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How Poland’s Failed Transition Fed the Nationalist Right

Throughout Poland’s transition to capitalism, no party challenged a neoliberal consensus that produced soaring unemployment and mass emigration. But as the promises of 1989 crumble, it’s the nationalist right that’s channeling discontent.

A supporter of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) political party wears a button with its logo during the election evening after the Polish parliamentary elections on October 13, 2019 in Warsaw, Poland. Carsten Koall / Getty

October’s Polish elections saw a fresh victory for the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, winning around half the seats in both houses of parliament. This was no big surprise — polls have long indicated that voters would grant PiS a second term in office, without needing to form a coalition. But what calls for deeper reflection is the scale of its victory, with its record-breaking 8 million votes.

Many commentators have explained PiS’s recent successes in terms of its combination of welfare measures and nationalist ideas. Yet more rarely have they delved into the structural reasons for its success, and indeed the weakness of the Left. Yet these are no sudden turn of events; rather, they’re rooted in three decades of transformations in Polish society.

Since the transition from “real socialism” to capitalism that began in 1989, there have been profound changes in the country’s socioeconomic order, especially in the field of labor relations and welfare. But if PiS’s success is often presented as a response to “austerity,” this word is, at the very least, an understatement of the challenges Poles face — and the social malaise feeding the turn to the hard right.

The Transition from Socialism

Let’s start from the basics. While Poland’s postwar “real socialist” economy was characterized by state-guaranteed full employment, this changed with the post-1989 transition towards capitalism. The suddenness of the changes — and especially the collapse of some state-owned industries, rapid privatization, and the lack of preparation for the abrupt competition from foreign business — resulted in a powerful wave of unemployment.

After only two years of capitalism, by late 1991 Poland’s recorded unemployment rate stood at 12.2 percent, reaching 16.4 percent by 1993. This surge — from effectively zero — can be attributed to a sharp decline in GDP, which fell 18.6 percent over 1990–1991. But unemployment had not yet peaked. By far the worst period for Poland’s labor market came in 2001–2005, with an average official unemployment rate of 18.9 percent — higher even than the 17 percent average in the US during the Depression-hit 1930s.

While unemployment fell in subsequent years, this was primarily influenced by two factors: a strong economic recovery (in 2004–2007, average annual GDP growth was 5.5 percent), but most of all by Polish accession to the European Union, which quickly resulted in huge emigration of Poles in search of work. While official estimates spoke of 0.8 million temporary-residence emigrants in 2002, and 1 million in 2004, only two years later there were twice as many, and in 2007 emigration numbers reached 2.3 million in just one year.

Although this post-accession emigration halted the rise in unemployment, it did not solve other fundamental problems of the Polish labor market, which instead worsened. The most important of these was precaritization, strikingly illustrated by the boom in temporary employment contracts. While in the 1990s, the percentage of employees with temporary contracts stayed beneath 5 percent, between 2000 and 2005 (a period of record-high unemployment), this ratio soared from 5.4 to a 25.0 percent of the total — twice the EU average. The self-employed also represent a large share of the Polish workforce. But the even worse sign of precaritization was the rise of the “shadow economy.” By 2012, up to one-third of Polish firms were employing workers off the books.

Given such conditions, it’s not hard to imagine what happened to wages. Indeed, by 2017 Polish workers’ wages represented among the lowest shares of GDP in all EU countries (32.2 percent) whereas profit share (gross operating surplus and gross mixed income) was among the highest, at 48.9 percent.

This shift was also influenced by the fact that union density dramatically fell after the transition. While in 1990, 36.7 percent of wage and salary earners belonged to labor unions, by 2012 figure stood at just 11.6 percent — the fifth-lowest figure among OECD countries, for which the average was 25.9 percent that year. Unsurprisingly, the first quarter-century of reintroduced Polish capitalism also produced a substantial rise in income inequality. While in 1989, the Gini index stood at 26.9, it reached 32.7 already by 1996, and in 2004 reached a record high 35.4 (much more than the EU average of 31.1). Some independent estimates have suggested the change was even greater.

But workers haven’t just been hit by falling wages. For a quarter of century after 1989, the welfare system built up during the era of “real socialism” was cut, broken up, and, whenever possible, privatized, leaving only extremely limited social protections. The only new development was unemployment benefit — there had, after all, been no need for it before 1989. The level of benefits also demonstrates Polish authorities’ attitude toward social policy. The unemployed receive just 740 zlotys ($200) a month — not even enough for housing, never mind other basic expenses such as food. And after only three months, this payment. falls below 600 zlotys ($160). According to official statistics, in 2013 only 16.1 percent of the unemployed in Poland were entitled to these benefits, with the long-term unemployed and precarious workers excluded.

