Democracy Lab

Eulogy for a Quiet Revolutionary

What today’s activists can learn from the life and times of the heroic Polish politician who passed away earlier this week.

I remember seeing Tadeusz Mazowiecki for the first time in Warsaw that remarkable summer of 1989. Back then, Mazowiecki -- who died earlier this week at age 86 -- was a middle-aged man with hunched shoulders. He wore an ill-fitting jacket and he had the long, sad eyes of a basset hound. You could tell that he wasn't the kind of man to run around proclaiming utopian visions. His whole being seemed to demonstrate that the escape from communism and the journey toward democracy was destined to be a long, hard slog. He was grounded, sober, and decidedly un-emphatic. But I can't help thinking that it was his rejection of heroism that made him uniquely heroic.

On August 24, 1989, he became the first freely elected prime minister in Poland since World War II. (The photo above shows him celebrating the election of his cabinet a few weeks later.)  No one quite realized it at the time, but his assumption of office marked the beginning of the end of the postwar Stalinist order in Central Europe. Nor did anyone forecast the series of events that soon followed, in accelerating succession: the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the communist dictatorships in East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. Later came the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

Mazowiecki could have rightfully claimed a starring role in this story: as one of Poland's most prominent Catholic thinkers and longtime oppositionists, he had all the credentials. In an initial period of idealism shared by many other Polish intellectuals after the war, he tried to work with the Soviet-dominated communist government by joining a pro-regime Catholic party and serving for a time in parliament. Increasingly disillusioned, he resigned his seat in 1955, and later went on to found a leading Catholic journal of ideas that soon became required reading even for non-believers.

An enthusiastic supporter of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978, Mazowiecki later played a critical role in the rise of the independent Solidarity trade union in 1980, which represented the first serious organizational challenge to communist hegemony and prepared the way for the annus mirablis nine years later. As the British historian Timothy Garton Ash memorably put it: "Without the Pope, no Solidarity. Without Solidarity, no Gorbachev. Without Gorbachev, no fall of Communism." Mazowiecki was there at every decisive waypoint.

And yet his name remains unfamiliar to many students of politics and history outside of Central Europe. After his death this week, most of the English-language papers ran dutiful biographies, many of them from the news agencies. Few conveyed anything of the extraordinary drama encompassed by this life, or the courage he showed along the way. (When the Polish communists reacted to the Solidarity challenge by declaring martial law in 1981, Mazowiecki was one of the first activists they made sure to arrest -- and among the last to be released a year later.)

It would be a shame if we were to neglect Mazowiecki's remarkable career of dissent -- especially since his experiences offer valuable lessons to countries that are still struggling to find their way toward democracy today.

He was a man of revolutionary insights who looked and acted nothing like a traditional revolutionary. Like many of his compatriots, Mazowiecki lived through both Nazism (his older brother died in a German concentration camp) and Stalinism, and the experience inoculated him against all-encompassing ideological designs and the violence they usually entailed. It was this rejection of radical social engineering that formed the basis for the "self-limiting revolution" of Solidarity, which explicitly embraced peaceful but principled resistance to totalitarianism.

His greatest talent, perhaps, was his capacity to acknowledge the humanity of his opponents even when they were at their most inhumane. His extraordinary patience and modesty played a crucial role in that delicate summer of 1989, when the time finally came for him and his Solidarity colleagues to confront their former jailers in a counterintuitive spirit of compromise. The union's leadership had been caught somewhat off guard the year before, when its rank-and-file members responded to the accelerating collapse of Poland's economy with a series of wildcat strikes that shook the communist government to its core. That forced the communists to consider legalizing Solidarity, which they had so bitterly resisted doing for so long. But the union was only prepared to cooperate if the Communist Party made concessions.

Mazowiecki was one of the architects of the negotiating process, known as the Round Table Talks, that the two sides devised to resolve the impasse. It ultimately resulted in Solidarity's legalization as a political movement, a substantial revision of the Stalinist constitution, and the establishment of ground rules for Poland's first competitive elections since the 1920s. The elections weren't entirely free yet, though: in order to allay the fears of their communist opponents, who didn't want to be swept out of power, Mazowiecki and other Solidarity leaders agreed to a formula designed to reserve a controlling majority for the Communists in the newly created parliament.

In June 1989, two rounds of elections took place -- and delivered a smashing victory for the opposition movement. Altogether Solidarity won 160 of the 161 seats available in the election. Though the communists still retained formal control of the parliament, their hold on power was doomed -- as became clear when several of their non-communist coalition partners deserted them for a new alliance with Solidarity. It was that shift that enabled Mazowiecki's election as prime minister.

