Poland’s new nationalism: in conversation with Aleks Szczerbiak

Photograph: Konrad Lembcke via Creative Commons

When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, it was widely assumed that young Poles afforded the opportunity to work and study abroad would go forth and liberalise.

But for many, the European Dream has long since turned sour. This has had significant implications for the country’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), which I examine in my most recent article for Politico Europe.

Earlier this year, I had a fascinating conversation with Professor Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of European Politics at the University of Sussex and the author of The Polish Politics Blog, a respected English-language source of commentary on Polish affairs.

We discussed the rise of nationalist and eurosceptic sentiment amongst the young, the disillusionment of many young Poles with Poland’s European future, why so many young Poles appear to be turning to the radical right – not the radical left, as in many other European countries – and the idea of defending Poland from EU influence as a means to defend ‘Western Civilisation’. Our conversation was as follows:

Christian Davies (CD): Some people in Poland are expressing concern that Polish youth are becoming politically radicalised, both on the left and the right, and in particular are expressing extremely Eurosceptic views which a lot of older people will find quite startling.  There was an assumption that the younger generation would be the one that lived the ‘European Dream’, and the first thing I would like to discuss is whether that European Dream has turned sour for Poles under the age of thirty, and particularly for those in their late teens and early twenties.

Aleks Szczerbiak (AS): This is one of the key areas where there is a generational difference.  The attitude of younger Poles towards the EU is quite striking and different to the older generation.  For the previous generation, one of the key drivers of Poles wanting to join the EU was the idea that it represented a kind of civilizational choice.  There were perceived economic benefits to joining but the idea was of symbolically reuniting with the West, and I think that doesn’t really exist so much with the current generation.  Partly it is taken for granted, “Well we are members of the European Union, that’s not something that needs to be strived for”.

Secondly, I think there’s a more transactional relationship between younger people and the EU, and this is probably best seen through the question of access to western labour markets, the ability to travel, to work abroad.  If you look at why Poles wanted to join the EU, apart from that abstract motivation, they were actually quite realistic.  They didn’t expect milk and honey to flow, but the one thing they really wanted and expected the EU to deliver was the ability to travel and work abroad, that’s what they really hoped to get out of it, and the EU delivered on it – actually it was Britain, Ireland and I think Sweden that delivered on it – and people were happy, they got what they voted for.

In that sense, Britain was a great recruitment sergeant for Europhilia in Poland.  For younger people they’re not grateful for that, they take it for granted, and there’s another dimension to it, because their attitude is the fact that they have to go and work abroad, the fact that they’re forced to uproot themselves and go and work in jobs that may pay better than they do in Poland but are well below their qualifications – for them, it highlights the problems that there are in Poland.

So the issue of being able to work and travel abroad, having been one of the great gains of being members of the European Union as the previous generation saw it, for younger Poles is a) something they take for granted and b) is something that for them highlights the fact that there are a lot of aspects of the transition that were profoundly disappointing to them – the fact that they are ‘forced’ to go and work abroad for jobs that are often well below their qualifications.

CD: To what extent do you think that this belief that they are being forced out borne out by figures and statistics, and to what extent is it simply that they are paid more abroad and they can tell there is a big disparity?  What are their opportunities really like?

AS: It’s partly that, it’s also partly to do with what they thought they would get out of the transition. In the 1990s, the feeling was very much that if you learned how to speak English, if you got good qualifications, if you worked hard, lots of opportunities would be available to you – and I think a lot of young people have found that that’s simply not the case.  The professions in Poland are very hard to get into, they find that they’re often employed on what people call ‘junk contracts’, short-term contracts, they find that it’s very difficult to get housing, they end up having to live with their parents well into an older age.

It’s that frustration with what they were promised, or what they felt they were promised from transition, combined with the fact that the safety valve from this has been the ability to go and work abroad.  They obviously can get work and much better paid work abroad, which is good in some ways, but after a while people think ‘I don’t really want to do this, I don’t want to be parted from my family or have to bring my family over to Britain, I don’t want to be the highest qualified barista in Britain, I have a PhD in physics but I have to work in Starbucks’.  It’s a choice they find an invidious one, and although it involves bettering themselves and although it’s great they have the opportunity, it’s an opportunity they now take for granted, they’re not grateful, and in fact they’re resentful that they’re being put in that situation.

