Poland’s Iron Consensus

Poland's recent elections cemented right-wing dominance and the neoliberal trajectory of the past two decades. Can the Left recover?

Street art of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the late Lech Kaczynski, identical twins and prominent figures on the Polish right. thierry ehrmann / Flickr

The new Polish parliament represents a full spectrum of opinion — from the liberal right to the populist right to the ultra-conservative right.

The relatively monolithic composition is hardly a surprise. With a solid right-wing electoral consensus before the October 25 elections, the Right’s strong showing just signaled that its hegemony is firmly intact. The ultra-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) won an outright majority of seats, replacing the center-right Citizen’s Platform (PO), which came in second.

Meanwhile, the compromised social-democratic post-Communists and the young, new left were completely shut out. If the Polish left is to revive itself and break today’s iron consensus, it must learn from this election and the past decade of right-wing rule.

Winners and Losers

Despite being considered a winner of post-Communist transition, Poland has experienced very uneven development; vast amounts of wasted human capacity, social dislocation, and poverty coexist with pockets of wealth and success. The transition has produced a small upper-middle class and a much larger class far behind, leading many young Poles to emigrate in search of something better — the largest single emigration in recent European history.

In the quarter-century since 1989, Poland’s capitalist transformation has been marked by a relatively unbroken sequence of reforms — carried out by everyone from ex-Communist apparatchiks to Catholic arch-conservatives — that have ushered in not only capitalism but its harsh neoliberal variant. The country’s initial transformation began with a heavy dose of “shock therapy” in the early 1990s, while the past two decades have brought a more measured pace of reform that is slowly completing the neoliberal revolution.

Poland is increasingly integrated into European production networks and value chains, and its highly educated population makes it an important intermediate producer and service outsourcer for core Europe.

But Poland’s relationship with the rest of Europe is more complicated than a simple core-periphery connection. Altered flows of goods, services, and people have restructured the entire European economy rather than merely subjugating a periphery, and competition between European Union (EU) countries to attract large firms has driven down wages, labor costs, employment standards, and corporate taxes throughout Europe.

Within Poland there is intense regionalization; both core and peripheral regions of the country compete for investment and development in extremely uneven ways. In the public sector revenue starvation and creeping privatization — especially in health and education — undergird low-paid, highly gendered, and exploitative labor conditions.

Meanwhile, access to health care, while supposedly universal, is in practice two-tiered — the rich get private diagnostic, specialist, and acute services right away while everyone else waits. Welfare has been rapidly scaled back and tied to work, and Poland is at the European frontier of pension reform: a large portion of public retirement savings have been thrown into marketized individual accounts.

Today nearly one in five Poles lives in poverty, and more than one in four fall under a broader EU definition of those at risk of extreme poverty and social exclusion. Both of these indicators have remained stable during and since the financial crisis, a period in which Poland was essentially the only European country to experience relatively unbroken economic growth.

A quarter-century of transformation has created a class of winners with a sense of entitlement — thinking they have created their success stories — and a much larger class of losers excluded from social, economic, and political life and left feeling vindictive and apathetic. Turnout in the 2015 election was just 51 percent, only slightly above the average for parliamentary elections since the mid-1990s.

This decades-long polarization has generated a major crisis of political legitimacy. After the initial outburst of popular energy and support for the end of Communism, Polish society has endured an increasingly divisive transformation, carried out by an outwardly fractious but inwardly unified political and economic elite.

Everyone Wants to be Anti-establishment

Since the mid-1990s, political alienation has produced a rapid succession of short-lived but moderately popular anti-systemic parties. This time around, Kukiz ’15 and KORWiN took up the antiestablishment mantle.

The former, which received 8.8 percent of the popular vote, is the electoral vehicle of Pawel Kukiz, a former rock star who shook up the presidential campaign earlier this year, gaining over 20 percent of the popular vote in the first round.

Kukiz represents a relatively pure variant of the anti-systemic vein. His major campaign plank was support for a first-past-the-post electoral system, which alongside eliminating state subsidies to political parties, he portrayed as a means to get rid of corruption; ironically, these measures would only further cement an emerging PiS-PO duopoly. Beyond this, Kukiz’s politics are a hodge podge of largely populist, right-wing slogans driven by vindictiveness against the political, rather than economic, elite.

