In June 2004, O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare, spoke Polish. Or so it seemed, anyway, to me and the many other Poles there looking for a place to stay and a job—any job. I was lucky: I got one at a lunch franchise called Itsa Bagel. I wore a fully organic gray linen apron, made fancy sandwiches I couldn’t afford, and gained both a healthy appreciation for the hard work of employees in the service sector and a firm resolve that I never wanted to be one again. But I was 21, had just finished my third year of university, and the money I’d earn—a whopping €7 per hour, thrice what I would have gotten for the same job in Poland—would support me over the next semester. It was a temporary gig, an adventure, an exercise in self-reliance for a till-then rather pampered middle-class girl. Above all it was my first dip into life in the West, a promised land that we Poles so long aspired to.
On May 1 of the same year, my country, along with nine former communist states, joined the European Union. Back then its name was synonymous with prosperity, democracy, the welfare state, and security: in short, civilization. After a half-century of communism and 15 years in limbo, that this civilization would finally let us in seemed to us as close to heaven on earth as heaven ever got. No longer barbarians at the gate, we would become first-class Europeans. Or so we, the summer Gastarbeiters, twentysomething students armed with no real life skills and shamelessly embellished CVs, believed.
There were plenty of us in Ireland and the United Kingdom, the two countries that had bravely opened their labor markets to East Europeans in 2004. Even more Poles—plumbers, nurses, construction workers, strawberry-pickers or assembly-line workers, plus some white-collar specialists—would immigrate for good. Two and a half million more would come over 14 years, pushed by the then-20 percent unemployment rate in Poland. But ours was an unencumbered optimism: a feeling that the world was within our reach and we had just taken the necessary first step on the road to prosperity.
We were grateful to take jobs the British and Irish wouldn’t consider doing for themselves, to work harder and longer than they did, to save rather than spend, all in the knowledge that our future children wouldn’t have to make such sacrifices. They would be Europeans, born and bred, entitled to ski vacations in the Alps and gap years in Southeast Asia. Sure, if you compared salaries in Germany, the United Kingdom, or France with those in Poland, we felt like poor relatives, counting every euro and thinking twice if we could afford to have a beer in a pub instead of buying one at Tesco. But at some point in the not-too-distant future, we believed that we would bridge this wealth gap. Give us twenty years or so, and we would live like Germans.
Our friends and family back home seemed to share our enthusiasm. It was, after all, an impressive 77 percent majority that had decided a year before to join the European Union.
So, what happened? Fast forward to 2015, and Poland has elected a right-wing populist government known for its open hostility to European values. How did it come to pass that the poster child of successful democratic and economic transition become the living proof that liberal democracy doesn’t work in Eastern Europe?
In May 2009, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Prime Minister Donald Tusk had an unexpectedly optimistic message for his people. To hammer it home more effectively, he brought a prop: a map of Europe on which all other EU countries were painted bright, alarming red, accompanied by numbers showing how much their GDP had dropped during the past year. Poland, with meager 0.4 percent growth, was still green.
“The Poles passed their first test in times of crisis with flying colors. We are the only ‘green’ country in the EU,” said Tusk.
This narrative of Poland as the “green island,” the Central European success story, dominated the next six years of Tusk’s center-right Civic Platform government. The economy grew steadily if not spectacularly—about 29 percent between 2008 and 2015. The government built highways and bought high-speed Pendolino trains from Italy, finally enabling fast travel between Poland’s major cities. The European Union supported farmers with generous subsidies and financed infrastructure investments—roads, public transportation, aquaparks—in towns large and small. Successful businessmen gave motivational speeches about how, if only you worked hard and didn’t complain—and the state didn’t curb your entrepreneurial spirit with unnecessary taxes and regulations—the sky was the limit. Success, according to the conventional wisdom prevalent since the 1990s, was a reward for individual merit and effort. Failure was also of one’s own making.
Yet if you scratched this gilded surface, it was clear that for most Poles the limit was much, much lower than the clear blue sky. It was more like low-lying storm clouds.
“Don’t ask me what it means to be successful or I’ll hit you. Come on, let’s go for a walk, I’m getting worked up from all this success,” said Szymon Kazanecki, one of those Poles whose boat was not lifted by the proverbial tide. Konrad Oprzędek told Kazanecki’s story in “National Ink: Poland in Patriot Tattoos,” an article in Gazeta Wyborcza published in January 2016. Kazanecki, a born-again patriot—awoken, he said, by the Smoleńsk plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczyński eight years ago—has been accumulating Polish history tattoos, and at six-foot-one and 200 pounds, he made for an expansive canvass.