CD: If you’re a young Polish person and you go abroad to work, for example to Britain, and you see that Britain – for all its faults – is a wealthier society with better public services, where people are better looked after by the state, you see for example that uneducated British people often have materially better lives than educated Polish people might, to what extent does that make you susceptible to the argument that the reason that there is this disparity is not because Poland is still catching up from decades of Communist rule and mismanagement of the economy, but because the transition was stolen, that elites are sometimes looting the country – or indeed that the European Union is somehow extracting something out of the country?

AS: I wouldn’t frame it like that, the way I would frame it is that the elites who they see as the beneficiaries of transition are comfortable and complacent.  These are the people who have done well out of it, these are the winners – both materially and also in terms of social hierarchy as well, which is in many ways as important.

CD: And it is these elites they see marching against the government at the moment –

AS: That’s absolutely right, these are people who have done well, who are beneficiaries.  Whether they are beneficiaries because they ‘stole the revolution’ or whether they are beneficiaries simply because they were in the right place at the right time and have pulled the drawbridge up and just don’t care is secondary if you are somebody who is looking in from the outside.

It’s more that if you are being told constantly about what a great success story Poland is, the great success of transition, Poland as the poster-boy, the green island of economic success, and there is a dissonance between that and what you find in your personal life, where your hopes and expectations are not being fulfilled, it’s difficult to get a job and if you get a job it’s on a ‘junk contract’, poorly paid… It’s that, and the idea that the cultural, business, political establishment is very comfortable and complacent, and has left people like – to put myself in the position of a Polish youth – it’s left people like me behind, essentially.  They’re so obsessed with the fact that the country’s doing well, the macro-economic indicators, and that they’re doing well, their families, their friends are doing well, that they’ve forgotten the fact that actually Poland has a long way to go, and that there’s a lot of people who feel that they’ve been left behind in this process.

CD: And the consequence of that is an electoral drift of young people away from liberal parties towards conservative, populist, anti-systemic parties, which is what we saw in the last [2015] election.  For example, between 18 and 29 year olds Civic Platform – regarded as the party that represents these elites and complacent people who did well – came fourth behind not just Law and Justice but behind Pawel Kukiz and Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who is to say the least a colourful character but someone who appeals to angry people.  Could you say a little bit about how these parties have appealed to them, and why do you think they are seen as attractive by young people?

AS: There are different motivations for people to vote for different parties, but you’re right, the trend is a correct one.  Young people have turned away in very large numbers from parties associated with the political establishment, the ruling elite, the ‘system’ if you want to use a sort of Kukiz-ism, and they’ve turned towards the ‘anti-system’ or anti-establishment parties in large numbers.

A really striking statistic is the comparison between the vote for Civic Platform in 2007 among the youngest voters, when it was miles and away the best-supported party, and the fact that it came fourth among the youngest voters in 2015.  That kind of stereotype that they try to build of the young, urban, well-educated voter… Well they probably still attract the urban voter and the well-educated voter, the secular voter, but not the young voter.

There’s a lot of reasons for this.  The big framing of it is what I was talking about earlier, which is the fact that a lot of young people feel that they’re a left behind group, that the winners of the transition have taken them for granted and don’t understand their frustrations.  It is partly that, it’s partly to do with the diagnosis of where the problem lies.  This is quite interesting, because one of the interesting things is why they’re not turning to parties of the left for example, why are people not turning to parties like Razem [Together], who specifically pitch themselves as wanting to appeal to precisely those kinds of young people who I talked about earlier – what some people would call the ‘precariat’ or whatever – and who have a very similar critique of the transition in many ways.  They would actually agree with the stuff about liberal elites being complacent and leaving people behind, which is why they’re not joining a lot of the protests, because they are saying these are people who want to return to the status quo ante, whereas young people have rejected that.

But [young people] have not gone for that, they’ve not gone for state interventionist type solutions, and I suppose the diagnosis of a lot of young people is that they do believe in individualism, in the free market, they don’t particularly see state welfarism as the answer to their problems. What they believe is that the ‘system’, the people who control the system, have distorted the outcomes, have twisted the way the market works.  So those people need to be broken for them to be able actually to operate fairly within this kind of situation.

CD: And there’s a sort of paradox because in order to be broken, the argument is that only the state can be used to break up the ‘system’, and therefore to liberate the market the state needs to intervene.  So you have what look like state-based economic solutions but they’re actually rhetorically being described as libertarian solutions, you have ‘libertarians’ supporting what looks like from the outside a very statist party [Law and Justice].

AS: Yes.  It does vary, for example someone who votes for Korwin [-Mikke], they are quite consistent and integral, they don’t see the state as solving things, they see the state just as creating problems and they just need to be liberated from the state – therefore they would say the answer is just withdrawing the state from all these activities in quite an extreme way, in a way that would challenge fundamentally the sort of role that people in most western societies would see the welfare state as performing.

