On the origins of post-enlightenment nation in Poland

Text: Przemysław Czapliński

Since 2015, we have been asking ourselves why Poland has not admitted refugees. Whether on the pragmatic or moral level, there seems to be no justified reason for this decision. From the point of view of morality, it was unacceptable to close our borders to people in need of help. From the pragmatic point of view, we should have admitted migrants because this was required by legal agreements between Poland and the EU. Even a cynical motivation would suggest carrying out the minimum obligation, i.e. admitting seven thousand people and thus obtaining an argument for refusing to make any further commitments. This would have been an easy and, in a sense, a fair excuse for Poland: we fulfilled the task, but do not expect us to go beyond that.

If admitting refugees was not such a difficult thing to do, why is it that this issue has divided the society so deeply? One could, of course, answer this question by pointing to the tendentious media campaign, which engraved a simple equation in the mind of the society: “refugees = Islamists = terrorists”. Media images caused a radical change of opinion: in spring 2015, ca. seventy per cent Poles supported refugee admission; a year later, almost the same percentage was against. Apart from people with right-wing, conservative or nationalistic views, such a large section of Polish society must also include a proportion of left wingers and liberals – we cannot pretend otherwise. The anti-refugee attitude – and I admit this with a sad satisfaction – has been the broadest consensus in Polish society since the 1989 democratic breakthrough.

There are so many factors involved in the widespread presence of anti-refugee fear – the media, resistance to EU arrangements, culture war in Poland – that it is difficult to give a simple answer to the question: ‘Why?’ Let us therefore begin by approaching this problem from a different angle.

Literature teaches us that we will learn more about the world not by trying to combat somebody else’s opinion, but rather by letting it transform into a narrative. Its backstory will then reveal the soil from which these views have grown, and adding a continuation will allow us to discover the consequences. So, let us develop such a story. Instead of wondering why the right-wing government closed the borders, let us imagine that the borders were opened…



It is 2015. The wave of migration from the Middle East is swelling. In the face of Hungary’s negative attitude and an increasing reluctance on the part of Czech authorities, the Polish government decides to admit the ‘quota’ of seven thousand refugees as agreed with the EU – although this does not happen without protest from the political right as well as part of the society.

Due to the international dimension of the issue, all legally possible measures were taken to accelerate the admission procedures. The newcomers were located in several dozen refugee centres; language teaching was organised for them; they were divided into groups according to profession; future resettlement sites were prepared. Statistically, five hundred people were sent to every administrative province. For the least populous Opole Province, inhabited by less than a million Poles, this meant that refugees made up 0.5 per mil of the population. In the most densely populated region (Masovia Province, 5.3 million inhabitants), it was 0.1 per mil. The whole number of newcomers was equivalent to a population of tiny town in Poland or small housing estate in a big city!

After twelve months in quarantine, in 2016 the refugees were relocated into various destinations across the whole country. Thanks to immersion language courses, they were soon able to work in their professions; cities and towns each received a couple dozen engineers, doctors, food technologists, technicians, experts in logistics. Craftsmen (plumbers, electrotechnicians, interior designers) entered the regular services market; IT specialists joined Polish teams, speaking mostly English, as they do everywhere in the world. Teachers, of whom there were only few, were recruited by international secondary schools, where they started teaching biology, chemistry, mathematics or geography – again, in English. The thirty-eight million domestic population absorbed seven thousand refugees as fast as fertile soil absorbs thick but brief rain.

Before the relocation, in May 2015, president Bronisław Komorowski won his second term, defeating his most serious contender Andrzej Duda by one per cent. In the October parliamentary elections, the centre-liberal party (Civic Platform) and the right (Law and Justice) won thirty per cent votes each, the nationalists (Kukiz) and democratic liberals (Nowoczesna, ‘The Modern’) – ten per cent each, ‘the agrarians’ (Polish People’s Party, PSL) – seven per cent. The liberal parties created a coalition with PSL and formed a government under the leadership of the incumbent Prime Minister from Civic Platform (Beata Kopacz).


Together yet apart 

Does it follow from this tale that there was a connection between the admission of refugees and the hairbreadth victory of Komorowski and the Civic Platform? Or that the resistance to the idea of opening Polish borders to seven thousand people was a series of media events rather than a diagnosis of actual political or cultural problems? Perhaps.

