Far from being an isolated phenomenon, political change seen today in Poland is a symptom of broader trends. All over the world, voters in large cities oppose authoritarian populist parties and initiatives. And, all over the world, they are nowadays more and more likely to be defeated. Has urban politics played its part in bringing about the authoritarian populist wave? What part can it have in bringing it down?

‘The good change’

Far from a special case, the politics of the Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland – christened by its proponents as ‘the good change’ – are found across the world, driven by common global tendencies. In Poland, PiS has won multiple elections through channeling this demand for political change. Beyond Poland, this phenomenon is visible in Viktor Orbán’s domination in Hungary, Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump as US president, and in the referendums that allowed Erdoğan to cement his power in Turkey. Political attitudes have also shifted to previously unimaginable extents in Austria, France, and the Netherlands.

These phenomena are bound by a desire for change among large swathes of society disillusioned and tired of the status quo. This powerlessness and frustration with the state of democracy is grounded in the feeling that we can choose our politicians, but we can no longer choose their policies. TINA (There Is No Alternative) expressed the same sentiment: things must be as they are. Despondency having reached a critical mass, the broad answer is a blind rejection of the system and its elites – let it all come crashing down so that we can finally see some change, never mind what kind! Robert Biedroń, the progressive mayor of Słupsk, a city in northwestern Poland, captured this feeling in the following statement: “The people of Słupsk were so fed up with their previous representatives that, despite their homophobia, they preferred to elect me, a homosexual, rather than have to deal with more of the same.” Ironically enough, the success of the likes of Biedroń has been fuelled by the same sense of hopelessness that explains the march of authoritarian populism.

Despondency having reached a critical mass, the broad answer is a blind rejection of the system and its elites

Inequality and insecurity are crucial sources of this political shift. Junk jobs, youth unemployment, lack of social safety nets, galvanised yet ultimately stunted aspirations, credit card debt, lack of prospects: all feed a general sense of discouragement. But there is also existential frustration and infringements on dignity seen in the collapse of community and identity, abandonment by the state, the disappearance of meaningful communal narratives, desolation and humiliation. All that remains is the jungle of the free market, the chaos of an alien and hostile world, and globalisation.

The open and fluid postmodernism of the global era elicits resistance and rejection because too many of the people who bear the brunt of its costs cannot envision their own futures within it. Consequently, they often long for a past that seems to them safe, tame, controlled, ordered, and predictable. “Our way or the highway!” they cry. This is a regression to outdated forms of communal life that are familiar, but no longer viable. In political terms it means erecting rigid old barriers and borders and curtailing liberties in the public arena, the breadth of which have come to inspire fear and anxiety. Disillusionment with freedom and openness, too often distributed unevenly, transforms into hostility toward the very ideas of freedom and openness. After all, the great tide of freedom and openness was supposed to raise all the boats in the harbour. In the end, however, only a few were raised and many left behind.

What is a city?

Historically, in Western civilisation, the city was a place of congregation and trade – not just of goods and services, but of information, knowledge, and ideas. From roughly the 8th century, cities began to cast themselves as autonomous islands of freedom in a sea of feudalism. The famous ‘Stadtluft macht frei’ (the city air makes one free) rule of the Middle Age meant that a man, having spent one year and one day in the city, was granted freedom from his feudal master’s yoke. Independent cities were autonomous with complex systems of democratic self-governance to regulate internal matters, guild and corporate ties, political representation, and matters of citizenship. Cities became the basis for the development of European civilisation and the expansion of global capitalism. Only later, with the invention of the nation state and nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, did the influence of the city begin to wane.

A curious paradox of the European city is that life within it is in many ways limited – mainly spatially – and yet still provides a maximum of freedom. A city is essentially a whole lot of people, with their countless needs and possessions, living in an artificially constructed and constrained space. With such density of life and activity the probability of collisions occurring among inhabitants is high. For this reason the management of space in cities is highly regulated – from transport and noise, to advertising and building. Each inhabitant’s comfort within the urban setting only extends as far as the comfort of others. Others being many and space being restricted, the scope of that comfort is limited too.

Coexistence within such rigid constraints is only possible by virtue of freedom and tolerance of ideas, religion, culture, customs, and worldviews. As if trained over the course of centuries, respect and mindfulness of other people in tight physical spaces have affected activity in the non-material sphere. This freedom is a product of the very ‘nature’ and traditions of the European city, for which otherness, alienness, and diversity are not threats. Instead, they are factors that help develop its potential and the conditions by which it can fulfil its broadly understood mission: trade and flow of products, ideas, and people.

Political change and cities

The current wave of political change is at odds with and even threatens the underlying values of the European city. In Poland, pervasive and politically aggravated xenophobia generates aversion and enmity toward foreigners, which is spreading within institutions of higher learning, culture, and global business. This generates an image of a country that is unwelcoming to foreigners. If foreigners do not feel welcome, they will not come as tourists, workers, or students, and will be unwilling to conduct business in Polish cities.

A wide social rift is occurring, in Poland and beyond, between metropolises and towns

It is no wonder then, that nowhere in the world have large cities supported this great shift. Neither Ankara nor Istanbul supported Recep Tayyip Erdogan  in his referendum. Paris gave Marine Le Pen only a measly percentage in the elections. Budapest is dissatisfied with Viktor Orbán. London did not support Brexit (and now has a Muslim mayor running the city), and xenophobic parties gain little traction in large Dutch or Austrian cities. The situation in metropolitan areas in the USA is similar. Back in Poland, big cities are still ramparts of the opposition.

