The Strange Non-Death of Polish Neo-Liberalism

Neo-liberalism, like the famous cat, seems to have nine lives in Poland. The effort to cut back the state and give freer rein to the market has suffered at least three near-death experiences. The initial “shock therapy” approach implemented by Leszek Balcerowicz in the first Solidarity-affiliated government in 1990 generated such high unemployment and social dissatisfaction that voters ejected these first neo-liberal politicians from office and replaced them with the former Communists. But it turned out that the former Communists were more than happy to implement the same kind of austerity market reforms as their predecessors – with similar results. And they too eventually were booted from office.

The global financial crisis that swept the world after 2007 should have been the final nail in the coffin for the neo-liberal model, for hadn’t the unregulated market nearly sent the global economy into an irreversible tailspin? And yet, globally, neo-liberalism didn’t die. This was because of what Colin Crouch, in his book The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism, calls “privatized Keynesianism.” A combination of government deregulation and new market instruments provided easier credit for the poor and middle class and lucrative “derivatives” for the wealthy. Although these mechanisms took a hit during the crisis, they have more or less remained intact, substituting for what in a previous era would have been government support programs.

Poland, meanwhile, managed to avoid the worst effects of the financial crisis. Indeed, the Polish economy even grew modestly during the period when virtually the entire rest of Europe slumped. But of course Poland had an additional source of covert Keynesian funds: Europe.

“In Poland, the government has a neoliberal discourse but a Keynesian practice,” explained Michal Sutowski in an interview at a Warsaw café in August 2013. “We have a Keynesian inflow of money from Europe: 2.3 percent of Polish GDP every year is coming each year from the EU. But the government still sounds neoliberal because of its pride in having a consolidated budget and still relatively low public indebtedness. The public debt to GDP ratio is around 53 percent.”

Sutowski is on the staff of Krytyka Polityczna, the Polish Left movement devoted to critical thinking and political action. He focuses a great deal these days on the structural problems of the Polish economy.

“Polish competitiveness is based on cheap labor, not on innovation, which is seen as too risky and expensive,” he told me. “In the global chain of production, we are in a rather low place. We do quite well on exports because we have no Euro. The value of the zloty has been quite low, which is good for the export industry. On other hand, we export a lot to Germany as subcontractors of German industry, who are re-exporting to others. Germany’s export success is destroying the rest of the EU, but in the short term it has advantages for Poland. If they do well, we as subcontractors do well too.”

The failure of the state to invest in R & D, to effectively allow the European market to determine Poland’s low position on the production scale, has kept neo-liberalism alive in Poland but at a significant cost.

“If you try to compete with cheap labor, you create a structural problem,” Sutowski explained. “We have a high unemployment rate, over 13 percent (and over 20 percent among young people). There’s very weak domestic demand because there are so many unemployed people who, when they do work, get paid little money. In the long term, the flexibilization of the labor market combined with low wages destroys human capital. People emigrate, to find jobs or if they have bigger aspirations to educate themselves. Over 1.5 million people have emigrated from Poland: the largest amount of people to emigrate during peacetime in Poland. It’s a vicious circle. You pay people very low wages, and they have no incentives to educate themselves further. So you cannot make a knowledge-based economy with a high level of innovation. In the short term, a flexible market helps, but it is bad over the long term. It threatens progress toward an economy with a high innovation level.”

We talked about how he became involved with Krytyka Polityczna, why he doesn’t like the term “civil society,” and why he considers the creation of the European Union one of the greatest innovations in history.

 

The Interview

 

How did you get involved in Krytyka Polityczna for the first time?

 

Krytyka appeared in public in 2002. At that time I was 17 years old. I come from a mid-sized city on the Baltic sea coast: Koszalin. I was in school at the time. In 2003-4, I saw the fourth or fifth issue of Krytyka in some bookstore. I was interested in politics, and I wanted to start reading something more in depth about what was happening. This was an issue on the European Union, which was a big topic at the time. It was the year Poland entered the EU. This was the first time I saw the magazine.

