any of his colleagues distanced themselves from those comments? Has he been dismissed from his position? No, they supported him and patted him on his back. You go, man, you’ve shown Duda where he belongs.

GS: But we cannot refute their arguments: “How are you going to make us hire people, if we cannot afford to do so with all the non-pay labour costs we must cover?”

SS: They are complaining about extremely high labour costs in Poland, but that is a myth. Labour costs in Poland are lower than the EU average. Out of 100 PLN paid to the employee earning average wages, every Polish employer must pay 34,3 PLN on taxes and other costs (according to the OECD report from 2011). We are way below the European average: 41 EUR out of every 100 paid to the employee. In Germany it’s actually 50 EUR. You should read the ending of Kaźmierczak’s letter to Duda: “I’ve spent eight years in ‘Solidarność’ – one year in prison, seven years in the underground, what, I assume gives me the right to address you”. That is the clou of the problem. That man believes that by ignoring employees’ postulates, he is acting in the name of the ideals of “Solidarność”. We’ve turned everything upside-down in Poland. Has he got any responsibilities towards the society within which he had earned his money? Are we still a community, if we set aside the anniversaries of the Warsaw Uprising outbreak?

GS: I think your demands are too high.

SS: For 20 years people have heard that democracy means human rights plus free market without any social responsibilities. And that is what they believe. Has Balcerowicz, the pope of Polish economy, ever said anything about social responsibility we have towards others?

GS: So traditionally, Balcerowicz is to blame.

SS: It is naïve to look for people to blame. That’s what should differentiate the leftists from the right-wings politicians. Instead of looking for someone to blame, we should point out social mechanisms.

GS: Have you found the mechanisms?

SS: Those were ideas. Neoliberalism was an extremely tempting idea in this part of Europe and the left-wing politicians were weak, post communist, inhibited and rather approving of government’s decisions. Balcerowicz is an ideo-logical man and he managed to seduce us. It’s a simple as that.

GS: For many years America stood in as the homeland for Polish neoliberals. Everyone who earns some money there, can sense the social pressure to share his success with others. While promoting economical freedom in Poland we didn’t notice that in the US social responsibility of the rich is equally important. They have great public infrastructure, universities and cultural institutions are financed by the business. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the US recently and I can see that their welfare state was built by the businesspeople, from smaller to bigger fish like Soros, Buffett, Gates. Spending fortunes on public welfare is not a synonym of waste but of success and responsibility. In the US you are the man not when you’ve earned a fortune, but when you’ve earned a fortune and shared halfof it with others. In Poland Kaźmierczak is the man, because he’s turned his back on the people. Have Polish experts in economy, the school or the pro-social church ever promoted the attitude I am describing? “Public good” still sounds naïve to us, whereas in the West it is quite serious. Our society allows us to openly disregard public good. Do people want politicians to tackle the problem of communal housing? No, they don’t.

GS: Because people are stupid?

SS: They aren’t stupid, but they live in a stupefying atmosphere. Where the authorities of the capital city are not ashamed to admit that cheep milky bars, where students and pensioners eat, are not “aesthetic” and need to be closed down. They call it “modernisation of the city space”. Another euphemism. Gronkiewicz may take as many bad decisions as she likes, she will win another elections anyway as long as she organises fan zones for ridiculous amount of money.

GS: Because she is a bad woman?

SS: Of course not! I am sure she wants to do good. But she thinks within categories: “sacred property ownership law”, “modernisation”, which means paid motorways rather than public institutions, “warm water in our flats”. What does Warsaw need according to such logic? Roads and a National Stadium painted in white and red. That is what the authorities are held accountable for. That’s what the media are interested in. Not what the quality of people’s life is. Wheather they have a decent place to live, a library or theatre to visit.

GS: Should we build communal houses instead of the National Stadium?

SS: Why not? The Stadium cost 2 million PLN. We could build a lot of apartments with such money.

GS: Let’s calculate, then.

SS: Let’s do that.

GS: Assuming that the average seize of such apartment would be 50 square meters. The cost of construction are 4 thousand per one meter, the same as for every apartment in Warsaw, naturally without the developer’s profit.

SS: And?

GS: Give me a second, I’m calculating. Instead of the Stadium we could have built 10 thousand communal apartments.

SS: So Warsaw housing problems would be solved.

GS: That’s right. At the moment there are about 5 thousand families waiting for apartments. The rest of the flats could be rented out by the city. Or the could have built only 5 thousand and spent the rest of the money on free preschools. Pre-schools were promised by Tusk in his campaign, but recently he has back out of this promise.

