During the decade following Poland’s accession to the E.U. in 2004, GDP has risen by 53 percent, according to Eurostat. While on average the E.U. has hardly recovered from the collapse of 2008, Poland’s economy has grown by 23 percent since the crisis began.

In fact, although it was also badly hit by a slowdown, Poland was the only European country that avoided technical recession. Social indicators, somewhat sluggishly, have followed economic ones.

During the last decade, the life expectancy increased over two years (even if it is still disturbingly low within the male population — 72.95 years) while infant mortality rate has staidly decreased. The level of inequalities was on the upsurge in the first 15 years after the fall of real socialism, yet the trend reversed around 2005.

Today in Poland the inequality is almost exactly at the E.U. average. Eurostat’s data show that unemployment is at 7.9 percent, and even though this result may be discussed when it comes to methodology (as it is always the case with the unemployment rate) and it might be considered too optimistic — it still remains that the unemployment is the lowest in 25 years and the labor market is shifting toward the workers’ advantage.

Last but not least: Even if Poland still has a low wage, industrial economy salaries went up as well. Net real income per capita has reached half that of Germany (it was reported at 38 percent in 2004).

In other words: capitalistic success story, example to follow for the countries still lagging behind. And yet, Poland is in political turmoil. The center-right government that has been leading the country since 2007 lost its ground. The sentiment of contestation is widespread, and the system of power is in question.

One could assume that this is good news for the left. Two decades of growth have led to consolidation of social vindication according to a historically confirmed pattern. The distribution of wealth and power is under attack as well as the neoliberal discourse supporting it. Yet, this is not good news for the left, nor is it for Poland. Politically significant expressions of contestation come from the extreme right.

What kind of growth?

One could argue about the magnitude of Polish economic advancement in recent decades or point to social costs it provoked. Still it would be difficult to overlook or neglect the very fact of its existence. With a closer look, the success of Polish capitalism is not so mysterious. Major factors contributing to its thriving are:

  • Not only is Poland “Europe’s little China” in regard to industrial commodities, from dishwashers to automobiles. What is equally important is that small Polish companies are important subcontractors for German Exportweltmeister;
  • Accumulated E.U. transfers amount to some €83 billion, and lots of them are investments. The latter were particularly important since before the economy ran on very low investment (both private and public);
  • Immigration. Roughly 2.5 million economic migrants moved into the countries of northern Europe after 2004, benefiting from opened labor markets. As money flows from migrants to their families very quickly decreased, the durable effect of this massive migration was improving the labor market in favor of the employee;
  • The Polish state, despite the trembling in the early years of its transition to capitalism, has managed to assure basic services — public health care remained dominant, public pensions came on time and they reached also the impoverished countryside. This assured the minimal conditions for biological and moral reproduction in times and places of decline.

What kind of contestation

There are obviously dark sides and limitations to this path of growth. Largely, Poland remains a semi-periphery country although political and social connections with the “center” partly remediate some of the dire consequences of this position. Far-right intellectuals daydream about the great leap orchestrated by the combination of paternalistic state and public intervention. They claim to follow the example of countries like South Korea or Taiwan some 30 years ago. It implies a great degree of state paternalism and economic formal and informal “dirigisme.”

One should not misunderstand this: It is not a redistributive nor even welfare agenda; on the contrary, it implies building up a “national capital” with public resources. That latter often simply means building up business and fortunes organically linked to the new political elite. This risks being very costly for taxpayers (even very little earners pay relatively high income taxes) as well as for workers (Poland’s biggest labor union — the once-famous Solidarność — is tightly linked to a major far-right party). In any case the project is completely unrealistic for dozens of reasons… but it can be politically useful.

However, the lack of Polish big money has more consequences. Namely, it flattens, quite artificially, the social ladder. Middle classes, built up with substantial economic aid from the state under all governments after 1989, managed to consolidate their supremacy over the lower strata. And the lowest of the low are in fact the losers since the outbreak of the crisis in 2008, when absolute poverty rose from 5.6 percent to 7.4. This means that some 600,000 people have fallen to extreme misery in times of growth.

Quite evidently, it is not these poor who lead the right-wing revolt. They do not speak. Nor does anyone speak in their name. The blame for their lot cannot be put on “peripheral character of polish economy” — the blame is entirely on society and state. To a great extent, the same is true of the low wages. Wages could grow if the employees fought for them as they did in 2006-2007. This time around the contestation is different — it is targeted at the state, allegedly extremely corrupt1. The state is described as fiscally2 outsized, and European Union bureaucracy is accused of obstructing our future in diverse manners (by imposing Muslim immigration, by imposing reduction of carbon dioxide emissions or by undermining our “social values”). Anti-fiscal populism is common and will make it impossible for any government to tackle inequality and extreme poverty. Especially when the strongest party declares it will increase military budget (already robust) to 3 percent of GDP!

The fact that Polish media refer to the extreme right simply as the “right” is certainly misleading but merely reflects the political relations of force. The “orbanite” Law and Justice is the most solid and long-lasting of Poland’s far right. They hold a viable project to transform country’s regime into “non-liberal democracy” of the Hungarian or Russian type. The Hungarian premier has already shown that this can go smoother than expected.