After two years, I came to study in Warsaw at the Interfaculty College of Humanities. I was studying political science mainly. After the first year, I met Slawek Sierakowski, who was the editor-in-chief of Krytyka. A few colleagues and I were interested — more interested than involved — in politics. We were leftist liberal or centrist leftist. We organized a student group and set up some debates. Most of the members were young lawyers. I wasn’t in law, but I was interested in the topics like freedom of speech. We got in touch with Slawek. He helped me a bit with organizing the meeting, giving me the contact to someone I wanted to invited – Kinga Dunin – and convincing her to participate. The next year, I attended the seminar he organized about the history and philosophy of ideas on the Left, from Hegel to the late socialists of the 19th century.

After that, I started coming to the meetings and debates of Krytyka. They called me – I say “they” because I was on the outside at that time — when they were trying to organize a mass protest at the university against the right-wing minister of education, Roman Giertych. The event didn’t happen, but still I took part in one or two preparatory meetings. My impression was more emotional, than intellectual. “Oh god,” I thought, “This is the KOR of today.”

Krytyka was in this tradition of the Polish Leftist opposition from the late 1960s: Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, the Komandosi group with Adam Michnik at Warsaw University. I was reading quite a lot about them at school. This was my tradition, and these were my heroes. I attended a meeting in the flat of Kinga Dunin, who was a member of the opposition in 1970s. There was this atmosphere of drinking vodka, smoking cigarettes (they did, I didn’t), and speaking about politics on a level that was very unusual in the lectures at the faculty of political science. In the political science faculty, they just weren’t interested in talking about politics! So, I was emotionally drawn to Krytyka.

When Krytyka opened its first venue on Chmielna Street, I started helping out with some organizational stuff, with editing. After a couple months, Slawek proposed that I join them. Of course I said yes. This was in 2007. So, I’ve been with Krytyka for over six and half years: doing some technical work, some writing, some translating, some editing. I’ve been working also at the institute we started last year, writing for the website and conducting some interviews, often on the topic of economics, which has been my idee fixe over the last few years. As a Krytyka representative, I’ve also commented in the media, like on the radio station Talk FM, which is the most political radio in Poland, or on public TV. I also write the section of grant proposals that explain why we should get the money and why what we do is so brilliant.

 

Did you leave the political science faculty?

 

I graduated. I wrote my master’s thesis on conservative modernization as a political project of Vladimir Putin in Russia during his second term. University was important for me, but not the political science faculty, which was not very good. Fortunately I was in the interfaculty college, which gave me the opportunity to attend courses in different faculties – in philosophy, theology, applied social science, cultural studies, and so on. That’s where I met quite a lot of interesting people and inspiring lecturers, especially at the Institute of Sociology, like Maciej Gdula and Marta Bucholtz.

I was considering a Ph.D., but I didn’t have time. I’m now considering economics, but I’m not so good at math. So the only place I could do the degree is the Polish Academy of Science because their program of study focuses more on social science and less on mathematics. So, maybe next year.

 

When you were growing up, was your family political? Where did your interest come from?

 

My family was not very engaged politically. Ideologically it was not very radical, more centrist liberal, but still it supported Unii Democraticzna, the party of Polish intellectuals with a very clear background in the opposition. My family was not in the opposition. They were typical, not very much engaged on either of the sides of the political conflict. But after 1989, they supported the mainstream of transformation, which treated the free market not as an ideology but rather as something that is obvious, natural. This mainstream position was in many ways sustained by the discourse of Gazeta Wyborcza, the biggest and most influential newspaper at the time. The political line of Gazeta dominated their opinions, and mine too until the end of high school. I was at that time a kind of centrist liberal as well. My shift to the Left – and Krytyka is clearly a leftist organization – came much later, in university.

As a kid, I was always watching TV news. As an eight year old, I remember images from the news of the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya. As a kid, I knew what was happening, but of course my knowledge was quite superficial, and I saw current events as something adventurous, as more interesting than a novel. In high school, I started preparing for a national contest that tested knowledge of Poland and the modern world. It was mainly political stuff. One year I placed fourth in Poland, another year seventh. There was a very similar contest in the EU, and I placed in the top 10. This was not very sophisticated knowledge. It was facts: dates, names, and so on. But still it was interesting. To prepare for the contest, you couldn’t just read books. You had to have a very detailed knowledge of current events. Six months before the contest, I was reading Gazeta Wyborcza every day and listing all the important facts.

