Ryszard Legutko dla The Upheaval

In my recent essay “Poland and the Demon in Democracy” I discussed the political turmoil happening in Poland through the lens of Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko’s 2016 book The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. After the essay was published I was fortunate enough to have Ryszard himself come across it and connect with me, and thus had the opportunity to ask him a few questions expanding on the original essay.

The resulting discussion is below. We cover the situation in Poland, the dogmas of anti-populist “Europeanism,” whether or not there is any separation between progressivism and classical liberalism, and the disturbing similarities of today’s ideological compulsions to communism (which Ryszard experienced and contended with personally), among much else. I hope you find it as interesting as I did, and take a look at Ryszard’s extensive other work.

Ryszard Legutko is the co-chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party (ECR) in the European Parliament. He is also an emeritus professor of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Under communism, he was one of the editors of the samizdat quarterly “Arka.” In addition to the aforementioned Demon in Democracy, his recent books include The Cunning of Freedom (Encounter Books 2021) and The Way of the Gadfly: The Study of Coherency in Socratic Thought (St. Augustine’s Press, forthcoming).

NSL: I found myself drawing on your work in the course of trying understand and explain what is happening politically in Poland, including what seemed to be acts of brazen authoritarianism by the new government. Do you think my account described the situation correctly in my essay? Is there anything important that I missed or that you would add?

RL: Your account of what is happening in Poland is accurate. Let me add some additional information about the new government’s crackdown on the media. The media in Poland, as in the rest of the Western world, have been predominantly left-wing and vehemently critical of the conservative government. During the reign of the Law and Justice party (PiS), they covered about two-thirds of the media market, which means that despite the EU’s hysteria, the media that more or less supported the ruling party represented only a tiny fraction. Nowadays, under Donald Tusk, about 90% are pro-government and fiercely anti-PiS. The journalists from the remaining 10% supportive of PiS are often not admitted to the government’s press conferences and are ostracized in every possible way. The existing legal system, including Poland’s constitution, does not allow for such a swift operation of taking over the public media and sidestepping all legal limitations and provisions. The government’s trick was to treat public television, radio, and information agency as state companies and then put them into liquidation. The irony is that the justice minister who made this decision had previously been Poland’s ombudsman, and in that capacity had strongly criticized such moves, arguing that the media are not simply state companies but, because of their exceptional role in society, should be particularly protected against politicians’ arbitrary power and cannot be single-handedly put to liquidation by the justice minister.

You also accurately captured the strategy of Poland’s current rulers. To summarize, they have one major goal, and to achieve this goal they resort to two methods. The goal is to purge all institutions of any person or project that has some links with the Law and Justice party; ultimately, they intend to marginalize this party and enclose it within a cordon sanitaire. The first method to achieve this end is to make drastic changes based on the Parliament’s ad hoc resolutions, disregarding and often violating the existing statutory laws. Whenever this is impossible, at least immediately, they employ their second method: they ignore the institutions they cannot control by denying their legitimacy. This method is being used against the Constitutional Court, two chambers of the Supreme Court, many civic organizations, and, to some extent, the President of Poland.

In my piece I drew on ideas in your book The Demon in Democracy to suggest that the dogmatic ideological aspects of liberalism – including its historicism, utopianism, universalism, and belief in the rightness of social engineering in the name of egalitarianism and “coercion to freedom” – today play a key role in driving the willingness of Donald Tusk and other “establishment” leaders across the West to abandon the rule of law and smash democratic norms. Do you agree with this interpretation of what is happening?

Yes, I do. I would make two additional comments about Tusk and his allies. Strictly speaking, their ideology is not liberalism as such but Europeanism or, rather, EU-ism. They buy all the dogmas that come from the European institutions and their elites: a belief in the supranational political structures, a radical program of developing green energy, gender ideology, abortion, a hostile attitude towards Christianity, woke education, the ‘non-restrictive’ definition of marriage and family, human rights as a vehicle for social engineering, modernization of social fabric, a dislike for and ignorance of tradition and cultural heritage, etc. These cannot be reduced to any particular theory of liberalism but certainly contain a large portion of liberal content. To call them liberal would not be, therefore, wide of the mark. Tusk received lavish support from the EU, so he could not but accept the entire package (not that he resisted or tried to play games). For him and his people, the EU dogmas have, therefore, become a natural point of reference and an identification mark to distinguish them from their antagonists, the Law and Justice party.

