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Today's Democracy Revolts, Through a Polish Lens

Decades ago, photographer and essayist Christopher Grabowski witnessed the rise of Solidarity in his homeland. Déjà vu?

By Christopher Grabowski 6 Jul 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Burnaby-based photojournalist Christopher Grabowski's photography and writings have been widely published, and he is a contributing editor for The Tyee. The pictures in this essay are from his ongoing project to document people participating in Occupy, Idle No More and other social protest movements.

While I am writing this in Burnaby, British Columbia, Quebec is still feeling aftershocks of the Maple Spring, a wave of protests rolls across Europe, Turkey exploded over what started as a minor environmental issue, in Brazil hundreds of thousands demonstrate in all major cities and in Egypt, millions returned to the Tahrir Square in Cairo to renegotiate their social contract once again.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan declared protesters anti-democratic and social media "a menace to society". In contrast, Turkey's president (a mainly titular position), Abdullah Gul, dared to state the obvious: "Democracy does not mean elections alone... there can be nothing more natural for the expression of various views, various situations and objections through a variety of ways, besides elections."

At home, four out of 10 Canadians who could vote in the last federal election did not cast a ballot. Voter turnout was even lower in B.C.'s recent provincial election. Under the current system, those who vote for smaller parties are rewarded with zero representation. Consequently, the winning party always receives the authority to govern from a minority of citizens.

And so in Canada, as in many other places in the world, crises of the environment, social justice and economic equality loom larger every day, while the failure of electoral politics to address what's really at stake means an increasing number of such issues are destined to be resolved through various forms of protest and civil disobedience.

Here we have seen the regular eruption of tightly focused protests, such as those against pipelines and coal trains, and we have also seen larger, more diverse and longer-running resistances such as Occupy and Idle No More. The question they bring to mind is whether these are sporadic outbreaks of dissent without momentum, or whether they are building towards something bigger, something with the power to deeply reform, or even creatively transform, our political system.

I ponder that question from a particular vantage. Before I moved to Canada in 1992 I was part of a social movement that started as a protest and that successfully transformed the society by non-electoral and mainly non-violent means -- the Solidarity movement in Poland. Although I'm not exactly experiencing déjà vu, much of what I am seeing and reading now is beginning to look familiar. And that makes me hopeful.

Poland's prelude to Occupy

An early event leading to the creation of Solidarity was a student protest in March 1968. About 1,500 students gathered in front of Warsaw University to protest the Communist government's decision to ban the theatre performance of a classic play written almost 150 years earlier. The central slogan of the demonstration: "We want culture without censorship".

The peaceful demonstration was brutally dispersed by the riot police. Within a few days, student protests spread to almost all major universities in the country. But there it ended; hundreds of students were jailed and thousands were expelled from universities. There was a call for a general strike but it did not resonate. The population struggled with fear and apathy. There was no civil society to speak of and the Catholic Church, a powerful institution in Poland, did not get involved.

From the communist establishment point of view, brutal attacks on protesters brought about a complete victory. The eruption was contained, leaders jailed and no other segment of society dared to support dissenting students. However, there was a change to which the establishment was apparently blind and deaf. A potent narrative, "We want culture without censorship," entered the national thought stream. From then on, it became an unspoken context to... well, pretty much everything.

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Occupy Vancouver, October 2011. Photo: Christopher Grabowski

Think about Occupy in North America. After being attacked by the police and mainstream media alike, Occupy was declared a pathetic failure -- protesters did not stand up to mainstream media expectations and did not present us with a detailed proposal for the reform of global capitalism.

On the other hand, Occupy effectively invalidated the historical, American narrative of a classless society and upward social mobility. The narrative of 99 Per Cent vs. One Per Cent currently provides an unavoidable, unspoken context for... well, pretty much everything.

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Occupy Vancouver, October 2011. Photo: Christopher Grabowski

After quashing student protests in 1968, the government in Poland continued to censor the heck out of any printed matter including wedding invitations, as well as jamming western radio broadcasts. One of the unintended consequences of this policy was the emergence of a generation of very conscious consumers of the media's information content. People compared information from various sources, screened it for suspected bias and sorted out inconsistencies. In other words, they naturally assumed responsibility for getting informed. With that responsibility came the ability to establish social space beyond the spin and control of the state.

A similar lack of trust characterizes First Nations' relationship with Canadian mainstream media. This relationship goes way back. As one of the unintended consequences of severe distortions of their image in the dominant media, many First Nations people assumed responsibility for learning history on their own terms. This established a social space where First Nations' alternative wisdoms, ethical codes and sensitivities could be preserved. That treasure -- a rich fabric of ancient narratives -- is available as a result today to offer paths to alternative solutions to seemingly unrelenting problems.

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Idle No More, Vancouver City Hall, January 2013. Photo: Christopher Grabowski

In 1971, dissident Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski published an essay, "Thesis on Hope and Hopelessness". Kolakowski examined how civil society groups could create and expand fragmentary spheres of freedom within a totalitarian state. Kolakowski gave philosophical foundations to a spontaneous social process already in progress.

The regime in Poland occupied the commons through the control of media and public gatherings but could no longer control a whole new tapestry of civil society including Catholic discussion clubs, student bodies, artists' collectives, workers' committees, unauthorised rock concerts, independent documentarians, village councils and human rights groups -- the list goes on.

