Slovakia Needs an Alternative

Slovakia's far right is successful because of the retreat of class politics in the country.

On March 5, Slovak voters elected fourteen neo-fascists to parliament. They ran under the banner of People’s Party Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) — a party that openly lays claim to the legacy of the Nazi-aligned People’s Party that ruled Slovakia during World War II.

After a campaign that included calls to create a paramilitary “Home Guard” to fight “Gypsy terror” and promises to end immigration (under the slogan that “Slovakia is not Africa”), far-right leader Marián Kotleba’s party won roughly eight percent of the vote, joining Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik as the most extreme voices in European national parliaments.

Kotleba’s frightening rise is indicative of deeper shifts in Slovak society that spread far beyond the eight percent that voted for him. Of the eight parties that entered the new, highly fragmented parliament, the six most successful all played extensively on fears of Muslim immigration.

Although Muslim immigration in Slovakia is, in fact, minimal, social anxiety is not, as successive governments have weakened the country’s social safety net, neglected its public institutions, and repeatedly played different demographics against one another.

Now, following an upheaval in Slovakia’s established party structures, yet still without any credible left alternative, this anxiety is becoming increasingly expressed by — or in terms taken from — the far right.

The social atomization and anger that characterize Slovakia now characterize all of Europe. Across the continent, class conflict is becoming expressed along the lines of nation and religion and civilization.

If Slovakia is exceptional, it is only because of the extreme extent to which the country’s class-oriented, internationalist left has been marginalized.

The Slovak elections should be a wake-up call — if one were still needed — about the seriousness of the rise of the far right in Europe.

Left Without Internationalism

After the Communist Party fell from power in 1989, no left force in Slovakia succeeded in consolidating itself as a consistent defender of democracy, workers, and international and inter-ethnic solidarity. The rhetoric of democracy, cosmopolitanism, and minority rights were, however, championed by an emergent neoliberal right, which linked these ideals to the need for market reforms.

Since the Right’s picture of a modern, Western society included both multiculturalism and privatization, both tolerance and a drastically shrunken welfare state, opposition to the latter became linked with opposition to the former. An illiberal politics of identity would, over time, come to stand in for an anti-neoliberal politics of class, and the distinction between left and right became increasingly blurred.

Vladimír Mečiar — Slovakia’s leader for much of the 1990s — embodied this shift. Mečiar became known internationally for his corruption, authoritarianism, and anti-Western rhetoric, but he also attracted poor and working-class voters with his calls for a more compassionate (compared to his opponents) dismantling of the welfare state, and although he did not identify with the Left himself, his quasi-anti-neoliberal positions often resulted in him being labeled “left” in contrast to the “right” that opposed him.

Mečiar was defeated in 1998 by a “pro-democratic” coalition that promised to “bring the country back to Europe,” which in practice meant implementing more crushing neoliberal reforms. Many Slovaks resented this turn, and Mečiar was gradually replaced in the political spectrum by another half-hearted critic of neoliberalism, Robert Fico.

Fico, like Mečiar, tempered his criticism of economic reform with positive appeals to nationalism, social conservatism, managerialism, and technocracy. He relied heavily on cultivating a climate of fear — fear of the “collapsing” rule of law, of “exploding” crime and Romani population growth, and of the cultural threat of an empowered Hungarian minority.

Unlike Mečiar, Fico’s party, Smer (“Direction”), began to formally identify with the Left. Just before Slovakia joined the European Union (EU) in 2004, the formation somewhat unenthusiastically adopted a social-democratic program in order to achieve international recognition by the Party of European Socialists.

Yet the core of Smer’s voters were socially conservative and nationalistically oriented residents of Slovakia’s poor regions, and the party never made a concerted effort either to win these voters over to more progressive positions, or to enlarge its social base by attracting urban left-liberals.

So while the party and the media establishment continued to label Smer as leftist or even “red” (which by now had become the party’s official color), Smer represented a “left” bereft of what once was considered essential to any leftism: a notion of solidarity across ethnic and national boundaries.

The kind of class politics that might underlie and justify such solidarity had largely disappeared from Slovakia’s political scene.