It was an office he retained only for a year and a half, but that was enough to launch Poland on its trajectory towards a stable parliamentary democracy. Communist hegemony crumbled. The constitution was revised in 1992, and then again in 1997. In 2004, Poland became a member of the European Union. (Mazowiecki himself later served as an EU emissary to the Balkans during the Bosnian War.)

It's worth noting that there are a lot of Poles who don't like Mazowiecki much. Many of them, like the former Solidarity activist Andrzej Gwiazda, are right-wingers who believe that the whole Round Table process was a conspiracy designed to prevent a proper reckoning with the communists' crimes during their four decades in power. This, of course, completely ignores how utterly unprepared Party leaders were for the thumping they received in the 1989 vote. (The scale of Solidarity's victory shocked many of its activists, too.)

There's another reason why the view of the conspiracy theorists misses the point. Retaliating against the communists for their past misdeeds entailed the possibility of serious social unrest (perhaps even Romania-style violence) in a country where millions of people had been members of the Party at one time or another. This was precisely why Prime Minister Mazowiecki announced in 1990 that it was time to draw a "thick line" between the new democratic era and the Stalinist past, by which he meant that Poles should look ahead to a new future in which all could participate as citizens. I strongly believe he made the right choice.

Other countries have tried to learn from Poland's example -- most notably Burma, where the erstwhile ruling military junta seems to have looked to the 1989 parliamentary compromise as a model. Last year they chose a similar path when they allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her followers to participate in a tightly circumscribed election that gave them seats, and a corresponding say, in the legislature. It's a pity that the Arab Spring countries don't seem to have paid much attention. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, would have been well-advised to study the Polish scenario of a cautious, "self-limiting" transition.

Considering the scale of Mazowiecki's achievement, it's no wonder that his passing has elicited some noteworthy praise. The World Jewish Congress called the Catholic Mazowiecki "one of the architects of the modern, democratic Poland and as a friend of Israel and the Jewish people." German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of his "unforgettable contribution to overcoming authority and injustice and also to unifying Europe," and praised him for helping to topple the Berlin Wall and promote German unification. And current Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk described Mazowiecki "one of the most prominent Polish politicians of the twentieth century."

I think they're all right.

AFP PHOTO / DRUSZCZ WOJTEIC

Democracy Lab

Tycoon Warning

How the obscenely rich are becoming the new dictators of the 21st century.

Earlier this month, the investment bank Credit Suisse published its annual survey of global wealth. The bank's report is filled with illuminating findings, but one in particular caught my eye. It has to do with the distribution of assets in Russia, where, as the report notes, a mere 110 people own a mind-boggling 35 percent of the country's entire wealth. At the same time, 93.7 percent of Russians are worth $10,000 or less.

As the report notes, this makes Russia the country with the greatest wealth disparities in the world. Americans, who are now increasingly concerned about deepening inequality in their own country, might seek some consolation from this dismal conclusion. Even under present circumstances, wealth in the United States is still spread a lot more evenly than that (as this comparison shows). Things could be worse, right?

Well, maybe. But I see little cause for jubilation. Russia is merely the most extreme case of a worldwide trend that potentially represents one of the greatest threats that democracy faces today: the spread of oligarchy.

The problem isn't just that some people in today's world are fabulously rich. It's that disproportionate wealth increasingly goes along with disproportionate power. Russia, again, offers a textbook example of the dangers. Back in the 1990s, a handful of politically well-connected business tycoons managed to profit from their close relations with Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin by taking advantage of the privatization of the country's industrial jewels -- above all its vast oil wealth. Those magnates weren't shy about exploiting their economic power to political ends. They bankrolled Yeltsin's re-election as president in 1996, controlled ministerial appointments, and dictated government policy. No wonder these businessmen-cum-politicians were soon dubbed the "oligarchs." ("Oligarchy" is Greek for "government of the few.")

One of them, the recently deceased, arch-Machiavellian Boris Berezovsky, engineered the rise of an ex-KGB officer to the prime ministership. Vladimir Putin ultimately proved less than grateful, though. Once Putin became president in his own stead, he was quick to cut his erstwhile patron down to size,  forcing Berezvosky into exile. Putin curtailed the power of other Yeltsin-era tycoons, too (most notably Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who today marks his 10th year of imprisonment in a labor camp), but in their place he raised up a new group of businessmen -- many with ties to the old Soviet security services -- who owed their fortunes to him. One of them, another KGB alumnus named Igor Sechin, who heads the country's largest oil company, is regarded by some as the second-most powerful man after Putin himself. (Sechin is shown at left in the photo above.)

