Swans Commentary » swans.com March 28, 2005  



The Unlearned Lesson Of Joseph K.


by Anna Kuros





"Only so far as history serves us will we serve it."
—F. Nietzsche, "On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History For Life"


(Swans - March 28, 2005)  In the English language bookstore where I work part-time, a middle-aged Polish man came up to me a few weeks ago saying that he really likes this place, but he felt compelled to express his criticism about the American flag hanging above the entrance, where fifty stars form the peace sign. He went on to explain that Poles are indebted to the United States for the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, and that if not for America, Poland would still be a part of that tyrannical system that ruled Eastern Europe for 50 years. In an attempt to answer his remarks I asked what is to be done with the 100 thousand victims of the Iraq war. He left me with a riposte that, at that moment, I couldn't find a sufficient answer for, that is: every single victim of American militarism is counterweighted by the victims of Stalinism. What's important is that he didn't seem, by any means, to be a whole-hearted supporter of the invasion of Iraq. The sense I got (and I often do with many supporters of the Iraq war in this country) is that he simply considers it a necessary evil, a historical imperative or a tactical solution. I find it worth noting that he was very emotional about this issue, he got increasingly irritable, angry and he clearly found the whole topic very disturbing. The reason for his unease, I think, was a great and deep anger felt for communism. I don't know that man's history so I can't really say if his feelings were justified, but I know that a great number of Poles, many of them my age and with little first hand experience of communism, share similar sentiments. The amount of frustration and anger attached to this topic often seems to be more than just an expression of the unhealed trauma of communism.

Why I find this strangely morally vindictive reaction towards communism slightly irrational is that if you try to compare the almost identical sins (murder, persecution, imposition of institutional unfreedom) of both systems, those of the former (communism) are inexcusable, and those of the latter (capitalism) are frequently justified in the name of a FUTURE freedom, and are even defended as a means to safeguard prosperity, social order and aim at improvement of the quality of people's lives. From a purely psychological point of view it takes a lot of elaborate rationalizations and twisting of logic to come up with either of the explanations.

In today's Poland a lot of effort is spent on vilifying the previous system and glorifying the present one. Polish people, given their history, are very cynical about moral capabilities of their leaders. When you talk to working class Poles -- taxi drivers, farmers -- they have no illusions about what kind of future is awaiting them as a result of Transformation. During communism, basic rudimentary goods were unobtainable; food was scarce. Now the stores are overflowing with a wide variety of international products. Some can afford it, some less, some not at all. But they all equally act as if they were participating in a great feast sent down from heaven. When the coffins of the few Polish soldiers killed in Iraq arrived at the Warsaw Airport, newspapers glorified the event, as if the dead were the heroes of WWII who had just helped to win Polish independence from Nazi occupation. Poles are people marked by a number of specific characteristics. One of them is a great insecurity complex, resulting from almost two centuries of occupation and partitions. Basically, from 1772 when the First Partition took place (by Germany, Russia and Austria), through WWII and then Communism, Poland was a land that Russia or Germany tried to constantly wrest from each other. This undermined national confidence permanently and manifests itself in great insecurity, a defensive resorting to "purely Polish values" (Roman Catholicism, excessive pride in monarchs, and ancient triumphs), and desperately clutching to any achievements we may have (such as the Pope) and making them into the national mythology. The biggest problem for what I would call "the Polish spirit" is that we are Slavs in the end, like Russians, and in moments of national weakness we are almost willing to admit a disappointment with the fact that Dostoevsky wasn't Polish. The Slavic legacy and what it means for modern Poles is a crucial problem. On the one hand, Poles strongly identify with it, and it usually gets us too dangerously close to characteristics ascribed to our eastern neighbours, whom we strongly reject and resent, or feel superior to. As a result of our troubled history with Russia, who wasn't always our benign uncle, the features we both share have to be somehow rejected because it makes us too much like them. On the other hand, one can observe a peculiar rejection of tradition, which is probably connected to socio-economic changes observed on a global scale.

In recent months, I encountered some remarks made by people of importance who all seem to be observing a radical shift in the working of modern society. Since I'm Polish I can't speak for others; but at least in the case of my country, and one other -- the USA -- whose case is frequently under close international scrutiny, one notices parallel tendencies.

I recently heard an opinion that if you asked the French to choose between equality and freedom, they would probably choose equality, but if you posed a similar question to Americans (and Poles), in most cases they would take freedom. Given Poland's slowly disintegrating welfare state, and America's total lack of it, it makes one wonder what the word "freedom" means. Albert Einstein said in 1949:

"...I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives progressively deteriorate. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, people feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life [...].

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers, the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor, not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules.

...The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital, the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights."

The violent changes that took place at the end of 18th century in Europe were an attempt at creating a civil society in which all citizens by means of voting choose those who are supposed to represent their interests, protect them and guard the social order.

