Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Authoritarian Appetites versus Local Solidarity

by Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer, Assistant Professor, Kozminski University, Poland

This piece was originally published in Polish in Res Publica Nowa. The English translation is provided by the author.

“Take care of yourself” graffiti sprayed on a wall in the center of Warsaw, March 17, 2020. Author’s photo.

Commenting on the COVID-19 Pandemic, Ursula Von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, recently said that Europe is the “world’s beating heart of solidarity.” Indeed, for two months now news about the growing numbers of people infected and killed, and about strategies of “flattening the curve” have been interlaced with coverage of acts of mutual support: singing on balconies in Italy and fitness classes on rooftops in Spain; charity art auctions on Instagram in Ireland; shopping for people at risk, particularly the elderly; and mass production of face masks on home sewing machines across the entire European continent. Motivating, and at times amusing, videos and memes have been spreading across social media as fast as hashtags of numerous grassroots initiatives aimed at helping people and institutions in need.

Numerous support actions have sprung in the region of Central-Eastern Europe. Polish news and social media are flooded with daily calls for individual action or financial support to provide face masks and head gear for healthcare employees, meals for the elderly, donations to save the Biebrza National Park, which has recently suffered from major fires, and also legal support to women fined by the police for participating in the Women’s Strike against a total abortion ban which was implemented in the middle of the pandemic. Hungarians, too, have been organizing to help, and student unions have been providing support to students thrown out of dorms, which were closed because of the coronavirus. In Belarus, individual donors have been sending money for medical equipment and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. Elsewhere in Europe, for instance in the United Kingdom, volunteers are helping in hospitals, while in other places, especially Italy, which has been worst hit by the pandemic in Europe, psychologists are providing mental support via phone for free to people who need to talk.

However, only in democratic states have citizens been able to focus “solely” on dealing with the coronavirus, organizing immediate support, as well as devising strategies to counter the approaching recession. In Poland and Hungary, and non-EU states like Turkey and Russia, the pandemic is being used as a perfect opportunity to consolidate power by undemocratic means with disregard for the rule of law. Those in power with authoritarian appetites have not hesitated in accumulating more powers, exploiting the fact that citizens’ attention is turned toward providing security to themselves and their loved ones. The rift between such cynical moves at the central level aimed at preventing the control of the legal force of the state, and the impulses towards solidarity at the local level, illustrate the existence of two very different realities: the reality of public powerlessness in face of an increasingly aggressive government, and the reality of agency in the local context to foster solidarity and mutual support.

However, since the COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay, we have, as a consolation for the misery, an opportunity to form more lasting habits of solidarity, at least at the local level where the effects of such activities can be seen faster. But what about the central level? In states in which authorities respect neither the rules of democracy nor the rule of law and trust in government was already low even before the pandemic – albeit, according to attachment theory, in times of increased fear trust in governments may rise* – one can expect the rift to grow. Years ago, the Polish sociologist Stefan Nowak described this phenomenon as the sociological void. In short, it is a tendency to identify with family, and close environments, but also with the nation, which today may include the European Union, while ignoring the middle level, especially the institutions of the state. This social schism is likely to last as long as the citizens are able to cope with the crisis. But judging by economic forecasts, time is likely running out.

This emergent solidarity has its own potential. At the local level one can observe that thanks to joint activities, engagement in doing something good for others, we gain a sense of agency, which translates into a feeling of control over the immediate environment. Thanks to media coverage, we also see that at the European level, in the face of pandemic we are alike, we suffer and try to help each other out in similar ways.

Yet, at the same time, we are also becoming aware of the fact that we expect more from the European Union itself. For instance, people have been recently learning, with disbelief, that the EU does not have a unified system of emergency management. And so, we want to see more action from the European Union despite the desires of Eurosceptic parties inside the Union.

And what about the limits of EU institutions? The lack of quick remedy actions coming from the European Union may undermine people’s faith in it, as in the case of Italy. In the case of Poland and other states where democracy is under threat, if local community-aimed support activities do not spread more broadly, we will continue to exist in the divide between local civic sense of control and helplessness toward central institutions.

This is why it is so important to note the activities of Polish local governments, which for years have been enjoying the highest levels of social trust, in dealing not only with the pandemic but also with the unlawful activities of the central government. Citizens are watching, and experiencing all this firsthand, and sooner or later they will attempt to democratically settle matters.

Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer, PhD, is an Assistant Professor at Koźmiński University, author of books, Reshaping Poland’s Community after Communism: Ordinary Celebrations (Palgrave, 2019) and Marxism and Sociology: A Selection of Writings by Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (Brill, 2018). Her research interests include post-1989 democratic transformation and the public sphere, everyday practices, as well as media in political and cultural change. Her current project focuses on politics in online tabloids in Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States in the context of 2015-16 elections and the role of emotions in the online public sphere.

This piece was included in the Democracy & the Pandemic Mini-Conference of the Democracy Seminar held on May 20-21, 2020.

* Bowlby J (1969) Attachment and Loss. Volume 1: Attachment. London: Hogarth Press; in the context of terrorism see also e.g. Ramon Van Der Does, Jaroslaw Kantorowicz, Sanneke Kuipers & Marieke Liem (2019) “Does Terrorism Dominate Citizens’ Hearts or Minds? The Relationship between Fear of Terrorism and Trust in Government, Terrorism and Political Violence,” DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2019.1608951.

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