February 27, 2016. In front of the National Stadium in Warsaw a march begins under the slogan “We the people,” organized by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (Pol. Komitet Obrony Demokracji, KOD). The quotation from the preamble to the United States Constitution plays a triple role here. First, these were the words with which Lech Wałęsa started his speech in the American Congress in 1989, which was a sign of international support for Polish political transformation. Over a quarter century later the protesters wanted to manifest their solidarity with the legendary leader of the Solidarity movement after – to the governing party’s satisfaction – documents concerning Wałęsa’s alleged collaboration with the communist security service in the 1970s were made public. Most protesters either do not believe in these documents’ authenticity or think that an episode of collaboration with the communist apparatus should not overshadow Wałęsa’s merits in building the Polish road to democracy.
Second, the slogan “We the people,” borrowed from the Americans, is a sign of KOD’s opposition towards the anti-western rhetoric advocated by the Law and Justice party (Pol. Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), which as a result of the parliamentary elections held in October 2015 obtained an absolute majority in the Polish parliament. It is worth noting that at KOD’s marches one can see almost as many EU flags as Polish ones. Third, the phrase “We the people” is translated into Polish as “we the nation.” Thus KOD opposes the appropriation of the term “nation” by the discourse of Jarosław Kaczyński’s party. Kaczyński divides Poles into those who belong to the sovereign nation, which has chosen PiS and supports the authorities’ radical steps, and into those of the “worse sort” (Kaczyński’s notorious phrase from an interview for a right-wing TV station): blocking so-called “good change” (PiS’s campaign slogan) and defending the liberal status quo. Hence, KOD is trying to fight against the rhetoric of a siege mentality, successfully used by PiS, which identifies the party’s opponents as anti-Poles, allegedly devoid of a sense of patriotism, servile towards the EU and the West.
KOD emerged in November 2015 in response to PiS’s announcement of the need for radical change in the functioning of democracy in Poland and a new constitution. The idea of creating a committee originated with the former oppositionist Krzysztof Łoziński, and the challenge was taken up by Mateusz Kijowski, a social activist not connected to any political party. He created a Facebook group, which was joined by tens of thousands of users within a few days. The first protest marches took place in many cities in Poland in December 2015, after the governing party passed a bill invalidating the appointment of five Constitutional Tribunal justices (chosen by the previous parliament), which resulted in a crisis over this institution. “We are not revolutionaries; revolutionaries are those who destroy the order, who try to impose their own order by force. We want to keep democracy and our freedom,” said Kijowski during one of the marches. KOD is trying, with varying degrees of success, to create the image of a constructive and rational social opposition, which distances itself from PiS’s antagonizing communicative strategies.
KOD’s slogans and postulates can be divided into four types. The first group are liberal and democratic slogans, referring to fundamental democratic principles such as lawfulness, a pluralistic worldview, or freedom of the media. During marches, demonstrations and rallies, the protesters chant such slogans as “We will defend the Constitution,” “Freedom, equality, democracy,” or “Free media, free Poland.” On the one hand, these slogans are general enough for many Poles to be able to identify with; on the other hand, they are really important only for those who do not envision a form of government other than liberal democracy. Such people are on the defensive in today’s Poland. KOD has put aside egalitarian and social postulates; it does not speak on behalf of the precariat, sexual minorities, or in defense of refugees, who are unwanted in Poland. In other words, KOD is avoiding sensitive subjects, which could divide its sympathizers, but at the same time with its moderate postulates it discourages those Poles who blame the former centrist government for its cultural conservatism and economic neoliberalism.
The second type includes historical and symbolic slogans. The very name KOD is a direct reference to the famous Workers’ Defense Committee (Pol. KOR), an intelligentsia organization which in the 1970s opposed the communists’ brutal policies towards the working class, and which paved the way for the Solidarity movement. Today KOD eagerly uses this association with Solidarity and invites former anti-communist activists to its protests, but it makes selective use of their legacy: it only revives pro-freedom slogans, not mentioning union postulates or the critique of capitalism. The third type of slogans are anti-government ones. Even though the organizers of marches ask the participants not to copy the polarizing discourse of the governing party à rebours, eliminating slogans discrediting PiS is impossible. Biting criticism is of course directed towards Jarosław Kaczyński (the protesters chant, for example, “Away with Kaczor the dictator,” which rhymes in Polish), his party as a whole (the acronym PiS is made to stand for “Permanent Invigilation of Society”) and president Andrzej Duda, believed to be a pawn in the hands of Kaczyński. Comparisons of PiS’s actions to the methods of the communist regime are the order of the day. The fourth group of slogans are pop culture remixes. In order to ridicule the authorities, KOD’s discourse incorporates different symbols and associations with subjects currently on the public agenda. In December, when a new Star Wars film premiered, KOD’s standard repertoire included comparing PiS’s leader to Darth Vader and the current government to the evil Empire. However, sometimes reckless slogans such as “PiSlam” appear, uncritically recycling the xenophobic rhetoric of increasingly vocal nationalist movements in Poland.
At first glance, KOD resembles other protest movements emerging in Europe in recent years. Manuel Castells, referring to the Spanish Indignados, calls these budding revolt networks a rhizomatic revolution. New protest movements come to life online, thanks to social media, and materialize within the urban space, which they treat as a democratized common good. Instead of organizational hierarchy they have the structure of a postmodern rhizome. It is easy to join the movement, without the necessity of sharing the whole ideological package offered by it, and it is even easier to leave it, without any formalities or remorse that the zeal of revolt has burnt out. In the case of KOD all this appears to hold true, but not entirely.