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Idle No More, Vancouver City Hall, January 2013. Photo: Christopher Grabowski

As in Kolakowski's essay on freedom, spheres of sustainability could be and are created locally even while most of the planet is relentlessly commodified by multinational corporations. One geographically close example is the 100-mile diet, supported by The Tyee. A more remote example is Bornholm, a small island on the Baltic Sea with population of 42,000 that strives to become carbon neutral and depend on renewable energy only. It is imaginable that some communities on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands will soon go the same route.

'First they came for...'

By 1980 in Poland the Solidarity trade union was established, comprising thousands of local strike committees and independent trade union founding committees. This confederation was advised by the people who had been expelled from the universities a decade earlier. Many professionals made their expertise and skills available for the movement, some catalyzed by unfolding circumstances. I, for example, was among about 2,000 journalists fired merely on the suspicion of insufficient loyalty to the regime. After being tossed on the street I promptly turned into a primitive rotary press operator and a distributor of an underground newspaper.

Dispersed protest actions fused into a mass political movement. Anger, indignity, anxiety, and many other emotions were also driving this process but the feeling of solidarity gave it positive energy and sustained it for the length of time necessary for completion.

This process was opposite to the apathetic disintegration of German civil society in 1930s, described in pastor Martin Niemöller's poem:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

In Quebec in 2012, one of the driving forces of Maple Spring, La Coalition large de l'Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE) operated on the same principle of grassroots democracy as Solidarity.

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The students' protest in Montreal, May 22, 2012. Photo: Justin Ling, CC-license

The striking students in Quebec received support from more than 100 civil society organizations grouped together in the anti-austerity Red Hand Coalition. That show of solidarity was enough to alter Quebec's political landscape, if only by a little.

Irony in revolt

In 1981 the Communist government in Poland de-legalized Solidarity, instigated martial law and forbade all gatherings. While leaders of Solidarity and most of the activists were imprisoned or in hiding and temporarily silenced, a new underground protest movement, Orange Alternative (OA), originated at the university in Wroclaw. It infuriated authorities with absurd, anarchistic street happenings.

Anti-government graffiti that appeared overnight were quickly painted over by special teams supervised by the police. Instead of painting more slogans on the top of recovered surfaces, Orange Alternative painted simplified pictures of dwarves, preferably orange if they had the paint available. It not only brought focus back to the painted-over original slogans, but also quickly associated the colour orange with the resistance.

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Photo from the exhibition: Pomaranczowa Alternatywa at the Galeria Miedzynarodowego Centrum Kultury

In the next phase, OA distributed free orange hats in the centre of the city. Before authorities realized that there was a new form of protest going on, there were thousands of people walking around wearing orange hats.

OA members, when arrested, claimed they were artists who, through their actions, wanted to encourage independent thinking -- further exposing the government's fear of any articulation of independent thought.

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Protest march route, Montreal.

Above is the graph of a planned protest march route in Montreal. It was presented to authorities by Maple Spring organizers in response to new requirements designed to make street protests either impossible or illegal. Montreal protesters resorted to irony when negotiations failed and when peaceful forms of protest become restricted. When protesters start laughing it doesn't mean they have given up, it signals that the social contract is crumbling.

Multiple alternatives

When Margaret Thatcher needed a slogan to justify her dismantling of the welfare state in the United Kingdom, she borrowed from the Victorian era classical liberal theorist Herbert Spencer. "There is no alternative" (TINA) perfectly expresses the determination of Thatcher and other neoliberal ideologues not to engage in creative social dialogue, or any social dialogue for that matter, outside of what's required to consolidate their power and control.

When TINA becomes the modus operandi of state institutions, explains economist Mark Blyth, it leads to "homogeneity of personnel and ideas, coupled with politicization of business", and eventually to "cognitive lock" that prevents politicians and business leaders from even acknowledging issues and considering solutions outside of the neoliberal textbook. Society is then presented with patently nonsensical options, such as instructing citizens we must choose between jobs and the environment. In Canada, this is the frame imposed by those who govern at the federal level and in British Columbia's seat of power. There is little room in our official political conversation for the knowledge that First Nations have kept alive – the understanding that ways out of such dilemmas lead through beliefs and attitudes rather that technologies. You are not likely to wipe out entire species for short-term profit if you consider them equal to you and your people in the grand scheme of things.

How will such different ways of thinking find their way to the centre of our national conversation? How will this cognitive lock be unjammed? In Poland what started out as suppressed protests and seemingly short-lived eruptions of cultural resistance cohered into the Solidarity movement that transformed the nation's political reality.

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Occupy Vancouver, October 2011. Photo: Christopher Grabowski

Idle No More, Occupy and other protest movements don't offer ready-to-implement systemic solutions, yet they point the way towards them. Most of all, they offer a chance to create solidarity. A solidarity expressed by sharing hope in response to the current predicament, rather than residing in fear and apathy. In so doing these movements affirm, rather than threaten, the potential of democracy -- democracy as defined by Turkey's bravely perceptive president.

"Democracy does not mean elections alone... there can be nothing more natural for the expression of various views, various situations and objections through a variety of ways, besides elections."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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