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Power and powerlessness

Published on February 16, 2012 by: in: Politics

Why do we need a country?

A.: so that we do not have the Wild West. Everywhere.
Z.: at least in the Wild West there were big GDP growth and low taxes
A.: and the risk of getting a bullet/fight/robbery/rape/assault etc. What for the growth rate if I do not feel safe – the greater the increase is, the more chance there is that I will lose it along with my life?

photo: Kyle Lane

photo: Kyle Lane

This facebook dialogue is quite representative of the dispute between supporters and opponents of the country as such.

You need the country so that there is a pattern thanks to which we can be human beings. Culture instead of nature’s wild elements. The country stands between us and barbarism. It is a stick replacing our conscience. It sweeps away the inevitable violence that must exist everywhere where there is no effective way of enforcing rules (ergo the Wild West which A. is afraid of), just to use it in any other institutionalized or legal form. The country has proved to be invaluable in settling who exercises the authority in the community. It is both the form and content of politics.

In Poland, people, in general, are dissatisfied with their country, from left to right. There are widespread calls for strengthening the state, for changes, and reforms; rhetoric is not always the same, but the goal is similar – a creation of the strong country at last. As showed by  research done by Janusz Korwin – Mikke, although supporters of the options advocated by Z. that was quoted at the beginning, are visible, they are not in the majority, to say the least (maybe because they are enemies of democracy).

The strong country has many advantages – it quickly creates the necessary infrastructure, efficiently manages administration and state services; its justice is inevitable and it comes without any undue delay. The strong country tames influences and appetites of lobby groups. It does not bring discredit to itself by introductions of laws that cannot be carried out successfully (greetings to doctors and pharmacists). The strong state nips corruption in the bud, it does not allow the tyranny of their workers or officers. The powerful country does not make any empty promises; it does not voice imperialistic rhetoric and then, within two weeks, falls apart like a house of cards or as did the Sanation Second Polish Republic in 1939. The powerful country takes care of those excluded from the society, people who cannot take care of themselves; it helps those who temporarily find themselves in troubles but keeps no freeloaders. The powerful country limits the grey area; it increases legal employment and tax revenues. Finally, it treats all its citizens equally; it is not subject to blackmail of any religious or ideological groups – thus making it possible for tolerance and diversity.

The strong country carries risks in proportion to its efficiency. Strong states are responsible for the Holocaust and the Gulag – the totalitarian atrocities of the twentieth century could not have been possible without a well-organized state machine. A well-organized bureaucracy can effectively solve problems of citizens, but it can also send them to a concentration camp, classifying them thoroughly at the same time into appropriate categories, according to “threat” that they bring. The strong country, with its strong coercive apparatus in the wrong hands means that it is not a milkman who would say “rise and shine” at 6 a.m. The powerful country provides security – a cozy cell with food and care is a very safe place. Suspects can be detained in prison for any amount of time – the strong state cannot afford that any potential criminals disturbs lives of co – citizens.

The strong country may also be very dangerous. Power leads into temptation to use it. A little bit of power creates an appetite for more – any permission can be extended, any control area expanded. The hierarchy of authority that is impersonal, often with opaque structure blurs the responsibility. “Don’t blame me, I’m only carrying out my orders”- the mantra of civil servants in each system, in every period of history, at any latitude.

The strong state is a threat by disparity. A mere fact of having power and awareness of it by the environment influences decisions, reactions and behavior – it works exactly as the presence of a large, muscular gazoony locked up in a small room with a group of other, weaker people. It is better not to mess with the strong. The threat of violence paralyzes and forces to obey. The unruly will be punished. There is a fine line between the use of force and the abuse of it – that line is easy to cross. Basically, it is a matter of interpretation. An arbitrary decision is not conducive to self-limiting. A deep dependence promotes subordination.

At the moment, we are far from the unlimited power of the state. The global market, communications, international relations and institutions restrict capacities of the country. Each state authority gives us some kind of illusion of control. If politicians honestly showed us how little opportunity there is, when it comes to the fate of our country and if they did not hide the scale of the uncertainty, the number of unknowns, their own powerlessness, then the life in these liquid modern times would be unbearable for most people – they would be constantly burdened with existential anxiety. Therefore, the strong country does not seem to be a threat – at least not in the world of liberal democracies. In Europe, in countries depraved by authoritarian socialist dictatorships, states require even strengthening or at least a radical reconstruction because they are far behind with socioeconomic changes.

Liberals who tried to stay as far as it was possible from the state are not without fault here. Countries are real political entities people identify most with; it is the country, not the market (it will cope by itself, if properly regulated) that should be today a major focus for liberals and politicians in general.

Everybody who has to face the red tape absurdities and cross the street to avoid groups of drunken hooligans or deal with Polish roads dreams about the strong country. However, we must not forget that the strong country also needs a strong partner or rather a superior and a controller so that it is sufficiently limited and as a result does not pose a danger of abuse of its power.

An essential element here is a strong citizen – economically independent, politically aware, and socially active. I am looking around in search and what I see is just desperate emptiness.

Translation: Martyna Kozik

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About Leszek Jażdżewski

Politologist, publicist, regular political commentator in Polish media. Editor in chief of “Liberté!”, Polish liberal socio-political journal. Studied international relations in University of Lodz, Institute of Political Studies on Polish Academy of Sciences, Glamorgan University in UK and Tbilisi University in Georgia. Vice-president of Liberal Forum, member of the council of Projekt: Polska Foundation, secretary of the board of Transport Integration Society, vice-president of Industrial Foundation. Coauthor of books: “Liberal reflections on life chances and social mobility in Europe” and “Democracy in Europe. Of the People, by the People, for the People?”

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