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The Weak Internationalism? Women's Protests in Poland and Internationally, Art and Law

Part of Feminisms
Aleka Polis Rosa Rotes Galeria Bwa Wabrzych 2016 Photo Zuza Ziokowska Hercberg

Aleka Polis, Rosa Rotes, Galeria BWA, Wałbrzych, 2016. Photo: Zuza Ziółkowska/Hercberg.

'Order prevails in Warsaw!' 'Order prevails in Paris!' 'Order prevails in Berlin!' Every half-century that is what the bulletins from the guardians of 'order' proclaim from one center of the world-historic struggle to the next. And the jubilant 'victors' fail to notice that any 'order' that needs to be regularly maintained through bloody slaughter heads inexorably toward its historic destiny; its own demise.

(Rosa Luxemburg, Order Prevails in Berlin, 1919)

In her "Letter to the Congress of Polish Culture", read at the Palace of Culture in Warsaw in October 2016, Professor Maria Janion, theorist of culture and literature, expressed her critique of the heroic messianism which continues to shape the vision of subjectivity and political agency in Poland. Her claim, based on decades of research in literature and history, undermines the patriarchal rule of victimhood and bravery, demanding its dismissal and replacement by an agency rooted in life and sustainability.

Ola Jasionowska Womens Strike Poster 2016

Ola Jasionowska, Womens Strike Poster, 2016.

Janion's letter was written only days after the Women's Strike of 3 October 2016 – a day when some 150,000 women in fifty cities, towns and villages in Poland demanded their rights via demonstrations, strikes and online. They also enacted this strike by simply wearing black, expressing the need for freedom and the recognition of women as political subjects. In Poland, the access to abortion is very limited, pregnancies can be terminated when resulting from rape, in cases of foetal malfunction or when the health of the woman is in serious danger. The politicians of the conservative government elected in 2015 have presented several versions of law, further restricting access to abortion and contraceptives, resulting in such a strong wave of protests, that it can legitimately be called a women's revolution. Similarly to the independent workers' union Solidarność in 1980, the women's 'Black Protests', as they were called after the colour of the clothes worn to express resistance to patriarchal rule, inspired further movements and mobilisations in other parts of the globe. The protests of women held in South Korea, Argentina, Mexico and Italy already in October and November 2016, were directly inspired by the demonstrations and strikes in Poland. Later, the International Women's Strike was invented, uniting women from forty countries in their fight against patriarchal structures and misogyny. The protests against President Trump's sexist declarations and politics, against domestic violence in Latin America and Southern Europe, against the restrictions of reproductive rights in Nicaragua, Poland, Ireland, South Korea, countries in North Africa and Middle East, were all expressed in unison on 8 March 2017, in the International Women's Strike.1

This mobilisation of women internationally is an important sign that shifts the forms and strategies of politics. Once again we realised that the rights of women, and perhaps also all oppressed groups, need to be defended, enacted and maintained as international. Regardless of the local specificity of the forms of oppression that women are subjected to, it is always based on the assumption, that reproductive labour, still predominantly perceived as a woman's task, can be subsumed, perceived and judged as secondary to the creative, productive and value creating production, still mostly seen as masculine. While opposing 'Gender Wars' in Europe, sexual harassment in the US or domestic violence in South America, we all express one problem: the dismissive, dehumanising, patronising and exploitative patterns of today's capitalism, fuelled by remnants of religious and cultural myths concerning the 'feminine mystique' in all brands and forms.

In her visionary essay "Art and Public Space: Questions of Democracy", Rosalyn Deutsche criticised the "authoritarian populism" of neoliberal politicians such as Margaret Thatcher, challenging the exclusion of homeless people in public space and demanding a public art which undermined the contemporary restrictions of democracy, instead of supporting them by solely enacting its decorative function (1992). Public art was therefore defined as one bringing politics into public debate, not as one, eradicating it. Deutsche critically addressed the popular theories of neoliberalism for ignoring the political functions of feminist art, which – although at times financially successful – usually challenged the normative framework of representation, thus allowing marginalised subjects their space, agency and recognition.

