Understanding The Liberal Roots Of Polish Conservatism
Almost every article in the Western media, covering the recent developments in Poland, have followed the same script. How is it possible, they ask, that the supposed success story of the post-Communist transition has diverted from the political and economic road that has served them so well? There is a sense of exasperation, a feeling that Poland is acting almost like an ungrateful child. Despite healthy economic growth, rising living standards and new found freedoms, Poles are still not happy. These sentiments are replicated by many in the country themselves. They compare their lives today with what they had before and cannot fathom how anyone could not be satisfied. Yet over the past few months the population has elected a President (Andrzej Duda) and government (Law and Justice Party – PiS) that seem to offer a fundamental break from the past. However, rather than this new conservative turn in Polish politics being an anomaly, it is rather rooted in the practice and ideology that have dominated over the past quarter of a century.
After the defeat of the PiS government in 2007, the former opposition leader and editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Adam Michnik, made a speech at Warsaw University. Expressing his delight at the election results he claimed that “every nation has an intelligentsia that it deserves, however I believe that our nation has a better intelligentsia that it deserves”. Michnik praised the Polish intelligentsia for uncritically supporting the shock-therapy reforms, claiming that the previous two decades had been the best in Poland for over 300 years. Another such example of this thinking, was given by the leading intellectual authority on Polish Liberalism, Andrzej Walicki, who once quoted Janusz Lewandowski (former Solidarity advisor, liberal politician and then EU Commisioner) as saying that the Polish intelligentsia will be able to fulfil its historical mission only by supporting the “empire of capital” and that it would betray this task if it concentrated on caring for the needs of the losers of the transition and socially excluded.
Such sentiments have deep roots in sections of the Polish intelligentsia. After Communism fell, it was believed that one could now serve the common good by becoming rich and embracing the new values of competition and individualism. By acting in their own individual self-interest and supporting the dictates of neo-liberal economics, the new middle class would strengthen the market’s invisible hand, which would help to raise the living standards of the whole of society. In contrast, those who sought to protect their jobs, increase social expenditures or retain public services were now acting according to narrow self interest.
Despite its apparent liberalism, this extreme individualism contains an inherent conservatism. The poor are to blame for their plight, as they are lazy and disinterested in work. The state holds back the market, which if allowed to act freely would bring prosperity to all who wish to work for it. This Hayekian conservativism found fertile ground in a post-Communist society, that was believed to have become infested with a collectivist mentality of passivity and dependency. The burgeoning entrepreneurs bemoaned those who continued to yearn for the securities of the past. They resented paying into a social insurance system from which they received little and pay taxes to support those who refused to work. They saw their own failings on the market as being due to a heavily bureaucratised state and the homo-sovieticus mentality that ran through it.
The liberal intelligentsia provided the reasoning behind the construction of a socio-economic system ridden with inequalities, deprivation and lack of social protection. Less than half of the country’s working age population is in paid employment; 27% of those in work are employed on insecure fixed term contracts (10 years ago it was 15%); 19% of those working are self-employed and have to cover their own social insurance costs; 9% of those under 18 years of age are estimated to live in absolute poverty; just 16% of the unemployed receive any unemployment benefit; and a mere 2% of those working in the private sector are members of a trade union. Despite all the wealth created in the past couple of decades public services continue to decline. There are now more than 170 fewer public hospitals than there were in 1990; nearly 20,000 fewer public sector nurses; around 3,000 fewer state nurseries and 4km less train lines in the country.
By cutting loose a section of society to poverty and destitution, another section of society believed that their living standards would rise. Their intellectual representatives assured them that their success would eventually trickle-down to the rest of society, although whether this actually occurred was generally of little concern. They drew credit (often from abroad) to buy housing in gated communities; took out private health insurance to escape the public health system (unless they actually needed hospital treatment of course); paid for private schools or tuition; etc. This social group came to believe itself to be the most tolerant and open-minded section of society. When PiS was voted out of office in 2007, it was this social layer that mobilised itself. It rejected what it termed the ‘mohair revolution’ (which symbolised the berets favoured by some elderly women in Poland) and joked that people should hide their grandmothers’ ID cards so that they couldn’t vote.