The more dangerous variant of the anti-systemic current is the ultra-right, essentially fascist KORWiN. This party, which just missed the 5 percent threshold for parliament with 4.8 percent of the popular vote, combines radical free-market ideas like the elimination of income taxes and welfare with open misogyny, racism, and homophobia. In fact, Janusz Korwin-Mikke, the party’s leader, has been suspended from the European Parliament for fascist gestures and now sits as a non-attached member, outside even the anti-EU, far-right grouping.

Most dangerous, however, are the non-electoral far-right and fascist formations such as the All-Polish Youth (MW) and National Radical Camp (ONR). These organizations are the far-right’s foot soldiers. They frequently put on racist, nationalist demonstrations, have violently disrupted events put on by civil society and left groups, and often harass feminist, LGBT, immigrant, and other left activists. An ex-leader of the MW just became a member of parliament under Kukiz’s banner.

Together, Kukiz, KORWiN, and the non-electoral far-right groups have been successful in moving the bounds of political debate the furthest right it’s been in the post-Soviet period. Their success rests on their ability to draw in a predominantly young electorate looking for a politics outside stale patronage networks and rehashes of 1980s debates.

In this context even the hard-right PiS seems moderate by comparison. However, PiS also paints itself as antiestablishment. Its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has long railed against the hidden Uklad, or System, said to link key parts of the security services, media, political class, and economic oligarchy.

But rather than a systemic critique, PiS presents a paranoiac visions of plots, agents, and all-consuming individual corruption. For PiS, the transformation has failed due to moral rot and external influence; it has recently adopted a vague opposition to the EU and a stronger emphasis on Poland’s Christian heritage. These rhetorical moves cement the idea of a unified and pure Polish nation under attack.

Maybe the best example of this posturing is the PiS’s use of the Smolensk tragedy — a plane crash near Smolensk, Russia in 2010 that killed the Polish president (Jaroslaw’s brother, Lech, also from PiS) and a large number of top state officials including MPs and generals — as a propaganda device.

The party’s official line is that the crash was the result of a plot by the Russian and Polish elite to extinguish Lech Kaczynski’s presidency. The Smolensk story — one prominent face of PiS’s politics of historical memory — stands in for a more general attack on an elite that has stymied truth and justice.

The Nostalgia Trap

The success of PiS, however, is much more complex than right-wing electioneering. Instead, its success comes from a complex set of public appeals that trades in both nationalist pseudo-history and a vague nostalgia for the Communist past.

In fact, PiS is the party that has largely inherited the nostalgic vote from the post-Communists. When the post-Communist Coalition of the Democratic Left (SLD) turned out to be some of the most zealous advocates of economic liberalization, it was discredited — both in the eyes of a core anti-Communist portion of the electorate that would never support it, and in the much larger segment of the populace seeking some form of justice in the social and economic transformation taking place.

Although the majority of Poles welcomed the transition to capitalism, nostalgia for pre-1989 Poland — especially among the older generations — remains. Often this nostalgia is unspoken or unnamed. Its basis is the everyday experience of material security — everyone had an apartment, food on the table, and other basics guaranteed — that existed alongside authoritarian political repression. PiS harkens back to this time with vague welfarist slogans that merge with the moral crusade against those wrongly profiting off the new system.

PiS aptly exploits the contrast of pre-1989 security with the very real fears and material worries of today. Poverty, mass emigration, high unemployment — all are symptoms of the very uneven transformation. The poverty rate for seniors is currently 12 percent, up from 8 percent before the financial crisis — an important fact that adds material weight to the subjective feelings of nostalgia among the elderly, who are an important segment of the PiS voter base.

Yet for PiS this nostalgia is more façade than substance — it exists in tension with the party’s powerful anti-Communism and its actions in power. The last time PiS governed (from 2005 to 2007), its goal was to create a Fourth Republic to replace the post-1989 Third Republic — which, in its view, was irreparably tainted by the legacy of Communism. For PiS, it’s not the rich per se, but merely the rich that made their money on the coattails of the previous system who are the enemy. If Poland is re-founded under a Fourth Republic, the rich can get rich justly.

The Establishment After All

At the same time, PiS’s economic record is largely that of a typical right-wing party, although one that is at times highly ineffective in implementing its program.

In Poland’s New Capitalism, Jane Hardy aptly describes PiS and PO as “two parties represent[ing] different hues of neoliberalism.” Both PO and PiS were formed during the implosion of the Solidarity trade union’s electoral coalition around the turn of the millennium. It may be hard to believe that the expected outcome of the 2005 election was a PO-PiS coalition given their professed dislike for each other today; their similarities are hidden behind a veil of personal attacks, sharpened rhetoric, and moralistic disputes.