In current discussions on political theory and practice, often entering debates on art production and activism, the problem of fascism is often perceived as one of scale – we need a better resistance, a wider struggle, a more universal set of strategies. This sometimes leads to a widespread condemnation of strategies based on the recognition of differences, a resignation from feminist/ decolonial practices in order to build and/ or preserve universalism. Following Deutsche, but also Boris Groys and Walter Benjamin, I would like to argue, that the only universalism we should be preoccupied with, is the universalism of the weak. Its other versions and forms are not only defenceless in confrontation with the radical right, but also require tools and measures endangering our ability to build effective collective action.

The Weak Messianism

This rather strong claim is built in several observations I would like to unfold here. The first concerns the oppressed and intergenerational pacts for solidarity. In Benjamin's Theses on History, this is perhaps the most fascinating suggestion: that generations are connected by a bond – by an "inter-generational pact". Living in Warsaw, I can sense the accuracy of these words. Walking on the remnants of the Jewish Ghetto practically every day, I can't not wonder what my obligations are. I believe that Berlin has a similar situation. We can't not wonder how to not to repeat fascism – how not to make an empty declaration by claiming "never again", but also, as a practical rule of organising our actions in a pact with the past and future generations.

Benjamin wrote: "Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that". The pavements of Warsaw and Berlin are embroidered with information on the Jewish people who lived, were imprisoned or killed in various locations in both towns. These are a lively reminder not just of the victims of the past fascist regimes, but also of the obligations we have for the present and the future. Living in both cities in recent years, I was immersed in the variety of solidarity practices, affective labour and political/ intellectual work that felt like building bridges. These practices were extending a web across the divisions of racism, geopolitics and patriarchy. Both cities now feel like my homes and across the border, as Gloria Anzaldua wrote (1999), it crossed me rather than I crossed it. A certain historical materialist practice of building a home in homelessness was created, involving the contemporary, but also the past and the future generations in solidarity.

Jacques Derrida argued, that Benjamin's "weak messianism" is not a declaration of mysticism, but a form of materialism. Deconstruction, incidentally presented itself as the best translation of perestroika. The peaceful transition of the USSR into a capitalist country, announced by the Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid 1980s, is today found guilty of the widespread of Neoliberal Capitalism and all the exploitative measures it employs and fuels in the global economy. What goes unseen in all these easy accusations however is the deep political presence of differences, announced silently on every level of today's systematic daily practices of enforced precarisation. As Isabel Lorey rightly claimed, precarity was a necessary element in the making of the European Subject (Lorey 2010). It always needed a series of its 'others' to be marginalised, exploited and pushed beyond the scenes. The obscenity of today's claims of the supposed novelty of precarity, as though there was none throughout history — when people were forced to survive social insecurity, injustice and oppression – should be condemned. There is no other way to do it, than through the weak messianistic claim of a pact between generations, recognition of similarities in exploitation, and communities in resistance – with its communities based in difference.

Weapons of the Weak

The weak messianism leads to the weak universality of the claims, but before that, practices of resistance were and are used globally by the subaltern. In Weapons of the Weak, James Scott argues for a recognition of the ordinary political agency based in persistence, commonality and simplicity (1985). In his analysis of the peasant protests (I use Scott's vocabulary) in South-East Asia, Scott acknowledges not only the massive participation of the illiterate, often homeless people in the political resistance, but also the effective nature of their struggle. Based on his research in ten countries of the region, Scott claims that the peasants strategies were unheroic and genuinely collective, conducted by those without any forms of cultural or economic privilege. His claims consist not solely in a fascination with peaceful, common political agency. It is also a form of protest that renders visibility to the massive, popular and effective political agency otherwise absent in political narratives on resistance. In this, Scott realised what Jacques Rancière once called "a new division of the sensible", somehow against Gayatri Spivak's strong claim in 1988, that "the subaltern cannot speak". Although Spivak changed her formulation in 1999, and explained in A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, that she seeks to understand the conditions of impossibility of the subaltern's subjectivity and not to further block its visibility, her claim is still misunderstood as one preventing the subaltern from appearing.

The recent women's protests – in Poland and internationally, brought to visibility the subjects that have long been forgotten in the general assumption that their issues and rights "have already been granted". By whom? On what ground? The International Women's Strike and the #metoo campaign clearly show the incompleteness of the fight for women's rights, and evidence a set of blindspots and inconsistencies in the map of the supposedly egalitarian societies. These declarations, enunciations and revelations cannot be relegated to the "women's issues" box of matters supposedly irrelevant from the perspective of some self-proclaimed General Subject.