The year I graduated high school was the last year in that old schooling system and also the year we entered the EU. For those of us in a good high school and with relatively good prospects of attending a good university and having a good future, Europe was the last utopia. The mainstream liberal discourse was saying that this was a horizon that we needed to reach. Of course, efforts were needed. But when we got there, it would solve quite a lot of Polish problems. It would help overcome Poland’s fatalistic history of constantly struggling for independence against different enemies. In other words, the story about the end of history was not about 1989 and the end of Communism. It was associated with Poland’s entrance into the EU. This had paradoxical consequences. As Alexander Smolar explained, the conservative defeat of liberal forces in 2005 happened because this great political project of the liberals — getting back into Europe — was done, and the liberals had no other.

For people who wanted to engage in public life, as I did when I was 14 or 15, politics was attractive, because of the specific situation of Poland joining the EU at that moment. It was different in the Western world. If you weren’t anti-globalization, and I was not, then you were more hedonistic, oriented toward private life and private success. Here it was a bit different. Politics was maybe not something we needed to be involved in directly, but it had impact on our lives. My circle in high school was quite liberal. Later it was more complicated because the crisis in 2008 changed everything. It re-politicized people, not only anti-globalists, but also those who claimed to be common-sense centrists. It’s not so obvious any more to be pro-European, though the level of support in Poland for EU integration remains relatively high. I was always a Euro-enthusiast. Maybe when I was 15, this enthusiasm was expressed more in terms of anti-nationalism. Now it’s expressed more in terms of a globalized world and preserving the social state on a different level.

I really believe that the EU is one of the great achievements in humanity, alongside the Scandinavian welfare states or the New Deal. They prove that progress is possible. The EU is something worth saving for that reason. Of course the problem is that Poland has always been just an observer of the great drama of history. Our political influence is still not very large. In terms of nation-states, Poland is very weak, and it has a weak impact on Europe. But it’s creating pro-European sentiment among NGOs and social movements who can change the atmosphere from being against to being in favor of a united Europe.

In the Polish context, Europe is one big topic. Another topic is transformation and its economic dimension – rising inequality, the social exclusion of large parts of society, the incompatibility between the myth of Polish capitalism as a natural environment for the middle class and the economic reality of growing inequality and development based on cheap labor. You can’t build a welfare state on cheap labor. Of course the state always was intervening quite strongly in the economy. In this sense, the state is not the problem but the solution – even though the general intellectual framework for the elites has been neoliberal.

The third major topic here is cultural questions: the very strict abortion law, the role and position of the Catholic Church, and the emancipation of minorities.

 

Why did Krytyka emerge when it did and why has it proven more successful than other independent Left formations elsewhere in the region?

 

In Poland there is no Left. There are post-Communists and liberals. Because of their cynicism and pragmatism, the post-Communists are neoliberal in terms of economy and quite conservative in terms of culture. Of course we live in a country with a very bad legacy of the Communist Left, and state socialism is remembered as a dysfunctional socio-economic system of authoritarian rule and economic planning. So, first we had to regain the Left. This takes time as well as some intellectual work. As Gramsci argued, first you have to win at the level of ideas, at the level of culture. Why is there no leftist party in Poland? Because it is almost impossible to formulate a leftist approach to economics in the mainstream media. There were minor leftist groups on the margins. But they were not invited into the mainstream media.

So, first, we had to explain what the Left is. One of the first books we published – Przewodnik Lewicy – was a guide to what the Left means today. Theoretically it was based in part on Chantal Mouffe’s theory of agonistic democracy. The liberal public sphere is superficially very inclusive. In fact, however, this consensual model excludes quite a lot of views and approaches because they are not perceived as political positions. They are deemed to be irrational. If you had different views on the economy, then you were labeled populist or demagogical.

