The Republic of Idiots

Only an idiot would work for 6000 złoty.

– Elżbieta Bieńkowska, former Minister of Infrastructure and Development of the Republic of Poland, currently European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services

“Learn, child, learn, because knowledge is the key to power,”—I still remember from elementary school that this uplifting slogan was often repeated by teachers, parents, aunts and sundry other adults who believed in this wisdom of the ages. Someone gave it an ironically extended form, which perfectly illustrates the contemporary bother in which Poland has found itself: “…and when you have a lot of keys, you will become a janitor.”

Since 1989 Poland has made a gigantic educational leap, incorporating huge segments of society in the system of secondary and higher education. In the years 2002–2013 only, the percentage of people with higher education in the age group from 30 to 34 grew almost threefold, from 14.4% to 40.5%. Currently, about 50% of secondary school graduates take up university education, which puts Poland close to the top of the field. This quantitative increase more often than we would wish has taken place at the expense of quality, especially at the undergraduate level, where private colleges have been selling diplomas of fictitious value for real money. But it has not always been so and we must generally admit that the average level of education has significantly increased after 1989. This is, of course, an excellent news in itself. No one is in any doubt that today we are living in the era of the knowledge society, were information itself is becoming a factor of production. Marxist theorists from the Italian school of post-operaismo invoke the Marxist category of general intellect and speak about the epoch of “mass intellectuality” which we are now entering and where various forms of intangible work, including cognitive labor, are becoming the main engine of the economy. Knowledge literarily proves to be worth its value in gold and a well-educated population is today a necessary condition of economic development for any country (except, of course, for rentier states, making money on exports of natural resources, a sphere largely unaffected by the level of education of the inhabitants). Yet all indications are that in the case of Poland—and it is a typical situation for a country which is at most semi-peripheral, its place in the global logic of production forcing it in the role of an exporter of unprocessed goods and cheap labor—a similar educational boom may create more social problems than solutions.

The fundamental problem accompanying such a rapid and general growth of education is generated not so much by the process of learning itself, but by its social consequences—the quickly growing aspirations. Since 1989, education has been presented in Poland as a key to success, but it turns out that the people who acquire this key are faced with the prospect of becoming janitors rather than making a career suited to their education and expectations. Polish economy is not—and will not be for a very long time—able to create jobs adequate to the qualifications and aspirations of 50% of the people entering the labor market every year. There is nothing astonishing in that—probably no capitalist economy would be capable of that. But in Poland, during the whole post-communist period the citizens have been told that although the situation is difficult, there are not jobs for everyone and wages are low, education is a passport to a better life. Little wonder that Polish men and women have rushed to schools in their mass. However, universities have proved to be half-way houses for the unemployed rather than hothouses of spectacular careers. Consequently, we have in Poland a growing surplus of educated people, for whom there are and will be zero job offers matching their diplomas. And it is not because they chose the wrong field of study, but because they decided to study at all. The reality of the Polish labor market shows that studying does not make much sense regardless of which subject you choose.

The main beneficiaries of this process are Polish businesspeople. First, they can pick and choose among candidates ready to work hard below their competences for little money. According to the law of supply and demand the overproduction of diplomas has led to their inflation, that is to the reduction of the market value of education, also meaning a reduced cost of labor for business. Second, the student as such has proved to be an extremely valuable resource—because social security for undergraduates is covered by the government, you can employ students at a lower cost. In many places, especially in restaurants, you can see job offers addressed exclusively to students, for they simply are the cheapest employees. It is not, of course, a work compatible with any education. Generally speaking, an overwhelming majority of job offers on the Polish labor market involve work which does not demand even secondary education, at best it requires a short training course or particular, yet not very sophisticated qualifications (truck driver, welder, etc.).

What are the social consequences of this state of affairs? Well, two of them stand out: emigration and rising social discontent. Mass emigration has been going on since Poland joined the EU in 2004. It is estimated that about 3 million people, that is 10% of the adult population, have left Poland in the last decade. It is an event unprecedented in our history. In the last 200 years Poland experienced several waves of emigration, and at the turn of the 20th century in some of its areas, especially in the poor south (Galicia), as much as 20% of the citizens emigrated, but we had never experienced such a widespread and mass exodus in such a short time. Of course, it was mostly young and enterprising people who have been leaving the country. Their outflow systematically drains the resources of Polish society, and there is no indication that this negative trend will be reversed any time soon. When asked, 70% of secondary school graduates say yes to the question if they would like to leave Poland. According to media reports in many secondary schools the students are eager to learn only one subject— English. They are aware that the most attractive job prospect for them is working at the proverbial kitchen sink in Ireland or the United Kingdom. Besides knowing foreign languages, any qualifications gained in Poland will be useless for them anyway.