Gals For Gals Gdansk 2016 Protest Image

Gals For Gals (Dziewuchy-Dziewuchom), Gdansk Protest Image, 2016.

Institutions of the Common

In their writing about the common, Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt and Judith Revel emphasise how it crosses the public/ private alternative, opening space for sharing rather, than possessing.

The common, as with the air we breathe and the culture we all create, cannot be governed in separation, as is the state or private property. The common alludes the General Intellect, the collective nature of the making of the world in its every dimension. The common, however, also depicts the everyday and the ordinary. It references the plebeian, marginalised and oppressed; those supposedly and practically deprived of cultural capital and place in history. Therefore, it is not solely in its form of propriety, but also in the subjective qualities and formats of political agency, that the common indirectly reclaims the weak. Negri and Hardt reference the times of monsters, after Antonio Gramsci, as those where transformation occurs, making new forms of subjectivity and politics appear. Their lack of clear contour and their form – always in the making – reminds us of monsters, as those poorly shaped and therefore somewhat scary.

The times of transformation however can bring about not just monsters, but also new forms of organisation, due to the new form of property. In his article "Occupy the Theater, Molecularize the Museum!" Gerald Raunig makes a case for the transversal transformation of public property, the state-run, oldest theatre in Rome, into an institution of the Commons. In his analysis of the occupation of the Teatro Valle in Rome, between 2011–2014, Raunig offers a multilayered analysis of the elements of such transformation, beginning with the threat of privatisation – the theatre was supposed to be destroyed and replaced by a shopping mall. The workers of the theater, together with the public and social activists, decided to occupy it, defending it from privatisation, but also reorganising it in ways suiting the collective property model, following the idea of the common, rather than any of the restrictive formats of property. Raunig claims, that the institution of the commons cannot merely limit itself to the making and arranging of art for the public, it should be run by all its members, invented anew also by the legal form it takes, therefore becoming a common good.

Towards Subaltern Counterpublics

The institutions of the common express cooperative organisation and propriety, leading to another production-centred form of agency – counterpublics. Coined by Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt, the notion of counterpublics was invented in opposition to the liberal, bourgeois model of public sphere, built in the monumental monograph by Jürgen Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Explicitly excluding plebeian forms of the public sphere as "historically insignificant", Habermas established a perspective on political agency, which excludes practically any subject who is not a white, privileged, Western man. Everything that has been said until now in this essay, contradicts such exclusion. Kluge and Negt discussed the forms of political agency of the proletarians. Nancy Fraser on the other hand discussed the feminist counterpublics, opposing the weak public sphere, which she understood as artificial, alienated and only formally pluralistic, to favour the strong genuine public sphere, using the example of a feminist counterpublic.

Fraser's idea of subaltern counter-publics is fascinating as a fruitful contradiction which combines the expressive, vocalised public with the concept of the subaltern, which – in Gramsci's formulation, but also in that of Spivak – points to the expected muteness of the excluded classes. I believe that a correction is nevertheless necessary, and it is not simply about the adjectives. Instead of further excluding, weakness should be claimed as the quality of all the oppressed and marginalised. It is in our weakness, not in our strength that we all meet as oppressed groups. It is also in the weak, non-heroic formats, that we recently gained power. It is therefore the weakness, not the strength that should be investigated as a possible beginning for universalising our struggles.

Weak Resistance

Until recently, Antigone (daughter of Oedipus) was solely perceived in opposition not just to Creon (ruler of Thebes), symbolising the patriarchal rule, but also to Ismene – her vulnerable, caring sister. In her recent book, Antigone Interrupted, Bonnie Honig presented a reading of Antigone as the story of a sisterly, anti-patriarchal pact, based on mutual support and exchange between the two different sisters. The key feature of this interpretation of the archetypical tale is the resignation from separation – Antigone has always been discussed in separation, as an exception in the controversy between the tradition and the state, preoccupied with death, yet here she is seen as a part of a family, and an element of a larger resistance to patriarchy. In her reading of Antigone, Honig opposes the patriarchal rite of binary opposition imposed on women, who are always supposed to be either/ or – either victims or aggressors, mothers or whores, public or private personae. Here, Antigone is not solely connected with others – mainly her sister – but also demonstrates a larger, complex set of characteristics, rendering her character closer to the actual women engaging with politics.