Political Turn

These may sound familiar of the situation in Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, where the employment and welfare norms of “real socialism” have been dismantled since 1989. Yet Poland is not just typical: in practically all these areas it scores particularly badly, often registering statistics an order of magnitude worse than other CEE countries. Take unemployment. Even looking at the period 1997–2018 (thus covering recent years of low unemployment while not including most of the high-unemployment 1990s), by a conservative estimate the average annual unemployment rate in Poland was 11.6 percent — radically higher than in the Czech Republic (6.4 percent), Hungary (7.5 percent ), Romania (6.7 percent ), or Slovenia (7 percent).

One might ask how all this was possible, politically. The cornerstone of Poland’s political order for a quarter-century after 1989 was a total and unchallengeable economic-policy consensus among all parliamentary forces. With the exception of a moderate social-democratic phase in the Labour Union party, during its mid-1990s opposition period, since 1989 there has been no force in parliament that could be seen as even partly progressive or leftist on the economic terrain. Throughout this entire period, neoliberalism was all-dominant, with constant tax cuts for business (financed by taxing consumption, colossal privatization of the public sector, and the further reduction of any residual social welfare), and an obsession with public debt and budget deficits, at the expense of social spending.

To understand the strength of this consensus, we need to go back a little further in time. It was in the late 1970s to early 1980s, in the period of “real socialism,” that the system’s own proto-bourgeoisie began to appear. Even at this point, the opposition intelligentsia became heavily infected with ideas of extreme economic liberalism, largely flowing from a West itself facing the Thatcher-Reagan counterrevolution. The ease and universality of that contagion can be explained in terms of the intelligentsia’s own class consciousness: it both feared workers seeking true socialism and was disgusted that in “real socialism” the “mob” often had the same or even better material conditions than those who deemed themselves “elites.”

On the other hand, in the 1970s, and especially the 1980s, along with the “marketizing” of socialism — a series of economic reforms increasing the private sector’s share in the economy — it became increasingly apparent to the ruling bureaucracy that the existing system was only a fetter to their own advancement. They gradually understood that introducing capitalism could turn “socialist managers” into full-fledged capitalists and free them from restrictions on capital accumulation — restrictions that, although weakening over time, were still present in the previous system. This was, indeed, exactly what happened. It was these two social groups, already very much in agreement as to Poland’s future economic path, that sat around the Round Table in 1989 to plan the systemic transition. It was thus their representatives who filled the post-transition political and media space, filling it only with content that favored the new capitalist order. The large-scale primary accumulation in the 1990s, characterized by greater possibilities of upward mobility, only strengthened this free market mythology.

It was important, here, to continue to make the public believe that the Solidarność of the 1980s and 1990s was the same organization as it had been during the workers’ revolt of 1980–81, before the crushing of its revolutionary ambitions in December 1981. In reality, after martial law was imposed Solidarność quickly became something completely different: the organization that provided the cadres for an increasingly right-wing intelligentsia. Yet from the very beginning of the transition in 1989, both the postcommunists and their opponents insisted that these intensely pro-business neoliberals were in fact the “Left.” Hence for decades, Polish society was presented with a false axis of political conflict, completely passing over the divisions based in social classes’ economic interests.

It was on the wave of these processes that references to class, class structure, and contradictions and conflicts resulting from them were removed from all discussions about society, including academic debate — also, particularly strikingly, in the social sciences. Such themes were portrayed as a disgusting relic of communism. The effects, which continue to this day, are devastating. We can see this in the popular press: still today there is not a single left-wing mainstream daily newspaper in Poland; only one such weekly identifies as such, but it has relatively low circulation, and in truth represents politics similar to neoliberal circles around the postcommunist Democratic Left Alliance. Conversely, numerous high-volume far-right papers serve up racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and revanchist views that most other Western democracies would immediately recognize as inadmissible.

Rise of PiS

Only after such a thorough neoliberal harrowing of Polish society over the first quarter-century of transition did a renewed version of PiS enter the stage. Importantly, its four years of rule since 2015 also mark a break with its own previous record in government, with its recent shift away from a previously all-dominant neoliberal consensus.

