Rafał Drozdowski
Maciej Frąckowiak

1. Orientation toward the concrete

As trivial as it may sound, everyone in this part of the world has enough of “liquid reality.” It’s as if the time has passed when actual or at least skilfully posed dematerialization of the economy, money, social relations, and even war was synonymous with modernity. Let’s stop being so eager and as naively as 10 or even 5 years ago falling for the belief that the inevitable growth in the complexity of the social world is equivalent to elevating the discussion about it to increasingly higher levels. Voices are calling for the concrete—demanding a shift from talk to action, from idea to industry, from forms of activity which—like pilot programs or social consultations—may have no tangible, long-range and durable outcomes, to actions with graspable and indelible consequences.

An orientation toward the concrete is visible today nearly everywhere. It was first apparent in the economy. The financial crisis from late 2008 undermined the trust in banks pushing long-term mortgage loans on millions of average people teetering on the brink of insolvency and beguiling financial institutions and investors with newer and newer derivative instruments which at some point cease to have anything in common with the real economy. A horror of casino capitalism and its consequences has paved the way for generalized mistrust in business concepts and ventures in which there is too much abstraction. We have been through this before. When the bubble burst in 2001, investors and enterprises learned that you can’t trade forever on promises. Similar moods emerged after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and they haven’t left us. Ventures based on the assumption that lucrative profits can be earned selling only the proverbial “knowhow” or “goodwill,” or by cutting costs to the bone since “the entire business happens online” are rapidly losing value. Investors are again looking around for something concrete—which can be touched, measured and valued. Even if that “something” is part of the “old economy” that was ridiculed until recently. Just 10 years ago the measure of economic development was the dematerialization of the economy. If there are clothing factories, they’re in China, Indonesia or Vietnam. Auto assembly plants—in peripheral countries like Poland or Hungary. In countries that are “highly industrialized”—as it were—just R&D divisions, design, marketing, and of course top management to oversee it all. But now it is Germany that is setting the example by not only designing but also manufacturing at home. The term “reindustrialization” is gaining popularity in political debates about the future.

nother example of the orientation toward the concrete is the sphere of civic initiatives. Some activists realize that strategies for impacting on rulers based on proverbial petitions and protest letters are ineffective. For similar reasons, there is growing distance toward various events and actions conceived as a way to exert pressure on authority. Their organizers and participants have figured out that they don’t make much impression on decision-makers even if spectacular and well-organized. They don’t because they are one-off, but also because both sides realize that what lies behind such involvement is often laziness, and the cost of such involvement today is negligible. What seems crucial is the feeling of wasted time shared by those persuaded to participate in social negotiations and consultations. Instead of talking, waiting and pretending, the need is to act—in the most obvious, fundamental and undiluted sense of the word. Clean up a courtyard that’s been left uncleaned for weeks. Without asking for permission, erect a speed limit sign in a newly built street in a residential development. Order must be imposed with one’s own hands: that is the first, sheriff-like, characteristic of “concrete participation.”
2 The second is local impact: there’s no way to solve the problem of visual chaos in public space or filthy train stations using grass-roots civic micro-initiatives. But the limited range and impact of the effects need not devalue this form of participation at all. To the contrary, they encourage thinking of it as something exceptional and exclusive.

The hunger for the concrete can be sensed also in science. The humanities and social sciences today crave new legitimacy. This is demanded by politicians, taxpayers, and business. It’s also in the interest of researchers themselves. It’s not hard to figure out that the simplest method for restoring legitimacy to the humanities is to benchmark and index its accomplishments. True, this means extreme bureaucratization of the humanities and social sciences, but if they want to maintain the right to daydream in their ivory tower, they must accept that the price for this privilege is more and more numerous inventories and inquiries into their achievements.