Kazanecki’s wife, Paulina, explained that Szymon is basically harmless, but can be set off by a few particular trigger points. “The green island. Also, don’t mention highways and aquaparks, because for my husband it’s just like putting fresh paint on a tenement house: the outside is bright and colorful, but inside you still have a mess and poverty,” she said. “Highways—yeah, rich people use them, but not us. When we visit our parents, we take side roads, because 40 zł ($11) for a ride is too much. Together we earn 3,600 zł after tax ($950), and we have two kids. We can’t afford Pendolino either,” she added.
GDP has indeed grown in Poland, but incomes haven’t grown proportionally. The share of Poland’s GDP consisting of wages and salaries is one of the lowest in the European Union (38 percent for Poland, versus 47 percent for the EU as a whole). Many Poles never felt that the official narrative of success had much to do with them. In 2014 the median after-tax income was just below 2,400 zł ($630) per month. And those who earned it in a full-time position, with benefits, could count themselves lucky.
Even though unemployment declined considerably after 2004, well into the single digits, work became increasingly precarious. Ever more Poles, especially young people, could count only on short-term forms of employment, which earned the unflattering nickname “śmieciówka” (trash contract). Such contracts offer no job security, no paid holidays, no sick leave, no health insurance, and no retirement savings. They make it nearly impossible to get a mortgage or make any long-term life plans, from planning a vacation to having children.
The śmieciówka emerged from the 2008 crisis as a means to increase work flexibility and unburden struggling companies. But the crisis ended and trash contracts remained: In 2015, they were the daily reality for 27 percent of working Poles. Most of those workers, research found, would have preferred a more stable form of employment. But it was an employer’s market, and rates were set by whim. In some cases, security guards worked for a mere 4 zł ($1) per hour. “It’s work stripped of dignity,” admitted Tusk—but the Civic Platform government did precious little to curb the trash contracts.
And then along came PiS, the Law and Justice Party, which promised—and delivered—the minimum hourly rate of 13 zł, a higher minimum wage, and the “500 Plus” program: a monthly benefit of 500 zł ($130) for every family with two children, and an additional 500 zł for every subsequent child. For many Poles these bread-and-butter issues, and the feeling that for once they could rely not only on themselves but on the state (as they had, in a very low-flying way, under communism), proved far more important than abstract ideals like an independent judiciary or a constitution. Benjamin Franklin, wary of the challenges to the bold American experiment, famously spoke in 1789 of “a republic, if you can keep it.” Poles might have kept the liberal democracy that emerged from communism, had they not been so eager to trade it for a pot of red lentils.
Yet explaining the PiS’s ascendency in Marxoid terms, by way of Bill Clinton—it’s the redistribution, stupid!—is far too simple. It was not only the losers from economic transformation, the “forgotten men and women” of Poland, who voted for Law and Justice in 2015. Yes, PiS was most popular among farmers and the working class; but it won among every socioeconomic and demographic group except for the managerial class.
The growth Poland has experienced since it joined the European Union awoke aspirations for higher standards of living. The Poles, especially those who had experienced life abroad, felt that they deserved access to well-paid, stable jobs and efficient, affordable public services, and that the state was to blame if they lacked it. The Civic Platform, stuck in its neo-liberal narrative of individual success, was unwilling to increase the government’s role in providing for a better life. PiS not only promised to do so, but also offered a new kind of legitimization to the aspirations of its electorate. Maciej Gdula, a social scientist who has conducted in-depth research among PiS voters that he published in a report called Dobra zmiana w Miastku (A Good Change in Middletown), calls it neo-authoritarianism.
Neo-authoritarianism is not old-fashioned authoritarianism because its mindset accepts democratic elections. But it accepts them only as a way to give the majority a mandate to govern unencumbered by minority rights. In other words, it accepts democracy only if it is fundamentally illiberal, as Western publics understand the term. This ruling majority—PiS politicians use the term “the sovereign”—is based on a narrowly defined national community (white, Catholic, ethnic Poles) and applies the solidarity principle only to its members. We “normal” people have to stick together, the pitch goes, form an impenetrable front against dangerous outside forces, and not let our unity be eroded by pity for the undeserving.
