Let Us Have Our Dreams

How long can you keep telling people that they should be grateful for open borders, if they do not remember the reality without freedom of movement? The propaganda of success pursued by the pro-Union establishment had something of the subtlety of 20th-century authoritarian regimes.

When Poland finalized the process of accession to the European Union, I was in middle school. Still, a few images from that period are deeply etched in my memory—after all, it is not often that they tell you in school that you are witnessing a historical event and may take part in something more significant than the end-of-year gala. So I remember a debate between local councilors or politicians where the most important topic was the practice of selling fish wrapped in a newspaper—will the Union allow it or ban it, and if the latter, would it be good? I also remember perhaps the only person in the district who actively protested against the accession: a sad member of the far right party National Rebirth of Poland (NOP) distributing stickers with contours of two male figures in a loving embrace captioned “no pedaling.”1 And
yes, I also remember a boy, an ardent Catholic, who kept telling us—whether we wanted to hear it or not—that in China they made soup from fetuses. I did not know (and I still do not) what it had to do with the European Union, but it sounded ominous. I also remember the school referendum on Polish accession to the EU and its result: 90% of “yes” votes.

If an analogous referendum were held in Polish schools today, it is possible that in some places the result would be the opposite—that 90% of Polish teenagers would say “no” to the Union.

Opinion polls suggest that a right-wing/nationalist turn has taken place among the youngest generation—the young are rebelling not against
the conservatism of older generations, but against the deficit of conservatism. The intuitions of a major part of sociologists and researchers are most clearly confirmed by the results of the last parliamentary elections. And although we should not treat elections as the most representative and in-depth survey of attitudes, the results of radical groupings—and the popularity of the conservative right in general—is impossible to ignore.

In 2015, two different exit polls showed that the right won well over 50% of the vote in the youngest group of voters. In the group of secondary school and university students, two radical parties (named after their leaders: Kukiz’15 and KORWiN) jointly got more than 40% of the votes, which means that they would have won over 200 deputies in the Polish Sejm with its 460 parliamentarians. And we are not speaking here about moderate right, but about two groupings which favor Poland’s leaving the EU, are opposed to immigration, promote the right to bear arms, use a language which is hostile to national and ethnic minorities in Poland, and pursue an economic agenda
based on libertarianism. The leader of the Korwin party, Janusz Korwin–Mikke, declares himself a monarchist and an opponent of voting rights for women, while Paweł Kukiz proposes a radical change of the constitution and making politics “party-free,” whatever that means.

If citizens under 30 were the only ones to vote, these parties, together with the winning Law and Justice of Jarosław Kaczyński, would get an overwhelming majority allowing them to reject a presidential veto, to change the constitution, and to push any bill through Parliament. As for PiS itself—also a winner among the youngest group of voters—it moves further and further to the right from conventional European Christian Democracy. The rhetoric regarding immigrants and refugees, the condemnation of “political correctness,” the attitude towards domestic and international institutions and cultural and historical policy—all these make the Polish ruling party compatible not with establishment conservatives in Europe, but with populist protest parties. In short: Polish youth, alongside with the Hungarian one, would choose the most radical government in Europe.

The Shift Towards Conservatism

These are not the only symptoms of the shift of the youngest generation (or at least its statistical “average”) towards conservatism. The level of trust for the Church is high in this group and the acceptance of abortion lower than in older generations. Unwillingness to accept refugees from Africa and the Middle East is also the highest among the younger segments of society.

Statistical analysis and conclusions from sociological research may be supplemented by examples from day-to-day life, such as very low average age of leaders of nationalist and radical movements and their overrepresentation in the new circuits of information and culture, such as amateur Internet journalism, YouTube, and memes. A striking phenomenon is the so-called “patriotic clothing”—T-shirts with symbols of nationalist military groupings from World War II, images of knights, or the Polish White Eagle replaced Metallica shirts and uniforms of subcultures.

