Commentary: It’s time for liberals to fight back

Poland is in an uproar. The decision of its ruling Law and Justice Party to bring the judiciary under political control has been partially blocked by President Andrezj Duda after large street demonstrations in most major cities.

Protesters in Wroclaw demonstrate against government plans to change Poland's judiciary, July 26, 2017. Agencja Gazeta/Mieczyslaw Michalak via REUTERS

But this is not a government which brooks denial. The Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, responding on Wednesday to a complaint against the bill filed by the European Union, said the government wouldn’t succumb to “blackmail, threats and intimidation.”  “No threats will stand in our way. We won’t let anyone from the outside treat us this way,” he told reporters.

“Outside” in this instance is a Union whose democratic and civic norms Poland enthusiastically embraced when it joined the EU in 2004 with nine other states, eight of which were formerly Communist-ruled. “Outside” is a Union which, in 2015, pumped in €13.4bn ($14.2bn) to its economy, by some way the largest subsidy to any EU member.

Over the 13 years of its membership, Poland has received some €150bn. “What we are witnessing,” writes the Polish-Nigerian commentator Remi Adekoya, “is, without doubt, one of the largest wealth transfers between nations in modern history.”


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“Outside” is a Western world where the rule of laws must take precedence over the rule of leaders. Where the divisions of ethnicity must no longer be a matter of discrimination or prejudice.

“Outside” is also globalization, the complex networks of trade agreements, transnational corporate production and overarching financial, political and legal institutions. And “outside” has been suffused, since the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, with a broadly liberal ideology which stresses openness, multiculturalism and constant willingness to change.

The current Polish government is against most of that. And why should it not be? So is the leader of the Western world.

President Donald Trump, in a speech in Warsaw early this month, forbore to mention the justice law, instead sharing distaste for the news media with President Duda and lamenting the decline of Europe, implicitly exempting Poland from that decline. Home again, Trump signalled that he remains a reactionary by banning transgender people from the military. He had already shown his belief that government was all about him by attacking Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from an investigation about alleged Russian involvement in the 2016 election  – as by law Sessions had to – and in doing so, being “unfair” to the president.  

A shift is taking place in politics and society worldwide, and no-one can know how far it will go. The release from communism in the early 1990s was expected by many - including me, then a correspondent in Eastern Europe - to result in a stable embrace of liberal democratic norms by the former communist countries, including Russia itself.

That was a liberal illusion. It is now being proven wrong, most starkly in Russia, but also in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and possibly - after the coming October election - in the Czech Republic. The opposite of communism, in these countries, is not now liberal democracy, but semi-authoritarian nationalism. That had been a discreet component of communism; it has flourished much more openly since communism collapsed. As the European Council president Donald Tusk (a former Prime Minister of Poland) put it - “Poland is moving us back, in time and space, to the East.”

But it isn’t just the East. Trump is a standing affront to the ideals and practices of democratic statehood, which have had the adherence, more or less, of liberals, conservatives and social democrats in the post-war West. Under his giant shadow, movements of both the far left and right have become less inhibited about their distaste for political establishments they see as moribund, even illegitimate.

The far left showed one version of this at the G-20 summit in Hamburg earlier this month. German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose Hamburg for its radical, open culture - only to have parts of the city trashed and burned by mainly young, often masked demonstrators. A Syrian bystander, who had arrived 18 months before as a refugee, told a reporter, “I can't believe my eyes. They have such a beautiful country and they're destroying it.”

The protesters destroyed more than Hamburg’s shops (and put more than 200 of the 20,000 police deployed in hospital). As the veteran German journalist, Josef Joffe put it, the 'anti-capitalist’ demonstrations are “the postmodern version of Rome’s bread and circuses - almost no risk and lots of fun. And selfies.”  

On the right, ideologists like Trump’s senior adviser Steve Bannon embrace the most lurid themes and practices of tabloid journalism, especially in representing immigrants as criminal and lazy, the state as oppressive and mainstream politicians as corrupt, in order to cement a bloc of the public behind a right-wing program. According to the journalist Ian Birell, Trump is now a role model for authoritarian leaders in Liberia, Rwanda and Cambodia. When Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was asked in an interview about nepotism, by employing her sons in her administration, she shot back: “My sons? Ask Trump!”

A large part of the Western public is indeed justified in disappointment with and fear of what they see as the effects of liberal globalization. Wages have stagnated, rapid change has favored the elites and the wealthy and skills which gave shape to lives, even communities, are now captured by increasingly intelligent machines. But, as both Americans and Poles are discovering, the “cure” from the far right is worse.

The extremes wish to make sure that the center will not hold. There’s a fight on between the nationalist and the globalist visions which, even after the defeat of the far right in France and the Netherlands, remains intense. Moderate liberalism, after years of easy assumption that its bases were secure, now must show itself capable of mind-to-mind combat.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.