PiS promised its electorate that it would settle scores with the liberal elites who had been ruling Poland for the past quarter-century. In the party’s telling, the elite was inherently corrupt and disloyal to their own country (defined to include allowing foreigners to invest in the Polish economy). It follows that they did nothing to help the struggling and marginalized because they did not care about such people. In this mindset, if a politician, judge, or journalist criticized, say, the dismantling of the Constitutional Court, it was only because they had been “pulled away from the trough” and were desperate to get it back. “There is a terrible tradition of national treason in Poland. Some people, the worst sort of Poles, have it in their genes. And they are extremely active because they feel threatened,” said Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of PiS, about the people who took to the streets to oppose the judiciary reform.
Polish neo-authoritarianism is thus a form of community based on shared hostility toward the elites and the weak—women, refugees, those with “pathology” (that is, the poorest, people with alcohol or drug problems, broken families)—and bound by the sense that “normal” people have a right to dominate these groups. It gives the members of this community permission to be ruthless, to vent their frustration and inferiority complexes on someone even more miserable than themselves.
The figure of a refugee— the ultimate Other, so different as to be barely recognizable as human and thus dangerous—was significant in ensuring a PiS victory. Kaczyński warned during the campaign that migrants carry “all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which, while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here.” In PiS rhetoric, a refugee equals a terrorist, and closing Poland’s borders to people escaping atrocities is both a patriotic duty and a common-sense measure.
Law and Justice gave its supporters an attractive and coherent common identity, and a monolithic worldview that has proven surprisingly resistant to critique. It is a kind of empowerment, albeit an empowerment that comes from the ability to humiliate, belittle, and bully others, and then to feel justified in so doing. It offers a surface narrative of regaining dignity, acquiring national pride, and restoring justice; but its underside exudes darker undertones of punishment, exclusion, and contempt. It is a classic case, in other words, of creating in-group solidarity by targeting supposed out-group threats. As such, it has much in common with both resentment and plain fear.
In a recent essay (soon to be a book) entitled “Explaining Eastern Europe: Imitation and Its Discontents,” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes compare Eastern Europe to Frankenstein’s monster: a distorted imitation of a human being that, disillusioned and betrayed by its creator, turns against him. Harsh, yes; but the authors focus on the imitation, not the monster. A key reason why Poland and Hungary are now in the midst of an illiberal revolution, they argue, is the repressed resentment of the imitator toward its model.
The main goal for the East European countries after 1989 was “the return to normalcy.” What the Poles understood by this term, however, was not any return to a more or less imagined national golden age—Poland hardly had one in the 20th century—but rather being like the West.
The fall of the Berlin Wall meant not only the import of democracy and capitalism, but also of Western pop culture. In the early 1990s all of Poland stood still at 6 pm on Sunday nights to watch reruns of Dynasty, then seen as a realistic portrait of the American way of life. It was all that the Poles, fed for the past half century on an austere diet of communism, dreamed of: the overblown mansions and shiny Rolls Royces, the bejeweled dresses and umbrella drinks, designer consumerism on steroids. In order to catapult itself into this brave new world of limitless possibilities, we were told, Poland should imitate the West as closely as possible: establish liberal-democratic institutions, launch a market economy, and embrace Western cultural values. And, as it turned out later on, swallow the humiliation of acknowledging a foreign culture as superior to your own.
The problem is that imitation can never equal, let alone surpass, any genuine cultural original. Imitators tend to be seen as both culturally and morally inferior: as social climbers, as bumpkin country cousins. As Krastev and Holmes put it, “While the mimics looked up to their models, the models looked down on their mimics.” For the West, the post-communist countries floated always at the border of civilization. They were the wild East, embodied in pop culture as Ruritanias or Bordurias: strange, folksy, vaguely barbarian places inhabited by Borat, Baba Yaga, and polar bears roaming frozen streets. As such, they were treated with a mixture of mistrust and mild amusement, but above all as caricatured platforms undergirding their own sense of superiority.
As for the East Europeans, they learned that pursuing unattainable goal tends to be exhausting and, eventually, insufferable. One feels inferior, inadequate, insecure, guilt-ridden, and self-hating. This kind of frustration, combined with an inferiority complex and a fear of losing sovereignty—“if we give up our identity in order to imitate the West, what are we?”—breeds resentment.
