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Patrick Zhong, Founding Managing Partner, M31 Capital Makram Azar, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Full Circle Capital Prof. Julia Binder (Topic Leader), Professor of Sustainable Innovation and Business Transformation, IMD Business School
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“Democracy Has a Wide Variety of Shades, Whether We Like It or Not”
An exclusive interview with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Lech Wałęsa (Part 1 of 3)
In an exclusive interview, Leader of Tomorrow Grégoire Roos talks to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former Polish President Lech Wałęsa about Wałęsa’s historic struggle for freedom, the current contestations of liberal democracy across the globe, and his vision for the future of Europe.
In August 1980, Wałęsa was one of the main organisers of the workers’ strike in the Lenin Shipyards in Northern Poland Gdansk, which quickly spread to the whole country and led to a first bloodless victory and turning point in the fight for democracy: the foundation of Solidarność (“Solidarity”).
After years of house arrest and several prison incarcerations and many of his companions arrested or killed, Lech Wałęsa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. As leader of the “Solidarity” movement, he then played a fundamental role in the Roundtable Talks between the workers and Poland’s communist government, which resulted in the first semi-free elections in a Warsaw-Pact country in 1989 and the end of the communist rule in Poland. A year later, in December 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected President of Poland, and successfully led his country’s transition from communism to a free-market liberal democracy which later joined NATO (1999) and the EU (2004). In 1995, Lech Wałęsa founded the Lech Wałęsa Institute, which aims at defending the legacy of Solidarity, sharing the spirit of freedom and democracy with the younger generation, and promoting democracy and a strong civil society in Poland and the world.
The interview was conducted in early 2020, before the COVID-19 crisis, in Gdansk, Poland. This is part one of the interview. You can find part two here and part three here.
Grégoire Roos: If you agree Mr President, I should like to start with 1988, a landmark in the history of the conquest of democracy in Poland and therefore in Europe. From April to September 1988, the greatest series of strikes, led by the workers’ national union Solidarność, took place throughout Poland, in the midst of a deep economic crisis. This would definitely enfeeble the Communist regime and eventually pave the way to the Warsaw Round Table, in the spring of 1989. Today, three decades later, the Polish Government is challenging the independence of the judiciary, thereby blowing off what remains of separation of powers in Poland, and often threatens the freedom of the press and NGOs. Looking back on all the sacrifices you bore, alongside with your companions of Solidarność, and which were so essential to break down the Iron Curtain, how do you, who led your people to the light of democracy, see this evolution?
Lech Wałęsa: Well, that is the beauty of democracy! Democracy has a wide variety of shades, whether we like it or not. The revolution you’ve just mentioned not only paved the way to the fall of communism in Poland and Europe but also, and we shouldn’t forget it, to the reunification of Germany. This revolution also removed internal borders in Europe (something still imaginable 30 years ago), and launched Europe on the tracks to become a unifying power. We have done a lot since 1988, a lot in the direction of unity in Europe. And whatever the difficulties, we should never forget it.
But it is true, however, that challenges are coming out that ask for strong political insight and leadership, one that may be lacking nowadays. Back in 1988/1989, the most important questions were those limited to the national State, and that is within these borders, if I may say so, that our problems were solved. Our solutions applied to a given political and historical reality that was that of the time. Today, they are no longer suitable to address the challenges our society is facing precisely because the political and historical reality has changed. It would be too easy an answer to say: yes, what is happening is bad. Why don’t you do and act just like we did 30 years ago and all will get better. But that would be failing to understand that we live in a totally different world.
Roos: We can of course understand that the political, economic and social landscape has radically changed, and not only in Poland and Europe, but also in the world: end of the Cold War, retreat of the State in the economy, 4th Industrial Revolution, rise of China, etc. But the peoples’ aspirations remain pretty much the same: they long for freedom, social progress, greater economic inclusion, better education… How can this be achieved if all the efforts of the past 30 years to conquer and then strengthen democracy are cast away by the rise of authoritarianism?
Wałęsa: We’ve got to understand that societies, and not just in Europe, but also in America, Asia, and the Middle East, are eager for change. That’s why they chose Trump in the US, that’s why they chose Macron in France, an outsider still totally unknown a year prior to the election, and, in Poland, as they are even more eager for change, that’s why they chose twins [allusion to the Kaczyński brothers, Lech (former President of Poland) and Jarosław, current President of Poland’s ruling party Law and Justice]! If you look carefully, they all, in their own way and with their own method, ran their campaign on the existential concerns of the people. In Poland, France, Hungary, Italy, even the UK… the question was and remains: “what are the fundamental values on which we want to keep building Europe?”
Back in 1988, the issue was not how to keep building Europe, but rather: we want to start building it, let us do it! Between the society of 1988 and that of today, the gap is huge: a gap of culture, of creeds, of beliefs… But what is certain is that Poland, however legitimate its concern about Europe was, has gone too far to the right. For Poland now, building on values means building on religion, on the limitation of freedom, that of women for instance, with the limitation of abortion. Others have chosen different solutions. We have to come to the common conclusion that if we are not satisfied with M Kaczyński, with Mr. Orbán, or with Mr Trump, we should consider them as an opportunity to unite, a springboard of stimulation to look for other and new solutions before they spoil everything we’ve achieved, and that we’ve conquered, as you rightly stressed, at a heavy cost of personal risks and sacrifices.
