Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

The Ballad of Warm Tap Water

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Young Poles do not seek to redefine their relationship with the state. At least not all of them and not fundamentally.

photo by Flickr user mitwa17, CC BY-ND 2.0

photo by Flickr user mitwa17, CC BY-ND 2.0

As Polish prime minister Donald Tusk said in an interview with the Wprost weekly in late summer 2010:

Editor: But politicians ought to have more ambitions to change the status quo.
DT: For as long as I remain in the public sphere I will prefer politics that ensure – as some might say caustically – warm water in the tap. That’s because a lot of people appreciate that there finally is a strong party that remains temperate and modest. A party that does not impose grandiose goals on the people, but instead provides a great deal of stabilisation.”

The reference to warm tap water has stuck with the Civic Platform government and three years on remains as valid as ever. Reaching out to the average voter and adopting a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to modernisation – symbolised by grand projects funded with EU money – has made Donald Tusk the first post-1989 PM to stay in his seat for another term. While the warm current of structural funds continues to flow.

However, despite the ‘civic’ name and image of the ruling party, many domestic commentators would scathingly describe the Polish public sphere as a paradoxical mix of post-politics and pop-politics.

Post-politics refers to a partly-populist, partly-technocratic approach to governance – with not many real ideological discussions taking place in the public eye – while pop-politics has been used to describe the trivial and repetitive character of media discourse with its line ups of political talking heads quarelling over trivialities. The interest in real policy matters is only marginal while the mainstream media hardly does anything to foster an understanding.

Redefine who?

And young Poles are no revolutionaries. Over the past couple of years news about indignados or 99-percenters might have garnered some ‘likes’ but has hardly managed to spark anything more substantial than a couple of arguably confused marches. The post-communist Democratic Left Alliance and the pseudo-liberal Palikot Movement dominate the ‘progressive’ side of the political scene, but neither seem to resonate well with young people.

Even the free-market hardliners seem to be more popular, contrary to a popular saying many Poles attribute to Bismarck (though no German has ever heard it): he who was not a socialist as a youth will grow up to be an old bastard. The libertarian Congress of the New Right, headed by the eccentric Janusz Korwin-Mikke, is venerated by many of the youngest voters, which loyally litter virtually every social network with the Gospel of the Austrian School.

The only really significant mobilisation of young people over the past couple of years included the 2012 protests against ACTA, perceived as a direct assault on sacred digital freedoms, and the demonstrations of right-wingers, who over the past few months have started consolidating into a new grassroots initiative dubbed the National Movement.

Redefine why?

But the meanders of Polish political life hardly offer a good key to understanding what young people are after. I would rather suggest that a curious outsider takes a look at the two following pieces: a government report Youth 2011 and a manifesto for a digital generation We, the Web Kids which went viral in early 2012.

Youth 2011 uses a palette of surveys and social research to paint an analytical picture of a relaxed – if not somewhat bored – generation. With more than a half of young Poles choosing to stay away from politics, the current twenty-somethings are apparently enjoying their lives more than their parents’ generation did. They value a good work-life balance just as much as having a well-paid job, an eventful life and a strong sense of belonging. It seems they want it all. But how much can they realistically expect in 2013, given that the economic slowdown is finally reaching Polish shores?

It might also be argued that Polish youth (at least the less-politicised majority) has a fairly pragmatic view of the state-citizen relationship. Last year, in the midst of the anti-ACTA protest frenzy, the writer and commentator Piotr Czerski wrote on behalf of the so-called ‘Web Kids’ generation:

We do not feel a religious respect for ‘institutions of democracy’ in their current form; we do not believe in their axiomatic role as do those who see ‘institutions of democracy’ as a monument for and in themselves. We do not need monuments. We need a system that will live up to our expectations, a system that is transparent and proficient. And we have learned that change is possible: that every uncomfortable system can be replaced and is replaced by a new one, one that is more efficient, better suited to our needs, giving more opportunities.

Redefine when?

So will the revolution be streamed on-line? Or will it be just warm tap water? This remains to be seen. An average Polish graduate says she expects a starting pre-taxed salary of about 3000 PLN (slightly above 700 EUR), but will work for less as long as she gets the job. And she is definitely not outraged enough to join ranks with nationalists or trade unionists. Or, for that matter, do anything beyond clicktivism. Not just yet. For now, challenging the status quo remains a fringe business done by organisations that are either exotic, ineffective or still in the making.

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zakowiecki Twitter: zakowiecki

An alumnus of the LSE and the NUS. A social scientist by training, a political junkie by conviction. Currently working for Polityka Insight, a Warsaw-based centre for policy analysis, where I cover issues ranging from health policy to pension reforms. I previously worked for the Chancellery of the Prime Minister of Poland as well as the Ministry of Administration and Digital Affairs.