Yet the crux of this story lies elsewhere. It is the troublesome lack of a different continuation. What is worst about this story is not that with the admission of refugees everything could have gone differently; just the contrary: the worst thing is that with the opening of the borders everything could have remained the same. Thus, my invented tale is utopian in a sense of quick and successful integration of refugees; at the same time, it is an anti-utopian tale due to the isolation of refugee problems from the problems of Poles. The first one talks about improving the situation, at the same time legitimizing the status quo in the other. Therefore, in total the tale is, as Peter Sloterdijk (1988) would say, a narrative of the victorious cynical reason.[1] For this story reveals a lack of connection between the refugee issue and domestic policy. There are no strong connections – and certainly no necessary connections – between the admission of refugees and measures such as raising the minimum wage and salary, protecting the tenants of tenement houses going into private ownership, reforming the pension system. Thus, it was quite possible that after the admission of refugees nothing would have changed.


The founding separation

Opening Polish borders to refugees would have resulted from acknowledging human rights as the supreme ethical postulate and the fundamental political directive in new history. But Polish government’s readiness to respect this directive, declared in 2015, revealed a striking separation between civil and social rights.

In order to explain the character of this separation, let us go back to 1993. At that time, the parliament was about to introduce a new, more restrictive anti-abortion law. The reaction of the society was immediate and massive: more than a million citizens signed a referendum petition. However, the parliament ignored it and the bill was passed. These events were accurately and bitterly described by Agnieszka Graff in her book Świat bez kobiet (A world without women, 2001), where she argued that the young democracy chose the female body as a territory for exercising power. Consequently, women have been objectified and deprived of the right to decide about their bodies. Had this harsher anti-abortion law been accompanied by other legal measures, for example raising the penalty for domestic abuse or rape, tightening child maintenance regulations, introducing employment guarantees for women after maternity leave, this would suggest that the new authorities had a systemic approach to the place of women in society, rather than just aiming to control their bodies. This was not the case, however: the authorities chose patriarchal control over the uterus, and thus women’s narrative was reduced to a ‘handmaid’s tale’.

This decision has had wide-reaching anti-emancipatory consequences for many other issues. Introducing the new anti-abortion law meant that the definition of the family would not change, and so there would be no chance for a vote even on opposite-sex civil partnerships (with respect to community property, joint taxation, inheritance rights, adoption and joint child care, access to the partner’s medical information). If the family was to remain unchangeable, granting civil rights to sexual minorities was out of the question. The anti-abortion law also announced a dangerous alliance of the Church and the market. This alliance worked for the sake of a new consensus – Catholic and neoliberal – which defined the scope within which civil rights applied. Whoever remained within this limited scope could believe that anything is possible and that he (sic) can freely shape his identity. But identity got sealed as: masculine, and thus potentially misogynistic; heterosexual, and thus easily turning to homophobia; and market-oriented, i.e. regarding respect as conditioned on success. Anyone who did not fit within these limits – a woman, a homosexual, a poor person – had an identity with incomplete political subjectivity, following from a deficiency of rights. And such an identity is a postulate rather than a fact (Szczuka 2004; Leszkowicz, Kitliński 2005; Desperak 2013).

Those who could afford it financially or had a significant cultural capital evaded the constraints. The rest had to bear various kinds of humiliation or work out a strategy for managing their stigma. And stigmatisation threatened more and more people: those living in the countryside, workers from closed-down factories, those who were less educated, not European enough, too Catholic, not doing particularly well in the market race. Worse in one way or another. In 1994, there were 3.3 million unemployed; in 2003 – 3.8 million. Not only the number is shocking here, but also the lack of political representation. In the political discourse, it was maintained that losers ‘only have themselves to blame’ if they did not manage to find a job and achieve success, since ‘everything is up to them’. The acute lack of representation resulted from separating civil rights from social rights (and the permanent erasure of the latter). It was this gesture of isolation that became the cornerstone and at the same time the founding sin of the Third Republic of Poland.

This separation resulted in a deadlock: the sphere of civil rights has not been broadened since 1993 (anti-abortion law), and the existing version of democracy served as an alibi to justify the lack of labour law regulations. Politicians tried to convince the society that labour unions, minimum wage, regulated basic salary or permanent contracts are unnecessary, because the most important thing is individual freedom. As long as individuals are free, they can become anyone they want: everyone can find a job or create it for him- or herself, make money, achieve success. However, this meant presuming equal opportunity where it was by no means equal; on the contrary, there were huge economic, financial or social inequalities. In this way, civil rights – which were rather limited anyway – were used to minimise the participation of the state in mediating between the market and the working individual.

