Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

20 jahre Mauerfall: after the party is over

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One more item of reflection in contrast to the celebrations caught my eye in The Guardian‘s ‘Comment is free’ section today. Adam Michnik was an adviser to the Polish Solidarity trade union and social movement, and a key Solidarity adviser to the round table that set up the partially free 1989 elections.

Writing from the perspective of events after 1989 in Poland, Michnik refers to the dissatisfaction with which many people greeted the practical ffects of the transition, which were shared by many people across the eastern bloc, and which have led many, and not just in Poland, to view the transition with some ambivalence. Quoting at length:

In Poland, it was the workers in the great factories who won change, their strikes forcing the authorities to give way. But those same factories were also the first victims of the ensuing transformation. Modernised to compete in the marketplace, they cut their workforces. Instead of a miracle of freedom, people found themselves staring redundancy in the face.

The revolutions of 1989 had not mentioned mass privatisation or social inequalities; or sudden growth in crime, corruption and mafia activity; or, worst of all, permanent unemployment. This was the reality of the post-communist period offered up to the Poles and their neighbours. Political freedom, a free-market economy, the end of censorship and the opening of borders, had not been enough to effect a balance. The destruction of a despotic regime had led not just to liberal democratic values – it had also marked the start of a wild rush for wealth…

… In some post-communist countries an aggressive ethnic nationalism is on the rise. In others, religion is being used by those in power as an anti-democratic ideology, an instrument of intolerance and exclusion. Post-communist transformation creates not just winners, but many losers: those who are unemployed, rejected, pushed into poverty. The often brutally greedy new elites are slow to learn democratic habits, respect for the law of the land, pluralism or tolerance…

Michnik is right to quote the disappointing social effects of the transition and to yearn for a ‘better’ home country despite the cherished ‘normal democracy’ it has become. Freedom, democracy and liberalisation were undeniably attractive concepts in central and eastern Europe in 1989 and clearly gave the impetus to protest movements. Nevertheless, the timing of the transition could not have been poorer from a workers’ perspective, coming at the time of the espousal of these concepts by an increasingly hegemonic right-wing ideology and, at the time of trade union weakness, with at least the UK trade union movement being beset by its own problems in the face of that onslaught, the necessary social dialogue aspects of the transition were missing. Not the concept as much – most countries established social and economic councils in this period – as its effectiveness in practice.

Workers are still paying the price of that lack of dialogue and of the predominance of management by diktat and, twenty years later, despite a deep recession which continues to throw more people out of work whether in the eastern or western half of the continent, we are nowhere near establishing economies (or, at least, models of economies) which are run in the interests of people. If we can’t use the background of that recession and its root causes to establish practical alternatives that are viable and credible, then we really are in trouble.

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Written by Calvin

10/11/2009 at 1:19 pm

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