This hasn't happened, and modern democratic states (or those which are referred to as such) are democratic only abstractly.

Partly what happened is that the nature of political power itself hasn't changed, but rather what we witnessed is a democratization of a concept. The way we "talk" about the state makes the state look democratic because there are mechanisms in place that potentially guarantee that certain rights can be exercised (like trade unions, protection from corruption, pay raises) but this, in large measure, remains an almost abstract, latent capability that can never be realized, because the actual praxis of politics is the same. Life is pregnant with possibilities that will never happen. This can only be understood if one realizes that this is a linguistic question. Our consciousness has been provided with concepts of freedom and self-awareness, and because we talk about ourselves as free it's not acceptable to us that we actually aren't. We protect ourselves from the truth of our existence. I think that when they say that we live in a world of unreality they actually don't mean that there is no reality, because we always live in some kind of reality, different for everyone, but that humans purposefully shield themselves from looking at the reality of their own life by creating a language of unreality; their own hermetic cyberspace, that no one can enter and destroy. When I see Polish teenagers elated in their brand new Nikes (usually made in a sweatshop in Korea), or queuing up for two hours in a cell phone store, they act as if some divine privilege has been bestowed on them. The deprivation and injustice of their lives has been so great that the satisfaction of basic needs becomes a glorified event. One needs to look at it historically, and the legacy of communism certainly contributed to that state of affairs, but the majority of Polish families don't see their future in bright colours just by virtue of being a part of a New World Order.

In his cave metaphor, Plato tells us that men live in a world of illusion. Even more, he seems to be saying we will never be able to see the light of truth because its brightness would make us blind. People willingly choose to "stay in the cave" and just stare at the shadow of reality. We simply can't stand it; he seems to blame this partially on the physical world of our senses that we indulge in excessively. If we could devote ourselves to purely spiritual activities and "kill" the body, then the immortal soul might get the share of the eternal absolute. If the soul is really immortal then, I believe part of it must be contained in our collective history. We are unable to decipher it. The truth is hidden from us or we choose not to see it. Future generations learn their lesson from their forefathers. That's why mistakes keep happening, because history is not static. Precedents help us make progress but they don't provide constructive answers for the future. They don't solve the questions of existence, or maybe in most cases we ignore the real teaching of our predecessors.

I always thought of Plato as a defender of a rigid hierarchical system (patriarchy), and certainly not as a bastion of freedom. After closer scrutiny I realized that there is in his text (Republic) something particularly relevant for the contemporary citizen. "And Democracy has her own good, of which the insatiable desire of wealth and neglect of all other things for the sake of money-getting was also the ruin of oligarchy..... the insatiable desire of this and that, and the neglect of other things introduces the change in democracy, which occasion a demand for tyranny......When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then unless her rulers are very amenable, she calls them to account..... the excess of liberty, whether in States or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery."

Plato's teaching, on the whole, certainly doesn't propose revolutionary philosophy that bans inequality and class, but the subtlety of his argument on the dangers of excess of freedom are really striking, especially when you realize that they are aimed at those at the top. These are our leaders that enjoy an excess of freedom and power. People suffer from it, die from it, and nobody can do anything about it. When I read those passages in the Republic I thought of Dick Cheney -- certain sadomasochistic aspects of his expressions; disgust mixed with joy. A grimace that signifies someone who crossed every line.

The other day I watched a documentary on the British punk group "Sex Pistols." More than a biographical sketch portraying the career and brutal downfall of rebellious teenagers from a working class district of London, it was an attempt to show the repercussion of extreme social tensions. Set during the era of Thatcher's government, it shows a group of British kids who, out of frustration and lack of any other occupation, just decided to scream out the hypocrisies of their society. It also showed how greatly the politicians, the church and all the self-respected, law-obeying, church-going citizens were disturbed by that. Are four 18-year olds, using swear words, screaming blasphemous words at the queen, a threat to the society? No, they aren't. It's that they, within a very short time, gained a huge following of others who felt exactly like they did. And this is the problem; you can't let the people realize the origin of their misery. It makes both the privileged see their excessive privilege, and the underprivileged their extreme deprivation. And society can't just continue with that tension exposed to everyone's sight as a badly festering wound. It has to be suppressed. Not the injustice itself, but the very sight of poverty and social imbalance has to be removed. It's not that the working class doesn't have class consciousness, the elite doesn't either (they just assume there is only one class: them) and it's not in the concept of society we so far came up with. When society defends order it really defends hierarchy. When you look at history, it doesn't seem that people really mind the idea that some are shoemakers, some farmers and some kings who preside over all of that. What they do mind is that the hierarchy of social status is always connected to the hierarchy of needs and their satisfaction. If you're a peasant you don't need as much as a king, and that still seems to go without saying. The problem is that everyone needs to eat. Class war is about dignity.

