Addressing the Complexity

W Polsce, czyli wszędzie Edwin Bendyk Polityka, 360pp, 2020

Has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us something about the future of the human condition? For sure, “The pandemic has reopened the debate about what is necessary and what is possible,” as Bruno Latour, the French philosopher of science, observed in a recent interview. What seems to be even more significant is that two things were made possible by the actions of the coronavirus.

Firstly, the pandemic has given tangible meaning to the abstract claims about the global nature of contemporary civilization. As Latour argued, covid “has shown how quickly something can become global just by going from one mouth to another. That’s an incredible demonstration of network theory”.

Secondly, the pandemic exposed the political dimension of nature. Far from being emancipated from nature, humans fell prey to a biological virus. For anyone thinking about the coronavirus, it might be clear by now that the stability of liberal democracy requires the presence of proper conditions, which are not only legal and social but also ecological. And if nature is manufactured by the multiplicity of agents—humans, viruses and others—and not merely reside in the background in order to sustain cultural progress—the material conditions for life and civilization can no longer be taken as a given.

Edwin Bendyk is one of the most accomplished Polish writers at the intersection of science, technology and politics. His book W Polsce, czyli wszędzie (“In Poland—That Is to Say Everywhere”), devoted to the major contemporary shifts within ecology and politics, is as timely as ever. On the most basic level, Bendyk’s argument is plain and simple—we need a Great Transformation in response to a perfect storm of simultaneous fundamental problems emerging within ecology, demography, culture, society and politics. The pandemic is not the ultimate problem, but a warning sign that the existing model of development has outlived its purpose: “the COVID-19 pandemic is a symptom of a crisis and demise of civilization built by humanity since the earlier great pandemic—the Black Death”.

With the view of sustaining civilization, humanity needs to use fossil fuel energy in order to develop clean and efficient sources of energy and transform the economy, before the extraction of fossil fuels becomes too costly.

A major crisis was coming either way since the world had been already approaching the Seneca cliff, or “the moment in which the forces of social and physical entropy begin to dominate over the human capacity to reproduce the material and cultural foundations of civilization.” The situation is serious, but the outcomes are not yet determined. Yet to outline the book’s argument would not be an easy task. The author moves across a wide range of topics, concepts and metaphors, in order to discuss matters such as the Anthropocene, economic de-growth, the self, the future of capitalism, or Latour’s notion of the New Climatic Regime. Since the narrative of the book is concerned with a number of grand questions, on this occasion, it might be beneficial to limit the discussion to a few selected themes related to the book’s provocative title.

An Inefficient Energy Sector Led to Systemic Economic Failure

The title of the book refers to the beginning of a 1896 play by Alfred Jarry, Ubu, the King, which says: “Poland—That Is to Say Nowhere”. To the contrary, suggests Bendyk, in some respects Poland’s history might give us clues as to the interpretation of contemporary global events. This idea seems to be especially interesting in two respects. Firstly, there’s the question of an ecologically sustainable energy transition. Long story short, Bendyk aims to produce a simple theoretical argument which has practical consequences. If the cost of energy production becomes too high, the economy may be brought to a halt, and possibly forever. Such was the problem of the pre-1989 Polish People’s Republic (PRL), deeply dependent on coal for its energy production.

Due to a lack of reform, the efficiency of Poland’s energy sector decreased systematically. As a consequence, ever more energy was needed to even sustain energy production. Bendyk claims that at one point communist Poland had to consume as much as 40 percent of the total energy produced, only to… further produce energy and food.

All in all, the fatally inefficient energy sector led to systemic economic failure, which was one reason for the fall of the communist regime. Bendyk’s worry is that, in the absence of proper and timely action with regard to the contemporary green energy transition, a similar process could now be repeated on a global scale. As the era of cheap fossil fuel energy is coming to an end, the author warns, there may be little time, before the rising costs of energy production will threaten the prospects of economic and technological progress. With the view of sustaining civilization, humanity needs to use fossil fuel energy in order to develop clean and efficient sources of energy and transform the economy, before the extraction of fossil fuels becomes too costly, both economically and ecologically. If we are too late, the opportunity for transformation could be gone, because there will be no economically viable sources of energy to fuel the energy transition.

Ubu-Like Figures in the West

Secondly, there is the question of politics. In the words of Bendyk, Jarry’s Ubu was “a perfect model for tyrants and tyrant-like politicians mass-produced in the twentieth century by the sickly imaginations of peoples living on the eastern borders of Europe”. At the same time, as he observes, this figure helped shape stereotypes about Central and Eastern European countries, since incomprehension of their politics and culture was often explained away by the inherent absurdity of their affairs. It is not surprising that, for many, it might have been surprised when consecutive Ubu-like figures began to emerge in France, the UK, or the USA within the last few years. “It’s not possible here?” Yes, it is possible. And it is neither mysterious nor incomprehensible. On the contrary, Bendyk’s point is that it is not enough to criticize and even defeat Ubu if one will not deal with the conditions behind his emergence and success. And it seems likely that some of these conditions could be discovered everywhere, rather than nowhere.