A growing demand for the concrete is also visible in the political sphere. It’s hard to ignore the impression that the times of universal trust in liberal democracy are behind us. This doesn’t come from nowhere: its procedural slowness, inefficiency and ineptness in the face of new challenges are visible to the naked eye. So it should come as no surprise that the product line on the political market features more and more “demodictatorships”
3 which select just certain elements from the accepted model of a liberal democracy. They grow out of a yearning, particularly on one side of the political spectrum, for strong-arm governments. Capitalism itself has become naturalized and is not seriously questioned as the model for the market. Both the left and the right play on cultural arguments. The difference is that where the left spreads disarray, heightening uncertainty, the right pleasantly simplifies the world, offering the longed-for concrete. Figures like Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán and Janusz Korwin-Mikke stir sympathy for the same reasons as Clint Eastwood from the Dirty Harry films. They present the spectacle of ostentatious wielding of power as a response to the irritation with liberal democratic dispersion of power—“capillary power”4 perceived as a cowardice-lined strategy for vanishing.

2. A question of results

A hunger for the concrete seems to have much in common with the fact that it is harder and harder for us to observe the results of our actions. This is made more difficult by longer chains and denser networks of cooperation. Important and impatiently awaited results are not only postponed in time, but their authorship also becomes problematic and blurred. Longing for the concrete also derives from irritation with ubiquitous euphemism. Words are delivered concretely today only during election campaigns and business presentations. Afterwards it turns out that “the devil is in the details,” emphatic promises must be hewn, watered down and softened so they don’t present a threat to anyone and can’t be easily or quickly checked and verified. The turn toward the concrete also seems to be a consequence of growing fatigue with organizational forms which are all notable for their hybrid nature. This hybrid nature is tied to deep interventions at the foundations of the collective order, but without disturbing its façade. A manifestation of this can be projects developed through public-private partnerships, structurally incoherent but convenient for owners and users because of the ability to invoke various often contradictory logics and legitimacies.

The concrete is also a result of the collapse of the great narratives—nomic structures that could vest everyday efforts with a greater and enduring purpose.5 The uncertainty this entails is magnified by the growing complexity of the world,6 transformations on the labour market,7 and the growing number of situations in which our experience of the world is filtered through media.8 Meaning is increasingly sought in what can be possessed for itself as an essential property, rather than a property flowing from relations—like a solid building, a wall, a gold ingot or a fist. Another consequence of these processes is various attempts to reduce unpredictability by limiting the complexity of the environment we function in.9 This process may explain the growing audit culture, or distortion of symbolic communications by content in the form of a sales contract in areas that previously had little in common with the market10—what do I gain or lose by choosing a certain course of study, the place I live, my life partner, and so on.

In the quest for the concrete, there is an evident return to the modernist ideal of rationalization following the disappointments, ambiguities and problems generated by liquid modernity. As was the case over a hundred years ago, now also the effects of this return are at least doubtful. Firstly, the immaterial economy is doing just fine. A meme is circulating around the Web pointing out that the biggest logistics firm doesn’t have a warehouse, the biggest transport company doesn’t have a single car, the biggest firm leasing out space doesn’t have premises of its own, and the biggest owner of media creates no content. Secondly, concrete thinking doesn’t always encourage the achievement of more real or beneficial results. An example could be the architectural utopias of the global south which stir interest in northern countries more as a temporary remedy for the crisis or dwindling funds than because of an appreciation for creativity growing out of scarcity.

 3. Mechanism of concretization

The connections between the concrete and effective action or effective change are ambiguous. But that may be the most interesting thing about it. That’s why it’s important to track this category, particularly during times of growth in various activisms which are themselves part of the phenomenon of the concrete. Where better to seek the effects of concrete thinking than in the real results? Examining once more what gives rise to the need for the concrete, it turns out that most of the reasons are existential. The yearning for the concrete arises among other things out of a paradox of agency: the number of matters we have to be responsible for increases, but at the same time also the complexity of the world and the related uncertainty, which blocks control and thus responsible action. This state of defeatism is also accompanied by the effect of capitalism. Not the capitalism that Weber and Tocqueville were besotted with, but cognitive capitalism. Capitalism appears in this as a transcendental reality, more enduring that Gaia itself, with which, as pointed out by Bruno Latour, the world of the economy has exchanged places, making the latter more fragile and uncertain.
12 An additional proof of the existential conditioning of the quest for the concrete may be the new methods for gauging our own value, like a citation index or the number of Facebook friends. They show that it is not just the world that has changed, but also the desired methods for presenting one’s own accomplishments.