Politics Without Class

Smer emphasizes “social” issues, but like every other mainstream party in Slovakia since the 1990s, it has avoided using the language of class. The irony of course is that just as the concept of class became an unutterable remnant of “Communist ideology,” the experience of class became an increasingly important part of people’s lives.

Workers lost what meager psychological compensation the previous regime had offered them by praising them as “heroes”; what’s more, they were told that they themselves were responsible for “their own degraded circumstances and for society’s difficulties.”

In the newly dominant liberal ideology, social inequalities were presented as personal failures. Unemployment reached 20 percent by 2000, forcing a great many Slovaks to submit themselves to increasingly precarious working arrangements, bullying, intensified exploitation, and the constantly lurking threat of unemployment.

During this “transition,” no consistent political or intellectual challenge was mounted that might place blame on capitalism, rather than on the working class, whom Communism had allegedly deprived of a willingness to accept personal responsibility.

Workers and the unemployed began looking for their own ways of deflecting blame from themselves — most often onto corrupt politicians, and onto Roma.

EU accession — and the large-scale migration to Western Europe it triggered — offered a temporary respite. Unemployment began to fall and new jobs were created following increased investment by international corporations lured by the Slovak state’s generous subsidies (provided by governments both “right” and “left”) and the country’s low wages.

Automobile manufacturers were particularly keen, and quickly transformed the country into “the Detroit of Europe,” assembling the highest number of cars per inhabitant in the world.

Yet long-term unemployment continued to plague the country, amounting to 76 percent of total unemployment in 2006, and 70 percent of total unemployment in 2014.

Slovak workers assemble some of the most sophisticated cars in the world, and the country’s productivity has risen faster than anywhere else in the EU since the economic crisis 2008, but the wage share as a percentage of GDP continues to fall: from 43 percent around in 2000 to 37 percent today.

The public sector is particularly neglected, with wages among the lowest in Europe. Health care and education are widely recognized to be in shambles.

Crowdsourcing the Far Right

These pressures came to a head in January 2012 when Slovakia was shaken by the so-called Gorilla Scandal (named for a Slovak Secret Service wiretap file). The episode revealed widespread political corruption involving high-ranking government officials and top politicians across the entire political spectrum.

Unprecedented street protests erupted across Slovakia and continued for over two weeks. Protester demands ranged from legal prosecution of the suspects to a vaguely defined “real democracy.” In that year’s elections, the traditional parties of the liberal-conservative right, who had been in power since 2010, suffered a crushing defeat.

Yet neither the outgoing parties nor the once-again-victorious Smer responded to voters’ frustrations.

The parties of the traditional right, which had been devoted to European integration, human rights, respectable statesmanship, and parliamentary democracy, were gradually replaced by a new right that was critical of the EU, disdainful of “political correctness,” and not afraid to lash out at “politicians” and the entire political establishment.

In 2012, Smer campaigned for “stability” and “certainty” against the chaos of the fragmented right, and for a time, its popularity remained high. But behind the scenes its domination of the political scene was beginning to weaken.

After the Gorilla protests died down, a core of activists continued their discussions online. The most significant of several emerging initiatives was the so-called Civic Resistance organized on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in November 2012 and 2013.

Under the slogan “We are reclaiming our country,” the group enacted a series of media stunts, including attempts to occupy Bratislava Castle, the Slovak Radio headquarters, and the Comenius University Faculty of Law.

Although these small-scale actions involved only a couple dozen people, they employed a radical political language that signified the shifting political terrain. Insisting that the state was hijacked after 1989 by a new class of corrupt politicians and oligarchs who steal and lie, Civic Resistance called on fellow Slovaks to engage in acts of resistance.

This movement, which saw itself as neither left nor right, gained the support of a growing anti-establishment blogosphere. And in 2013, after its media stunts were “defeated,” the group called on residents of the Banská Bystrica region to turn out and vote in upcoming regional elections for none other than Marián Kotleba.

After the anti-Gorilla movement, the far right capitalized on lingering social anger, churning out angry catch phrases, which then circulated widely through social media and were tested and molded in the process.