That’s why we had to introduce or reintroduce these ideas into the public sphere and do that with different means. We didn’t just write articles or papers. We also published quite a lot in the mainstream media that wanted to stimulate pluralism. We were seen as a good opportunity for that because we were young, not Communist, and speaking of something new.

Krytyka started with an Open Letter to European Public Opinion. This letter, published in Le Monde, El Pais, and Suddeutsche Zeitung, was signed by 200 Polish intellectuals in favor of more open, more federalist European policy by the Polish government, which was nominally leftist at the time. Krytyka organized this letter, and there was a big response. Sierakowski and the professors who signed the letter were invited to the presidential palace for a big conference on this topic.

Part of our liberal or mainstream allies, for example at Gazeta Wyborcza, were free-market-oriented on economics but were open in their views about European integration. A more open Europe was good for them. We had some support at the beginning. But the most important factor was our ability to gather people. Our magazine was organized in fact to organize a milieu — not just to put out yet another intellectual magazine – that included not only professors from political science, economics, and sociology but also visual artists, filmmakers, and social activists. Then of course came the Kaczynski brothers. No one in the mainstream understood their success. We tried to explain why through Mouffe and Laclau’s theory of populism, that this was a symptom of people who were excluded in a nonpolitical way through labels such as “irrational” or “mentally undeveloped.” The book by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas, was very inspiring for us. We saw a similar model in Poland of a nominally leftist constituency that departed from its traditional base. If the Left deserts the masses, then of course the Right fills the vacuum.

The last years of this liberal, cynical, opportunist government of Civic Platform—in the context of the European crisis – saw the emergence of new social movements. For instance, there was the wave of protests throughout Europe last year against the Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the European regulation on intellectual property. Also, new technologies and new media have reshaped the media landscape in Poland. All the old-school, mainstream papers are no longer as influential as they once were. The discourse is more dispersed.

All of this brought us to an idea that the problem was the lack of a Left here in Poland and a not sufficiently inclusive public sphere. We started to think that maybe there was something wrong with society – the lack of social bonds, the inability to act collectively, and of course the lack of thinking about different models of society. The new social movements know what they don’t like, but their specific proposals are very abstract, vague, or nonexistent. Occupy Wall Street doesn’t raise specific demands. Of course there were people demonstrating with placards that read “Reintroduce the Glass-Steagall Act.” That’s okay, but it’s not a movement with a clear agenda. It’s not their fault. It’s hard to do this, of course.

That’s why we decided, on the one hand, to work on social imagination, which is why we stated our institute. On the other hand, we want to help organize people to act collectively, to become involved. Chantal Mouffe formulated it like this: to create chains between different movements and create alliances. That’s what we try to do in practice: organize people in different cities like Bialystok, Wroclaw, Krakow. We also have cultural centers in Lodz and in Gdansk. That’s where our people intervene locally, for instance in urban struggles for public space. Sometimes this means directly occupying, as people did in the main market in Krakow. But in other cities, such as Lodz especially, it has meant encouraging the participation of citizens not only against municipal policies but also in favor of reshaping the city, determining whether space should be public or private or where the border should be.

 

I never heard about the occupation in Krakow. When did that take place?

 

It was a tent camp in the main market back in 2011. So, people cooperated with us on direct interventions in local politics. But they have also organized debates, movies, shows, and discussions of our books. We publish around 40 books a year.

 

In terms of realistic expectations for the future, do you want to create more of these cultural centers throughout Poland, more alliances with other organizations, more similar structures in other countries?

 

In other countries, we started in Ukraine about three years ago. It works on a similar model – creating a magazine to order to organize people around it. We’ve had five issues now, in Ukrainian. In Russia, we published two. It’s been a bit harder because of external factors: the secret service there doesn’t help.

As for joining coalitions, of course, we cooperate with trade unions, teachers, nurses. We published a reader on education in cooperation with the teachers union. The nurses created a small tent village during their protests in 2006 outside the chancellery of the prime minister. We supported them through media outreach and by creating a tabloid for them, publishing ten issues. There are quite a lot of people in Krytyka fighting urban struggles, for instance opposing evictions. Some people are also cooperating with the environmental movement. For example, Adam Ostolsky is a member of our staff and the leader of the Green Party. We’re not merging with other organizations but joining coalitions and specific issue-based alliances, from the labor movement to the LGBT movement.