In some ways, the rise of PO and PiS from Electoral Action Solidarity (AWS) — which united the Right under the auspices of the Solidarity trade union and governed in the late 1990s — diluted a unified right into factions that focus on representing the transformation’s winners and losers, respectively. The demise of social democracy via scandals and enthusiastic support for neoliberal reform opened the way for PiS to champion itself as protecting the transformation’s losers and helping them get back what’s rightfully theirs.

PiS was elected based on its opposition to reforms carried out by its rivals, but it remains to be seen whether it will continue the same program in power. As much as PiS and its leadership rail against the liberal establishment, they are part of a political elite that has allowed the fruits of capitalist transformation to flow upwards.

In fact, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the unquestioned leader of PiS, has espoused a very consistent political line since the early 1990s, when his party (the Centre Accord) was involved in Poland’s first post-Communist governments. Its elements are Christian heritage and social conservatism, virulent anti-Communism, harsh law and order, and economic transformation based on privatization and deregulation.

PiS’s last term in office saw cuts to top personal income tax rates, instituting a de facto flat tax, as well as cuts to corporate taxes. Pension and welfare reform continues, as does privatization, although the pace of reforms has slowed.

If anything, Poles can thank the incompetence, paranoia, and incessant infighting of the Right — combined with its need to make occasional gestures toward welfarist rhetoric — for the slower pace of change over the past decade. PiS stalled euro adoption long enough to see the effects of the eurozone crisis.

In terms of 2015 electoral promises, PiS and the other right-wing parties all advocated reductions in either corporate taxes, personal income taxes, employer payroll taxes, sales taxes, or all of the above. These will further starve the state of revenue and force more reforms to welfare, social services, and pensions. There are of course differences in economic policy — for instance, PiS advocates large and growing “pro-family” cash transfers as well as a tax on large, “foreign” supermarkets — but these are overshadowed by differences in social policy and rhetoric.

So while some sections of the country’s elite and foreign capital operating in Poland are genuinely worried about the incompetence, paranoia, xenophobia, and vindictiveness of PiS, most can sleep soundly knowing that regardless of playing up welfare state nostalgia, riffing off the antiestablishment parties, and denouncing improper enrichment, the ideological basis of the party lies firmly in the range of right-wing consensus. PiS is, despite its proclamations, part of the force consolidating the transition to neoliberal capitalism in Poland.

Conservative Nation?

Much of the coverage of the recent election in the major English-language media reflects a liberal consensus in which PiS is tarnishing Poland’s success story with its xenophobic, archconservative plans. It says little about Poland’s ongoing slide to neoliberalism.

In truth, while PiS is full of hyper-nationalists with xenophobic, archconservative plans that will disproportionately harm women, immigrants, and socially discriminated groups, it is also part of a broader right-wing establishment whose supposedly sensible” wing has done equally as much harm, though not as loudly.

PiS’s victory is in many ways a consolidation rather than revolution in Poland’s electoral space. The two-party, fraternal battle between liberal and conservative wings of the Right has survived another campaign. And while there are dangerous elements to the PiS victory, there is no sense in blaming a particularly right-wing populace. In the presence of an elite fashioning a state and a social space built on relentless competition and the lack of left and social movement strength, the contest was won by the force best able to harness public anger at the unfairness of the post-Communist status quo.

Without a strong left-wing challenge, the 2015 election was a kind of philosophical clash over cosmopolitan and communitarian values on the Right — over what kind of capitalist subjects should inhabit Poland, not over the shape of Poland itself.

Where is the Left?

So where is the Polish left? The longstanding post-Communist left is outside parliament for the first time since the transformation, and while it is too early to tell if it has been discredited beyond repair, these elections were a stern rebuke similar to those other compromised social-democratic forces in Europe have experienced in recent years.

Despite the post-Communist context, the SLD fits the pattern of compromised social democracy very well. The Communist apparatchiks of the 1980s became fluent in the new lingua franca, transforming themselves into the neoliberal apparatchiks of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and in their wake followed a steady stream of bland young careerists in the mould of New Labour. During its two terms in government, the party oversaw liberalization, deregulation, and austerity across everything from health and welfare to the labor market.

