Liberal Insanity

Poles seem to like the new government more than the liberal mainstream would like them to. How is it possible?

It has been almost a year since the shock elections of 2015 gave full political power in Poland to the right-wing populist party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS). Polish liberals are looking with awe and admiration at the newly formed opposition movement called The Committee for Defense of Democracy (Komitet Obrony Demokracji or KOD). They do not seem to be bothered by the fact that despite all its hectic activities, dozens of demonstrations around the country, endless media interventions, and well established father figures of public debate pronouncing themselves in favor of the protesters, this huge movement has not managed to chip away even a single percentage point of voters’ support from the governments’ result in the last election (the support for the ruling party hovers, depending on the poll, between 33% and 40%, averaging at 37%—exactly the result PiS scored in October 2015). Poles seem to like the new government more than the liberal mainstream would like them to. How is it possible if this government is so terrible? Let us try to figure it out. It is not going to be so difficult. You just need to look at it from the right angle.

In order to understand something, you have to know where it originated from. It may not be enough, but without getting to know the cause of something you can never truly grasp its meaning and apprehend its mechanisms. However, when you listen to liberal narratives on contemporary Poland, you get the impression that there is only one way to conceptualize what happened in 2015: the populist upheaval was an outburst of irrational resentment incompatible with the values of democratic societies and fueled by deliberate manipulations of a small group of power-hungry political outcasts, with Jarosław Kaczyński playing the role of the principal villain.

This “diagnosis” has become the cornerstone of the opposition’s strategy: to denounce what is happening as an irrational outrage and to expose this irrationality of the nouveau régime along with its violations of the minimal standards of a democratic state. Such a view seems absolutely obvious for its proponents and absolutely false for its opponents, which is behind the failure of any strategy based on it—its only outcome being mutual consolidation; just like all the proofs for God’s existence, it is utterly convincing for the convinced and just another piece of misconceived propaganda for the non-believers.

A genuine and adequate examination of the causes of the populist upheaval is an issue of the utmost urgency and importance. We are experiencing a turning point right now. What happened in Poland in 2015 cannot be regarded as an isolated, local aberration comparable perhaps only to Hungary. It is impossible to paint a soul-inspiring picture of rational and meritocratic world politics as opposed to savage and irrational situation in Poland. We have PiS, but the UK has got Brexit, the US has Donald Trump, France has Marie Le Pen, Austria has the Freedom Party, India has the ongoing rule of Bharatiya Janata Party, the Philipines have Rodrigo Duterte, a self-proclaimed vigilante turned the savior of the nation’s morality. It looks like there is a global convergence of political developments and that right-wing populism is winning everywhere despite different historical and cultural contexts. It comes as no surprise for a Marxist—there is one main force shaping the world nowadays: the process of capital accumulation in its global phase. If you believe that material processes animate social and political life, the convergence is not surprising given the universal rule of capital over different societies and cultures.

There is also another area of consistency at play here—the historical one. A brief look at the 20th century reveals a systematically recurring regularity that can be summarized in two simple inferences: firstly, capitalism + parliamentary democracy + redistribution => democratic socialism, secondly, capitalism + parliamentary democracy – redistribution => national socialism. It is a telling correlation as it shows that despite all the liberal rhetoric of the free market and capitalism being an emanation of “the natural state of things” it looks like capitalism cannot settle in its liberal equilibrium and always errs sideways: towards progressive solutions if there is a redistribution or towards regressive ones if there is none. Germany between 1930 and 1960 serves as the best example: a country passing from a relatively well functioning parliamentary regime (if judged by the standards of the time) through an incredibly oppressive dictatorship and back to democracy or even more—to the top of the list of model liberal democratic countries. What fundamentally differentiates the Germany in 1960 from the Germany in 1930 is not culture or values, but one simple thing: a well-developed welfare state. As it was once put by Timothy Snyder, we are different from the people who killed tens of millions of their neighbors in the 20th century in one crucial aspect: we are not hungry.

If one puts this model to work and fills up its abstract scheme with specific events form recent Polish history, the situation becomes more rational and starts making sense. The present success of right-wing populists is a direct outcome of the neoliberal transformation of the early 1990s. It introduced radical free-market reforms and parliamentary democracy, while deliberately weakening redistributive mechanisms. It created a lot of suffering and thus a big anger.

The only surprising thing is that the populists needed so long to dominate the scene. The reason is the time it took people in Poland to run out of fantasies. The main factor containing the anger was a mirage of future prosperity associated mainly with the European Union. As long as people in Poland unanimously believed in the EU and in a better tomorrow provided by capitalism, the anger could have been controlled. However, it has never been eradicated. From the early 1990s on it took various forms: the rise of the populist movement of Samoobrona with its leader Andrzej Lepper, the shocking victory of Stan Tymiński over Tadeusz Mazowiecki in the presidential elections in 1990, or the astonishing comeback to power of the ancien régime’s apparatchiks between 1993 and 1995. These were all symptoms we failed to interpret correctly. The liberals remain blind to them even now, despite the fact that this anger is turning their world upside down. It is hardly surprising that a community so incapable of seeing the reasons of their own perishing is swept away by the wind of history.