Over the last years, no political initiatives have come out of the parties here in Poland. Parties are still important because we need them to create laws and legislation. But the real initiatives come from outside the political system, from the pressure of citizens, from campaigns in the media. So, it’s not so important to start a new party to enter parliament. Of course it’s important to have LGBT activists in the libertarian Palikot Party in parliament. They can have a place to articulate their voice. But the political party is just an instrument. If there is a very strong movement outside pushing a particular agenda, then even the Civic Platform would push some progressive regulations through the parliament. Without this external support, the libertarian Palikot or the nominally Left Social Democrats will be present in parliament but not do anything.

I don’t like the term “civil society.” I prefer political society. Civil society suggests that it’s outside of the economy and outside the state: a third sector. Of course we are formally an NGO. But in neoliberal thinking, NGOs are seen as replacing many of the functions of the state. And we don’t want to do that. NGOs should not take over the roles of the welfare state. We try to organize all democratic institutions, including the state, to fulfill their obligations, such as providing welfare to citizens. It’s complicated on a national level. That’s why are pro-European. We want solutions at a higher level.

 

What do you think are the economic prospects here in Poland?

 

In the Western world, neoliberalism has survived but in a bit different form: what Wolfgang Streeck has called the debt state rather than the taxing state. There has been a whole redefinition of the financial crisis into a debt crisis. This is the new embodiment of neoliberalism or, rather, the “strange non-death of neo-liberalism.” There is no way out because all the states are indebted, and a contradiction emerges between democracy and market. The argument is not that market regulates itself but that state indebtedness requires the imposition of austerity and we should not help Greece because it’s a moral hazard.

But even in the mainstream, there’s a shift toward more progressive thinking. In Poland, the government has a neoliberal discourse but a Keynesian practice. We have a Keynesian inflow of money from Europe: 2.3 percent of Polish GDP every year is coming each year from the EU. But the government still sounds neoliberal because of its pride in having a consolidated budget and still relatively low public indebtedness. The public debt to GDP ratio is around 53 percent.

Recently there was a big debate on the threshold of public debt. The finance minister, Jan-Vincent Rostowski, is an old Tory, an extremely conservative Polish-British politician. But he’s now he’s talking about the need for a counter-cyclical policy by the state. For instance, the current government wants to abolish the current pension system based on financial markets. In the old system, people worked, paid money into the system, and the money got paid to pensioners. Now we have a situation in which people work and the money is put into private pension funds. The government wants to transfer the assets in those private funds into the state vehicle, ZUS. If the new pension system hadn’t been introduced in 1999, our public debt would be only 38 percent, the lowest in Europe. So because of pragmatism, the prime minister and the financial minister have become quite reasonable in terms of macro economic policy by supporting some sort of intervention. On the other hand, they are supporting a flexible labor market, which, as people say here, promotes flexibility and no security. So, it’s a strange mixture of Keynesian intervention and supply-side economics.

The business cycle was not so bad here over the last years because of the EU money. And there has been public investment especially in infrastructure, mostly highways. But what will happen when there is no money from European Union? After 2020, there will be no structural funds any more.

We also definitely need to rebuild the Polish energy sector. The majority of our power plants come from the 1970s, and they’re quite obsolete. We should take this opportunity to reshape the energy sector toward more Green energy, but we don’t do that because of very strong lobbying from the coal and shale gas industries. Also, the argument about fracking to get the shale gas is always in the context of energy security in relations with Russia. The energy sector is a huge challenge. We’ll have to spend over 40 billion zlotys to renovate it. Will it be more Green and more decentralized, or like today, coal-based and centralized? There are plans to build a nuclear plant, but they won’t do it probably: not just because of social resistance but because they don’t have the money for it.