A few months before the 2015 elections, seemingly out of nowhere, the Razem (Together) party emerged. Razem takes inspiration from others in Europe, most notably Spain’s Podemos — sharing the same purple color, neutral name, appeals to “radical democracy,” and non-traditional left rhetoric as Iglesias’s party. Razem’s rise has been called the “coming of age” of a young post-transformation left.

Over the years, there have been numerous forces to the left of SLD, critical both of its increasingly liberalized character and its roots in the PZPR and state nomenklatura. They run the gamut from the Labor Union (which was formed in the early 1990s out of the left wing of Solidarity) and the reformist elements of the Communist PZPR (which governed in coalition with the SLD) to smaller parties like the Greens and the Polish Socialist Party (harkening back to the inter-war left of the same name) to small Trotskyist groups to unaffiliated youth groups like the Young Socialists (MS). Razem represents both something larger in scale and something very different from much of what preceded it, although most of its leadership hails from the MS.

During the campaign Razem was intent on making austerity a central issue — objecting both to the reduced taxes on the rich and the resulting cuts to public services — and decried precarious work arrangements.

These issues are the same ones uniting the Left across Europe; their resonance in Poland remains small, given the success of the Right in polarizing the political sphere between themselves, but they are the antidote to this false opposition. Razem’s message also eschews individual vindictiveness while offering hope for those who aspire to a better life and a systemic critique of the current moment.

The party’s support spiked late in the campaign after a strong showing in the final political debate by Adrian Zandberg, one of the party’s spokespeople. Ultimately, Razem received 3.6 percent of the popular vote, shy of the 5 percent threshold for seats in parliament but above the 3 percent threshold for state funding. For a party formed less than a year before the elections with the express purpose of contesting them, it was an encouraging result.

Of course, Razem will now face the problem of continuity, social utility, and relevance in between elections, and it will have to decide how closely to align and integrate itself with social movements. At the same time, it will need to avoid succumbing to some of the risks of its post-political jargon. Without an organized base in unions or elsewhere in society, it will be challenging for the party to build itself as a social force — one that doesn’t simply rely on making better arguments but winning people over in action.

Beyond the electoral sphere, the picture is more mixed. Union density keeps falling and is now at around 12 percent. Despite this, periodic but well-organized and large-scale strikes have scuttled or at least slowed down the pace of harmful reforms.

Last year, miners struck to defend the last of the mines from a chaotic restructuring and prevent more of the costs of deindustrialization from falling on workers. Nurses and teachers, both highly gendered and low-paid groups, have continued to mobilize regularly, and beyond fighting for something better than near-poverty wages, both sectors have stood up often to defend the quality and accessibility of public services.

At the same time, the trade union movement is largely composed of factions from the old system. While Solidarity has moved out of the electoral sphere, it remains closely aligned with political forces on the Right. At the level of top leadership, Solidarity has a strong relationship with PiS. OPZZ, the other major trade union federation, is the descendant of the old party-sanctioned trade union, and its leadership suffers from the same disconnect, bureaucratization, and conformity to the new reality as the SLD. Both unions, however, have large numbers of rank-and-filers and activists ready to fight.

Finally, there are attempts at unionization across the new private economy. Some of the smaller but more radical unions that come from syndicalist or Trotskyist traditions have successfully organized in new economy workplaces such as Amazon warehouses. But overall, the labor movement remains largely on the defensive and divided in important ways.

Social movements, for their part, have followed in vague contours some of the major European mobilizations, although in reduced form. Poland sent delegations to European Social Forums and saw demonstrations against trade liberalization, climate change, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in which Polish forces participated). There has also been an important leftward shift on social matters; attitudes towards immigrants and LGBT communities have changed, especially among the young.

The risk is that much of the social movement energy will either dissipate without larger support structures or get channelled into professionalized NGOs.

Like everywhere else in Europe, the question of how to break through the fear and division sown by the Right remains central. In Poland and in the other former Eastern Bloc countries, political democracy has brought no economic democracy, only the fast road to neoliberalism.

The task for the Polish left is to destroy the façade of opposition between the two main factions of the Right, which are in reality both fundamentally establishment parties. They may present two different visions, use very different slogans, and appeal to very different groups, but today’s two main parties and their smaller satellites are all ultimately in favor of Poland’s continuing push toward a more punishing neoliberal capitalism — further deepening the subordination of the majority to a small coterie of private interests.