By Wojciech Przybylski
A quarter of century later we are best again living in a world of protest. This culture of protest comes from a negative, rather than from a positive inspiration. We tolerate the negative inspirations as in theory at least protests should reenergize democracies. But more they also deepen lack of acceptance for any political power. In effect the anti-political pacifism from non-violent revolutions from 1989 has also questioned the idea of power.
What do recent non-violent leaderless movements have a common? Apart from that they all take place virtually at the same time they have have been triggered by different factors and they stand against various challenges specific to their location like the Wall Street excessive wealth and influence, lack of perspectives for middle-class in Spain, copyright legislation of ACTA in Poland or recent corruption of political elites in Slovakia or in Bulgaria. Interestingly, of all recent protests in Europe only in Ukraine this has developed so, that it gives a promise of a democratic revival. It is so mostly because the Ukrainian Maidan had a dream to follow and not only a negative politics of post-soviet Mordor to rebel against.
Of all regimes only democracies welcome such protests on the streets. It is believed that protests help democracies to reinvent themselves. In Central Europe a wave of peaceful revolution has spread from the Solidarity movement. It was started by negating oppression but at the same time it followed a dream of reinstalling a political community based on European social rights and welfare state. What can we make out of today’s negativism? What are the dreams to follow? That is a serious challenge because without it the culture of protest remains just a self-pitying folklore.
Unless we accept some form of power as the goal of democratic revival the revival itself is impossible. There are two modes of power we may take into consideration – following modern interpretations of Spinoza’s writings. One power is a coercive force; the other is about building up country’s potential. It is obvious that democracies prefer only the latter: European model attractiveness, a soft power, a promise of wealth and prosperity. But eventually even this power is powerless if one cannot defend and sacrifice own well-being at least for the common good – even for the name of potential of one’s country. So what are Europeans willing to sacrifice today?
Before 1989 has happened there were many efforts to understand human condition of that time. It was mostly about ideas that would change the system. Vaclav Havel in his essay ‘Power of the powerless’ has put in the centre of this reflection a figure of a greengrocer, an everyman of that time, who would need to change himself in order to make political change for better, freer world. The political change has had to begin with change of individual habits – he wrote – that would challenge the oppressive power of the previous regime.
Majority of those greengrocers are long gone with their business but the metaphor remains valid. Every of them was powerless but the collective action of each individual who wanted to stop lies and demanded truth was threatening the coercive power. This search for new greengrocers has to begin instantly if we think seriously of a future democratic revival, a revival of principles. We already find them in countries of neighborhood. Time to find them also within Europe.
Wojciech Przybylski is Editor-in-chief of the polish political, cultural and social magazine Res Publica Nowa. He is a graduate of the University of Warsaw, scholar of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin and a research intern of CEFRES.