Ewa Groszewska writes from Poland. Ewa is a member of New Left
“Free Belarus!” was chanted by students in Wroclaw recently. “There is no freedom or democracy there, the authorities deal with the opposition by using force,” they argued. At the same time French students of the Sorbonne University were being pacified by the police. A democratic country? And Polish students didn’t even think they could protest against the Labour Code...
Such a lack of awareness is due to the fact that people in Poland believe that “flexibility” gives them a chance to find a job.
Students in Poland are so soaked with neo-liberal sense that student organisations do not demonstrate against the occupation of Iraq. These young people are deeply convinced that the occupation serves a noble purpose — establishing democracy. Their definition of a democratic society is a society governed by freedom of speech and free market. Speech is free so long as it isn’t repressed by the authorities.
This freedom is not measured by its content or the impact of the message conveyed. It seems irrelevant that alternative interpretations of reality don’t appear in the mass media, or that they are absent even from universities. History has come to an end, it is said, socialism is a thing of the past, gasping its last breath in Cuba — and who would like to live in Cuba? Our only last resort is to acquire new skills and gather new certificates or diplomas, which will make us privileged on the market.
Students are not always self-oriented. “Principles” could be observed in the anti-Lukaszenko demonstration. But still... our students’ minds are ruled by the absolute ideology that identifies democracy with the free market. They assume that capitalistic Poland is democratic, since everybody is free to say or write that the president is dumb.
The only problem is that a regular retired or jobless person, or a supermarket employee, doesn’t give a damn about the right to gripe. What good is griping if there is no money to buy him or her a loaf of bread? What can a mother do, who despite working hard can’t afford a kindergarten? “They have to improve their existence”, the young ambitious students will reply. In the domain of “nothing economic can be modified”, free market rules are omnipotent.
It is an utmost tragedy for this society that public thought related to democracy and freedom doesn’t include in its scope the economic order. Very few dare notice that freedom from state repression doesn’t really make us rightful citizens. Nowadays the major source of constraint is the economy itself.
The “free market” category is what people only associate with freedom because it’s the entrepreneur who is free. He or she is exempt from regulations, certain taxes, the Labour Code and workers’ rights. In business activities he or she treats human work as a cost that needs to be cut whenever possible. What is freedom on the part of the entrepreneur becomes a restriction on the part of the employee, who needs to adjust to ever-changing economic situation, ruled by one major directive — making maximum profit.
Privatisation and free market is not the final destination of history, contrary to what supporters of the so-called Belarus democratisation hope for. It’s the capitalism which favours profit over people that will come to an end, since it degrades democracy and turns it into a shallow idea of what freedom means. Although one can legally demonstrate views and the authorities won’t object, such demonstrations seldom lead to any changes at all.
It’s a much more complicated to get free from oppression and the exploitation that is generated in the workplace. It’s very important since people often get fired for just attempting to set up a trade union at private companies. And everybody suffers in loneliness from the uncertainty of employment and fear of losing job. We have to keep our mouths shut and do as the boss tells us, because it is the boss who needs to be free and keep the present democracy going.
There is no such thing as democracy in a world where freedom of one part means slavery of the other. A democratic society is the one that makes all citizens equal. Such a society won’t be available in a system which privileges the market and rules over people and makes employees’ lives dependent on profits made by entrepreneurs.