Still, it is worth keeping in mind that in many respects Law and Justice goes further than Victor Orbán. Its religious fundamentalism is more than declarative — the total ban on abortion (access to abortion is already denied with exception to rape or serious health issues) will not meet much resistance. The party also openly affirms that the Smolensk plane crash in 2010, taking lives of the Polish president and of several other officials, was an assassination (they leave doubt whether it was done by the Russians, Poles or both) — despite the closed investigation which found the compelling evidence that it was triggered by serious pilot error and breech of security procedures.

In the course of the campaign Mr. Kaczynski, the Law and Justice leader, accused the refugees of a willingness to impose sharia on Europe, of spreading diseases and parasites and… of defecating in churches! Two other contending far-right leaders — particularly popular among the young male electorate — have kept pace. The competition stated that the real aim of Angela Merkel is the displacement of Germany’s Muslims to the east and that being raped is the female’s natural fate. The Polish extreme right is proud to be free from political correctness and gives itself leave from any reference to the real world. Rationality is suspended in favor of efficiency in pursuing power.

How did it come about

The integration of Poland into the world capitalist system is complete. Political integration to the E.U. went rather smoothly as well. The idea that the integration in global capitalism necessitates the implementation of liberal democracy became obsolete. The countries which embrace other forms of government are numerous, and they have quite different forms of political legitimacy while maintaining market economies and integration with the world market. One doesn’t need Russia’s enormous resources to achieve that, not even the wealth of Turkey.

Orbán showed that a authoritarian, nationalist regime with limited political pluralism, abolishing of checks and balances and state capitalism can be done by a small, relatively poor country in the heart of Europe. And central European states like Poland are particularly susceptible to this trend. A few important things should be understood about the democracy which was established in Poland after 1989. In contrast to Western European democracy, here it did not mean the acquisition of social or economic rights. In fact, the making of liberal democracy does not coincide with any social rights or collective vindications. To the contrary: Democracy in Poland meat abolishing social protections and collective actions. Together with broadening of individual freedoms3 came the imperative of survival within a strongly competitive environment. In this competition most fail, some objectively, some subjectively with regard to unfulfilled aspirations. The government did not remain inactive in shaping the face of Polish capitalism, of course. On the ideological level, “transition” reposed on two pillars: One was the idea of the market understood as a common good and the other was the national identity understood as the only viable formula of political community.

Although those pillars were recognized by virtually all sides of the political spectrum, they became antagonistic at times — not in the sense that the nation would ever oppose the market, but rather in the sense that the “true” market has been distorted by foreign powers, financial markets and a domestic clique.

Mainstream sociologists confirm the extremely low level of what they call “social capital,” and they point to the lack of confidence and trust in social interactions. Other research confirms the ruthlessness and brutality of the Polish “entrepreneurial class.” Labor relations were violent long before they started to be precarious on a massive scale. The education boom tripled the number of diploma holders between 2002 and 2013. Very often they paid for education and did not manage to find satisfying jobs afterward, both because the market could not contain them and simply because the education was not satisfactory.

For many of those who found jobs, the deception was even greater. Some of them pay their mortgages in Swiss francs, which lately has become unbearable. Those who still manage to pay, live under constant threat of bankruptcy. In lower social strata, women manage to get a better education and they are more mobile, but this provokes male frustration. Still, the main source of the rage lies within the middle classes. Certainly the strongest base of the far right vote is from the religious and the less developed south and east of Poland. But discontent moves to the vibrant cities as well. They make the difference.

Ideology also matters. The nationalist/Catholic deontology and anti-Communist historical revisionism have deeply penetrated education and culture. The Institute of National Remembrance — the quasi-scientific institution promoting the country’s “historical policy” — has a two-times greater budget than the Polish Academy of Sciences, the most multi-disciplinary scientific institution in the country. This is no longer an issue of the state alone. Nationalism is fashionable even among hip-hop bands.

The refugee crisis also has cast its shadow on the last elections. Several polls have shown the correlation between the acceptance of refugees and the age of the respondent to be inversely proportionate — the younger the respondent is, the more he or she is likely to refuse the integration of refugees, especially Muslim ones. The young ones are also lest tolerant of abortion. Even if thinking of society in terms of generation is risky and often flawed, this ultra-conservative turn is striking. The famous transition from communism to democracy has visibly bred the grave diggers of this very democracy.

* the author is the editor of Le Monde diplomatique Poland


1 To put matters in proportion,the wealth of recently deceased Jan Kulczyk, by far the biggest Polish oligarch, was worth some 3.5 billion Euros. Peanuts of (or in any case three times less than) the wealth of Rinat Achmetov from neighbouring (much poorer) Ukraine and two times less than the assets of the richest Czech Petr Kellner.

2 In fact Poland’s counts among the European Countries with the lowest level of overall taxation (just over 30% of GDP) , only the tax burden lies disproportionately on the poor.

3 With an important exception: in 1993 the right to abortion was denied to polish women. Despite of that the fertility rate of polish women continued to fall reaching 1.3 children per woman one of the lowest rates on the planet.