As it turns out, concretization is first a therapeutic method for the individual, enabling one to respond emotionally to an environment that is hard to comprehend. So the concrete is there so that something can be done. A large part of concrete participation happens because it is hard for an increasing number of activists to think up any effective political action, and locate themselves within its orbit—but it never hurts to plant a tree or paint the staircase. No one verifies this anymore, but it was probably similar with investing means decidedly greater than the activist’s own energy. Projects realized with EU money were obviously bolstered by expert reports, but somewhere in the end there were people, for whom—not surprisingly—it was hard to understand what ultimately guarantees development and what steps to take to secure it for themselves in the future, which is why they were also guided by reassuring economic logic: the money can be spent on various things, but it’s better to do something that doesn’t expose us to charges of frittering it away, something that will last for years.
13 Concretization is also obviously a disciplining mechanism, with systemic consequences. This is manifest in the activity of institutions which, by applying various policies of simplicity,
14 curtail the field of possibilities to create an environment in which they can again determine, observe and control the effects. But these will always be incomplete solutions. Because in fact, what is real in the concrete is only disappointment and to a certain degree a false sense of comfort.

Don’t confuse the concrete with radicalism
Asking for the concrete ends badly
We still long for liquid reality and a weak state
What is real and effective lies in relationships
The concrete reduces cognitive dissonance
The concrete is an aspect of moral panic
The concrete treats “a perverse wound of smug superiority” (Latour)
The concrete is a weapon of the weak

1 The authors would like to thank Lechosław Olszewski from the SPOT Foundation for discussions and comments that helped clarify the topic of this text.
2 Maciej Frąckowiak, “Dość gadania? O partycypacji konkretnej” (“Enough Talk? On Concrete Participation”) (2014), in Notes na 6 tygodni #94, pp. 75–79.
3 Łukasz Wójcik, “Demony demoktatury” (“Demons of Demodictatorship”), Polityka 30/2014; see also Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York 2003.
4 In the sense given by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York, 1977.
5 Mira Marody, Jednostka po nowoczesności. Perspektywa socjologiczna (The Individual After Modernity: A Sociological Perspective), Warsaw 2014.
6 Marek Krajewski, “Przeciwzłożoność. Polityki prostoty” (“Anti-complexity: Policies of Simplicity”), Studia Socjologiczne 4/2013, pp. 37–50.
7 Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London 2011.
8 WolfgangWelsch, Estetyka poza estetyką. O nową postać estetyki (Aesthetics Beyond Aesthetics: For a New Form of Aesthetics), Kraków 1998 (collection of essays in Polish translation).
9 Marek Krajewski, “Przeciwzłożoność,” above.
10 As stated by Joanna Orlik in her speech at the conference “Diagnoza w kulturze” (“Diagnosis in Culture”), Poznań 2015.
11 As hoped for e.g. by Martyna Obarska in “Potęga niedoboru” (“The Power of Scarcity”), Magazyn Miasta #10, Warsaw 2015.
12 “On Some of the Effects of Capitalism,” available at Bruno Latour’s website.
13 Thus was coined the saying “If you don’t know what to build, build a water park.” On the other hand, the saying was also coined, “If you don’t know what to do, do some training.” So perhaps a paradoxical but nonetheless fairly obvious complement to the retreat to the concrete and concretism is to seek situations in which the results of actions taken (investments) cannot be accurately evaluated, because of their “softness,” indefiniteness and immeasurability. Incidentally, it is interesting to trace in this context the fate of what is now probably the last of the EU’s financial perspectives in which Poland is a beneficiary of EU money and not a “net payer.” A significant portion of the funds awarded to Poland are to be used to create (hard to measure) conditions for (much easier to measure) “innovation-based competitiveness.” This looks like a project in which concrete funds will be devoted to very non-concrete and “soft” goals and tasks (such as the proverbial investment in human capital), which in the final reckoning are supposed to be turned back into very concrete results (innovative technologies, social innovations and so on). Regardless of what the ultimate fate of this project is or how it is officially evaluated, it will certainly be worthwhile to examine it as an intriguing example where the requirement for concretism, an obligation of concreteness, collides with the temptation to blur, relativize, and resort to masking generalities.
14 Term used by Marek Krajewski in “Przeciwzłożoność,” above.