The CEE countries were supposed to simply repeat the developmental path of Western democracies, their success being evaluated on the basis of how well they could emulate the institutions of their Western educators.

Bendyk’s narrative is a blow to two opposite myths about the place of Poland within European politics and culture. Firstly, it is a blow to the nativist myth, popular on the Polish right, that Poland’s history is quite unique, unlike that of any other nation. If Bendyk is right, it is clear that Poland has its share in the universal history and shares responsibility for universal history. At the same time, Bendyk’s narrative is well-equipped to challenge the opposite viewpoint, namely the post-colonial myth of the idealized West. Closely related to the idea of a deep cultural East/West divide, this myth used to come in handy for protagonists both in Poland and abroad. Looking from Poland, since 1989, the liberal forces of modernization took on a quest to ‘catch up with’ the West.

Pluralist Accounts of Reality Are Needed to Understand Politics

Looking from ‘the West’, a question has been frequently raised as to whether Poland was actually ready to be a part of the West. In either case, the CEE countries were supposed to simply repeat the developmental path of Western democracies, their success being evaluated on the basis of how well they could emulate the institutions of their Western educators—a mindset which surely provoked and reinforced the nativist political backlash. In contrast, Bendyk’s narrative casts doubt on this linear idea of progress within history, since it demonstrates that to understand politics we need more refined, emphatic and pluralist accounts of reality.

Although the nativist idea of history is false, the linear-progressive view of history is also false. If civilization has come to a point in which it needs a Great Transformation to merely survive, the previous course of history surely could not encompass a justified predetermined end. If history is not a race towards a predetermined end, new lessons can be learned, new attitudes can be shaped and new relationships can be established.

The idea that contemporary political problems have both local and universal causes is as obvious, as it is understated in public debates. On the one hand, some observers look only at the local. Take Poland’s democratic opposition’s reaction to the Law and Justice (PiS) party nativist political insurgence. Since 2015, in a purely reactive manner, the democratic opposition in Poland has criticized PiS’s assault on rule of law, but has not been all that interested in reflecting on the structural developments in the conditions of political action, which enabled PiS’s popularity and success.

The State’s Escape from Reality into a Sphere of Myths

A widespread mode of thinking, however, would explain ‘the populist wave’ in terms of universal economic processes, i.e. the rise of inequalities or fatal flaws in capitalism as such. This way of thinking, although not easily dismissed, tends to underappreciate the role of local history in politics, as well as the role of luck. Donald Trump might not have won the US elections if not for the indirect electoral system, Brexit might not have happened if not for the badly managed internal conflict within the Conservative Party, and PiS would not have won the majority in parliament in the 2015 elections if the center-left coalition had reached the electoral threshold, which it missed by a narrow margin. A few details changed and the populist wave would have been no more (at least for a while).

What one needs to do is to address the complexity. According to Bendyk, “one might propose a general directive—to counter global warming, one needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But there is no one way to realize this general directive… because it needs to be optimized in a complex social-economic-technological-political context”. On this point, the contemporary illiberal conception of government clearly fails. As Bendyk argues, “The tragedy of the PiS’s state consists of the fact that in response to increasing complexity, it takes actions that lead to a radical reduction of that complexity—to the alienation of the state and its escape from reality into a sphere of myths and fantasy governed by the laws of pataphysics, which is—let us recall Alfred Jarry’s definition—‘the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments’”.

The idea that contemporary political problems have both local and universal causes is as obvious, as it is understated in public debates. On the one hand, some observers look only at the local.

At times, the complexity of Bendyk’s own narrative may seem a bit too challenging. For example, it might be difficult to discern the connection between the problems of the energy sector in the late Polish People’s Republic, with the problems of the sexuality of the West, which is the topic of one chapter. Bendyk frequently describes himself as ‘cogni-voyageur’—and, indeed, on such occasions, the narrative resembles more of an intellectual voyage than a disciplined argument. Nevertheless, his new book is an inspiring and thoughtful contribution to the debate about the increasingly interconnected problems of contemporary politics and ecology. In Poland, which is to say everywhere, the interconnection between ecology and politics is something that we may be only beginning to really grasp in its entirety. Better late than never.

2) See also: J. Kuisz, The Two Faces of European Disillusionment

Tomasz Sawczuk

is political Editor at Kultura Liberalna weekly magazine. Philosophy (PhD) and Law (MA) graduate at the University of Warsaw in Poland. He has recently published Nowy liberalizm. Jak zrozumieć i wykorzystać kryzys III RP (“New Liberalism. How to Understand and Respond to the Crisis of the Third Republic of Poland”).

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