The second comment is that there are few, if any, serious believers in liberal ideas among the current government’s people. Tusk and his sympathizers are cynical opportunists, not men of intellectual commitment. Most of their political energy comes from their aggressive emotions towards the PiS party. Since 2005, Tusk has efficiently developed his violent and vicious rhetoric, full of vulgarism and hatred, and managed to infect a large part of the population with it. To give an example, the PiS politicians were called “serial killers of women” (in connection with the abortion law), and a widely used battle cry was “f… PiS”, often represented by eight stars (in Polish, this phrase has eight letters). The f-word was everywhere, and – predictably – many academics argued that this was an utterly justified expression and, additionally, living proof of sincere and laudable civic involvement. What Tusk has been doing after the elections was an accurate rendering of this rhetoric in practice.

The EU did not use such language but praised Tusk for his strategy. From the perspective of EU-ism, Poland’s conservative government, or any other conservative government, is an anomaly that shouldn’t even exist. And with an anomaly, you deal in a non-standard way. The European elite, therefore, welcomed Tusk’s language and then his actions as the prospect of the annihilation of a conservative party, by whatever means, has always been dear to their hearts.

Among of the most common comments or critiques I received in response to my essay is that it was inaccurate to describe progressives and their ideology as liberal. Many suggested that there must have been a misunderstanding or twisting of language, and that you or I must have been speaking about something other than liberalism. But my understanding is that actually you are in fact talking about liberalism, including classical liberalism, when you discuss the “totalitarian temptations” in the subtitle of your book, not just progressivism. Can you clarify and define what you mean when you speak of “liberalism?” Do you think there is any fundamental separation between liberalism and progressivism?

Yes, I was talking about liberalism. As I see it, liberalism – contrary to etymology – is not about freedom but about power and social engineering. I argued in my book that the liberals always assume a dominant position, claiming they know how to distribute freedom in the optimal proportions and, therefore, deserve to be the ultimate and irrevocable referees. This is an outrageous claim. They believe they are entitled to say that this group – for example, heterosexual men – has too much freedom, while that group – for instance, homosexual men – too little, etc., with the categorical implication that the proportion has to be changed through law, propaganda, and social pressure. The final aim of the liberal agenda is, therefore, not to have a free and open society but to have a society in which everything is subservient to liberal dogmas. Consequently, the existing rules and practices can always be suspended and restructured in accordance with the liberal criteria of redistribution. In other words, the liberals always assume what in the classical versions was called a state of nature, even if they do not use the term. All this dramatically changes our view of society. Existing restrictions automatically become suspect, especially if they come from tradition, institutions of long duration, established practices, and religion. Recently, even those restrictions coming from nature have been questioned. The people who defend all these restrictions must legitimize them before the liberal tribunal – which is extremely difficult, if not outright impossible – but this liberal tribunal does not need to legitimize itself. What has been happening with the laws regulating family, marriage, life and death, relations between men and women, education, etc., over the last decades is a case in point.

Liberalism is a version of progressivism: it perceives society as in the process of constant improvement (usually measured by the criterion of equality) and claims to possess the conceptual instruments that make such a change possible. Liberalism believes itself to be both the doer and the supervisor of progress. Like other progressives, the liberals have a strong sense of the enemy; that is, the more liberal the society becomes, the more formidable – they maintain – are the forces of illiberal and non-liberal enemies. This brings to one’s mind Generalissimo Stalin’s dictum that “with the growth of communism, the class struggle intensifies.” Today’s liberalism has already identified far more enemies and thought crimes than the communists did. The complete list is impossible to provide, but here is a sample: misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, eurocentrism, phallocentrism, logocentrism, ageism, binarism, populism, nationalism, xenophobia, hate speech, Euroscepticism, white supremacy, misgendering, etc.

You often in your book speak of “liberal democracy” as a hyphenated noun, taken as a single ideological system. That was around 2016. My own working hypothesis, however, is that much of the turmoil we are seeing the West today is these two different things – liberalism and democracy – splitting apart as liberalism pursues its own ideological imperatives at the expense of democracy, casting it aside. And in response we see the emergence of “populism,” or what could be called a democratic reaction. What do you think? Do liberalism and democracy really naturally fuse with each other, or are they in fact antagonistic and potentially incompatible? Is a sustainable non-liberal democratic system conceivable? And if so do you think it would produce substantially different results from what we’re seeing in societies in the West today?

The problem is complex and difficult to disentangle. Yes, I mostly used “liberal democracy” to denote the currently existing political systems in the Western World, the systems which, despite different histories, have come to show remarkably similar totalitarian tendencies. Liberalism and democracy have different connotations but can each be inimical to freedom. How liberalism may threaten freedom I explained above. About the unpleasant consequences of democracy one can read in the final chapters of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In my book, I argued that the best system is what the Greeks called a mixed regime, a combination of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. Some argue – and I tend to agree – that the idea behind the U.S. Constitution was a mixed regime rather than a democracy. There are several areas where democratization has become extremely harmful – church, art, family, and education are obvious examples – all of them being by nature aristocratic rather than democratic domains. In other words, a well-organized society needs non-democratic institutions.