This is not only because, as many liberal accounts claim, PiS has attacked the independence of the judiciary or because it has elevated the politicization of the public media to a whole new level (in fact, this problem also existed under liberal/neoliberal postcommunist rule). Rather, in office since 2015 the PiS has signaled a turn in public policy. Among other things, it increased the minimum hourly wage, at least formally removing the barbaric difference between full-time employees on minimum wage and those employed on junk contracts (a huge problem in Poland). Moreover — in its flagship project — it introduced a number of new social programs: an additional payment for all pensioners once a year; the “300+” program subsidizing children’s school supplies to the tune of 300 Polish zlotys per year ($80), but above all the “Rodzina 500+” program, paying 500 zlotys ($131) per month to each family, per child, from the second child onward.

PiS’s success does not owe — as the neoliberal herd insists — on it “buying off vulgar simpletons” with social welfare. Rather, it is the first political force in thirty years of capitalism that openly and unembarrassedly put social slogans on its campaign banners, and then — completely uniquely — actually implement those promises. This is less a matter of “buying votes” than of “credibility” and “empowerment.”

PiS has also discredited the neoliberals from the previous quarter-century of governments who “explained” their serial antisocial and pro-capital decisions as necessary in order to conduct a “responsible” fiscal policy. After the recent eurozone crisis, this was combined with a ridiculous bogeyman, claiming that even the tiniest welfare measure would immediately make Poland a “second Greece.” In fact, the last four years have shown that even large-scale social programs not only do not mean imminent economic collapse, but can coexist perfectly well with high growth (Poland’s GDP growth for 2018 is estimated at 5.1 percent, the highest since 2007, before the crisis).

Entrepreneurs and Frauds

Such a turn of events is a problem not only for the neoliberal part of the opposition, but also for the Left. For decades, bourgeois liberals have utterly delegitimized any progressive, even minimally social-democratic, voices, while remaining quite open to the voicing of far-right views, be they ultraconservative or libertarian. But it’s not just that this has helped some of the potential left-wing electorate be won over by the Right.

Rather, this situation has caused ideological havoc among Poles with progressive impulses, leaving whole generations of left-wing politicians and activists with a huge intellectual void with regard to economics. This void is today being filled with a tangle of random, chaotic, and often very dubious ideas, usually limited to social policy (a perfect example is the rise of the call for basic income, which lacks social roots and has not been even minimally thought-through).

As a result, a large part of the Left seems unable to use the tools of radical political economy to understand why it is not condemned to be torn between the liberals’ stances on moral, religious, and “family values” issues and PiS’s positions on socioeconomic policy. The election result for the recently (and at least temporarily) united Lewica (Left) coalition — which won 49 of 460 seats in the lower house and 2 of 100 in the Senate — looks like a success. But much will depend on whether its representatives correctly recognize the true sources of PiS’s success.

The basic mistake of a large part of the Polish left and more progressive commentators is that they theorize a society divided into two (and only two) groups — “people” and “elites.” Yet not only are these loose conceptual sacks into which you can throw anything you please (as opposed to clearly defined and theoretically grounded categories of bourgeoisie and the working class), but most of all it does not take into account the fundamental division between the big bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie. Even these terms are obviously quite simplistic, but have momentous consequences for understanding countries like Poland.

For want of a more in-depth analysis, and approaching the problem only in financial terms, we can note that in Poland only around 370,000 people — i.e., less than 1 percent of the population — have annual wage earnings above 143,000 zlotys (gross), about $37,000. Among Poland’s general socioeconomic conditions this figure is very high, yet this is often not even enough to buy an apartment in a large city without a long-term mortgage, let alone afford other major “luxuries.” This not only shows how small the circle of the very-rich is, but also how few Poles are even moderately wealthy — the mythical “middle class.” Petty-bourgeois elements are both numerous (with as many as 3 million sole proprietorships in a land of under 38 million people), and, in financial terms and otherwise, often indistinguishable from the working class.

Yet from a long-term perspective, we see that this is no longer the petty bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century as analyzed by Karl Marx. Despite the pauperization of this group under the effect of monopolization, in developed capitalist countries it seems less and less capable, if at all, of allying with the working class. The reasons for this change can be seen in the dissemination, via education and mass media, of the ideology of (especially economic) liberalism.