In 2015, this alibi was inverted. The ruling party did return social rights, but instead began to take away civil rights. Before discussing this inversion, however, I would like to make one thing clear: I regard introducing the 500+ child care benefit for every second (and subsequent) child in the family, establishing a basic salary and minimum wage, lowering the retirement age as historic decisions. They signal the return of the state as a conciliator and intermediary in economic relations. The employee regains not only a sense of security, but also a sense of being respected. That said, there is no coherence here, nor prospects. In the three-hundred-page ‘Plan for responsible development’ (announced on 12 Sept. 2016 by the then deputy PM Mateusz Morawiecki), the phrase ‘labour unions’ appears three times, and regulations concerning the right to strike almost turn workers’ protest into a fiction; the government tightens up the tax system but does not aim to make changes in the tax law; instead of reforming the pension system, it lowers the retirement age, only to immediately introduce incentives for people who decide not to retire at this age; education and healthcare still remain areas of increasing privatisation, which aggravates social divisions; in order to receive a council flat, the tenant will have to waive his or her tenant rights, which means that the landlord will have the right to throw him or her out without first going to court…

Thus, the new alibi retains an ugly symmetry with the old one: just as liberal governments were content with a narrowed-down version of civil freedoms, the right-wing government has stopped at a limited version of social rights. Under the liberals, civil rights were for people not to demand social rights; under the nationalists, social rights are for people to stop demanding civil rights.


The return of the nation

Despite its numerous and glaring inconsistencies, rather than losing the support of voters, the new political strategy even enjoys growing popularity (thirty per cent in 2016, forty per cent at the end of 2017). This is because the series of loosely related economic decisions is bound together by a new legitimate culture (Bourdieu 1979).

This culture has been based on the martyrology of the Polish nation: on Katyn (where in spring 1940, following Stalin’s decision, the Russians shot dead twenty thousand Poles, including more than ten thousand army and police officers), on the trauma of the Nazi occupation of 1939-1945, on Communist persecutions of 1945-1989, and the Smolensk plane crash. This is not because Polish people have a particular predilection for picking at wounds and corpses, but because every legitimate culture needs an unquestionable, unchallengeable, infrangible basis. Just as neoliberalism appropriated the Holocaust, the present-day version of national capitalism appropriates Katyn.

Liberals used the Holocaust as proof that a unified society (especially nation or community of faith) is dangerous to all minorities (especially ethnic and religious). Thus, the Holocaust became a moral guarantee for the neo-liberal practice of transforming society into separate individuals (according to Margaret Thatcher’s thesis: “There is no such thing as society”). Neoliberal rhetoric drew its legitimisation from the philosophy of pluralism, which emphasised the individual subject and his or her right to be different. However, this strategy meant that more and more responsibility was put on the individual and increasingly taken off the state. Such transformation of the society into separate individuals inevitably consisted mainly in dismantling collective subjects, especially the social classes. When in the early 1990s workers demanded more protection from the state, it was claimed that they wanted the return of communism. In 1993, protesting farmers who dumped crops on train tracks were lambasted as heedless troublemakers. Various types of rhetoric converged at one spot, all issuing the following message: “Stop being members of a social class; start being individual people – managers of your own lives, leaders of individual success, designers and performers of your biographies”. The powerful neoliberal discourse appealing to the value of individual life, could only be confronted by a strong collective subject. And since in the the first decade of the 21st century the working or peasant class no longer existed, the stage was taken by another subject, anachronistic but ever more effective from year to year: the nation.

The proponents of the nation should be calling for a rethinking and reform of capitalism, but they cannot, as this would cut them off from the discourse of ‘development’, ‘honest wealth’ or ‘innovation’. Instead, they attack those whom they believe to embody the legitimisation of liquid modernity. Cries raised against aliens – ‘blasphemers’, ‘faggots’, ‘Jews’ or ‘Islamic terrorists’ – do not stem from the view that they are the beneficiaries of globalisation, but from the intuition that the Others function as legitimising anchorage of the neoliberal discourse (see Bobako 2017). This is why rejecting neoliberal rhetoric leads to rejecting tolerance. One could also phrase this in crueller terms: the Jew, the woman, the refugee and the homosexual became public enemies because the postulate of tolerance towards minorities was combined with a programme for minimising the participation of the state in market competition. And since nationalism became a call for solidarity, the return of demands towards the state takes place under the banner of xenophobia.

