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The Liberal Roots of Polish Conservatism

The recent elections in Poland show some startling trends. A narrowing of the political landscape has all but eliminated progressive voices from the Left, and the principles of solidarity and social justice, which once defined political struggle in Poland, seem to have been discarded in favour of strict individualism.


This article was originally published on the author’s blog ‘Beyond the Transition

Almost every article in the Western media, covering the recent developments in Poland, have followed the same script. How is it possible, they ask, that the supposed success story of the post-Communist transition has diverted from the political and economic road that has served them so well? There is a sense of exasperation, a feeling that Poland is acting almost like an ungrateful child. Despite healthy economic growth, rising living standards and new found freedoms, Poles are still not happy. These sentiments are replicated by many in the country themselves. They compare their lives today with what they had before and cannot fathom how anyone could not be satisfied. Yet over the past few months the population has elected a President (Andrzej Duda) and government (Law and Justice Party – PiS) that seem to offer a fundamental break from the past.  However, rather than this new conservative turn in Polish politics being an anomaly, it is rather rooted in the practice and ideology that have dominated  over the past quarter of a century.

After the defeat of the PiS government in 2007, the former opposition leader and editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Adam Michnik, made a speech at Warsaw University. Expressing his delight at the election results he claimed that “every nation has an intelligentsia that it deserves, however I believe that our nation has a better intelligentsia that it deserves”. Michnik praised the Polish intelligentsia for uncritically supporting the shock-therapy reforms, claiming that the previous two decades had been the best in Poland for over 300 years. Another such example of this thinking, was given by the leading intellectual authority on Polish Liberalism, Andrzej Walicki, who once quoted Janusz Lewandowski (former Solidarity advisor, liberal politician and then EU Commissioner) as saying that the Polish intelligentsia will be able to fulfil its historical mission only by supporting the “empire of capital” and that it would betray this task if it concentrated on caring for the needs of the losers of the transition and socially excluded.

Conservatism in liberal clothing

Such sentiments have deep roots in sections of the Polish intelligentsia. After Communism fell, it was believed that one could now serve the common good by becoming rich and embracing the new values of competition and individualism. By acting in  their own individual self-interest and supporting the dictates of neo-liberal economics, the new middle class would strengthen the market’s invisible hand, which would help to raise the living standards of the whole of society. In contrast, those who sought to protect their jobs, increase social expenditures or retain public services were now acting according to narrow self interest.

Despite its apparent liberalism, this extreme individualism contains an inherent conservatism. The poor are to blame for their plight, as they are lazy and disinterested in work. The state holds back the market, which if allowed to act freely would bring prosperity to all who wish to work for it. This Hayekian conservativism found fertile ground in a post-Communist society, that was believed to have become infested with a collectivist mentality of passivity and dependency. The burgeoning entrepreneurs bemoaned those who continued to yearn for the securities of the past. They resented paying into a social insurance system from which they received little and pay taxes to support those who refused to work. They saw their own failings on the market as being due to a heavily bureaucratised state and the homo-sovieticus mentality that ran through it.

The liberal intelligentsia provided the reasoning behind the construction of a socio-economic system ridden with inequalities, deprivation and lack of social protection. Less than half of the country’s working age population is in paid employment; 27% of those in work are employed on insecure fixed term contracts (10 years ago it was 15%); 19% of those working are self-employed and have to cover their own social insurance costs; 9% of those under 18 years of age are estimated to live in absolute poverty; just 16% of the unemployed receive any unemployment benefit; and  a mere 2% of those working in the private sector are members of a trade union. Despite all the wealth created in the past couple of decades public services continue to decline. There are now more than 170 fewer public  hospitals than there were in 1990; nearly 20,000 fewer public sector nurses; around 3,000 fewer state nurseries and 4km less train lines in the country.

The end of solidarity

By cutting loose a section of society to poverty and destitution, another section of society believed that their living standards would rise. Their intellectual representatives assured them that their success would eventually trickle-down to the rest of society, although whether this actually occurred was generally of little concern. They drew credit (often from abroad) to buy housing in gated communities; took out private health insurance to escape the public health system (unless they actually needed hospital treatment of course); paid for private schools or tuition; etc. This social group came to believe itself to be the most tolerant and open-minded section of society. When PiS was voted out of office in 2007, it was this social layer that mobilised itself. It rejected what it termed the ‘mohair revolution’ (which symbolised the berets favoured by some elderly women in Poland) and joked that people should hide their grandmothers’ ID cards so that they couldn’t vote.

However, the situation in 2015 is very different to that when PiS came to power 10 years earlier. At this year’s parliamentary elections over 2/3 of those aged between 18 and 29 voted for the parties of the conservative right. Over 16% of them voted for the party of Korwin Mikke (which narrowly failed to enter parliament) which combines extreme neo-liberalism and social conservatism. A generation has been brought up believing in the principles of individualism and the free-market, but where the economic conditions do not now exist for real self-advancement. This liberalism has transmuted into a form of social Darwinism where any ideals of solidarity are absent. This was most dramatically seen during the refugee crisis this year, where there was an extremely hostile reaction amongst sections of society and politicians to Poland taking in refugees (despite the government only being asked to take 7,000 from by the EU). Young people are decidedly more likely to be against Poland accepting refugees than the older generations and they are often attracted to the ideology and parties of extreme nationalism.

Narrowing the political landscape

It is in these conditions that the PiS government is attempting to consolidate power, often through encroaching on the practices and institutions of the democratic state. They are drawing on the dissatisfaction in society, by presenting themselves as standing against Poland’s corrupt elite. They claim that this elite wishes to use the Constitutional Tribunal to block its social reforms (such as introducing new child benefits and reducing the retirement age). Their economic policies are often aimed at the young and the struggling middle class: the failed entrepreneur; the graduate who can’t find stable work; the person struggling to pay the mortgage s/he took in Swiss Francs. They offer more government intervention with the vision of a state that prioritises and protects Polish businesses and tax-payers. It is an ideology based on the frustrations of the many, who feel let down by a system many once supported. And when the economic programme of PiS founders they will find new external and internal enemies (imagined and real) to blame: refugees, the EU,  Russia, Gays, Communists, Liberals…

In response to the actions of the new government a new opposition movement has arisen.  The problem is that many of those now standing up for democracy are the very people that helped to create the economic system that excludes so many and serves so few. For the past 18 years they have ignored the social clauses in the constitution that state such things as people having the right to form trade unions; that citizens shall have equal access to a health care system funded by the state and that the state shall promote low-cost housing. They have spent the past 2 decades denigrating the state; undermining its social rights and trying to avoid its obligations. And even now, this liberal milieu – represented strongly in the Polish parliament – propose yet more economic liberalisation and privatisation to cure the woes of the country. However, as the sociologist David Ost has regularly pointed out, the turning away of the Polish intelligentsia from the working class and poor created an anger within society that helped to generate the growth of right-wing conservatism that we see today. In the mainstream public debate it is now the conservative right that talk about such things as social inequality and poverty.

With the Polish left presently weak and divided, an alternative progressive and egalitarian voice is not being clearly articulated or heard at the moment. But it will have to be, if the old mistakes are not to be repeated again, that will further strengthen the resurgent conservative right and isolate the pro-democracy movement to a minority of society.

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