The recent women's protests in Poland were the first massive feminist protests, involving hundreds of thousands of women, in big and small towns, villages, women of different social backgrounds, activists and those who had never participated in political actions before. The formula: massive demonstrations, but also the colour of clothes – black – and several types of Internet action, made participation in the protests possible also for those who had never been to feminist demonstrations before. In April 2016, new social media groups were opened for women who wanted to protest the law proposal allowing a complete ban on abortion, announced by the Polish Parliament days earlier. Some 100,000 women joined one of these groups, Dziewuchy-Dziewuchom (Gals for Gals) overnight, more joined later.

In September 2016 the Black Protest took place on social media, where women and those supporting us were invited to send their pictures wearing black and signed "I support the #blackprotest". That night, some 150,000 pictures were uploaded on this fanpage, making everyone understand that something big was happening. Some women in Poland faced problems at work or in schools for participating in this online protest, but in most cases the charges were dropped. A group of teachers from Zabrze, a town in Silesia, faced a disciplinary committee, but they were not punished. On the contrary, the committee fully acknowledged their constitutional right to express political opinion.

The call to the Women's Strike was first announced by Krystyna Janda, the famous actress known for her participation in the Oscar-awarded films by Andrzej Wajda, such as The Man of Steel. Women around the country and abroad started to organise into groups and actions for the 3 October, while the liberal media published articles about the Women's Strike in Iceland in 1975. Women declared that they wouldn't go to work and/ or that they wouldn't do housework, affective labour or other forms of reproductive labour. Some men supported us, providing child care and other forms of labour. Some 150,000 women took it out to the streets in some fifty cities and towns in Poland and some more cities abroad. A similar protest took place on 23 March 2018, after another proposal to legally ban abortion completely. The government stepped back, both in 2016 and now. It is now clear that there is no way the abortion law can be changed.

The recent women's protests in Poland have shown to what extent we still need to build transversal, multilayered, all-encompassing feminisms, instead of exclusive, metropolitan groups only declaratively opened to all. In the artists' strategies, we need a similar universality and similar avant-garde; after years of ironic subversions, we need to widen the scope of our practice, and perhaps learn from the early avant-gardes in Russia, employing geometry, factory materials and montage in an effort to politicise art instead of aestheticising politics. This weak universalism, these efforts of early avant-gardes, was later continued by Joseph Beuys, who declared that everyone is an artist, and now, in various inclusive participatory projects.

At a time of rising feminist waves of protest and growing fascism, our thinking, experiencing and resistance need more weakness, more common grounds and more formats allowing us all to join. We need it all.


Anzaldua, G. 1999, Borderlands/La Frontera, Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco.

Benjamin, W. 1968, "Theses on History", in W. Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Random House.

Derrida, J. 2006, Specters of Marx, The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning & the New International, Routledge, 2006.

Deutsche, R. 1992, "Art and Public Space: Questions of Democracy", Social Text, no. 33, pp. 34–53.

Fraser, N. 1990, "Rethinking the Public Sphere. A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing. Democracy", Social Text, no. 25/26, pp. 56–80.

Groys, B. 2010, "Weak Universalism", e-flux, viewed 21 April 2018.

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Honig, B. 2013, Antigone Interrupted, Cambridge University Press. Janion, M. 2016, "Letter to the Congress of Polish Culture", October, viewed 17 April 2018.

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Korolczuk, E. 2014, "Report: 'The War on Gender' from a Transnational Perspective – Lessons for Feminist Strategising", Fundacji Heinricha Boella, Warsaw.

Lorey, I. 2010, "Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting", e-flux, viewed 21 April 2018.

Lorey, I. 2015, State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, Verso.

Negri A. and Hardt, M. 2009, The Commonwealth, MIT.

Negri A. and Revel, J. 2012, "The Common in Revolt", UniNomade, viewed 21 April 2018.

Rancière, J. 2004, Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Raunig, G. 2014, "Occupy the Theater, Molecularize the Museum!", in F. Malzacher (ed.), Truth is Concrete. A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real, Sternberg Press.

Scott, J. 1985, Weapons of the Weak. Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, Yale University Press.

Spivak, G. 1999, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Harvard University Press.

2017/2018 International Women's Strike map of events.2017/2018 International Women's Strike map of events.2017/2018 International Women's Strike map of events.

The views and opinions published here mirror the principles of academic freedom and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the L'Internationale confederation and its members.