The petty bourgeoisie of the twentieth and twenty-first century, has — probably unlike its predecessors in Marx’s time — adopted as its own liberal fantasies about “self-made men,” the “free market,” and the “ethos of entrepreneurship,” much more than the big bourgeoisie itself. Yet this leaves small businessmen and sole traders between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, their material conditions are constantly deteriorating under the pressure of monopolization. On the other hand, their representatives are unable to understand the real reasons for this — they believe that the free market not only exists but also really works. In addition, liberal ideology puts them on a pedestal, presenting them as “the most resourceful,” “enterprising,” and “the true source of the nation’s prosperity” — often their only source of self-esteem. Convinced of this, they are sure they have done the right thing (i.e., by setting up companies). Yet they still lose out abjectly to (often international) big business, and their material status is often much worse than that of people enduring the wage labor which they so despise. So, they can only ask: “what went wrong?”

This only apparent paradox soon leads them to the conclusion that someone must be “cheating.” But who? In its conviction that the “free market works,” it quickly reaches the conclusion that the supposed “frauds” feeding its worsening situation must result from some special, immediately visible problem, which, however, has nothing to do with capitalist relations in themselves. If we also consider the often much greater conservatism of the petty bourgeoisie, compared to the liberal bourgeoisie, it is obvious who they will see as the source of fraud — “Jews, gays, masons” and so on. Their difficulty understanding the reality at least partly explains the rise in xenophobic, racist, and similar sentiments and behaviors among this class in the twentieth century, including their most refined and paranoid forms — fascism and Nazism.

Not “for the People”

Here, we see how PiS (and similar governments, notably in Hungary) are not “for the people.” Rather, they represent one part of the bourgeoisie in conflict with another, which only instrumentally uses the broad masses, frustrated by decades of misery and contempt on the part of the dominant. Despite apparent overlaps between the working class and PiS’s own petty-bourgeois social-base, in fact its “social” face stands far from anything approaching left-wing or pro-“people” policies. This is shown not only by PiS’s conservative, nationalist narrative, but above all its specific economic policies, targeted at the petty bourgeoisie.

Indeed, this is evident even in PiS’s flagship “social” measures over the last four years. The Sunday trade ban — depicted as motivated by the concern for overexploited workers — was actually introduced for two other reasons. First, of course, was religious fanaticism — the belief that on Sunday people should go to church and pray, not shop. But above all, it serves to support PiS’s petty-bourgeois base relative to larger competitors: any small shop is excluded from the ban if its owner will himself come to work on Sunday.

The same approach — no longer camouflaged — applies to the tax on large-format stores (blocked by the European courts), which was supposed to give breathing room for small Polish shopkeepers by taxing foreign corporations operating in Poland, as well as a 2016 tax on some financial institutions, colloquially called the “bank tax.” The petty-bourgeois — and not progressive — character of PiS governments is also evidenced by the disregard, resentment, and often even contempt and rage with which this party refers to groups of society that demand their (especially economic) rights and do not fit with the ideas of the “poor little Polish entrepreneur” oppressed from all around by evil foreign forces. These include disabled people and teachers or doctors, not to mention environmentalists or LGBTQI+ activists.

So, it would be wrong — as part of the Polish left wishes — to present an “ambiguity” in the PiS here, as if it were harmful in some respects but also “did a lot of good for the people.” Of course, PiS does not win elections (and especially does not win over 8 million votes) solely on the basis of its petty-bourgeois base — it does this with the support from a part of a disoriented working class. The fluidity between Poland’s petty bourgeoisie and the working class obviously favors this confusion. If even some leftist activists and politicians take “the people” allegedly championed by PiS for the whole people, no wonder a lot of workers will struggle to distinguish their own economic interests from those of the petty bourgeoisie. This state of affairs also owes to three decades of in which employees’ interests have not been represented on the political scene and leftist discourse has been eliminated from public. All this — and PiS’s credibility in delivering its electoral program — have pushed workers to look beyond the Left for a challenge to neoliberal ideas.

Of course, it must be admitted that after a quarter of a century in which any significant social policy was absent, PiS’s introduction of the “Rodzina 500+” program brought considerable positive effects, substantially improving the situation of large families (in 2014, 17 percent of families with three and more children lived in extreme poverty; in 2018 this figure was just 7 percent). However, according to Poverty Watch 2019, between 2017 and 2018 poverty in Poland increased significantly: as many as 422,000 more people (2.1 million in total) were living below the subsistence minimum. Although PiS’s “500+” program aimed to slash child poverty to beneath 1 percent, which would mean that the number of extremely poor children should not exceed 62,000, it has actually risen from 325,000 up to 417,000. Pensioners’ situation is also getting worse. According to EAPN, the number of extremely poor retirees increased by 60,000 between 2016 and 2018 (there are 276,000 in total).

