The Experience of Commonness is necessary for the political revitalization of the West


Excerpted from Slawomir Sierakowski of the Polish group Krytyka:

“What may really persuade people to come together is common experience as the experience of commonness. It is undertakings rather than abstract theory. In today’s world, it is not the argument or emotion that can form social bonds, but common actions that build real and long-term trust. Sociologists express concern about the decrease of social capital, what Robert Putnam calls the phenomenon of “bowling alone.” Less is written about how one can act politically in such a “post-society.” It appears that “social glue” cannot be produced on a mass scale. “Together,” in real life, refers to a very few, later to a few dozen, at most to a few hundred people, if it is to be a real together, one that derives from common experiences. But the power of close-knit people is enormous, and their determination is far greater than that which emerges from the logic of the market or NGOs, much less the glitzy but desiccated party structures.

The “action plans” proposed in the past works of such East European thinkers and activists as Jacek Kuro? and Václav Havel suggest a way forward. The theory and practice of small groups does not guarantee the creation of a social movement. Yet, no such movement can be created without it—without islands of trust. Perhaps their absence explains why recent mass outbreaks of discontent, such as the Indignados and Occupy, were merely protests and did not develop into social movements.

Havel neither believed in Soviet Communism nor ever became an uncritical dreamer of liberal democracy, the invisible hand of the market, and consumer prosperity. After the collapse of communism, he did not get stuck on old maps, nor did he neglect new challenges. Already in The Power of the Powerless, published in 1978, he wrote,

It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it. They are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies.

And these were not the views of a naïve idealist. As president of the Czech Republic, Havel did not silently accept the “realities” of power. His autobiography was originally entitled Keep It Short. Please (in English, it is To the Castle and Back: Reflections on My Strange Life as a Fairy-Tale Hero). Havel picked the title to protest the stupidity of commercialized media, which he believed turned everything into a thoughtless form, and against the journalists who accepted this. Yes, we know, said Havel, that this is the norm, and those who do not comply will be hidden away under a hat. But maybe if more of us did not comply it would be much easier to think in fresher and more helpful ways. For Havel, we are all shoppers at the grocery store who can either accept the imperfect world around us or challenge it. We will remain this way as long as this imperfect world is based on almost universal indifference.

In The Power of the Powerless, Havel recommended a method of social action:

I believe in structures that are not aimed at the technical aspect of the execution of power….There can and must be structures that are open, dynamic, and small; beyond a certain point, human ties like personal trust and personal responsibility cannot work….They would be structures not in the sense of organizations or institutions, but like a community. Their authority certainly cannot be based on long-empty traditions, like the tradition of mass political parties, but rather on how, in concrete terms, they enter into a given situation.

Jacek Kuro? organized such groups to resist Communist rule in Poland. He helped form such groups as “The Commandos,” which initiated student protests in March 1968 (with Adam Michnik, among others), and the Workers’ Defense Committee, a vital forerunner of the Solidarity movement. Kuro? paid a lot of attention to two ideal types of groups: expressive and instrumental. Expressive groups derive from a bond that is formed between people “who share the same experience, read the same books, have the same viewpoints.” They show “incredible strength and resilience.” Instrumental groups, on the other hand, concentrate on an external aim. They are more formalized, regulated, and aim for efficiency. The latter are more familiar to us; this “cold” element, ubiquitous in today’s world, overshadows the warm one. Kuro? and Havel envisioned not a conservative utopia of organic communities but a well-balanced mixture of the warm element of a solid social bond and the cold element, reliable and effective.

What we need now are not nuclear power plants generating more energy for wealthy post-societies but plants capable of producing social glue that would restore societies. We must rebuild interpersonal relationships for change, first through actively organized groups and then through social movements.

A mere three decades ago, Poland gave birth to the largest such movement the world has ever seen; Solidarity had ten million members. But we still behave as though present-day political parties—stripped of ideals and staffed by people without qualities—can satisfy us. The world crashes into us like un-reason incarnate, like the creation of some deranged gigantic brain. Can one nonchalantly accept that huge burden, and agree that what exists, simply is, and that’s that?” asked Milosz. The answer? “One can, but only by passively accepting it in a state of brutish contemplation, like a grazing cow. If we are capable of compassion, yet at the same time powerless, then we live in a state of desperate irritability.”

S?awomir Sierakowski is the leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), based in Poland with branches in Ukraine and Russia. It is the largest movement of left-wing intellectuals, artists, and activists in Eastern Europe. He is also director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw. This open letter to political parties was published in the weekend edition of Gazeta Wyborcza (June 18–19, 2011). Its publication sparked months of debate, which included, among others, essays in response by the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman and Poland’s former president Aleksander Kwa?niewski.”

1 Comment The Experience of Commonness is necessary for the political revitalization of the West

  1. AvatarCrisisMaven

    I believe what was possible back then (I was in Gdansk and at the Lenin dockyard in December 1981) is not possible now. These groups formed and built cohesive bonds due to the persecution that threatened them. In today’s affluent society everyone may be connected via such shenanigans as Facebook but in reality that doesn’t count. As the Dunbar number (about 150 is the maximum size of any “tribe”) suggests, people only play games, their bonding as real as “Second Life”. Not so maybe in places where they’re under threat again, but certainly in Europe mostly.

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