Why? I have often heard this question from Western journalists who wanted to talk to me about Poland. In fact, it is easy to speak about my country using youth as a metonymy—a young democracy, a young EU member state, a young civil society, and so on… In its full form the question was: “Why is a country/society that went so successfully from an undemocratic system to democracy and EU membership turning away from both?” And the young—a generation of my peers and slightly younger people—provide a very good illustration of this problem, even if the answers given by these people are sometimes both more trivial and brutal than their interlocutors would wish. The European Union in Poland—perhaps also in the generational experience of other Visegrad societies—forms a crucial part of this answer.

I remember that around 2004, when Poland finalized the process of accession, a great event for us teenagers was the day when we received CDs with the then fashionable indie rock ordered in London, bought at some Internet sales. Okay, Internet did exist and many people had a broadband (at least in a big city and a prestigious secondary school), but both the physical barrier and the difference in the buying power of pocket money between Poland and the West were still huge. The only owner of an iPod in our school was elevated by others to Olympic heights. The most familiar with foreign countries were those who had families there or went to participate in international sports events. In our teenage notions, the EU and the Polish belonging to its structures was synonymous with unlimited consumption, the fulfilled dream about it, an immediate advancement for us all, and the inclusion in a better world for which we did not have to pay nor make any sacrifices! You were able to say overnight: “I will go and study in London or Edinburgh” —as if this London or Edinburgh was just down the road. Low-cost airlines became very popular and indeed many of my peers did what they said they would do and one day after graduation started preparing to leave.

The Experience of Second-Category Citizens

The EU project was not perceived by most of us as political, but as prestigious. While supporting the EU and the pro-Western ambitions of Poland you could also express the demand for pride, your personal aspiration, the superior status of “new Europeans,” and also snatch something from the pathos of the great moment. When the next elections in 2005 were won by Jarosław Kaczyński and Law and Justice—this was when they ruled for the first time—the greatest problem declared by young voters hostile to them was that they were “un-European”— they did not speak English, they dressed badly, and generally represented resentment towards the West, rather than the universally understood desire to be its proud member.

Of course, a quickly-fulfilled dream disappears from the horizon and is no longer tempting; indeed, it often takes revenge and returns as a nightmare. Work in English candy factory or even studying by no means proved a liberating and dignifying experience for everyone—for many it meant declassing, sweetened by a higher quality of life and financial stability. Money, as it soon turned out, does not sate the hunger for dignity and does not abolish the sense of humiliation coming from being a second-category citizen—this diagnosis fits both Polish immigrants and Poland as a member state. The experience of being downgraded or humiliated was by no means universal, as for many people emigration (and EU membership) was a success story, but the political right skillfully and relentlessly stirred up the emotions of the humiliated or anxious. Disappointment with consumption and the ruthless advanced capitalism of the West perfectly fitted the long-established cultural diagnosis promoted by the conservatives—the values, strong national identity, individual and collective dignity are more
important than the GDP, flexibility on the open European market, and the experience of life in a multicultural society.

Polish immigrants often discovered that they had in fact a lower social status than an Indian banker, a Pakistani physician, a Nigerian lawyer. Their white skin and the heroic national myths instilled in them since childhood proved worthless when they emigrated to the “Old Union.” The cultural shock connected with seeing veiled Muslim women and the exposure to the propaganda of “living on welfare” really meant an initiation into anti-immigrant attitudes which—what irony—the Polish people learned first-hand as immigrants. In their professional experience the Poles discovered not the advantages of living in a multicultural society, but the reality of the Darwinian struggle between particular groups of immigrants where a Pole was enemy of a Bulgarian, Pakistani, or Turk. Black legends about “Negro” and “Arab” mafias exploiting the newly-arrived Poles on European markets also played a role in strengthening anxieties and stereotypes. Polish immigrants living in poor or suburban districts often fell victim to petty crime, which they interpreted as an effect of the “immigrant invasion,” and then this fear was and still is successfully exploited by politicians telling stories about “Islamic districts” in London, “Sharia zones” in Paris, and “loss of control over the country” in Sweden.