Thus, the nation returned not because Poles are ‘born nationalists’, but because it turned out to be the only collective identity capable of staving off the consequences of globalisation. Although this defence is largely illusory, directed against false as well as real threats, on the symbolic level it is effective indeed. No worker or peasant protests, no demonstrations of the precariat or defenders of democracy or even the collective female subject have played a role comparable to that of compressed Islamophobia. This means, however, that in the new collective identity there appeared a factor which was not attributed to collective subjects before, namely agency.

In order to understand the weight of this factor, one must ask about the agency of the society envisaged by successive governments of the Third Republic of Poland. This society had the right to establish parties and organizations, to elect and be elected. However, the effectiveness of political participation was mediated, as it operated within the system of representative democracy. The resulting agency was rather weak as far as collective problems were concerned (property reprivatisation, protection of employment rights, stopping the marketisation of education and healthcare) and slightly stronger with respect to private goals legitimised within narrow normativity (participation in market competition, providing economic security to one’s family, maintaining local values). In this context, it needs to be said – however cruel it might sound – that the collective refusal to admit refugees followed from regaining agency.

This refusal is immoral, racist, and anti-Christian. It is a pathological form of participation in the political life. Does it – despite being immoral – enable the nation to influence politicians, parties, the parliament? Not necessarily. After all, exercising pervasive pressure on the authorities to keep the borders closed will not help negotiate higher basic salary and minimum wage, a wider range of employment rights, or more prerogatives for labour unions. However, it constitutes a means of coercion: the society – now in the form of the nation – uses it to remind the authorities: ‘If our demands are not met, we know how to act effectively”. Therefore, with respect to domestic problems the agency of anti-Islamic attitudes is potential. Because of this potentiality, ‘the nation’ has constituted itself an anti-refugee community.


Refugee gifts 

The above considerations lead to a paradox: had refugees been admitted to Poland, they would have hardly been present at all, while non-admitted refugees are permanently present. This strange state of affairs can be explained in three conclusions.

First of all, the postulate of refugee admission resulted from a maximalist approach to global solidarity, but it appeared after a long period during which the state had minimised principles of domestic solidarity. It follows that avoiding nationalisation of the society is conditioned on creating a policy which would acknowledge social rights as part of civil rights.

Secondly, racist attacks in Polish streets, which I have described as immoral manifestations of agency, point to evident deficiencies in political empowerment; Polish representative democracy did not give Poles a chance for actual participation in politics, i.e. defending their existence from deprivation of property and dignity. A citizen directly affected by the workings of global and anarchic capitalism received too little support – and sometimes none – from the state, which gradually stepped back from its protective and conciliatory functions. The events of 2015-2017 show that without democratisation of democracy the collective desire to participate in political life and influence the reality will lead to the majority attacking randomly singled out minorities.

Thirdly and finally, the close link between anti-refugee prejudice and the rhetoric of national pride indicates a problematic history of respect for collective subjects in Poland. After 1989, respect was increasingly accorded to successful individuals, and the only collective subject which could enjoy appreciation was a European-minded middle class. And since a Polish European middle class turned out to be difficult to access (see: Domański 2015), pride teamed up with nationalism, which manifests itself in xenophobic and racist behaviours. It follows that as long as there is a deficit of respect for the collective Polish everyday life, we will get a recurring ‘jew’, ‘faggot’ or ‘arab’; put together from anti-values and placed at the lowest ranks of social hierarchy, the Other serves to elevate and integrate that which is home-grown and familiar.

Although the refugee issue led to the closing of Polish borders, it turns out to have been an invaluable event. Thanks to those whom we refused to take under the roof of our homeland, we can see fundamental flaws of the post-1989 system, as well as the illusory character of solutions proposed since 2015. Thus, we received from the refugees a valuable gift: self-knowledge. And even though developing a different formula of democracy cannot end with this self-knowledge, without it it could not even begin.


First published in: Botanova, Kateryna/ Przybylski, Wojciech: On the Edge. CULTURESCAPES Poland 2019, Basel 2019. English, 2014 pages. ISBN: 978-3-033-07245-9

Przemysław Czapliński is a Full Professor, literary critic specialising in 20th and 21st century Polish and European literature, essayist and translator. He is a co-founder of the Department of Anthropology of Literature (Adam Mickiewitcz University, Poznań, Poland).


[1] According to Sloterdijk, the victory of cynical reason means that contemporary politicians speak honestly about the impossibility of achieving ideals of the Enlightenment. Thus, cynical honesty becomes a political tool for persuading society to limit its hopes for “good life”.



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