Democracy, as I understand it, is a system of procedures that secures a safe transition of power. It is not a system of ideas, an ideology, an article of faith, or a philosophical outlook, and should not become any of these. Excessive democratization leads to excessive politicization and a tendency to interpret everything in terms of a power struggle, like in a multiple-party system. The differences between the political parties are not intellectual because they are not usually resolved at a seminar through an exchange of arguments but at the ballot box, where one of the contestants acquires power and the legitimacy to use it within the existing rules. If we reduce intellectual and artistic differences to politics and partisanship – as it has been happening for some time now – then ultimately it is also political power, not truth or beauty, which settles every controversy.

The paradox is that it is in the area where democracy clearly supersedes all other systems – providing procedures that secure a safe transition of power – that we have seen a conspicuous departure from democratic mechanisms. Democracy came to be viewed as a term of identification or an act of faith, separated from democratic procedures. This has generated disgraceful political practices in which the European Union seems to be a pioneer and uncontested champion. In the name of democracy, one can violate the elementary procedures of democracy and present it as a higher form of democratic culture. For instance by excluding certain parties from the political system (as happens in the European Parliament) or preventing millions of voters from attaining any influence on politics by discrediting them as “populists.” The most recent example is, of course, the Polish case from which we started our conversation. All these horrendous practices are hailed as the victory of democrats over populists.

I want to touch on the idea of managerialism, or (to simplify a bit) the idea that everything can and should be rationally managed and controlled by technique and special expert knowledge, necessitating a dedicated class of expert technocratic managers to run society. These managers then inevitably attempt to gain control of and reshape more and more aspects of life to fit their designs. As I wrote in The China Convergence, I see managerialism as perhaps the feature that most closely links modern liberalism to communism, and makes a system like China’s fundamentally similar to what we increasingly find today in the West. But I don’t recall you really directly discussing managerialism in your book. So I’m curious if you think this thesis has validity and what you think of it.

I did not discuss managerialism in the book, but I made a point corresponding to your argument about the managerial elite in China and the West. I compared the attitudes of two elites: the Communist elite that came to Poland on Soviet tanks and seized power in 1945, and the new liberal-democratic elite that came to power after the fall of the old regime in 1989. Both considered themselves accoucheurs [ed. note: a male midwife] of the new order and took upon themselves the duty of restructuring the entire society. Naturally, with this mindset, they had to turn against everything they thought was an obstacle to the new order: an attachment to national heritage, tradition, and religion, a strong historical memory, the existence of conservative-leaning institutions and groups such as family or rural communities, art that was ostensibly too nationalistic or patriotic, etc. But the main obstacle was the people – workers, peasants, and common people who, it was feared, would understand neither the magnitude of the process of constructing the new order nor the price they must pay for it. What is remarkable is that in 1945 and 1989 the perceived obstacles were roughly the same. The political rhetoric was also similar, based on the distinction between the old and the new, backward-looking and forward-looking, bigotry and progress, etc.

This rhetoric continued to exert its influence in the following decades. The Law and Justice government was attacked along these lines: the critics accused it of representing backwardness, anti-modernity, and even the Middle Ages. This last charge was surprising and proved how poorly educated the new elite was. They should have known that the Middle Ages gave us universities, Gothic cathedrals, Dante, Chaucer, Bosch, and many other gems of Western culture.

The self-proclaimed accoucheurs/leaders/managers were completely unaware they were recreating the same format which brought so much harm to the Polish people four decades before. They should have known better. When in 1981 the Solidarity movement came into being, it was primarily the work of the common people: those backward, God-fearing men and women who did not care about the march of progress and the supposed inevitability of human development. They put to shame intellectuals and artists who for so many years openly or silently supported the regime, being afraid of endangering their career or, quite often, simply taking seriously the communist nonsense. After the Solidarity Union was established, the journalists, artists, academics profusely thanked the workers for what they did, beat their own breasts, and apologized for their past sins, promising to be better in the future by respecting the wisdom that inheres in the national and religious identity of the Polish people. Less than ten years passed and all this was forgotten: no more breast-beating, no more apologies or promises. The elites resumed their previous roles, as hubristic as ever. In the years that followed, their hubris only increased.

The subtitle of your book warns of the “totalitarian temptations in free societies” – notably totalitarian, not merely authoritarian. This warning has special resonance given that you experienced totalitarianism first hand under communism, and today your account seems eerily familiar to me even here in the United States. For instance, I was especially struck by your recounting of how, “One of the most unpleasant aspects of living under communism was an awareness that we were always surround by non-reality, i.e., artifacts fabricated by the propaganda machine, whose aim was to prevent us from seeing reality as it was.” And: “The entire atmosphere was sultry, because we could not free ourselves from a feeling that we were living among phantoms in the world of illusion, or rather of delusion.” This seems to reflect our own situation more and more with every passing week, especially since the pandemic. Your book was published now nearly a decade ago; do you see the threat from totalitarianism as having progressed significantly since then? What is your prognosis for where the West headed at this point?