If we take a closer look at the protesters, we do not see many young faces in the crowd. The preponderance of the middle and older generations was especially baffling during the marches of January 23 against the so-called surveillance bill. This bill, passed in early 2016 by PiS, gives the police and secret service broad powers to collect the telecommunication and internet data of private citizens. It would seem that it is mostly teenagers and twenty-year-olds who should be outraged by the new law. Their whole life takes place via new media. Yet it was mostly their grandfathers, for whom the memory of “controlled conversations,” phone tapping of citizens by the communist regime, is not an abstract idea, and their parents, who see the Internet as a technological achievement that is still young, not a natural and “everlasting” communication channel, who took to the streets.
However, the reasons for the désintéressement of young people and students are more complex. First, for a decade a gradual shift of the worldview of young Poles towards conservatism and at the same time consumerism has been taking place. The politics of memory, initiated by PiS in 2005–2007, has peculiar effects today. The new fashion is for “consuming patriotism,” which means not broadening one’s knowledge of history and cultivating civic attitudes but rather making national symbolism an attractive product and lifestyle marker. And wearing cool t-shirts with participants of the Warsaw Uprising often leads to supporting those parties and movements which wear the word “nation” on their sleeve. Second, many Polish twenty-year-olds do not have precise political views. They are the children of the ongoing depoliticization of economic and social life. They do not see the relationship between the legal dispute over the Constitutional Tribunal and their down-to-earth problems with finding a satisfying job. They will see this complex relation perhaps only when Kaczyński’s “social” Poland goes bankrupt and the bridges joining it with the EU are burned by the government. Third, even though KOD prides itself on its recently emerging younger members, these do not include the young left, which sympathizes with the ephemeral party known as Razem (which did not enter the parliament, obtaining 3.6 percent of votes). Razem (“Together”), an initiative several months older than KOD, is distrustful of the committee, believing it to be a direct continuation of the neoliberal discourse of the former government. Despite Razem and KOD’s common standpoint concerning the Constitutional Tribunal, when the two groups were protesting in front of Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s office next to each another, they kept their protests separate. This is mostly to Razem’s disadvantage, as its isolation from the popular KOD means gradual self-marginalization.
“KOD does not have to ingratiate itself with young people. Especially since the young are unbelievably sensitive to the artificiality of such attempts…. KOD should not repeat this mistake. Its offer cannot be addressed only to the young, but to the whole society,” claims sociologist Andrzej Rychard. Even though there is much truth to this, it is the young, who cannot be labelled “post-communists” by PiS, who are KOD’s driving force. If they are gone, in a few months the revolt may die down. Today most participants in the marches and protests are occasional KOD sympathizers, treating their participation in the demonstrations as an element of a liberal left-wing and new middle-class lifestyle. “I have visited the protesters in front of the Prime Minister’s office. Razem offered me vegetarian borscht and KOD gave me dates and organic apples. Good music, nice people, I’m glad that we are able to protest in such a kind way. I recommend taking a walk there,” one of the occasional protesters encouraged on his Facebook profile. However, this carnival may soon end if KOD does not combine its pleasant atmosphere and nice freedom slogans with specific social postulates which would make the movement stand out against the background of the current cagey opposition.
Doubts whether KOD is a real alternative to the parliamentary opposition – consisting of former coalition members Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) and the Polish Peasants’ Party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe), plus the new liberal party Modern (Nowoczesna) – are not entirely groundless. The committee is often accused of being a crypto-party, i.e. of promoting specific party interests despite its declared supra-partisanship. Indeed, the protests are attended by representatives of almost all opposition parties as well as by faded stars of Polish politics who want to remind the public of their existence. By integrating different party groups, KOD is building its political capital, but at the same time it pays a high price for it. It is easy for PiS to frame these social protests as a revolt by those who lost the election and cannot accept their defeat. Moreover, KOD’s sympathizers are labelled as “beneficiaries of the political transformation.” Thanks to this, PiS revives the populist division between evil elites and good people. In the Polish variation of this polarizing discourse the “beneficiaries of the transformation” are not only corrupt politicians and former communists who supposedly enriched themselves during the transition from communism, but also all Poles who in the last quarter of a century achieved relative material success and distance themselves from the traditionalistic and anti-western rhetoric of the current government.
In fact, most participants in KOD’s marches are average in terms of wealth: not the poorest, but also not the economic elite. In a sense they are all beneficiaries of the transformation, as thanks to it they have obtained many civil rights, including the right to protest. But this paradox seems to go unnoticed by PiS. “Behind this movement, this wide coalition which is being created against us, are forces that simply want to keep Poland as low as possible, to make it serve others, to make Poles work for others, to make Poland a sort of a colony,” Kaczyński said about KOD in March 2016. This is why today the greatest challenge facing KOD is not allowing its criticism of the government to be appropriated by this very government, which very efficiently produces a discourse of resentment towards the West and liberal democracy, a narrative that discredits Polish political compromise and labels as traitors to the national interest not only abstract bankers and EU officials but everyone who dares to be proud of being a beneficiary of Polish transformation and democracy.
Magdalena Nowicka-Franczak is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Research on Social Communication, University of Łódź, she was Bronislaw Geremek Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM (2014–2015).
© Author / Transit Online
 Cf. M. Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope. Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge, MA, Polity Press (2012).
 A. Rychard, KOD nie musi się odmładzać, „Kultura Liberalna”, no 5, 2016, http://kulturaliberalna.pl/2016/02/02/kod-nie-musi-sie-odmladzac/.