On the other hand, the kind of young people who might be inclined to vote for Law and Justice would take precisely the approach you describe: ‘It’s not that we want to recreate socialism, it’s just that in order for market institutions to function properly the state has to intervene to break the power of the corrupt networks that are otherwise distorting its correct functioning, who have hijacked these processes and are controlling in a way that they benefit from them’.  So in order for the market to work properly, you need to break the power of the elites who have distorted the way that capitalism – and democracy, they would argue – works in Poland. ‘It’s not that we don’t want capitalism, it’s that Polish capitalism is a twisted form of capitalism’.

CD: Is it fair to say that the institutions of the state have in many ways been the slowest to reform out of all the different aspects of Polish life, that the bits that were freed from state control very early on thrived well, but the state is holding back even greater economic growth?  For example, Poland is still regarded as having a pretty poor business environment, with an irrational tax system and so on.  So there does seem to be an issue with the state, even if people have different solutions. A lot of people – myself included – would say that requires certain technocratic solutions, but nonetheless people are attracted to more radical diagnoses.

AS: I think it’s worth remembering that Civic Platform before it came to power in 2007, in 2005 they were offering a very similar diagnosis of the problems with the state, in fact if you dig it up you will find quotes from Donald Tusk saying Jarosław Kaczyński’s analysis of the pathologies of the Polish state was right in many ways, though he obviously stopped saying that in 2005.

CD: This was that funny period when it looked like PO and PiS were going to go into coalition together –

AS: – that’s absolutely right, in fact that was the outcome everyone expected. People forget that the ‘Fourth Republic’ was a common slogan, coined in terms of the broader public discourse by a Civic Platform-supporting intellectual Pawel Spiewak who actually ended up becoming an MP for Civic Platform.  It’s a diagnosis that at one time in the mid-2000s was actually quite widely shared, so personally I would agree with you.  It is hugely problematic, and one of the problems that the defenders of the status quo have is they are defending a state that ‘with the naked eye’ as they say in Poland doesn’t function properly at every level and across every sector, anyone who has contact with it finds it deeply frustrating.

CD: It seems that what you might call this psycho-drama between PO and PiS – obviously they have common roots and grew apart for various different reasons, but historically have shared a diagnosis of the problem – that the polarisation of Polish politics, to a certain extent because of the personal enmities between the politicians involved, means that none of this is really getting addressed and so will only get worse. PO may have addressed a great deal of it but not all of it, and clearly not in such a way that yielded results that satisfied people enough to continue supporting them.

AS: Obviously some people oppose Law and Justice either because they ideologically oppose them or because they have an interest in opposing them, but there are people who are either ideologically sympathetic to them or have no interest in opposing them, and their critique of the current government would be not that their diagnosis of the way the state operates is incorrect, it’s that rather than seeking systemic solutions, their answer is that rather than seeking systemic solutions, their solution is personnel turnover.  The answer of the present government seems to be that the way to make the state better is to get different people in running it, so you break the elites essentially by breaking the current social hierarchies, you replace one elite with a counter-elite.

Whereas their critics, and I am referring to critics who support the government and wish them well and are not going to go on KOD marches or anything like that, say that the problem is that this doesn’t sort out the systemic problems.  If you go back to the genesis of the ‘Fourth Republic’ project it was about systemic issues, about sorting out the institutions, not just changing the personnel, even if ‘everyone changes the personnel’ and there are arguments for doing it, it doesn’t solve the problem.

CD: In a sense this was a political choice, to attribute problems to the malicious intentions of political opponents, rather than saying there are certain systemic problems.  This is why I use the word ‘psycho-drama’, because to a certain extent, if Law and Justice’s project was to reform the state, they would not have gone about it in the way they’ve gone about it over the past six months.  Perhaps that’s just a political view.

AS: We’ll see, but their argument is that you can’t sort out the pathologies of the state without a high level of elite turnover.  Clearly, the strategy is that what they are going to lead with.  It could be that this is a stage thing, that they start with elite turnover before introducing systemic solutions, the idea being that you can’t introduce systemic solutions until you get people in there that are sympathetic to your project.

I suppose the model for this would be Polish public broadcasting – this how they would see it – so in the short term they had to clear out people that they thought were ideologically opposed to them and wouldn’t implement the kinds of changes that they wanted, plus in their view introduce some sort of pluralism into the broadcast media.  But further down the track, you need a project that actually tries to restructure the way that public broadcasting works.