Another consequence of the growing chasm between aspirations and opportunities open to young people is the rapid growth of social discontent. This factor is responsible for the radical reconfiguration of the political scene we are now observing in Poland. In the presidential elections in May 2015, most young people voted for Paweł Kukiz (a former rock star who had unexpectedly become a popular tribune) in the first round and for the conservative Andrzej Duda in the second round. This completely changes the existing configuration of support for political parties and politicians. Until now, if conservatives won elections in Poland, it was thanks to the votes of older people, while the support of young people was behind victories of the liberals. Today young people vote for the conservative right, which in my view is not an expression of their conservative outlook, but the only sensible way of showing the liberals the middle finger in a country without political left. And this very circumstance will be the main factor shaping the results of the autumn parliamentary elections, when we will probably witness a major shake-up in the ranks of politicians ruling Poland. Exacerbating the situation are unfortunate pronouncements by politicians, such as the words of Bronisław Komorowski, who was asked during the presidential campaign how can you afford to buy a flat when after several years of looking for a well-paid job you are making no more than 2000 złoty. Komorowski said: “Change your job and take a mortgage.” There are also downright outrageous opinions, for example when the former minister Bieńkowska said during a private conversation which had been secretly recorded and then made public within the so-called wiretap affair: “Only an idiot would work for 6000 złoty.” This opinion looks interesting when we look at it from the perspective of the Polish educational boom: Polish men and women think like minister Bieńkowska, and because thanks to their education they are becoming increasingly less idiotic, they do not intend to work for pathetic salaries they could get in Poland and they leave the country or try to change the government for one that would be less arrogant and more efficient—or so they hope—in providing jobs more adequate to their education and aspirations. By the way, minister Bieńkowska did likewise—she went to work in Brussels, were she receives a salary equivalent to almost 90,000 złoty. It is a pity that what she left behind for the rest of her countrymen and countrywomen was ruins.

So it would seem that the situation is ironically and paradoxically bad: the undisputed educational boom in Poland has led to mass emigration and an increase of social discontent. The former is disadvantageous primarily for the Polish society, from which well-educated and enterprising people are fleeing in large numbers. As the voices of the émigrés themselves show in the media discussions, they do not regret their decision and do not plan to come back. Unlike many liberals, I do not regard emigration as an opportunity rather than a disaster. Usually it is a difficult situation and a dramatic decision, but all in all for the migrants it can bring more good than bad. But for the country they are leaving it means mostly problems and only one possible benefit: the decreased supply of labor may bring its price up. And indeed the amount of cheap labor in Poland is diminishing—Amazon, which has recently opened a warehouse near Poznań, has problems with finding employees ready to work for the rates they offered to them. Sooner or later, their salaries will have to go up. But this will not offset the social losses produced by the systematic outflow of young and educated people from Poland.

Social discontent does not look like a favorable circumstance, but I think that in Poland it is very much needed, and it may even prove salutary, if it translates into a support for ideas and people who offer a chance of changing things for the better not only for the elites, but also for ordinary people. Many left-wing journalists and commentators—such as Agata Bielik-Robson and Cezary Michalski—believe that Poland will be saved by the new middle class, which in their view is being born in our country. Regardless of whether such a group is indeed emerging in Poland or not, I regard hopes invested in it as futile. They result from a misunderstanding of the history of the Western welfare societies. Welfare solutions enviously admired by Polish commentators were not produced by some self-enlightenment of the middle-class generously deciding to support a policy of redistribution, but had been won over decades or even centuries through social resistance and confrontation, sometimes turning bloody. We know that very well from the history of the labor movement from the Paris Commune up to May 1968. Polish men and women are not inclined to resist today. Surveys show that only 5% of employers feel pressure to raise wages. Centuries of serfdom and various social and political oppressions have taught us to be quiet and humbly endure plight. For Poland always was a country of poverty and hard, often slavish labor. The wave of discontent and protest currently sweeping through the communities of educated young people and to a large extent resulting from the educational boom, offers a chance for change. If no change occurs, if young, educated people go the way of minister Bieńkowska—leave the country rather than work for starvation wages—Poland will really become what it has long been in the eyes of its cynical elites: a republic of idiots.

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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