Those who defend the liberal order claim that the very diagnosis of widespread anger and frustration misrepresents the reality and that everything is basically OK as proven by the growing Polish GDP. This argument is hardly surprising—if your point is to prove that discontent is irrational, you have to demonstrate that the status quo is good and hence its radical questioning cannot be of any value. However, a careful examination of social and economic indicators paints a much bleaker picture of contemporary Poland. The GDP argument seems to be particularly misplaced—it may be crucial for foreign investors as it shows what kind of return they may expect on their money, but on the social level it misses the point.

The neoliberal dogma of the trickle-down effect has been disproved by a heap of empirical evidence. It is quite possible that when the GDP goes up, the rich get richer, but the rest does not benefit in any way from their success. Redistribution does not seem to be an outcome of growth, but rather an effect of… redistributive politics. It sounds like a tautology, but economic liberals keep repeating their ideological metaphors about the tide lifting all the boats no matter if their passengers are short or tall. Empirical indicators contradict this belief: there was a 30% aggregated GDP growth in Poland between 2008 and 2015, yet in the same period the number of people living in extreme poverty also rose by 30% (!). In other words, eight years of consecutive economic growth produced half a million of poor people in Poland, a new Wrocław (4th largest city in Poland) of poverty. At least this is the picture emerging from official statistics. You may build various ideological constructions to deny it, but you cannot change the facts.

What is more, the picture is even bleaker if we look beyond the narrow bounds of economic indicators. Researchers from Koźmiński University in Poland constructed an index of sustainable development (see figure below) based on several dozen economic and social indicators. It perfectly illustrates the same point: despite continuous economic growth, social development stagnated or even declined between 2006 and 2015.

Albert Einstein once remarked that insanity meant doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. This may very well be the motto of KOD. It is not difficult to see why it does not work and why so many people choose to support the government. There were two major slogans used by the movement to convey its message. The first one referred to the freedoms guaranteed by the rule of law being currently destroyed by the populists, the second concerned the need to build a stronger civil society to resist and overthrow the new regime. Both are naive to say the least.

There should be no doubt that freedom is a big value and nobody on the left is seriously questioning it. However, in a society with strong material divisions such as the Polish one, freedom becomes a class privilege. One needs to be able to practice freedom to appreciate it and that requires having more than one option to freely choose from. For that reason, practicing freedom requires resources, otherwise it is just an empty slogan. This is the main reason why the constituency of PiS remains completely deaf to all arguments referring to freedom guaranteed by the rule of law. They are people who do not cherish freedom, because it remains meaningless in their world of poverty severely limiting practical choices.

After all, why would you defend the Schengen Zone with its vast freedom of movement if you cannot afford a train ticket to the nearest city? Presented with a possibility of getting 125 euros child bonus in exchange for supporting the Europhobic government you would be irrational to refuse. It is easy for the liberals to denounce people who “sell their freedom for 125 euros.” It is much more difficult to imagine the desperation you have to suffer to do that kind of thing.

The same holds true for the “rule of law”— why would anyone fight for it if they perceive the law as fundamentally biased towards the interests of some social classes. Private ownership is sacred; economic liberals—such as the former Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, who lost the reelection last year—believe that it is OK to evict people and close public institutions in the name of reestablishing property relations destroyed by World War II seventy years ago (sic!). They have never proved to be equally steadfast in enforcing employment law which is violated in Poland on a daily basis, also by public institutions under direct control of central or local governments (I myself worked for three years in public institutions—Polish Public Radio and a municipal art gallery—without a contract mandated by the law). This is precisely the crux of the matter: not only the liberals’ belief in the irrationality of the populist revolt misses the point, but precisely the opposite is true—it is very rational. It would be irrational for the popular classes to support the liberal establishment.

That is what the oppressed have finally understood in Poland and elsewhere. With the left being destroyed by the liberals, they turn to right-wing populism. They like it because they have a feeling that at least there is a government that is actually taking care of their material interests. They care less about other things, but is it surprising that a poor person wants first of all to get out of poverty? Economic liberalism underlines the fundamental importance of material motivation, so it should not be surprising for the liberals to see it influence political choices as well.

There is an interesting and pertinent question here: why have these material problems fueled the right-wing populists rather than the progressive left? Well, it seems very simple. Material conditions do not directly translate into any specific political leanings. They provoke anger that is later modified by dominant ideological constructions. The liberal mainstream has put an incredible effort in discrediting socialism after 1989. At the same time, extreme right-wing groupings were allowed to exists or even thrive. There is no better emblem of the process than the renaming of a very central roundabout in Warsaw after Roman Dmowski, a Polish nationalist from before World War II and a patron saint of contemporary nationalist awakening.

So, to cut the long story short, Polish liberals presided over the creation of a huge wave of social suffering and anger, denied its existence, destroyed civilized ways of sublimating this anger into a progressive redistributive politics as it would infringe upon the profits of capital owners, failed to promote liberal social reforms, and tolerated the revival of right-wing extremism. They sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind. When the storm came, they labeled it “an irrational eruption of savage resentment.” Well, if this is not blind and stupid, then what is?

Jan Sowa

is a dialectical materialist social theorist and researcher. He holds a PhD in sociology and a habilitation in cultural studies. He is a member of the Committee on Cultural Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and he works as the curator for discursive programs and research at Biennale Warszawa. He edited and authored several books and published numerous articles in Poland and abroad.

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