So it might be that there’s a two-stage process going on here but I don’t know – you’d have to ask Jarosław Kaczyński that question.  The problem is that it then becomes very easy to say well you’ve done the personnel change and that’s it, it’s sorted now, we’ve got out people in there so everything should be ok now.

CD: Let’s drift back towards the issue of Polish youth. One statistic I found fascinating was a poll done for Rzeczpospolita that asked a range of age groups what their view was about the reimposition of border controls within the EU.  Between the ages of 25 and 34, 35% supported it, but between 18 and 24 it was 80%, almost twice as much as the over 65s.  To a lot of people this would be regarded as counter-intuitive, normally it is older people who a more hostile to immigration.  So could you say something on that issue, which combines migration with that of the European Union.

AS: This is the other aspect of why there’s a different attitude to the European Union among younger people.  The big issues through which they are viewing the EU are the Eurozone crisis, a region of instability and perpetual economic turbulence, and of course the migration crisis – that’s the formative experience of many young people.

Regarding the migration crisis, this is quite striking.  If you ask the question ‘Are Polish young people more right wing than middle-aged or older people?’, it depends what you mean by ‘right wing’: they’re certainly right wing in the sense that they are very individualist regarding the economy.  As regards the migrant issue you are absolutely right, they are much less open when it comes to migration.

There are a number of aspects to this. Primarily, it is actually to do with the first thing I was talking about, which is that it’s economically driven.  It’s adding an extra layer of economic security – by inviting migrants in who are going to be competing for the kind of work that they’re doing in that they already see as a precarious situation.  Polish young people are as opposed to Ukrainian migration as they are to Muslim migration from North Africa and the Middle East, which suggests that the prime driver of this is to do with the economy.

There is however a cultural aspect to this, which is an attitude that goes beyond young people, that Western Europe has made a big mistake in allowing to form large Muslim communities, that these are communities that clearly find it difficult to assimilate at best, and at worst are actually a security risk.  Ironically, this could well have been reinforced by the experience of some Poles travelling to Western Europe, seeing Muslim communities and not liking what they are seeing.

I remember around about the time Poland joined the EU I spoke at a conference of Polish student societies and the overwhelming idea was that Poles would come to the west and they would become more secular, multicultural, and liberal, and they would re-export those things back to Poland.  I don’t think that’s really happened, and in some ways Poles come to Britain and see social liberalism and don’t think it’s very pretty, they don’t like the idea of lots of people smoking cannabis, teenage pregnancies and things like that, and actually maybe a little bit of family values which they were brought up in is not such a bad thing –

CD: – which ironically is what a lot of people from a Muslim background also feel, they are brought up with certain values and they see their white neighbours behaving a certain way on a Saturday night, so even though these two groups [Poles and Muslims] may end up in tension with one another, they actually have a very similar critique.

AS: That’s right, so then the thing becomes ‘we don’t want to repeat the mistakes that we think they’ve made in Western Europe, we’ve got a chance to avoid this, and a lot of us know what these mistakes are because we’ve been to Germany or to Britain and we’ve seen what happens.’  This probably goes beyond young people, but there’s a particular twist on it as far as young people are concerned because a lot of young people have come to the west and as I say, rather than making them more multicultural and liberal their experience of the West has reinforced their social conservatism and traditionalism in many ways.

There’s one other aspect to this which takes us back full circle, because if the original motivation of joining the EU is about making a civilizational choice, ‘we want to reunite with a Europe that we’ve culturally and historically always felt a part of’, this throws a spotlight on the cultural choices that western societies are making, ‘are they the same sort of cultural choices that we want to make?’ This is interesting because it takes us right back to the heart of the core motivation for many Poles to join the European Union, and actually questions it.

CD: That’s very interesting because I have noticed what feels like a pretty recent civilisational aspect to these discussions in Poland, a questioning of Poland’s role in the west, whether Poland ‘belongs’ in the West. I was very struck by a member of President Duda’s chancellery suggesting that ‘We will always be an EasternEuropean country’, which it seems to me even ten years ago for a senior Polish politician to say would be extraordinary.

AS: It’s a very interesting quote, and I’d be interest to know what they meant by it and what the context was, because actually the way that a lot of critics of mass Muslim migration to Europe would present themselves is to see Poland as defenders of western civilisation.  It’s not that Poland has moved away from the West, it is that the West is moving away from the West, and the traditional cultural-civilisational values, the Judeo-Christian values if you like, that Western Europe traditionally represented, the direction the political elites – if not necessarily the people, we are less sure what the people think, and there is evidence that actually publics don’t actually like the direction they’re being taken in – are taking is in many ways a betrayal of civilisation, and in many ways Poland is upholding this tradition, that’s how many of the critics would put it.