The cure for actual or imagined degradation was of course an escape into a fantasy about a strong and caring nation-state – a homeland which does not exist and never did. Yet in the imagination both of emigrants and those who stayed home in the country that also pursued the European path, Poland became a bastion of traditional values, a rampart protecting against Islamic invasion, a model country uncorrupted by the ideologies of post-modern West. Cultural anxieties of the already more mature (and partly disappointed) young people from before the EU accession were incorporated by the right into a policy of a more welfare-minded, pro-family, and statist government—this was the winning agenda of PiS from the 2015 elections. Paradoxically, in the context of some social solutions this platform brought Poland closer to the West, however, it must be strongly emphasized that its foundations are traditional values and national exclusivism. The slogan “Poland for the Poles,” previously treated as extremely racist and invoking the legacy of 20th-century fascism, shifted towards the mainstream of public debate.

Another generation, a decade younger, was growing up in the conviction that the EU and its projects did not offer any promise to them. How long can you keep telling people that they should be grateful for open borders and common market, when they do not remember a reality without freedom of movement and online shopping? The propaganda of success pursued by the pro-Union, liberal-conservative establishment had something of the subtlety of 20th-century authoritarian regimes, which tried to build their legitimacy on the fact that people had electricity and running water in their homes. And ironically, the Civic Platform party ruling in Poland for eight years indirectly admitted that it pursued something which gained the name of “hot tap water policy.” This strategy, based on avoiding serious crises and administering the main functions of the state, was very successful as a way of maintaining power, but its anti-ideological and post-community nature proved disastrous. The Polish government completely renounced talking about the future, opening the way for those who spun even the most absurd and unrealistic visions of this future.

The Dreams on the European Periphery

The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán hit the right note already in 2013, when he said that the European dream really had a chance to be fulfilled not in the heart of Europe—the ageing and austerity-minded England or Germany—but on its periphery: in Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia. While liberal politicians suggested that the countries of the Visegrad group were already past young age and should be content with stability, non-liberal politicians said precisely the opposite: only now we have our chance, and against the background of the aging and sluggish Western Europe we may show vigor, dynamics, and courage. It is an easy guess which story better suits the sensibility of the young. The experience with pro-European parties was an experience of normality at best, far removed from the grand promises and expectations symbolized by the EU in the early 21st century. There is nothing shocking in the fact that young people rebel against what they understand as “political correctness” and “Eurocracy,” as for them these are synonyms of the language of the government, the only one they remember. The successes of the right in this area do not result from the fact that the young people have permanently turned towards conservatism, but from the fact that traditionally they turn towards the more radical, populist story, for they have greater courage to dream and they expect more from politics. Today—and let us hope it is not permanent—this is the story of the Islamic threat and the impotent EU.

We should not forget about more mundane reasons: in recent years it was the right which opened the channels of personal advancement and career development to young people. For a young person with great aspirations, especially from a small town, the right became one of the best ways of social engagement—and today the ruling Law and Justice rewards them for that engagement by offering them highly-paid positions in the public sector and state-owned media.

Still, we must remember that just five years ago young people ardently supported Janusz Palikot—another populist. He promised legalization of marijuana, LGBT marriages, small government, and moral freedom. Today a politician from his party, a homosexual Robert Biedroń, is an astonishingly popular and efficient mayor of the conservative city of Słupsk.

In a government report “The Young 2011” the authors noticed that young people were not especially interested in politics, they were disappointed in it or rejected it outright. The researchers did not interpret this soon enough as a signal that politicians who rejected politics and communicated in the same language of disappointment and anger would be the first to gain from it. And it is similar today: “the turn to the right” should be treated as a symptom and a warning signal, it need not be exclusively what it seems. For it is also a call for more politics, more efficient government, and a sense of agency in the public sphere—liberalism avoided all these things and the left was unable to deliver them in time on its electoral platform.

Some things need time and it also regards stories. On average, the views of young people in Poland turn by 180° in a period corresponding to two parliamentary terms.

Jakub Dymek

is a columnist and author. His book about the rise of the revolutionary political right in USA, Poland and Russia entitled “Nowi Barbarzyncy” (“The New Barbarians”) was published in 2018 by Arbitror Publishing.

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