However, the situation in Polish cities is made more difficult by the fact that, when compared to their Western counterparts, they stand on worse footing as far as civilisational, social and cultural development are concerned. The more than 300-year degradation of the Polish city, caused by the anti-urban economic policies of the gentry, have only begun to be reversed in the last decades – perhaps even decade. Additionally, the crooked and commercial ‘progress’ brought on by neoliberalism has impeded, and continues to do so, the creation of urban communities, the development of cities’ individual identities or urban patriotism, and has stymied urban democracy.

Small towns can kiss my ass?

“Small towns can kiss my ass,” a quote from a famous poem by Andrzej Bursa, is often caustically evoked in debates about regional development in Poland. The phrase is meant to draw attention to even deeper layers of the problem. If, despite large cities, the clamour for political change is indeed gaining significant traction, then large cities are losing political relevance, are not being heard, and are losing their connection to the rest of society. This also means that cities stand in opposition to social trends sweeping medium-sized and small towns. A wide social rift is occurring, in Poland and beyond, between metropolises and towns. The question is not who holds the majority – for if anyone does it is usually slim – rather that almost everywhere we are seeing the emergence of potentially dangerous political tendencies. Will they keep growing?

Bursa’s words could have been a straight-forward shorthand slogan for the politics of ‘progress’ under the previous Civic Platform-led government. Instead, they dubbed it‘polarisation and diffusion development’. The policy proposed concentrated resources in urban areas based on the assumption that, once sufficiently developed, the wealth would trickle back down from cities to rural areas. In practice, this meant depriving already impoverished communities of luxuries like police stations, post offices, bus and train routes, walk-in clinics, and government offices. And so, the rural areas called out for change since the promised tide of progress had apparently come in elsewhere, leaving the inhabitants of the provincial ‘hinterland’ behind.

the rural areas called out for change since the promised tide of progress had apparently come in elsewhere

Just how many boats were lifted by the tide, and how many abandoned? In Poland, the twenty largest cities are home to about 8.5 million people and the remaining 900 smaller cities and towns to about 15.5 million. So nearly half of all Poles live in medium-sized to small and very small towns, which gives an idea of the distribution of political potential between metropolises and urban peripheries. Any policy that so egregiously ignores these facts is unacceptable. Taking this into account, it would not be unreasonable to say that, so far, the political price being paid for such grave injustice is not so heavy.

Solidarity and democracy of cities

Wealthy cities themselves have their own hinterlands too. Beyond well-to-do neighbourhoods lie neglected areas that harbour the potential for resentment and hostility toward the status quo. If the problems resulting from inequality and injustice, marginalisation and humiliation are not systematically dealt with in urban areas, then their inhabitants will incrementally move toward ‘the dark side’. The fact that metropolitan areas do not support ‘the good change’ does not mean that the potential to eventually do so does not exist within them. In Poznań, for example, while it still stands as a bastion of opposition, the number of seats in city council held by the PiS party representatives doubled following the 2014 elections (though they remain in the minority).

In many respects, large cities are still run as if they were only inhabited by the comfortable middle class whose exclusive needs are more important than those of simple city folk who, in fact, outnumber them. The changes imposed on discourse have also made it more difficult to glean the actual purposes of policies implemented by the establishment. This new language, which preaches equality and progress, is often only a glossy veneer meant to obfuscate outmoded neoliberal policies. It is difficult to gauge the number of those who benefit from the transformation and globalisation of large cities, and the perpetuation of the neoliberal agenda. Voter turnout in urban elections is about 35 to 40 per cent. In other words, the number of absentees reaches almost two thirds. This begs the question: what does this unidentified and silent majority want? What and whom will it support if one day it makes its way to the voting booth? What sort of change is likely to result from this?

Democracy honed at a local urban level can then serve as a prototype for democracy on a national scale

‘Democracy of cities’ is a slogan whose meaning encompasses not only the internal democratic processes of urban areas – their rules and procedures of self-governance for which the citizenry is responsible – but the cities’ place within the democratic system of the country as a whole. The more democratic that system is, the more cities are free, subjective, and autonomous. The condition for the protection and strengthening of the democracy of cities is solidarity – of cities and within cities. Freedom of speech only has value in so far as it protects the speech of those who think and speak differently. Similarly, solidarity must extend across socio-economic divides or it becomes no more than a smoke-screen for the disingenuous.

Solidarity means that larger cities need to make some room at the table so smaller cities can partake of the spread. The neoliberal dogmas that would see cities compete with one another should be neutralised and replaced with a spirit of cooperation and balance. Failure to do so will undermine cities’ status as bastions of freedom, tolerance, and diversity and leave them vulnerable to social frustrations and political machination. To turn things around, solidarity and cooperation among cities offers the way to preserve and develop the values of the European city beyond neoliberalism and authoritarian populism. It is the necessary counterweight that will allow for the preservation and strengthening of the democracy of cities and their freedom.

The value of urban initiatives

The conclusion to be drawn is that cities functioning on a foundation of democracy and solidarity could potentially play a significant role in breaking the dichotomy between not-so-progressive neoliberalism and nationalist populism. Urban initiatives should adopt a political strategy that focuses on nurturing a universal urbanism that can transcend local political divisions. Democracy honed at a local urban level can then serve as a prototype for democracy on a national scale – as it has done historically.

The potential of grassroots movements in Poland is quite significant here. However, such initiatives are often characterised by an aversion to party politics and politics in general, considered unaesthetic, immoral, and shameful – in a word: loathsome. What is needed is a new kind of politics, an alternative to the discord and tribalism hawked by the media. An essential element in this process should be a modern narrative that encompasses the fundamental needs and hopes of a ‘new townsfolk’. A significant role will be played by urban initiatives whose prerogative is not power, but the advancement of solidarity, both within and among cities, by inspiring solidarity in an organised and dynamic citizenry.

Perhaps it is the cities that will provide the solution to our current challenges and the political dilemmas at the root of the current crisis. Perhaps in cities lies the hope for a renewed democracy.

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