But this isn't only Russia's problem. As has now become apparent, globalization and the powerful economic forces it has unleashed have awarded unparalleled wealth and power to a tiny new elite. Call them what you will: the superclass, the plutocrats, the "global meritocracy." What they exemplify is the nexus of wealth and political power. And that's a problem that is increasingly vexing voters in places from London to Kuala Lumpur.

It's a challenge that takes different forms. In China, membership in the ruling Communist Party is often the easy road to wealth. Many of today's political scandals center on the antics of well-connected "princelings," the descendants of senior party officials who embody the country's peculiarly potent blend of Marxist-Leninist crony capitalism. Thanks to some remarkable digging by enterprising journalists in recent years, we've learned some astonishing things about the scale of privilege enjoyed by the extended families of notables such as President Xi Jinping and ex-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. But this hardly comes as a surprise. When you consider that the People's Republic is governed by the seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, you're talking about a tiny number of families who exercise unchecked control over one of the world's largest economies. In such a setting, it's only natural that political and economic power are mutually reinforcing.

The situation in China is, of course, the outcome of an economic liberalization program steered by an autocratic elite. In the countries of the developed West the situation is rather different. The number of players is larger; wealth and political influence are more widely distributed. But that is presumably small comfort to, say, the Americans who have emerged as losers from the country's latest Gilded Age. Economic equality in the United States grew steadily during the first three decades of the period following World War II, but ground to a halt amid the stagflation and increasing international competition of the 1970s. As economist Joseph Stiglitz notes in a recent editorial:

Last year, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 22 percent of the nation's income; the top 0.1 percent, 11 percent. Ninety-five percent of all income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent. Recently released census figures show that median income in America hasn't budged in almost a quarter-century.

At the same time, the extraordinary permissiveness of U.S. laws on lobbying and campaign financing has allowed wealthy elites to gain immense sway over the political process. By now, anyone who follows American politics has heard the stories about the vast sums of cash spent by conservative business magnates like the Koch Brothers; less often discussed, perhaps, are the rich Democrats, such as George Soros or Tom Steyer, who are happy to leverage their wealth to shape policy. But even less visible are the big corporations and industrial associations who can purchase lawmakers and fix legislation to boost their own bottom lines.

One recent academic study calculates that 40 percent of political campaign contributions in 2012 came from one hundredth of one percent of U.S. households. That figure probably reflects the new economic elite's growing awareness of its own political power -- not to mention the apathy among other segments of the population who feel increasingly divorced from meaningful participation. The erosion of alternate power centers, such as labor unions, undoubtedly contributes to a sense of rising cynicism and disengagement. It all serves to undermine the promise of America's democratic system. (Given this context, it's no wonder that the U.S. Supreme Court is once again weighing the question of limits on individual contributions to political campaigns.)

As a result, the United States is now experiencing a remarkable discussion of the causes of the new inequality and its political consequences. Authors from George Packer to Tyler Cowen are stirring impassioned debate about the perceived breakdown of the American social compact. The new book from economist Angus Deaton, The Great Escape (see DemLab's excerpt here), includes a memorable quote from the lawyer Louis Brandeis: "If democracy becomes plutocracy, those who are not rich are effectively disenfranchised."

Can we stop the trend? Some -- like Cowen, who believes that current inequality is largely a function of technological change -- are skeptical. Others insist that we can counter the drift towards government by the few with smart policies designed to level the playing field -- above all in education, infrastructure, and health care. Measures to limit the role of money in politics probably wouldn't be a bad idea either (presuming we can find some that actually work). For those who still believe in the primacy of the market, the package might also include measures designed to promote genuine competition in the place of today's corporate welfare for politically plugged-in superfirms.

This certainly doesn't mean giving up on capitalism. As development economists point out, globalization has brought relative prosperity to many around the world who couldn't even dream of it before. (Think, for a start, of all those Chinese peasants who can now afford three meals a day -- unthinkable in times past.) Overall health and development indicators have improved dramatically over the past fifty years. But none of this obviates the need to ensure that the extraordinary benefits accruing to the superstars at the top don't end up disenfranchising the rest of us. Otherwise the future looks dark.

But will the wealthy really give up their acquired power that easily? Though Occupy Wall Street targeted the 1 percent with considerable verve and passion, its actual political impact was arguably close to zero. It's high time for new political movements that can aggregate the power of individuals and marshal coherent responses to the intensifying concentration of influence by a few at the top. And there's even the chance that some of the more enlightened plutocrats will offer ideas for empowering the majority. Where's Bill Gates when you need him?

ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images