SS: People will not make demands that don’t exist in their collective awareness. “The state, taxes and trade unions are not modern” – that’s what they hear. Who doesn’t want to be modern? (…)

GS: Why do the leftist do so little?

SS: Do you mean politicians? The diversity of political parties in Poland is a fiction created for the media. You cut off the power of three TV stations and the parties cease to exist. They don’t do ANYTHING for the society or don’t prepare any programmes. They don’t really function in the real world, they aren’t surrounded by a network or organisations, unions, institutions providing help and assistance. If one day SLD, Ruch Palikota, PO and PiS dissolved and disappeared from the surface of the Earth, people wouldn’t lose anything. What institutions would be closed? None.

GS: PiS runs local Clubs of “Gazeta Polska” (Polish Daily)

SS: Not even that. We’ve looked into that. Besides organising meetings with stars like Macierewicz those clubs do nothing. Once a year people go there to see someone they know from TV. That’s about it. Politicians don’t have the ambition to change people, create new ideas and convince us to support them any more. It’s quite on the contrary – each party wants to adjust well to the current atmosphere. They want to order the best research, study the thoughts and dreams of the nation and then prepare the best offer for them. Working with people, changing their attitude was a part of the ethos of the intelligentsia. Silly men in sweaters were the last people who did that. Nobody came to replace them.

GS: You’re exaggerating. What about the endless discussions about the social capital and civil society.

SS: But we understand this social capital in a very specific way. Organise a harpists’ association, promote traditional embroidery around villages or help ill children – that’s civil society. What about being engaged in politics? Go to Town Council meetings. Write petitions. Control your councillors. Nag them about things you care about. The authorities claim they support civil society. They do provided that this society consists of nonpolitical embroiders. A politically aware citizen would be a burden.

GS: Members of the local governments are even protesting against introducing changes in the law that would facilitate proposing new resolutions by the citizens. Supposedly they want to avoid nutcases or protesters disrupting the sessions.

SS: That’s what I’m talking about. Investing in ways to facilitate people organising themselves, gaining better access to public information and, therefore, asking more sensible questions during those sessions is does not lie within the interest to the authorities. As a result crazy people come to the sessions. Only they have the patience. Normal active citizens have ceased to care, because they were tired of not being treated seriously. As a result so many problems have no reasonable advocates and scandals break out only when it is already too late to do something about them. Tenements are a good example of that. We only tackle a problem, when the residents start building a barricade.

GS: What would you like to change in Poland?

SS: The attitude, make people care. Be interested, get involved. Gather people and create institutions with them. In Poland NGOs do all the work that should be done by politicians. They come up with new ideas and programmes. Once those ideas become familiar and then popular, that’s when the parties start to use them. Krytyka Polityczna is trying to change the perception of such concepts as the state, equality, social responsibility. Our collaborators run community centres and clubs, join residents’ organisations and institutions working in the filed of public education. Recently we have opened an institute. Every week 500 people join our seminars. But that is hard work and it will take years. It’s not very attractive for the media. And journalists keep asking me about one thing: when will Krytyka enter politics?

GS: When will it happen?

SS: Come on! All I can say is: “I’m afraid of politics”, “It’s not for me”, “I’m not intelligent enough”. I can say anything not to hear that question any more. “I want to work for the community” – I will say this, because it sounds so cheesy that you will leave me alone once and for all.

GS: Work for the community.

SS: That’s right. You have only one coin to spend. And you can spend it on a series of ridiculous press conferences to appear in the media and get elected for the parliament. Or you can use this time to organize some people, publish books, help a number of citizens. I prefer the second option. Political parties do not change the world any longer.

GS: What does then?

SS: I referred to the old fashion idea of “working for the community”. And that is a very good, modest expression. There are no more big words and ideas that will bring the masses together. People must be addressed one by one. We must fight the cynicism that became the main thing that sets people apart.

GS: Cynicism?

SS: The distance they keep. Today people think that contemporary problems of the human race cannot be solved. So they don’t even try. They prefer to use their talents and their knowledge to compete with each other on every field they can, rather than to organize themselves in order to make the situation of their community slightly better. They believe in individual success, but not in the success of a community. That is why the masses of people who are excluded are also atomised. Even if they protest together, they soon go in different directions and are unable to build anything on their common case. We need to get together in order to change the World.