And eventually it breeds a backlash when the imitators come to feel cheated. We were promised prosperity, opportunity, and stability, and we made all the necessary sacrifices to achieve them, only to see those goals fly from us right before our eyes. Barely four years after Poland joined the European Union, an economic crisis hit that threatened its very survival. And right after the hope of endless prosperity was shattered, so was the illusion of security when the Russian bear roared in Georgia, and then in Ukraine. Then the refugee crisis and a series of terrorist attacks in major European cities, along with the economic turmoil, made the Western model less and less attractive for the Eastern imitators. And the political vacuum thus formed by disappointment and anxiety was filled by right-wing populism.
“I prefer politics that guarantees warm tap water,” announced Mr. Tusk in 2010. The former Prime Minister, in his own words, wasn’t a man of bold visions; he favored a government that was “qualified, modest, moderate, and focused on solving the problems of ordinary people, not on carrying out great historical missions.” What he wanted for Poland was, in short, Western normalcy, a goal shared by most Polish governments since 1990 as well as the business and the mainstream media.
But in Poland, coming to normalcy could not be a passive act. It was not something that could be achieved just by adjusting a few beliefs, trying some new cuisines, and going shopping for clothes and toaster ovens. Alas, there was some history to parry.
We, the proud young Europeans of 2004—and those from older generations who always felt they were born on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain—embraced Western values of gender equality, minority rights, the secular state, entrepreneurship, and responsible individualism. We learned to be wary of any kind of excessive national pride; in a country with a shameful history of anti-Semitism such sentiments were dangerous. We welcomed the painful debate around Jedwabne, the small town where, during the German occupation in World War II, Poles gathered their Jewish neighbors in a barn and then burned them alive. We thought, still think, that the end of communism offered a rare chance to exorcise old demons, accept responsibility, and move closer to reconciliation. We also liked to think we were cosmopolitan, progressive, enlightened.
And so, frankly, we were embarrassed by our compatriots who weren’t eager to Europeanize.
We called them “Janusze” and “Grażyny,” the Polish equivalent of rednecks and hillbillies. We thought they still sadly clung to hopelessly outdated traditions, unable to keep up with cultural and civilizational change: backwards, pathetically parochial people who went to church every Sunday to please their neighbors, wore white socks with sandals, listened to music that made us cringe, and told homophobic jokes. We were ashamed of their xenophobic and sexist views, and of their lack of interest in the wider world. We knew better; we were on the proverbial right side of history—and we let them know it. For their own good, of course. But to the endless surprise of some of us in what was actually an enlightened and overwhelmingly urban minority, the result was not that Janusze and Grażyny apologized for their backwardness and changed their ways. Quite the contrary: They turned to someone who, for a change, promised to take them seriously.
In one sense, then—and definitely according to the Law and Justice spin—the PiS victory was a revolution for the dignity and empowerment of ordinary people. The PiS said to Janusze and Grażyny: You’re the salt of the earth, the moral majority, the real Poles—not those uppity, selfish, ungrateful elites who have mocked you and shamed you for all you hold dear. The party went even further. The liberal mainstream, it claimed, wanted to rob Poles of their national pride via “pedagogics of shame,” by which they understood any revision of history that complicated the narrative of Poles as innocent victims or tragic heroes. Now was the time for the real people to take their deserved places, the time for the real Poles to finally get up from their knees, be their deservedly proud selves, and shake off their “colonial” dependence on the patronizing West and its Polish cronies.
Or, as Donatan & Cleo, the folksy duo representing Poland on Eurovision in 2014 summed it up in their song “We the Slavs”: “What is ours is the best because it’s ours.”
Liberal democracy is demanding. It constantly tells its citizens to accommodate others, to give more space to underrepresented groups, and to tolerate unwelcome views. Populists, on the other hand, accept the people—the right kind of people, anyway—without any condescension or judgment. They have no ambition to turn anyone into some better version of themselves. They won’t scold anyone for espousing politically incorrect views, and they’ll let you say what you really think about those who are not like you. They will also manufacture for you a clear enemy who is responsible for all that ails you.
This is a powerful narrative strategy, one that PiS is very skilled at deploying. And so far, no other political party in Poland has managed to produce anything remotely as compelling. Has Poland proved unable to keep its fledgling liberal democracy? Is the verdict of history sealed, or is there still a way back to the new and better normal most Poles longed for in the early 1990s? Plenty of Poles wish they knew.