The sources of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party’s victory in the 2015 Polish parliamentary elections has still not been properly analysed by the mainstream liberal media and the political opposition. The same goes for social protests such as the Black Monday Protest for women’s rights. Will the recent fight over the independence of the judiciary be a vehicle for long-term political change – or will it just be a minor setback for PiS rule? Bartlomiej Kozek spoke to Dr Elżbieta Korolczuk, a sociologist analysing social movements and the chair of one of the organisations behind recent public demonstrations in Poland, Akcja Demokracja.

Bartłomiej Kozek: Is there a reason for which one cause (such as the recent protests for judicial independence or the Black Monday protests against restricting the right to legal abortion) will mobilise more Poles than others?

Elżbieta Korolczuk: One important reason would be the feeling that such cases may directly influence our lives. For example, everybody can have a road accident and get dragged to court. We therefore have an interest in the courts functioning effectively.

But there is also another important thing to remember. For a mobilisation to take place we need tools and people to initiate the protest, whilst giving as many people as possible the chance to engage in their actions not only as people executing orders, but as active participants. Engaging in such activities is a part of the process of politicisation – of seeing oneself as a citizen and a person with rights, duties, and influence over the political sphere.

The organisers of the Black Monday protests regarding the right to abortion, as well as Akcja Demokracja, proposed a formula for the protests – a model that was easy to replicate from the bottom-up. Black clothes in the case of the fight for reproductive rights, lighting candles as a symbol for the defence of free courts, a specific time, and a central venue of the town or city, such as a square or a court.

No one needed to coordinate it from the top-down. People on the local level could engage as initiators or organisers and feel that they were politically empowered. Such a formula resulted in protests that were not just limited to a few large cities.

And one more important thing is emotions. Limiting the right to abortion or ideas on politicising courts are seen as snatching the rights of people from them and result in fear and rightful anger. It is these emotions that give people the power and will to act.

What is the role of organisations such as Akcja Demokracja in such protests?

I would describe its role in terms of initiating a process of ‘political becoming’, that of allowing politicisation to take place. It means creating situations in which people feel that they can influence reality and politics and they want to do that – not only during the elections.

The key here lies in values that mobilise people to act – not always along party lines and divides. This sort of mobilisation – contrary to strict party action – focuses on emphasising things that connect people with different views and from different walks of life, not the ones that divide them.

The goal of Akcja Demokracja was never connected to being a political backup for a specific party but mobilising people to fight for concrete causes and – even more importantly – for concrete values such as equality or social justice. Akcja Demokracja acknowledges the existing divisions within society but it is not these but common values that give it the fuel for acting.

But there are some voices stating that a mobilisation of this type should end in engaging and acting within political parties. It seems that someone needs to represent these causes in parliament…

Political mobilisation under the umbrella of social movements may end in engagement in political parties but it rarely starts from that level. We first need a space to show our opposition towards the reality we are protesting against, to present our needs, and to build a vision of how we think they can be met, and only afterwards look for political representation.

The history of progressive movements clearly shows that it all starts with a problem, a claim, and then evolves into a situation in which people get together for a common cause. Only later may such a movement take institutional shape. If we try to put people that just got off their couches and into the streets in the basket of this or that party we clearly turn everything upside down.

Why – if so many people went to the streets – is the political party opposition towards PiS rule not gaining ground?

Let’s first remember that fighting for judicial independence is not all there is to Poland – we live in a country of almost 38 million people!

At the same time as thousands of women took to the streets to defend their reproductive rights, two of the opposition parties – the Civic Platform and the (centrist, liberal) Nowoczesna – declined to join the Ratujmy Kobiety (Save Women) committee gathering signatures for legal changes guaranteeing easy access to contraception, sexual education in schools, and access to abortion. Neither of these parties set standards or offer policy proposals; they do not even try to convince people to accept something new, and do not stand for values that may not be the most popular at the moment but are vital to democracy. They just go with the flow and thus, they play by the rules set by the PiS.