The strategy was effective. When regional elections were called in 2013, the People’s Party stepped up and launched its most ambitious project yet — running its party leader for regional governor. The party’s agitation — previously directed almost exclusively against “Gypsy parasites” — was now broadened to include bankers, politicians, and multinationals.

The campaign exceeded all expectations. Kotleba, presenting himself as a clean, non-political maverick ready to shake up the local balance of corrupt power, was elected regional governor.

National Security

Putin’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea added fuel to the far right’s fire. The action prompted EU sanctions, which were detrimental to Slovak business interests and put the Smer government and the country’s more pro-Western president under pressure.

Pro-Russian factions argued that by supporting these sanctions and continuing the country’s participation in NATO, the government was endangering the region’s economy and political stability.

The refugee crisis that began in 2015 provided the Smer administration with an opportunity to reaffirm its ability to defend “national security” and the wellbeing of its citizens against external threats.

The anti-refugee campaign in Slovakia, which soon dominated the media, was hysterical even by regional standards. When Viktor Orbán similarly raged against dangerous immigrants, he could at least point to large groups of refugees who really were passing through Hungary.

In Slovakia there was nothing of the sort. Yet soon nearly all major parties followed Smer’s lead, some even exceeding Smer in their anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric.

Still, Smer remained the most publicly visible force driving the hysteria, as it called for extensive monitoring of Slovakia’s tiny Muslim population and labeled all refugees a “threat to European culture and values.”

When the EU presented its plan to redistribute refugees around member states, the government declared the quotas to be “dictates” from Brussels bureaucrats, and it brought the ruling Slovak “left” into close cooperation with the equally xenophobic right-wing governments of Hungary and Poland.

Ultimately the political benefits of Smer’s xenophobia proved to be short-lived. In obsessing over Muslim refugees, the party drew attention away from the message of social security that had won it support in the previous elections. More dangerously for its longevity, it shifted the campaign into comfortable territory for the far right.

The Ethnicization of Class

In the past, voters had supported parties like Smer, Vladimír Mečiar’s ĽS-HZDS, or the Slovak National Party (SNS). In the country’s most recent elections, they found electoral expression in Marián Kotleba’s People’s Party.

The People’s Party stands apart from more established parties not only in the extremism of its hate-filled rhetoric, but also in its popular activism and its ability to communicate directly with frustrated segments of the population.

For over a decade the group has engaged in public performances around the country: it has marched to commemorate the anniversary of the establishment of the Nazi-allied Slovak State; it has attempted to forcibly evict Roma from the village of Krásnohorské podhradie, calling the act “a great cleansing”; and it has organized assemblies against “oppression by Roma.”

During these events, Kotleba’s group met with local residents, decrying “the government’s blindness” towards the injustice they face. By framing social anxiety as a problem of oppression by Slovakia’s poorest and most disenfranchised minority, the People’s Party has ethnicized social injustice.

When immigration was made into a campaign issue by Smer, Kotleba extended this ethnicization by railing against the “injustice” of allowing Syrians, Iraqis, and others so easily into the EU and its labor market, when “we,” the citizens of eastern EU states, had to suffer through restrictions and transition periods before being allowed to fully benefit from the free movement of labor.

This argument is distinct from the identity politics pursued by Smer and most of the opposition parties. By tapping into feelings of social exclusion felt by poor Slovaks, including those who themselves have been compelled to migrate in search of work, Kotleba became one of the few figures in the Slovak political scene to address class politics.

Any notion of an international proletariat had long since been abandoned by the country’s left, but the People’s Party’s notion of the hard-working Slovak, mistreated by foreigners at home and abroad, successfully articulated many voters’ anger over corruption, nepotism, and socio-economic injustice.

And by reframing the notion of class around ethnicity, the People’s Party played on notions of social parasitism — a well-worn trope in the Slovak popular consciousness used by liberals and conservatives alike. In lumping together, and demonizing, the corrupt and the unemployed, the far right effectively revived powerful notions of ethnic exclusion, categorizing non-working Roma, benefit-seeking immigrants, and Jewish-American conspirators alike as a parasitic class.

