Ryszard Legutko

Ryszard Legutko is a Polish philosopher and politician. Professor of philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, specializing in ancient philosophy and political theory. Author of many books. His most recent English language book is The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (Encounter Books, 2016).

I believe we can somehow change the system, we can somehow reform it if we diagnose the problems and influences. Certainly, the system that we live in has become very constraining. There are fewer and fewer things you can do, there are fewer and fewer things that you can say, or that you can publish - says prof. Ryszard Legutko

You fought against Communism, and when the Soviet Union fell, there was a lot of hope with liberal democracy coming into Eastern Europe. But, as you explain in your latest book, you soon realized that it was not actually that different from the previous system. Could you explain how it has become surprisingly similar?

Of course there are differences because, as I write in my book, I wouldn’t have had the political position I have now under Communism for obvious reasons. But there are some similarities and my feeling is that these similarities are becoming greater. I come from a staunchly anti-communist family, so I never had a moment in my life where I sort of flirted with communist parties or with Marxian and communist ideology. It was obvious to me from the very beginning — from the day I was born, from when I could start thinking — that the communist system was bad and evil. I was active in opposing the system. And at the same time, as a university professor, I was interested in what liberalism is, what democracy is, and I was working on the political philosophy of antiquity and modernity. I had, I would say, a good general overview of political thought. When the older regime was falling to pieces, I had this idea that the new system would be exactly the opposite of the one we had, that there would be a lot of freedom, diversity, an exchange of ideas, and that there would be a plurality of points of view and a certain seriousness in talking about important issues. And it wasn’t the case. Of course, I didn’t see it clearly at the very beginning. It is difficult to see things as they are because there are lots of prejudices and judgements through which you see things. But at a certain moment in my life I was starting to think: “There is no plurality.” There is a monopoly, and there is one point of view that has a monopoly. And there is this mendacity of language. There are many people who use words such as ‘plurality’, ‘tolerance’, ‘democracy’. They are the most autocratic. So I thought: “Maybe there’s something wrong with it.” So I came to this notion that there is a certain similarity which goes back to some ideas in early modernity. Both liberal democracy and Communism tend to politicize the entire society. You have to be political. There is no space, no area, no family, no religion which is discrete from politics. Everything had to be communist — and now, everything has to be liberal democratic.

In which specific way are you using the term liberal democracy?

Is it the politically correct, social justice culture, or are there already problems in libertarian, classical liberal thoughts? My point is that it’s not just political correctness. See, political correctness is the consequence of a long process, and it’s a legitimate consequence. It’s not like, “Let’s get rid of political correctness” and then we will have the world or the system as it should be, with open space and a serious discourse of opinions. My argument, which I put forward in the book, is that from the very beginning liberalism was a very restrictive, authoritarian theory. The word ‘liberalism’ comes from ‘liberty’, so etymologically people tend to think that whoever is liberal must be for liberty. No, whoever is liberal is supportive of a certain theory which is called ‘liberalism’. This is an entirely different thing. Now, what I object to in liberalism — and it starts with John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and John Stuart Mill — is that from the very beginning liberalism was conceived as a theory which considers itself to be superior to all others. That is: “We are better than you are, so we will organize a life for you where each of you will have an equal amount of liberty.” This promise may or may not be true, but by the very idea, liberals position themselves above all other orientations. They say, for example: “You conservatives are one-sided, you Christians represent one particular religion. We liberals, we represent everybody. And since we represent everybody, we will take control in terms of ideology, in terms of politics.” In fact, they become monopolists. About three to five decades ago, when you looked at political theory, there were several political orientations, both in the real world and in the academic world. Now it’s all gone. There is liberalism. It is a monopoly. Liberalism is, in fact, the only legitimate philosophy out there. If you are not a liberal, then what are you? Either a fascist or simply crazy — because every rational, well-educated person has to be a liberal. Now, when it comes to democracy, some people somehow think democracy is a system of freedom, a system that is ‘open’. Well, that’s not the case. It was the ancient democracy that was very autocratic. But what was eye-opening to me was reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The first part of the book is almost entirely enthusiastic about American society because there are so many NGOs — what he called associations, civic organizations. He loves that and is very much impressed by it — and quite rightly. However, the closer you get to the end of Tocqueville’s book, you see that he is very much concerned. He sees that there is a tendency in democracy to homogenize. Democracy is not about plurality. Democracy is about homogeneity, the rule of the majority. And one of the sentences from Democracy in America that I quote in my book is: “I know of no other country in the world in which there is less freedom of thought.” We have been living under the spell of a word — that ‘democracy’ is a good thing. But look at how it works: look at the institution in which I work, the European Parliament. This is a typical majoritarian institution, where the power is in the hand of the majority which has the monopoly — and whoever does not belong to the majority and does not conform to mainstream politics is marginalized. More and more people are trying to convince us that liberal democracy is a perfect invention. It isn’t. There are a lot of dangerous consequences, and we have to be aware of those consequences, and try to either improve — or eliminate — them. We have to be very critical. The word ‘critique’ or ‘critical’ has become one of those favourite notions of modern discourse, but this is also mendacious language. There is the typical politician, and he is not critical at all because he’s not criticizing anything. He’s an apologist of the system. Going back to your question: No, it’s not just the recent developments in liberal democracy. Of course, the recent developments in liberal democracy are particularly acute, that’s why we can see them. But Tocqueville saw it almost two hundred years ago — and then John Stuart Mill saw it 150 years ago. It has been there, at various degrees of intensity, but it’s one of the problems of our times. The same civilization that produced Marxism and Communism also produced liberalism and liberal democracy.