A third problem is the general macroeconomic model. We have a low level of R & D expenditures. Polish competitiveness is based on cheap labor, not on innovation, which is seen as too risky and expensive. In the global chain of production, we are in a rather low place. We do quite well on exports because we have no Euro. The value of the zloty has been quite low, which is good for the export industry. On other hand, we export a lot to Germany as subcontractors of German industry, who are re-exporting to others. Germany’s export success is destroying the rest of the EU, but in the short term it has advantages for Poland. If they do well, we as subcontractors do well too.

If you try to compete with cheap labor, you create a structural problem. We have a high unemployment rate, over 13 percent (and over 20 percent among young people). There’s very weak domestic demand because there are so many unemployed people who, when they do work, get paid little money. In the long term, the flexibilization of the labor market combined with low wages destroys human capital. People emigrate, to find jobs or if they have bigger aspirations to educate themselves. Over 1.5 million people have emigrated from Poland: the largest amount of people to emigrate during peacetime in Poland. It’s a vicious circle. You pay people very low wages, and they have no incentives to educate themselves further. So you cannot make a knowledge-based economy with a high level of innovation. In the short term, a flexible market helps, but it is bad over the long term. It threatens progress toward an economy with a high innovation level.

Another challenge is the transportation system, which is concentrated on railway connections between big cities. This serves the core, but the periphery is excluded, which causes lower mobility of people and discriminates against the provinces. We have very unequal development in the regions in Poland.

Quite a lot of things must be done by the state. Only the state can sustain regional train connections to bring a lot of Polish society into the mainstream. Only the state can provide incentives for R & D. Basic research is always funded by the state, even in the United States. The first algorithms for Google were funded by public money; the Internet was funded by DARPA, the military agency. In Poland, many policymakers don’t know this or don’t share that view. There was a famous claim by one of the ministers of the first government in 1989: the best industrial policy is no policy. They believed that the best strategy for the state was to retreat. But with such thinking, we won’t get very far.

Now it’s changed a bit. Now there are some initiatives for long-term investment. There have been some investments into public energy and public transport. But education has been slashed because of austerity budgets, especially schools in small towns. It depends on how people can organize themselves to prevent the closing of these schools. But it’s precisely these areas, in small villages and towns, where you have the biggest demand for good cheap public education. And it’s precisely here where the social capital and the ability of people to organize themselves are the weakest.

For instance, there is a reform proposal that would start younger children at school at the age of six, not seven. It’s more egalitarian if a child goes to school one year earlier because that would be one more year to equalize the differences that come from the different cultural and educational levels of families. Of course the schools are not so well financed, and many of them are not ready to accept smaller children, like six year olds. Middle class parents launched a wave of protests – Let’s Save the Toddlers – and their argument was: “Let’s not steal their childhood, and it’s not so bad for seven years olds go to school.” But the parents who do need this kind of reform don’t have the ability to organize or even an awareness of this problem. So this is the paradox. Where there are inequalities and even some segregation, civic organization favors the middle and upper classes. But without any campaigns or actions on these issues of discrimination, the political elites will continue with business as usual. They will continue their very contingent policies based on polling and on keeping the social peace rather than restructuring the economy and polity.

 

What do you think is the future of Polish politics? There are declining rates of political participation and a tendency to vote against rather than for political parties. When people talk about new politics, they often focus on the emergence of new parties. What are the possibilities here for a new politics?

 

I see possibilities at a local level, in municipal politics. Participation is low in the elections. But when you see how many people take part in discussions or in protests, how many are dealing with urban realities, these numbers are growing. So, it’s a shifting focus of participation. Of course, I don’t think that this is a solution, to just deal with urban policies and leave these same guys in parliament. But there is a growing tendency for people to engage more in their local environment. And it’s not just protesting against – for instance, against EU regulations on intellectual property on the Internet.

It takes a while for the political elite to learn to respond to voices from below. With the ACTA protests, it took two months for the prime minister to acknowledge that there was a point to it, that it wasn’t just kids stealing music for free. Campaigning on specific cases rather than trying to reform huge institutions – this will be the dominant mode of politics in the next years. This will be the way we will be able to build up some new, more permanent institutions. I’m not personally a big fan of direct democracy. I don’t believe that referenda or voting via Internet will change everything. Campaigns are good, but you need instruments of permanent social pressure on the elite.