Deteriorating Conditions

As well as commodifying welfare (providing cash benefits, vulnerable to price fluctuations, instead of public goods and services), PiS’s and similar programs are fundamentally flawed from any kind of socialist perspective. For their idea of social policy is reactionary in its very construction: based on “family values,” it does not cover people after reproductive age (and, indeed some single parents) and transfers funds from entire groups of the poor (e.g., pensioners) to multi-child millionaires. Little will change here: if this July this program was extended also to first children, in fact families on below 800 zlotys ($200) a head per month had already been entitled to this, and it will now simply be extended to middle- and upper-class households.

There is also no prospect of the PiS making a progressive turn (either independently, or, as some fantasists hope, under the influence of the parliamentary left). PiS is a party of the bourgeoisie, of which fact everyone should have been convinced by its actions in office in 2005–2007. At that time, when the frustrated petty-bourgeois still believed in neoliberal economic prescriptions without seeking out “fraudsters,” the PiS government did not even try to introduce “social” measures — in fact, it was responsible for one of the largest tax cuts for the rich in the last three decades.

Secondly, PiS itself is no monolith. Among its 235 MPs in the new parliament, as many as 18 are members of Prozumienie (“the Agreement”), a wing of PiS led by deputy premier Jarosław Gowin. They are connected with PiS by, among other things, their religious fundamentalism, but, at least partly, are divided by economic issues — for Gowin and his supporters are economic libertarians.

Already in the election campaign, representatives of the Agreement openly said that it was necessary for the next government to “stop expanding social programs” and “bring some relief to entrepreneurs.” Finally, it should not be forgotten that PiS was also fortunate to rule in a period of improved global economic conditions. It is not difficult to imagine which economic programs it will give up as soon as this situation deteriorates.

Finally, the Polish petty bourgeoisie is vigilant. The good result of the far-right (extremely nationalist, ultra-conservative and economically libertarian) Konfederacja (Confederation) Party likely results, inter alia, from the flow of part of the PiS petty-bourgeois electorate, frustrated by the preelection announcements of the ruling party about the planned increase in the amount of social security contributions paid by small and micro enterprises and, above all, announcements of a very sharp increase in the minimum wage by 2024. This election was the first time since the early 1990s that such a far-right party passed the threshold for parliamentary representation.

The Left

After a four-year absence, in the October 13 vote the Left returned to the Polish parliament, newly (and at least temporarily) united. Lewica (“Left”) includes not only postcommunists from SLD, the young social democrats of Razem (“Together”; a force at first quite openly modeled on Spain’s Podemos), and the bourgeois liberals of Wiosna (“Spring”). This alliance, a creature of circumstance, seemed impossible just a year ago. Today, there are ever rumors about plans to unite Wiosna and the SLD. But though Wiosna can undoubtedly rejuvenate SLD and refresh its image, it is unlikely to pull it to the Left, at least in economic matters. Razem could, perhaps, do this, yet it remains unable to shake off its (otherwise well deserved) contempt for SLD, and does not even want to create a joint caucus in parliament.

What does, however, seem true is that there is to be no return to the neoliberal, warmongering SLD of the early 2000s, when it was headed by Prime Minister Leszek Miller. Many SLD activists do still hark back to its “glory years” (the same 2001–2005 period when unemployment reached 20 percent, and the SLD’s government was one of the few in the world to give unconditional support to George W. Bush’s wars in the Middle East). Yet the Polish political scene has changed so fundamentally since then, and its center of gravity shifted so far to the right (towards often overt fascism) that it simply has no space for another right-wing faction. The 2015 elections, when SLD held firm to the remnants of its neoliberal course and did not enter parliament, and the result this October — when a coalition with more outwardly progressive parties led to moderate success, at around 12.5 percent support — could teach the SLD something in this regard.

Apart from the mainstream parliamentary left — for most of the period since 1989, a “left” in name only — there are also some groups and circles in Poland aspiring to be a true radical left. However, they are most affected by the problems of class understanding outlined above. After the PiS’s victory, their task now consists most of all in understanding to what extent, if at all, it is possible to drag the petty bourgeoisie away from a drift toward fascism and onto the side of the working class. If, as is likely, the proves impossible, the question is how to drive a lasting wedge between these two groups, and stop them being bombarded by conservative messages that vary only in their more libertarian or “solidaristic” thrust.