But aren’t those liberal values such as freedom of speech, natural rights, and human dignity — often derived from Christianity — in and of themselves still correct, and have simply been abused?

Natural right is a very bizarre concept — the whole idea of a state-of-nature, which you can find in Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, too, even though he was no liberal himself. This is a very strange notion. It is a purely fictitious picture of human beings living in a very strange place. This is a pure theoretical construction. You cannot say that it is natural. It is artificial. It’s a world of fiction. It’s a creation of human imagination. There is nothing really natural about a Hobbesian or Lockean state of nature. You cannot defend freedom on the argument that in the state of nature we were all free, because at the same time you can envisage a different picture of society, where you say in the state of nature we were all deprived of freedom, we were all in shackles. Freedom is to be defended on different grounds. If we look at Thomas Hobbes, he had this notion of the state of nature in which all people were equal, people were free, but at the same time everybody was endangered. Then, in order to reduce this danger and increase security, you had to build a big bureaucratic state, for the creation of which you had to give up your freedom. The Hobbesian people aren’t really free people. If you look at Locke, his society is also a society ruled by a majoritarian government, so it’s not a very free society either. I don’t really believe that if you cherish freedom, you have to use the arguments of John Locke. Edmund Burke was a better defender of freedom, he is more persuasive. Or you have Hegel, who was a better defender of freedom than Thomas Hobbes. For some reasons, liberals reserve for themselves this role of the defenders of freedom.

Does liberal democracy in general lead to these ‘totalitarian temptations’ or can some parts be sustainably retained?

There is no inevitability. Of course, you can change the system. My idea was that a better solution is a kind of mixed regime, a mixed constitution system. Believe me, the final months of Communism, and the first months of liberal democracy, was the period when we had the greatest freedom. Before it was bad, and afterwards things have become worse and worse. I believe we can somehow change the system, we can somehow reform it if we diagnose the problems and influences. Certainly, the system that we live in has become very constraining. There are fewer and fewer things you can do, there are fewer and fewer things that you can say, or that you can publish. This is ridiculous. Even private life and family life have been permeated by politics. Once you have made this diagnosis, you see that things are going wrong. We are more and more trapped by this politics and by this ideology, but I can see a possibility that we can change the system.

When it comes to changing the system, do you have any concrete solution at hand?

Is it perhaps to strengthen civil society and the intermediary institutions again? I long ago gave up on the intermediary NGOs. Just two hours ago, I was at a conference where a special fund for giving money to NGOs that are supportive of liberal democracy was discussed. That kills the entire concept of non-governmental institutions. They are governmental institutions and they are subsidized by the European Commission, which is a kind of government. I appreciate all civic initiatives; I take part in several of them myself. But let us forget about those myths. Most NGOs, and especially the most powerful ones, have been subsidized by international organizations, indirectly by the government or the European Commission, and they are part of this system. When it comes to a concrete solution, look at my country. My country has been treated viciously by the international community, but this is a country which has in many ways preserved a kind of plurality. There are things you can say and do in my country which you cannot do here [in Brussels]. There has to be some kind of institutional plurality, and the thing to do is to break the monopoly of the mainstream. My concern is that conservatives have capitulated in most European countries and even in the United States. Of course, there have been some movements in the opposite direction, which is good. But my overall perception is still that many have capitulated. Even the Catholic Church seems to have a tendency to capitulate. “But once we become part of the mainstream, maybe things will get better”, they say. No! It’s the other way around. Make the society genuinely plural. There are liberals, there are libertarians, there are all sorts of people, but there are also conservatives. They are not painted, beautified liberals; they are conservative. Maybe they are Catholics — they are not ‘open’ Catholics. I don’t want the Catholics to be open as long as I do not see the liberals open. I haven’t met an open liberal in my entire life. They are so damn closed.

Since we are sitting here in the European Parliament, part of probably the most liberal democratic project in the postwar era, what do you see as the future of the European Union?

I speak from a position of a representative of a medium-size country, from the eastern part of Europe, the majority of whose population has supported the European Union. I see some value in institutionalized cooperation. But things have gone wrong. Today, the union is in conflict with what the Polish society really wants. This creates a tension. People in both Eastern and Western Europe are dissatisfied, and the answer from the EU is always ‘more of the same’. If that continues, the EU will be in trouble. For me, it is a very saddening experience in the European Parliament. I’m trying to make a difference, but it is a very saddening experience. And this is a parliament that has been in the hands of the same politicians for many, many years. The whole idea of democracy is that there is a pendulum, that the government can change its position. One party is in power one term, but with each swing of the pendulum, another comes in. But not here! This is the same coalition. It’s like the infamous Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI] which was in power for over 70 years. When the same group of people is in power for such a long time, it has to become pathological because they are no longer used to the idea that they may lose. If you look at national politics [in Poland], one always has the feeling that in the next election, one can be ‘sent packing’, that one could be in the opposition. Not here [in Brussels]! This is hubris. If the EU doesn’t change, it will sink deeper and deeper into a sea of trouble.

Well, that’s one negative ending …

That’s a negative ending — but things could get better, though probably not at the next elections. But who knows? For many years, I was living in a system, and everybody was telling me that Communism was inevitable and that it would win, that it would conquer the entire world. Well, it didn’t. History always has some surprises for us.

Source: see the full text: http://www.europeanconservative.com/uploads/1/7/7/4/17743925/eurocon_15_2018_summer-fall_dig.pdf