Grand Budapest Hotel was a satire, not an instruction manual
Reject Kaczyński’s attack on the rule of law in Poland
This is the text of a speech to the #EuropeanTownHall Meeting in Warsaw organized by Das Progressive Zentrum 12 February 2018
I want to start with some advice from George Orwell. In 1940, during the Dunkirk crisis, as the British elite made one blunder after another, Orwell wrote in his diary that, for about 10 years, left wing intellectuals had been able to predict events better than the Cabinet.
Orwell said: it was not about any power to see the future but “in the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in”.
In a period where right wing populism is on the rise, and the legitimacy of the multilateral institutions called into question, knowing that crises are going to happen, and understanding their likely form, is one of the most powerful political instincts you can develop.
The problem we face with liberalism, the technocratic elites, the political centre and some parts of the left is: it does not possess this instinct.
In fact it still tends to ask: what’s gone wrong with the world, the economy, people’s attitudes? Why does the world no longer conform to how we expect it to be?
I don’t use the word “liberal elite” — but there is a neoliberal elite and its big problem is it has lost the power “understand what kind of world we are living in”. And as a result it has developed an irrational appetite for political risk.
Everything comes, as it did for the British aristocracy of the late 1930s — as a series of disjointed and incomprehensible shocks. Scotland almost votes to leave the UK. Greece defies the European Central Bank. Britain votes for Brexit. America votes for Trump.
In Hungary Victor Orban stages a grotesque anti-semitic campaign against George Soros and, now the Brexit project has begun to fall apart, the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph repeats the anti-semitic subtext of Orban’s attack on Soros.
In Germany, the right wing of the CSU — the ruling party — calls for a “bourgeois revolution” to roll back all the gains of social liberalism since 1968.
And here in Poland you have a government in deep trouble — though it does not know it.
Provoking the Commission into triggering Article 7 is a major achievement — because now the Commission cannot back down. Kaczyński and the Law and Justice party may feel they are riding high in the Polish opinion polls — but they are like a child playing with matches.
Because — in case you haven’t noticed — the free, liberal end of Europe is at its western end; the unfree one, overrun by organized crime, blemished by the murder of journalists and opposition politicians, is on your doorstep.
There is no third way between the two projects. The movie Grand Budapest Hotel was supposed to be a satire — not an instruction manual.
So — learning from Orwell — we need to be blunt about the kind of world we are living in. We need to understand how these disjointed crises fit together.
First. The economic model of the world is broken. We on the left of politics call it neoliberalism — but when I use that word I use it to mean the whole system: China is a part of the neoliberal system, so is the USA. Poland, even with the 500+ welfare policy and rising wages, plays a role within a global neoliberal system.
The same factors that made that system work before 2008 have now undermined it. We relied on low wages and high borrowing to stimulate growth. In the end, low wages, offshoring of industry and high borrowing are incompatible; booms turn to bust, the central bank steps in to print more money and another boom happens — but it’s the kind of growth that boosts inequality. It’s not being driven by productivity high enough to sustain the borrowing.
The most important question is:
Why did the collapse of neoliberalism lead to this right-wing populist wave fuelling xenophobia, racism, antisemitism and numerous other prejudices?
The answer is: neoliberalism was held together by a story.
It said: if you ruthlessly compete with each other, allow all communities, traditions and existing institutions to be ripped up; if you think of yourself only as an economic agent — not as a three dimensional human being with a religion, ethnicity and sexuality — you will prosper.
When it worked, it encouraged something inside business and politics that I call performative neoliberalism. Everyone performs, as in a play: so long as your department meets its quota for hiring black people or women, nobody cares what is in your head. You can actually believe, as large numbers of young American men do, that sexually liberated women are participating in the oppresion of so-called Beta Males.
But the failure of the economic system suddenly makes the performance meaningless.
Let me say here — in Poland as in France — it doesn’t have to be that things get worse in terms of wages. As Maclej Gdula points out: they can get better. But the story about how does my overall life get better, how do my kids live a better life than me? That story falls apart.
If you go into a fast-food store and watch how people are supposed to perform as happy economic agents of the market, and compare it to our fathers’ generation, you can see the danger we have created.
My Dad would not have obeyed this demand for smiling, happy falsehood. The workplace was for him a venue for democracy. You were allowed to be yourself. The price you paid for freedom of speech and action at work was you had to be a real person: the same person at home, in the pub, in the trade union meeting.
Neoliberal economics encouraged the creation of multiple false personalities, whereby the real beliefs of people were never questioned, never placed under the stress of collective discussion. So as long as I meet the criteria for fair employment practice at work, privately I can hate everybody I am hiring.
Then, after 30 years, neoliberalism collapses and suddenly what rushes to the fore is all the old prejudice, combined with a centralized panic about two things: who am I and what is my future? If I am not to be defined as an economic agent with a clear improvement path ahead of me, what’s left of my identity? And what is the point of the performance anymore.
Neoliberalism in Britain destroyed the self-organisation of working people, their communities, their cohesion. All they had left was their religion, their ethnicity and the remains of small town identities. That’s the background of Brexit and the rise of UKIP, a xenophobic, racist and nationalist party.
Since the victory of Trump, Erdogan, Putin and Orban, I’ve been studying the ideas of those who studied the rise of Hitler. Not because these are fascist dictators but because there is a parallel in the way they have used an avalanche of fake news to spread the idea there’s no objective truth.
Erich Fromm, the German psychiatrist, said the two things that enabled the rise of Nazism were the general tiredness and isolation people feel in modern life, combined with the failure of their left-wing leaders to come up with answers. That, plus the rise of the unthinking and unquestioning small scale bureaucrat — as Hannah Arendt identified in the early 1950s — is what enabled fascism.