The parliamentary opposition does not mobilise people under a vision of the future – it does not propose ideas for a better, more effective, and supportive country. It believes that it is enough to stick to the old, neoliberal, and conservative mantras and to declare allegiance to democracy and European values without actually explaining what they mean. They alienate the most active (but not necessarily the biggest) social groups by acting that way. One can see a paradox here – if we define the conservative worldview as a conviction that it was better in the past, it turns out that the Left has become conservative, idealising a past world instead of thinking about the future one.

On the other hand, the part of the opposition not currently represented in the parliament has  problems with presenting a consistent, future-focused leftist narrative, binding together economic and societal issues. And the media – the liberal ones included – are not particularly interested in what these parties have to say.

A huge problem stems from the fact that part of the opposition believes that technocratic language will win the fight against ‘populist emotions’. This will not work – not least because the current mass media model does not make place for a debate based on facts, data and rational reasoning Liberals do not believe in emotions, but they are also not so good at dealing with facts. Vague references to ‘European values’ are not enough if not accompanied by an explanation of what they mean in practice or how they can include issues related to specific concerns, including gender or sexuality.

In that case how can progressive politics be practiced in the era of right-wing populism?

First of all we need to end with a vision of politics associated with the Enlightenment, in which ‘rational technocrats’ are being confronted with ‘emotional populists’.

 Political history shows us that change is achieved by people who mobilise masses under the vision of the future that bring them faith, hope, enthusiasm, and a feeling of solidarity. Emotions are not born from facts. I became a feminist not because I’ve seen statistics on the gender pay gap, but because it really pains me to see the suffering of women.

The PiS party is currently strong precisely because it is able to generate a strong, emotional response to its selective vision of reality. The Left cannot do it and therefore allows this field of emotions to be dominated by populists.  We should all listen to Chantal Mouffe who claims that emotions and passions should be at the core of any left-wing project.

The weakness of the opposition is not the only reason for PiS’s continuing strength in the polls. You are one of the people that argue for the need to understand the sources of their electoral success – what are they then?

EK: The PiS has set out a vision of the world that responds to a need for ‘security’ felt by the electorate. Its leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, is not, as some commentators say, some sort of genius strategist – he of course learned a few tricks, but he has been sailing in the same direction for years, only to get wind in his back in 2015.

This wind was made up of a sense of economic insecurity that was an inheritance from the crisis of 2008. It does not necessarily relate to real unemployment or inflation – the point is that large groups of people believe the situation to be (both then and now) more insecure. This feeling was influenced by, for example, media reports or previous life experiences, and this overarching sense of insecurity shapes the way we see the world around us – today it appears to be a place with more threats than opportunities.

This sense of insecurity was further deepened during the election year 2015 by the refugee crisis. The PiS used it to toy with the motif of danger to our borders, homeland, and homes – a theme very persistent in the Polish context. This time the danger did not take the shape of tanks as in earlier years, but a vision of ‘terrorists’ dressed as people fleeing war.

But how did economic insecurity get to be associated with refugees?

Arlie Hochschild described this mechanism in her newest book on Republican Tea Party voters in Louisiana. She focused on something that she describes as a ‘deep story’ about the way the world works. In the case of the United States it can be summed up as the metaphor of a queue in which all the citizens waiting for the American Dream are standing, believing in equal rights and that they will succeed if they just work hard enough.

The author observed a deep crisis in people’s belief in this model in the deep south of the US. The queue no longer seems fair and the federal government is seen as letting new ‘undeserving’ people, such as women, blacks, Mexicans or refugees, push in.

The analogue ‘deep story’ here would be the metaphor of Poland as a common home. The public imagination is organised – after partitions, wars, and the state-socialism era – around the promise of a common home, one from a poem by Polish author Leopold Staff promising that “We will once again live in our home. We will walk on our stairs”.