All progressive change, in the United States as well, happened when there was huge grassroots pressure on the elite, and some faction of the elite decided to become allied to this grassroots initiative. The New Deal is a great example of this. I’ve heard this anecdote that FDR once said to a trade union leader, “That’s a good idea, now get out on streets and make it true.” There are no good allies or bad allies. It always depends on whether there is pressure. Then there is a possibility that this section of the elite will reshape policy or even the whole regime. It was an enlightened circle of elites – Keynes, Dexter White — that created the Bretton Woods institutions. The founding fathers of the European Union, like Jean Monet, really wanted to do this for public good. But without direct pressure from social movements or the threat of great social upheaval these solutions would not have been implemented. This was true for the EU, for the welfare state after 1945: the elites were afraid of Communism and social uproar.

That’s why it’s important to organize more permanent pressure, not just campaigning or slactivism on Facebook. But it’s difficult because there is no media to shape your whole worldview. You choose what you want to read on the Internet. It’s difficult to organize collective pressure, as Gazeta Wyborcza did in the 1990s when it used its influence to push opinion from one center of ideological power to another.

 

When you see the new generation of young people coming out of high school as you came out of high school, do you see enough of them staying here and committing themselves to transformation of the country?

 

One paradoxical factor in the current economic situation is that there’s no more work in the West. People can’t just go to the UK. They don’t want us any more. Cameron is a good capitalist and would prefer to have as much cheap labor as possible. But there will be a wave of welfare nationalism, so Cameron will lean toward the anti-immigrant position. Maybe more Poles will go to Germany, but not as many people here can speak German. And those who can work there are already working there now. So, as the crisis deepens, this exit option will be harder and harder.

As for the worldview of the younger generation, large ideologies no longer inspire people. In Poland, there’s a very strange mixture. Quite a lot of people will test the status quo via right-wing thinking. I’m thinking here not so much about the discourse on Smolensk or Catholicism but on free-market thinking. Janusz Korwin-Mikke has a lot of fans among young people. In normal politics he would get 2 percent of votes, but among young people maybe 20 percent.

 

What do they find appealing?

 

They find appealing his radicalism and political incorrectness as well as his being against the mainstream. This is a legacy of post-communism. Most of the critique of capitalism after 1989 was right-wing. It criticized not capitalism itself but the post-communist version of it. The problem was not capital but the “red capitalists” who inherited or stole wealth to make their careers in the late 1980s. Who were the biggest businessmen in the 1980s? There was Jan Kulczyk, the richest Pole. How did he get his first millions? From his father, a private entrepreneur, a Polish citizen in West Berlin. And if you were doing business in West Berlin, he had to have close connections to the Polish secret service. Or the guys who have the biggest media companies in Poland, like Polsat TV. They were active businesspeople in the 1980s.

For me it proves nothing. They became good capitalists because they worked as capitalists do. I don’t think small entrepreneurs who were privately farming carrots in the 1980s could organize a more humane capitalism after 1989 if they were head of corporations. Many people believe this. This was also Lech Kaczynski’s discourse and part of his success: to say that the transformation was not finished yet, that we are not in capitalism, but in state post-communist capitalism. One of the biggest intellectual authorities for the Right, Jadwiga Staniszkis, claimed that this state post-communist capitalism ended in 2004, because European corporations were stronger than the weak Polish capitalists. Maybe there’s something in that.

But the typical anti-capitalist discourse as in the West is not here. There are leftist groups other than Krytyka, like the magazine Nowe Peryferie. But these are still only niches. The only daily paper that claims to be leftist is Trybuna, but it’s very old school, connected to the Social Democratic Party. Some young people write for them, but the general layout appeals to a nostalgic constituency rather than young leftists. Among the weeklies Przeglad is not so bad. Polityka, which is also post-Communist, is probably the best one in terms of ideas, and their longer essays by Jacek Zakowski or Edwin Bendyk can be quite progressive. But the economic analysis – and it’s the same with Gazeta Wyborcza – is all about the financial markets, the stock markets, the flexibilization of labor market: they’re still dominantly neo-liberal.

 

Warsaw, August 14, 2013

 

 


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