It is probably the greatest of all truism that in the XXI century the world changes very rapidly. The problem is that it has become immensly hard to keep up with all the changes, be it in the sphere of technology, views on adoption for homosexual couples or in the realm of grand politics. The risk is of interpreting the world of today but using the categories of the past, and the past may be as recently as 30 years ago. There is nothing worse in the XXI century than to appear senile.
Adam Michnik is considered one of the heroes of the struggle for the liberation of Poland from Communist totalitarism, a Polish dissedent intellectual that attracted a lot of admiration, especially in the West. A former advisor to Solidarnosc, the independent trade union that became the leading force in Poland’s resistance Soviet dictatorship, Michnik went on the become the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s liberal newspaper of record, and known for its support of progressive and pro-European values. A typical XX century moderate left-wing paper, ultraliberal on social issues and laisse-fairish on economics.
On 31 January an editorial signed by Michnik appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza titled: “Brexit – a lesson for Poland”. “Brexit is the answer to the crisis of Europe. But it is the wrong answer”, authoritatively writes Michnik. “Brexit is the same sort of answer to a crisis in the same way as fascism and bolshevism were answers to the crisis of Europe after the First World War. But these were false answers and carried tragic consequences”, continues the author. The equivalence is very direct: Brexit is comparable to two of the greatest motives that contributed to the destruction of Europe in the XX century and lead to millions of deaths. Is Michnik sure he may not be slightly exaggerating? Yes, Hitler was democratically elected, we are often told (does this mean that democracy is bad and unrelieable?) but Hitler’s ascent to power was followed almost immediately by a savage spree of violence against dissidents. The October Revolution was the prelude to a 5 year long civil war. We have not witnessed anything of the sort after the Brexit referendum of 2016. So probably it is safe to assume that the great Polish intellectual’s analogy may be slightly over the top.
“In Trump’s salons and in Putin’s cabinets people will be opening champagne”, goes on Michnik, repeating another often used claim that Brexit is the work of powers hostile to Europe. “Europe’s democracy lost. Populist politicians, chauvinistic, xenophobic (even if chauvinistic and xenophobic are actually supposed to mean the same thing, editor’s note) and it was a success for the enemies of European democratic values”. There is nothing particularly original in this argumentation that people in Europe have read endless times since at least 2016: to criticize the European Union means to be against European democratic values, that is to support populism, demagogy and authoritarianism. Brexit won because the electorate, in theory the ultimate repository of power in a democracy, irrationally turned against democracy, as Michnik argues at the beginning of his analysis.
The idea of a rise of populism is another truism of the last couple of years, populism meaning a barbarized version of popular will against the true and pure nature of rational democracy. But the fact that this idea has been reproposed an innumerable number of times by many public intellectuals since things started to go wrong in 2016 does not make this sort of argumentation less flawed. These public intellectuals generally love to engage in ardent debates where they can pose as tireless defenders of the interests of democracy against oppressors and the forces of darkness. By now, however, almost everyone, with the exception of these venerable public intellectuals, seem to have realized that the way the ideologues of the theory of democratic power have of democracy radically differs from the idea of democracy most people seem to have.
The rejection of the version of democracy that emerged after the demise of Keynesiasm in the 80s, the kind of democracy that became fashionable to call liberal democracy, did not happen, as many public intellectuals and many people who like to pose as public intellectuals, because electorates in Britain, America and many other European (and non-European too) were becoming increasingly irrational (or manipulated by Russian propaganda, as some others continue to suggest) and were taking inconsiderate decisions against their own interests. Like some public intellectuals, Michnik included, grudginly admit, liberal democracy, in spite of many promises and the prospects of a splendid future just around the corner for everyone, did not exactly turn out to be serving everyone equally. Many countries in Europe still have to recover from the devastating effects of 2008 financial crisis. People were being told that everything was going to be fine and that we had never had it so good, in the face of the challenges of globalisation, stagnating incomes, rapidly changing demographics and the general sense that nobody was really caring about them because great world leaders were busy thinking about great world problems but not thinking much about the disappearing middle classes.
People may have been irrational in taking a leap of faith to shock a system that had stopped to serve them. But if electorates across many countries demonstrated the same tendency, it is utterly idiotic and self-absorbed to conclude that this all happened just because the irrational people turned against the real abstract values of democracy. And to suggest that the choice today is between Western freedom and Soviet dictatorship, embodied by Vladimir Putin, is more symptomatic of a form of fixation with the past typical of old age than of understing of the challenges and the problems people have to live with now.