After 1989 and the socialist era of the Peoples’ Republic of Poland (PRL), when this home looked somewhat like a rented house, we were promised it would one day be ours, a home in which everyone would find a place for themselves. A place to give us safety and a sense of belonging. But this vision has its darker side; the home is a closed space that may isolate us from the outside world.

And now someone wants us to make some room in this house for refugees?

PiS supports a vision, in which ‘common people’ – i.e. Polish people – have lived in the basement of this house for years, and when they finally make it to the first floor someone wants to accommodate some undeserving strangers next door. When someone starts to believe in such a vision, deep resentment follows, accompanied by a sense of injustice exemplified in the idea that “we should spend money on helping poor Polish children, not foreigners”.

In such a case, arguments emphasising caring, empathy, and hospitality will – except with a small group – largely fall flat. Like in the case of Tea Party members in the US, Poles in large part feel like victims: of history, of transformation, or of foreign interventions. Forcing them to change their ‘feeling rules’ creates resistance and a rebellion against ‘leftist moralising’. And yes, it is true that the Left likes to moralise, partly due to which it has been defeated in recent times.

If we would like to propose an alternative story then, it may be better to appeal to the experience of Poles as a migrant nation whose several million representatives are scattered around the globe. In this story, our home becomes as wide as the world – and the world itself starts to be a home which others share with us, and we with them.

We already know from our discussion what the opposition does wrong. What should it therefore do to make things right? Do you think the rupture between the PiS party’s declared vision and the reality of how it rules could be helpful?

Criticising PiS is necessary, although each strategy carries with it some risks. One of the options is to use the resentment (felt all across Poland) towards an omnipotent, overwhelming state to criticise the current concentration of power. This emotion was felt during the Black Protests and the fight over the courts, as most of us fear state intervention in our private and family life. However, such a strategy may be a double-edged sword. The liberals tried in vain for years to build trust of citizens towards public institutions.

Another strategy involves discussing the long-term vision of social policies, rather than just specific changes. It should not be used as a way to dig ourselves in the trenches of being for or against concrete proposals (such as the 500+ child benefits[1]), but to discuss different views of how society should function and the long-term consequences of the enacted policies and the ways in which they reshape the citizen-state relationship. Most Poles want a welfare state, but one that is not authoritarian and overreaching. A state that will be more like a good uncle than a brutal patriarchal father. And this presents the opposition with an opportunity to show that PiS is of the brutal patriarchal kind.

An important theme here is the past-future dichotomy. In the last two years Poland has changed quite a lot. The vision of the country presented by PiS seems more obvious now – its ideal is an authoritarian country with no strong institutions or tools restricting the rulers, where power is highly personalised, in line with Jarosław Kaczyński’s wishes. We need a discussion on how that change will influence us all in the next five to ten years so that the key of the message would be the vision of the future and consequences of today’s changes and not only the view on 500+. We need clear arguments and political visions!

What recipe – after all you’ve said earlier – would you have for progressive movements and political parties that are confronting right-wing populism in Europe and beyond?

First of all, do not dismiss the human need for security. It is important how people feel about it, not only what the facts are.

Secondly, do not forget about education and the efforts to influence the views and attitudes of future generations. The Polish liberal camp that give away these issues to conservatives and the church made probably the biggest mistake of the whole transformation process after the fall of communism.

Thirdly, do not discard the need for myths and narratives, the need for stories about the world that will merge the clarity of the message with its emotional strength. We need convincingly told stories that evoke emotions and are based on truth, not lies.

Last but not least, do not be afraid to dream. Even if – as American author Michael Kazin wrote – dreamers may not always win politically, it is their visions that shape reality.

And always remember that History has not ended yet.


[1]    Law and Justice passed a child benefit scheme “Family 500+” in which a family receives 500 PLN (ca. 120 EUR) per month for every second and next child. Low-income families receive the benefit also for the first/only child.

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