You only have to read the descriptions of life inside an Amazon warehouse in the UK, by undercover reporters, to know how tired and exhausted people are.
The failure of the left is evidenced repeatedly: the US democrats decision to stand Hillary Clinton, British liberals during Brexit, the Civic Platform here.
As for the bureaucratic managerial class, it has been expanded several fold by neoliberalism and is still prepared to obey orders.
What kind of world does this create?
A broken economic system. A broken narrative. A set of performative behaviours that are revealed as pointless. A political elite that refuses to learn.
We know what it looks like because we saw what happened in the Soviet Union — at a certain point everyone realizes it’s going to end. Everything was Forever Until it was No More, the title of Alexei Yurchak’s book about the Gorbachev era, actually now tells the story of neoliberalism.
The risk is that the economic crisis becomes a social crisis becomes a crisis of geopolitical fragmentation. A managerial culture that ticks the boxes for social inclusivity today and will then tick the boxes for mass expulsion of migrants tomorrow.
The left’s initial assumption was that throwing a few economic reforms towards the right wing populist electorate would work. As Duda and Kaczyński show — the right is equally capable of using welfare reforms and state handouts to cement its mass support.
What we need is a radical demonstrative break from the free-market system by centrist and progressive politicians, and a clear commitment from the 1% to trying to save the rule of law, the multilateral global system and democracy.
The risk we run is not fascism. They needed fascism in the 1930s to crush the workers movement. Today all they need — in fact the default form of the failed system — is an authoritarian government that can override the judiciary, limit freedom of speech and terrorise the media. Unfortunately we now see the elements of this being assembled in Poland.
In fact it’s important to realise how the interests of Vladimir Putin and, say, Rupert Murdoch or Trump collide. For Murdoch and Trump, it helps if extreme instability, constant drama and fake news make people tired of democracy: they are then willing hand power to a kleptocratic president and that president does what Murdoch tells him to. What does Putin get? First — the West loses its moral authority over Russia; second, the Western finance system becomes open to Russian kleptocrats.
So what can we do?
First — to understand we are facing an international ultra-right phenomenon co-ordinated by several right wing governments, in which billionaire owned media is being used as an echo chamber for fascism and fake news.
Their aim is, as I say, not to create fascism but to spread fear, distrust, force progressive people off the streets. It is being co-ordinated from below by media groups like Breitbart, willingly propagated by channels like Fox. So the answer here is to take regulatory action to prevent them using the dumb algorithms of major social media groups to spread hatred.
Second is to understand that, in a culture war, prejudice expands exponentially while reason proceeds in a linear way.
Within just a few weeks of beginning his public standoff with the FBI Trump and his allied media have convinced 73% of all Republican voters that the FBI is actively trying to undermine democracy. The breakout of antisemitism on the Polish social media is arguably an exponential response to Law and Justice’s clash with the European authorities.
The way the new right works is: take an outrageous position, defend it with outrageous lies, drag in the question of freedom of speech — and let ignorance proliferate.
You can’t fight this on its own terrain. Because “culture wars” are a misnomer. What’s going on is a war against culture.
The right uses all kinds of secret signifiers to spread hatred. In Britain, when they want to stigmatise halal and kosher meat, the supporters of UKIP and the neo-Nazis swap stories about “animal rights”. Most anti-racists in Britain don’t even know this. How are they supposed to counter the propaganda they can’t even see?
We need to create radical hope in a progressive solution — not in a long-term distant promise but in a short term deliverable turn-around in people’s wages, the quality and availability of public services, high waged jobs and free education for their kids.
In Britain, in the Labour Party, we just decided to no longer play the polite game of centrist politics. We said “the system doesn’t work; the enemy is the tax-avoiding rich, the rip-off private corporations; the banks — not the migrants, the Muslims and those receiving welfare benefits”.
When Labour released its manifesto in the June 2017 election it was like an electric shock through the working class communities where UKIP and support for Brexit were strong. It divided them — if UKIP on average had 20% in towns like my home town, half of it went to the Conservatives and half to Labour.
I want to finish on the question of the new law suppressing discussion of Poland’s role in the Holocaust. Since this event is funded by the German Foreign Office let’s start by saying — as Sigmar Gabriel did — that Germany is alone responsible for the Holocaust.
But then let’s acknowledge that history is about complexity — not national characteristics of good and evil. When a major crime has been committed, blaming an entire people and exonerating an entire people are two very bad ways of writing history.
In both Germany and Poland the events of the Second World War are being weaponized and this in itself poses a grave danger. The reason we want to keep bringing children to Auschwitz is because it cannot be called “fake news”. It exists. You can walk through the gate.
In 1945 when the full horror of the Holocaust was revealed, it prompted people in many societies to ask whether humanity is doomed: moral philosophers and religious people asked themselves — is there something irredeemably evil about human beings?
In order to answer “no” they had to construct institutions that guaranteed that this will never happen again. One of the is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Another is liberal democracy — a concept which is attacked at all times by Kaczyński and the press who support him.
The moment the Holocaust loses its power to stimulate deep moral self-examination among all human beings is the moment it becomes “just another event”.
Can you imagine a government in Poland as anti-Semitic as the ones which in the late 1930s erected ghetto benches in universities? Can you imagine a government in Germany that will deport the migrants en masse
If you answer no — this is a big risk you are taking.
Because if right wing authoritarianism does happen again, this time there will be no Geneva convention — police forces are much more militarized and surveillance of populations much more comprehensive.
In addition, we have no proletariat of the kind that fought fascism in the 1930s, no labour movements of the kind which led the resistance to Franco in Spain, or the Dutch general strike against the deportation of Jews in February 1941, or the Ghetto Uprising here in Warsaw.
That is the kind of world we are living in.