“Liberal politics lead to OUR poverty. Balcerowicz1 must leave. These egoists just want to get rich at OUR cost. WE are the society, they are the other sort of people, a worse one, which has been stealing OUR nation’s wealth for years. Now, they’re crying as WE cut off their influx of money.”
These are not some niche slogans that anticapitalist groups shout during their street protests but the mainstream narrative of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland. What is even more important, that narrative remains uncontested among millions of Poles – not only those supporting the ruling party, but also the ones not interested either in politics or economics.
How did we get to the point where liberalism is being perceived at its worst, distorted form?
When in 1989 Poland was the first country to dismantle communism, widespread optimism was a predominant feeling in the society even though the economic crisis was devastating for the country. Capitalist reforms, which shaped the current system, followed. The country not only grew at the highest rate of all in Central and Eastern Europe, but also the inequality index rose at the lowest rate in the region. Everything seemed to be going well. The liberal path resulted in Poland’s access to NATO and the EU. Civil society was emerging from what in communism was common poverty. And then, all of a sudden, the forces denying the liberal order the right to exist started playing the major role in Polish politics.
The Beginning of the “Good Change” in Polish Politics
After the elections of 2015, many politicians and journalists experienced shock. How come? Why didn’t the society want to continue on the golden path we’ve been undertaking? This ungrateful society doesn’t appreciate what we did for them!
In 2010, Kaczynski was a politician who was “permanently incapable of winning”. “There is no-one to lose with” – Donald Tusk used to say when he was still the Prime Minister of Poland. There was a reason behind these theses. Right-wing conservatives had no vision for the country. Tusk’s policies were successful and led to the improvement of people’ lives. On the other side of the barricade, social democrats had no credibility following previous corruption scandals. On social issues the left wing was surprisingly conservative, on economic – relatively silent.
Kaczynski realized that he would be on a losing side if no major disruption in politics occurs. He must have been advised to retake a stance on his party strategic position.Most of European nationalist and conservative movements did the same. They had to answer one basic question: since our electorate is not big enough to win elections, is there another divisive line in the society that could allow us to collect the majority of votes?
Back then, in 2010, there were several major forces in the Polish Parliament. Liberal-conservatives led by Donald Tusk, a strong blockgathering both liberals and moderate conservatives, had their program strongly based on liberal democratic values. Social democrats were week and lost their credibility but due to the lack of other alternatives were still gathering the votes of the working class. Polish People’s Party was a rural organization with conservative supporters living mostly in the countryside.
Friedrich von Hayek in his outstanding book Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, rightfully stated that there is no huge difference between socialism and national conservatism as both are part of the collectivist mindset. Both are on the opposite side of the liberal democracy concept with regard to state affairs. Hayek even stated that national conservatism is a more advanced form of socialism.
It is doubtful that Kaczynski was inspired by one of the most distinguished liberal authors. It seems, however, true that he decided to move his vision of the state towards a mix of socialism and conservatism. We need to be fair here: what Kaczynski proposes is not going as far as national socialism. It is, however, based on the same way of thinking: the primacy of collectivism versus individualism.
Now, as the strategic decision was made, other actions followed.
Let us look at Law and Justice’s organizational strategy from managerial sciences perspective. First, following the competition analysis, the party decided to pray on the weakest yet large in terms of electorate opponent: social democrats. Objective: to take over that part of their voters which was neutral in terms of social progress but sensitive in terms of financial policies. How to meet that objective? By offering extensive social welfare programs. Is it coherent with traditional conservative policies? No, but it doesn’t have to be as a wider concept of collectivism contains it.
Then, Law and Justice focused on the organization interior analysis starting with the resources view. What were the key resources in terms of reaching their customer=voter? First, the party structure reaching not only big cities but all small towns and even villages in order to have a huge impact on a country level. Secondly, the media. Third, of course, financial resources.
It took the party years to be the “voters’ market leader” in all three aspects but they did it. No other parties have such extensive active members network, particularly in rural areas. In terms of the media, not many of the existing in 2010 were willing to support Kaczynski so he decided to create new ones from scratch: plenty of magazines and newspapers we founded – and even a new TV station (Republika). All this was strengthened by an alliance with radical catholic media empire of redemptorist Tadeusz Rydzyk. On the financial side, millions were taken from cooperative para-banking financial institutions called “SKOK” that – thanks to Law and Justice support – for long remained outside of any state control (which is now resulting in billions of losses financed by the state).
But the strategic approach of the party continues to be in the centre of their activities. Kaczynski realizes that others may follow in his footsteps. This is a direct reason for his plans to take over the independent media, even on a regional level. He also intends to take control of the regional authorities to get the access to the EU funds managed there as well as weaken local party structures of his opponents.
What will be the answer of the opposition? It is difficult to say. On the one hand, there are liberal democratic parties such as moderately conservative Civic Platform (formerly led by Donald Tusk) or liberal Nowoczesna. They can base their voter’s value proposition on individualism yet their resources are far from Kaczynski’s party. There are other players, too. Polish People’s Party is not playing a major role but could cooperate closely with the Civic Platform to make sure it doesn’t disappear from the Parliament after the next elections. There are also several parties on the left wing. It is, however, difficult for them to compete as Kaczynski already offered much more in terms of welfare policies than the social democrats have ever introduced while ruling. Furthermore, as they base their program on collectivist values, it makes it harder to criticize Kaczynski’s moves. The widely expected “united opposition” seems to be an abstract vision.
Another problem is the perception of liberalism and individualism. As long as the liberals do not focus on changing the narrative and finding the actual meaning of liberal values, they will not convince Poles to support them. The answer may be pretty simple, though, and lay in the roots of the liberalism itself – the concept that was to free the people from hierarchical society, give everyone a chance to have a good life, build a system with a greater purpose. But first we – the liberals – need to honestly ask ourselves a question: do we really see that greater purpose? Or maybe we forgot the founding values and simply follow the system that makes us better off in our society? The moment we truly believe that a balanced budget is the way to make ordinary people happy, not a solution in itself, will be the starting point in restoring liberal credibility in the public debate and voters’ eyes.
1 Leszek Balcerowicz, former Minister of Finance reforming the frames of Polish economic system in early 1990s. Considered the founder of Polish capitalism after 1989.