Yet it is important not to overplay the importance of ethnicity. The appeal of the extreme right runs deeper than an atavistic attachment to identity, something that the experience of liberal democracy was supposed to have dispelled.

8 percent of People’s Party voters, by their own account, chose to support the party because of its hard line against refugees and “terrorism.” By contrast, over 20 percent cited its “anti-corruption program,” more than 14 percent its “social program,” and nearly 8 percent its “economic program.”

Instead, the electoral success of a far-right party, and the general permeation of Slovak politics by the Right’s agenda, should be seen as a part of a broader rebellion against the outcomes of the “transition process” that was implemented after the collapse of Communist Party rule. Those processes led, among other things, to a rapid and marked redistribution of wealth, status, and opportunity from the bottom of society to the top.

Significant sections of the working class and middle class lost out — and understand themselves to have lost out. A lasting sense of being betrayed, ignored, and forgotten by the new ruling class has provided fertile emotional ground for an offensive against the establishment that plays out in terms provided by the far right.

Two Paths From Neoliberalism

As Slovakia, like much of Europe, falls into deeper political and social crisis, we can begin to see divergent paths forward. One political trajectory could be described, in homage to Slovakia’s southern neighbor, as “Orbánization”: the emergence a new configuration of identitarian xenophobia which, joining forces with an inward-looking national bourgeoisie, refocuses and stabilizes anxiety over capitalist globalization.

Only, in contrast with Hungary, Slovakia’s version of Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party seems to have lost its chance for sustained and uncontested hegemony, while Slovakia’s version of (neo-fascist) Jobbik is on the rise.

Which force might eventually present itself as the new guarantor of stability, after a weakening of Fico — and, perhaps, even of Orbán himself next door — remains an open question.

Fortunately, another path forward is also possible. In 2012, a small and not traditionally militant sector of Slovakia’s waged laborers began to organize itself independently of the class-blind political scene.

The country’s doctors organized a strike — without the support of Slovakia’s major trade union federation — and won an increase in pay. Around the same time, teachers in primary and secondary schools walked out for three days, before being ordered back to work by their trade union without winning any concessions from the government.

Despite the defeat, Slovak teachers kept organizing. Toward the end of 2015 — still without recognition from the official union — a group of teachers began to organize around three demands: increased pay, more funding for schools, and an end to a burdensome program of professional development conditioning pay raises.

They gradually built up their campaign, finally announcing a strike beginning January 25, 2016. Fifteen thousand teachers walked out in what became the longest wildcat strike in post-1989 Slovakia. And when the teachers returned to work, their cause was taken up by colleagues from Slovak universities, who launched a three-week solidarity strike.

The minister of education ridiculed the strike as “minoritarian” and “politicized,” but he met some of the demands and pledged to increase educational spending in the future.

More importantly, the actions forged a new practice of solidarity — unheard of in modern Slovak history — from worker to worker, across different branches of the educational system. Later, expressions of solidarity were extended between teachers and nurses who had also been protesting for improved working conditions.

At the height of the strike, polls showed that, suddenly, the Slovak population had become much less concerned about the problems of immigration and terrorism than it was about problems like education and health care.

The recent organizing by teachers and nurses presents a challenge, both to neoliberal restructuring and to Orbánization.

Their industrial action does not attack “Western” capital; it attacks the myth of a generous Slovak welfare state. It does not attack some distant symbols of globalization; it attacks conditions within the Slovak public sector. It does not attack oppressed minorities; it attacks the Slovak government.

This challenge to the establishment is also posed by a core segment of Slovak society — those charged with maintaining social reproduction, health care, and compulsory education.

In this respect, the strikes present an opportunity to wrest the expression of class anxiety from the extreme right and to wrest the defense of human rights (to education and decent working conditions) from the neoliberal right — and to give them the medium of expansive solidarity.

Nothing guarantees that labor solidarity will continue to grow. But few other forces in the country seem capable of halting the rise of a far right which, while it represents itself as a radical opposition to the political establishment, is little more than the rotten fruit of that very establishment.