I think totalitarianism is a better word than authoritarianism, although it meets with a hard-to-refute counter-argument: large areas of freedom and pluralism still exist, so the adjective “total” seems inaccurate. I take this point but, on the other hand, the tendency seems to me quite clear. Perhaps the word “totalizing” would be more adequate. The difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is that the former limits itself to the political control of the center of power, whereas the latter extends its control to the entirety of human relations. Authoritarian power may be quite heavy-handed, but it leaves large areas intact. Not so in the case of totalitarian or totalizing practices. It may seem quite benign, at least in rhetoric, but its appetite for control is insatiable. The sexual revolution was a major step towards totalitarianism because it politicized and regulated what was most private. The feminist slogan “the personal is political” was another step in this direction. Nowadays, even the toilets are the object of interest for the powers that be; two or three decades ago, this would have been considered insanity. The political control of the language people use is another example of this tendency, especially since it is not only the government but other seemingly non-political institutions – universities, corporations, and media – that took upon themselves the task of enforcing a correct language. A small example: in Europe the airlines eliminated the phrase “Ladies and Gentlemen” from their announcements and replaced it with “Dear Guests,” apparently so as to not alienate “non-binary” persons. One may wonder why Lufthansa, a powerful company, ordered their staff to drop “Meine Damen und Herren” in favor of “Liebe Gäste,” but the answer will be clear once we realize that other airlines enforced similar changes. The pressure to make such changes is so great that the conclusion is inescapable: no matter how wealthy you are, you had better conform, or else… In many cases, it is not quite clear what this “or else” may be, but the fear is there and is effective.

I do not see any signals of the reversal of this trend. On the contrary, the steamroller continues to be on the move. The United Kingdom, a country under a conservative government that decided to leave the EU, is as bad in this respect as was Socialist Germany or Spain under Socialist-Communist rule. So far, conservative governments have done very little to resist these totalizing crusades. Their failure results from lack of will – or prudence, as some like to call it – but also, perhaps primarily, from having already capitulated to the Left’s agenda.

The future looks gloomy, but one can console oneself with a well-grounded belief that the future always has some surprises in store for us. From today’s perspective, however, I do not see many sources from which a renewal might come. The best we can do is not to compromise (a compromise with a bully is never a real compromise), but to defend what we have and to expand it whenever and wherever possible.

What do you think is in store for your own country of Poland in the immediate years ahead? How far do you think Tusk and the EU will go? How has the conservative opposition begun to meet the challenge?

The relations between the Tusk government and its electorate are still in a honeymoon phase, so it will be difficult to beat them in the coming elections (local elections in April and European elections in June). I think, however, that in two or three years, the corruption and inefficiency of the government will reveal themselves in all their ugliness (as they did during Tusk’s previous time in power), and the electorate will turn away from the ruling coalition. I also count on an increasing number of those disillusioned with the EU. After four unpleasant years, Law and Justice can be back at the helm of the country. This prediction is the optimistic part of the message. The pessimistic part is that Tusk has devastated and will continue to devastate the public sphere to such a degree that reconstructing it will be most difficult. I do not see any prospect of what one might call social peace, especially as the EU will not cease to instigate the internal conflict.

Do you think there are lessons from the Polish case that other conservative parties or movements should learn on how – or how not – to best meet this growing totalitarian threat?

There are several lessons that conservatives in the Western world should learn from the Polish case. Perhaps the most important of these is that the other side is powerful and takes neither hostages nor prisoners. It is powerful in that despite their divergences – communists, liberals, greens, erstwhile Christian democrats, social democrats, etc. – when it comes to fighting the conservatives, they will stand united. They all feel at home in the totalizing world. Those that are slightly to the right of the political spectrum, like the European People’s Party (which includes German Christian Democrats, Spain’s People’s Party, etc.), made so many concessions to the Left that, in practical terms, they have become indistinguishable from it. To legitimize their belonging to the mainstream, they launch even more furious attacks on the conservatives and go out of their way not to be associated with them. It is, therefore, futile for the conservatives to seek allies on the other side. The other side knows no compromise, and they aim to marginalize those who still represent the conservative cause. In the current political climate, the conservatives stand contra mundum. Two practical conclusions follow from this: first, the conservatives should not let the other side divide them and should try to form a solid international alliance; second, they must build conservative institutions sufficiently robust to survive the destructive offensives of the Left (something Poland’s Law and Justice failed to do).

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