New Social Contract: Does Poland Need It?

Jacek Malczewski: Polish Hamlet // Public domain

A social contract is an implied unwritten contract that regulates the way society works. It is recognized by people by the very fact that they choose to be its members. It may be a dry and unclear definition, but we will need to determine whether Poland now needs a new social contract, and if so, whether it has a chance to be drafted.

Changes to the social contract require broad agreement from the vast majority of society. Often, consent is reluctant and accepted without enthusiasm, but out of necessity. Sometimes, it is accepted with hope, as it was the case after the fall of communism. When someone breaches the contract, these violations are met with anger and protests – as in Poland, on the occasion of violating the abortion status quo.

Here we come to the first question: is a new social contract needed? In fact, it seems that we already have a new social contract: because the old one has already been changed in many ways. Systemic issues have changed, as has the aforementioned issue of abortion. But that’s not all.

The main change is the centralization of power – not so much in Warsaw or in the hands of the Polish parliament – but in the hands of one man. A man worshiped piously by his followers. This signifies reversing the entire process of creating a Western democracy and turning to the East, where this type of action constitutes the norm.

Until now, power was shared between many (more or less friendly) institutions. The apogee of this process was the moment when Donald Tusk stopped Mariusz Kamiński as the head of the Central Anticorruption Bureau (CBA) – knowing that power corrupts and it would be good for someone to monitor its actions very closely. Today, the President of the Constitutional Tribunal is making dinners for the nation’s leader.

The change in the social contract was brought about precisely by the statement that whoever has strength takes everything. One of the most perfidious justifications was the reference to democracy – as if it was an independent majority in parliament, not resulting from the majority of votes, let alone the will of the majority of society, was given the right to change everything that it wanted – including the existing social contract.

Therefore, the first reason to change the social contract is that the old one has been trampled underfoot and the devastation is so far-reaching that it is difficult to imagine a return to the status quo ante.

There is also another reason: the environment in which we operate has reached the point of democratorship – that is, the degeneration of a democracy which gives the majority all rights without regard to any minority rights. This was the departure from liberal democracy – the belief that the majority could do anything with a minority. And this approach is perpetuated precisely because most people like it very much and use it in every respect. It is also manifested by a change in the political discourse.

Traditional parties wanted to show that they would develop Poland and improve the standard of living of its citizens. To what extent they fulfilled these declarations and how good their ideas were is another question.

Today, however, the ruling Law and Justice party talks about the need to give more to the true Poles – thus taking away from the rotten elite, the worse sort. Do not create prosperity – take from one and give to the other.

Politics ceased to be a positive-sum game and began to be a zero-sum game. And this also pleases the electorate. You can often hear “maybe they are stealing, but they are also sharing”. But sharing what has been stolen.

Here, it is worth considering who is the majority that gives the leader the power. The analysis of support for political parties and the demographic analysis leaves no illusions – we are dealing with a generational conflict, even if many are not yet aware of it. Half of the people with voting rights are over 50, and they vote more often.

Thus, reaching this social group guarantees power. And this is the course of action of the ruling camp, as this majority guarantees power, so it will get what can be squeezed out of the minority. And this squeezing occurs on an unprecedented scale – even if the robbed ones do not realize it.

The biggest transfer from young to old in recent years has been the epidemic policy. It focused on protecting the vulnerable (the elderly) at the expense of young people’s activity. I am not sure if it could be done any differently (although it would be better, for sure); however, we rarely hear that the cost of protecting the elderly was borne by young people who lose their companies and sources of income, or even educational opportunities.

Therefore, it was the heigly unfair to pass the bill decreeing issuing the 14th retirement pension at a time when the young were barely able to cope. After all, for the elderly, lockdowns were just a minor inconvenience, not having a big impact on their everyday life, and even less on their income.

Of course, this is not the end of large transfers from the young to the elderly: raising the retirement age, the 13th retirement pension, and quota adjustments appeared. And there are more similar developments, for example those related to the taxation of pensions.

On the other hand, the budget is not infinitely flexible and the New Deal is to include tax increases (for young people – retirees are to pay less) – of course, under the slogans of taking away from the rich. It’s just that the rich in our country are not enough, so the middle class trying to raise children will pay too.

Above, I have indicated mainly material transfers, but the majority takes it all – even if the loss for young people is significant, and for the elderly the gain is symbolic. Maintaining (or actually returning to) very conservative social relations dominates here.

And the list goes on: IVF, abortion, legal partnerships, LGBT+ rights, privileges of the Catholic Church, protection of religious feelings. The demands for a ban on divorce are slowly emerging. All of this does not apply to the elderly in a practical sense: they do not need IVF or abortion. The heart, however, kindles the warmth of moral superiority. It is not surprising then that in the age group over 50 years old, more than half votes for the Law and Justice party.

Therefore, the current demographic system means that young people have no chance in the demographic process – and their situation will worsen with each passing year. We will be facing the 15th, 16th, and 17th pensions – while the young struggle. This is because no party that wants to govern will oppose the interests of the largest electorate. The winner will take it all.

So what would actually be needed, would be a social contract different from the current one – where minority rights are not trampled on. Where the elderly would be willing to let go of symbolically important issues, but also economic ones.

However, the existence of a need for such an agreement does not mean that it will arise. As I wrote earlier, it requires broad social agreement, and there is no reason for the privileged majority to give up anything. Because why would they? And there will be no new deal without the consent of the majority.

I am afraid that it may be worked out when the last part of the definition of a social contract mentioned at the beginning comes into play, saying that “it is recognized by people by the very fact that they choose to be its members”.

Well, young people cannot win democratically, but they can vote with their feet quite freely. Elsewhere, they will find a society where they can have access to both IVF and abortion, they will not be looted by taxes for the 20th and 21st pensions for people who could still work. They’re just going to change the social contract – since they cannot change the social contract, and they’re going to be fine.

However, the elderly will not be able to say the same – they cannot do it without the young – becausee their pensions do not come from thin air. What they will face is, at best, vegetation on the brink of poverty.

However, I am afraid that the elderly will realize the dire situation they are in much too late. When social systems collapse, the elderly’s willingness to reach a consensus will increase – they just won’t have anyone to reach a compromise with.

So, is a new social contract needed? Very much. Can we expect it to emerge? Not really. And the Law and Justice party is not the only obstacle here. It is merely a manifestation of inevitable processes where, with dwindling resources, the majority wants to improve their situation at the expense of the minority – even if the process itself is not yet obvious to either the beneficiaries or the exploited.

The article was originally published in Polish at:

Translated by Olga Łabendowicz

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