It seems that the discussion too often turns to whether we should be going more to the left or more to the right. But that is beside the point! In truth, the real question is: what sort of economic system is suitable for the political solutions we are looking for. Certainly a communist economy is not the right choice. But the kind of capitalism that we have right now, that tends to exclude more people that it actually enriches, is not the proper system either. Citizens are calling for a more social approach, they are calling for policies with a human face, and that is why the question any leader should ask oneself today is: how do we reform our current socio-economic system to bring it a more human touch without falling into the trap of easy answers, caricatures, demagogy and populism? How do we remain both social and open to the world, in a society crippled with lies, fake news and unfounded fears?
I must say it was easier at a time when societies were God-fearing (whatever the religion), because religious concerns, if I may say so, tended to put some limits to the vulgarity of the political discussion and provided with some basic solid values which constituted a sort of spine, of moral compass (whether you identified yourself with it or not). We are also afraid of our neighbours, which, in Europe, is quite problematic… So if you add up the popular claim for more social policies and the fear of the neighbour in an environment of utter relativism in terms of values, of lies and disinformation, you make the stage very favourable to politicians like Trump, Kaczyński, Salvini… And let’s face it: they will be more and more.
The truth is: we live in a transitory time, which, in history, usually means political upheaval and turmoil. To put it shortly, I’d say that the era of closed borders and national divisions is behind us, that a new era of globalised intellect and information has partially emerged, but that we stand still between the two. One system has fallen down almost entirely, but the new one hasn’t been completed yet. So this all makes for some deep instability. The time we currently live in, I call it the “era of the Word”. Just like in the first verses of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word. (…) And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” The Word is powerful, but has not turned into flesh yet. We’ve got to work on it, for before the Word turns flesh, the demons can emerge. And that is what’s happening. The demons have come out. In America, in Europe, and even in Asia.
And they come out because we’ve been unable to come up with the good solutions at the right time to address the peoples’ fears and concerns. We preferred to ignore them. Ignorance is the best political ally of demons. Today, people want change, so they jump on those who come up with solutions, or at least what they purport to be solutions. And these are the worst we could think of… but they are the only ones! We cannot blame the people. We should instead blame the political leaders of the past 20 years.
Roos: You talk of demons and values. You once said that citizenship goes with consciousness, and that there cannot be consciousness without values. And this sounds particularly true at the time of globalisation. But it seems that the globalised political and economic system of today is somehow marked by a clear lack of values. Asked one day what drove you all these years of struggle against the Communist regime, you replied “faith in God and in my fight”, which was a way to say that you were longing for moral progress and spiritual elevation through your quest of justice. You’ve just said that moral values had faded away… How do we move forward in this new, uncertain and unstable world if there is no more quest and common yearning for progress?
Wałęsa: Yes, it’s true. It is because we’ve lost any moral sense, because we’ve lost touch with value-driven politics, that we are unable to propose any real solutions to the people. This loss of “common yearning” as you say, is perhaps what defines best the current leadership crisis we currently live in. I would even say more: people rightfully feel that we have nothing serious to propose them. Because, in reality, we go on as if the world had not changed: same old political and economic system, same old way of trying to keep the ordinary citizen out of the political discussion.
I mean, can you imagine that most of the economic ideas and proposals that are brought forward here and there (not just in Poland) do not even take into account the fact that in 2018, 1% of the richest people on the planet owns more than 50% of the world’s total wealth?! Does this not ring a little bell in world leaders’ heads when they ask for more austerity or more efforts from the remaining 99%? How can we be surprised that with such a level of inequality and so little moral values, voters become angry, or simply turn mad? How can we be surprised, therefore, that people cannot cope any longer and choose Trump or Kaczyński, who, however wrong their remedy may be, are the only true ones to have understood the popular demand for change and justice and who promise to improve the situation?
Roos: What Trump and Kaczyński, amongst others, call for is not just change and justice, it is purely the destruction of an order –you may choose to call it the old one.
Wałęsa: I will push you a bit: not only is it what they call for, but I agree with them! We need to destroy the old system and, in a way, finish what we initiated 30 years ago. Now, if I do agree with their diagnosis, I naturally don’t agree with the cure they prescribe, which is not only wrong but devastating. They don’t propose to change to old world for a better one, but for chaos. Purely and simply. But again, as long as they are the only ones on the stage to come forth with proposals and so-called solutions, they will get more and more votes. The question of political and moral leadership is therefore crucial.
Roos: So it all comes back to a fairer distribution of wealth?
Wałęsa: Yes but not only that. Don’t get me wrong. I am not calling for a spoliative tax system. But rather for a bolder political pedagogy, a stronger political message towards that 1%. Everyone sees that one’s wealth doesn’t go anywhere, that it is frozen. How can money be frozen when the current economic system excludes, if not grinds, hundreds of millions around the world? That 1% needs to be sent a clear message: keep your money if you want, but use it for the common good and the benefit of all: through investment, job creation, etc. But probably it’s good that the world looks as it looks. Probably it’s good that Trump and Kaczyński are here. You know why? Because it can but boost you and me to actively look for solutions, to look for a defence strategy and find a way to strike back. For good.
Roos: In other words a wake-up call?
Wałęsa: Exactly. But whether you and I will be able to really grasp the stakes and come up with better solutions, or, on the contrary, let the train pass by and leave, with everything it means in terms of destruction of what we believe in… this is not clear yet.
Lech Wałęsa is a Polish Statesman, an electrician turned trade union, human rights and democracy activist, and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who served as the first democratically-elected President of Poland from 1990 to 1995. As leader of the “Solidarity” movement, he played a fundamental role in the Roundtable Talks between the workers and Poland’s communist government, which resulted in the first semi-free elections in a Warsaw-Pact country in 1989 and the end of the communist rule in Poland. A year later, in December 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected President of Poland, and led his country’s transition from communism to a free-market liberal democracy which later joined NATO (1999) and the EU (2004).