I think that the right wing read Marxist-Leninist writings very carefully. It is very hard to argue with them because they make use of metaphors and rhetoric that have been adjusted to the evolution of language (and consciousness). They talk about the welfare state (but they mean universal healthcare for those who make enough money to pay for it); they talk about humanity and prosperity of all men (but they mean the prosperity of those strong enough to make it in business); and in particular, they are fond of freedom -- freedom to make money.

We don't live in a democratic age, in which people's rights are respected. Racism and prejudice have always been economic. In Poland you hear: "Germans want to buy off our land, Jews are stealing gentiles' business, Gypsies are just lazy thieves." Elsewhere, "Blacks want our share of the economy, Indians claimed our property, Muslims just can't organize their society right, women are inferior and must stay home." In every society one group gets ostracized because there is a perception (or it is a reality) that there is not enough to share. Malthus said that all people can't be fed because the earth is overpopulated and this is a problem particularly with the poor. If this is true, the conservative, Christian ruling-elite should actually be pro-abortion and birth control. This could help to decrease overpopulation. This is not the case. Perhaps they hope that by that time another million are born in Africa, the other already dies of malnutrition and AIDS. Rosa Luxemburg, during a Women's Conference in 1912, said that it's up to working class women to educate themselves. Once this radical shift in consciousness occurs, the process towards change is launched. The problem of class seems to me a topic so subtle I cannot even begin to explain. Whenever I meet someone I instantly know how someone was raised, and especially when I encounter someone who seems really upper class. I can't help feeling that this is what royalty must be like. They emanate that utter disdain for all physical aspects of one's existence, as if you were an ethereal being, a cherub floating in mid-space. Not accidentally, the term "higher sphere" has been coined (at least in Polish), as if you were a cosmic stone, a meteorite sighting that happens once a century.

History is a process in which people collectively take part and affect its course. One might say that Bonaparte was history, Stalin was history, and George Bush is history. To me, they seem to represent a certain spirit of their time; an aura that they helped to create, and their fellow citizens responded, allowing themselves be carried with the current. That's what Germans did in the 1930s, and what people still seem to be doing today. Partly because they don't have a choice, or more likely, they've never even been asked for an opinion. The questions in the opinion polls and referendums usually run, "Do you like this, or not?" They never ask you for an alternative solution, or offer one. "Do you want Poland to become member of the EU?, "Yes or No." The biggest delusion nourished by mankind has been a hope that there is something like total freedom. Modern governments, behind their electoral promises, always try to convince you that they'll give you freedom. Some systems are far more oppressive than others but total political freedom of a citizen in a modern society is an illusion. You cannot ever achieve full freedom. There are always bonds: economic, historical, psychic. If you look at the art history of any period, no matter whether one is a king or a slave, whether one is rich or poor, no character in the history of literature ever feels absolutely free (it may even be that the higher the character stands on the ladder of artistic perfection the more striking is his bondage: Oedipus, Lear, Raskolnikov). I would say that's what all literature is about. It is a projection; a dream of an ideal existence that we would like to have (or how the lack of it affects us). Some have called death the only freedom there is. Freud seemed to testify to it. The word freedom (in its political aspect) should be replaced with self-determination. When we resort to talking about political freedom, it is always in a situation where there is a striking lack of it. Politically, and economically, you choose the conditions under which you live. No other aspect of my life can be decided in the public arena, including freedom, which I consider to be a question of one's inward existence or emotions. Whenever an individual as a social being is involved, it is his individual freedom that has always been sacrificed to keep the unity of a society intact.

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Internal Resources

Never Buy a Cat in a Bag
Poland, a Country that Asked for Freedom...
but Got "Democracy"
- Anna Kuros, October 18, 2004

Patterns wich Connect on Swans


About the Author

Anna Kuros, born in Kielce, Poland, some 25 years ago, is studying philosophy at Jagiellonian University. She also works as a translator and lives in Krakow.



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This Edition's Internal Links

Facing Down The Demons: An Exercise in Self-Appraisal - by Michael DeLang

Some Call It Freedom But It Smells Like Death - by Phil Rockstroh

Neidermeyer Nation - by Richard Macintosh

BTK And The Double Life - by Charles Marowitz

The Art And Politics Of Film - Conversation between John Steppling & David Walsh

The ANWR Sing-Along - Poem by Gerard Donnelly Smith

Context And Accuracy, George F. Kennan's Famous "Quotation" - by Gilles d'Aymery

Puzzlement (Walter Laqueur Four) - by Milo Clark

A Marine Son's Story - by Nicholas DeVincenzo

Scores for Wars: Where Have Wars Taken The U.S.? - by Philip Greenspan

Spring In Mind - by Milo Clark

Spreading Democracy Instead Of Gonorrhea: It's Infectious! - by Richard Oxman

Blips #15 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

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URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/kuros02.html
Published March 28, 2005