My holiday reading this year started with a book which, on one level, is an enjoyable and alarming tale of a foreigner trying to do business in Poland. But on another level, it explains a lot about the mess we are in and how to get out of it.
"The White Lake" was written by John Borrell, whom I knew and admired when he was Time magazine’s correspondent in Eastern Europe in 1989. Tired of the unpredictability of that life, he bought some land bordering a lake in Kashubia, in northern Poland—his wife’s home region—and built a small luxury hotel. His hard work made Kania Lodge a success; nice places for weekend getaways were rare in Poland in the 1990s. He created dozens of jobs and helped put a beautiful but neglected corner of the country on the international tourist map.
Was everybody in Kashubia delighted and grateful that a famous foreigner was spending time and money on this? Actually, no. The most exciting and troubling bits of Borrell’s book are the numerous legal battles he fought with greedy, vengeful and obstinate locals who wanted to extract bribes and hamper his business. He calls this nexus of corrupt business, administrative and political power—with deep roots in old communist power structures—the układ. It’s an untranslatable Polish word, pronounced OO-kwad, roughly meaning the “deal.” I prefer the non-literal rendering, “the insiders.”
Borrell refuses to pay bribes. He gets beaten up. The police do nothing. He sues. He loses to the insiders, again and again, in local courts—and wins, again and again, in higher ones. He sets up a newspaper to expose the local układ. A prominent insider, an ex-mayor, sues him for criminal libel—a charge that could have landed him in prison. He wins that too.
Most people facing the układ—whether in Poland or other countries where similar arrangements persist—do not have Borrell’s resources. They cannot survive interruptions to their cash flow. They cannot afford excellent lawyers. They do not have the self-confidence and connections that come from being a world-famous journalist born in Britain, raised in New Zealand, and used to working for what was at the time the world’s most famous magazine.
But at least they can vote. Resentment at the petty and not-so-petty humiliations inflicted on outsiders by insiders is, I think, the driving force behind the discontent felt in many democracies. It is manifested by the rise of Law and Justice in Poland, Donald Trump in America, Marine Le Pen in France and by the Brexit vote in Britain, and by similar phenomena in many other countries.
If you are an outsider, you know that the rules are written and implemented by insiders, to their benefit and not to yours. They may actively harm your interests, or just be careless of them. The resentments vary; they may be against direct harassment and extortion, as in Borell’s case. Or they may be more diffuse feelings of unfairness: economic insecurity, paying burdensome taxes, competing for scarce public services, having to pay bribes—none of which seem to trouble the insiders.
Either way, the feeling among outsiders is that most of their rights don’t mean much in practice. Nothing works as it should. So when the chance comes to cast a protest vote, you take it. Sometimes you even win.
This doesn’t necessarily topple the układ, or its local equivalents. The newly elected politicians may be corruptible or ineffective. What we really need is lots of John Borrells: principled, determined citizens willing to fight for what is right. Where do we find them?