CD: This raises a very fundamental question, which is whether European civilisation or Europe’s political culture is a question of rights or a questions of culture and values. And you see this in Poland with opposing demonstrations, one protesting against the government and one pro-government, the anti-government one often speaking the language of rights and the rights of citizens, whereas the pro-government one will talk of the ‘will of the nation’ or the ‘dignity of the nation’.  These are two competing interpretations of what Polishness is, Poland’s history has always had these two competing ideas – is it a civic, inclusive concept or is it an exclusive concept? So in microcosm you are getting this Europe-wide discussion within Poland, it is an inherently European discussion that Poland is having.

AS: Absolutely.  I suppose the difference is that we are used for various reasons to certain ideas not to be articulated, or if they are articulated are used by actors that are very much on the periphery of the political scene, whereas the difference in Poland, which is why Western political elites and Western liberals find it unsettling, is because those kinds of ideas are absolutely expressed at the mainstream.  The reason why a lot of Western European liberals find Poland discomfiting now is because the kinds of things they hear Law and Justice or Fidesz saying are not the kinds of things they are used to hearing mainstream politicians say.

For example there is an absolute hegemony of social liberalism in the West, whereas you will have politicians get up and in a completely unapologetic muscular way defend traditional socially conservative approaches to the family, society, things like that.

CD: And this is often mixed up in a kind of American-style culture war about political correctness.  That seems to be Korwin-Mikke’s style, to mix these libertarian values with the idea that people are not free to say what they really want, so you say deliberately provocative things as an ‘expression of freedom’, and the more outrage that generates, the more you are able to recycle that outrage to prove that you are somehow not free. 

But I wanted to ask you about the future implications of what you have been saying, on two levels: within Poland, and Poland within Europe. Within Poland there appears to be a drift of young people towards the far right because it seems to be the place which is welcoming for people to express these views.

AS: We’ve got to be careful when using expressions like ‘the far right’, because it makes us think of things like shaven-headed people –

CD: – but there is quite a lot of that –

AS: – there is, but is there really more than in most European countries? Also, if you look at young people’s attitudes, young people aren’t for example any more racist, any more culturally hostile than other groups.  They are quite socially conservative, but they are more tolerant for example of homosexuals than are older people.  They think that in the West that particular drives their agenda through too vigorously, but on the other hand they don’t find those sexual minorities repulsive as older generations might do.  So I don’t think there’s any particularly stronger profile of that sort of very radical cultural right in that sense than there is in any other country, and you’ll only find it more among younger people in the sense that you tend to find more extreme political views among younger people.

What you undoubtedly have is young people who identify with the political right because the system has failed them, and in Poland the system is associated with the liberal left, they identify with individualistic than statist solutions to their problems, they are very hostile to political elites which they think have been hijacked by liberals, and they are against immigration, but that is as much for economic as it is for cultural reasons.  That’s the formative thing of that generation, and those sets of attitudes will then be carried forward into politics, so this is a very long-term thing I think.

As for Poland’s relations with Europe, it is very hard to know what Poland’s relations with Europe are going to be because it’s very difficult to know what’s going to happen to the European Union, it’s such a dynamic situation.  We might vote to leave the EU on the 23rd June in which case goodness knows what will happen.  Poland would lose one of its biggest allies but then centrifugal tendencies might take place.  The EU is faced with a whole series of crises from which it might emerge in a very different form.

The problem is that young people’s attitude to the EU is very transactional.  Whereas there was that abstract notion of cultural reunification that the previous generation had, younger people don’t have that idea.  They do want to be part of the European Union, most Poles want to be part of the European Union, but they want it because it is transactionally useful to them, they want it because they can see economic benefits, Poland gets money, they get access to markets, or its useful because its potentially useful against Russia through specific policies, a common energy policy and so on.

But the point at which it gets less transactional becomes very interesting. What happens if western countries start to close their labour markets to eastern Europeans and the key reason they wanted to join disappears? What happens when Poland stops being such a beneficiary, what would happen the day that Poland becomes a net contributor to the EU budget? There’s a lot of people who are supporters of the European Union now because Poland benefits from it who would seriously question whether they wanted to continue being so.

What we do know is that the European Union will continue through a series of crises, it might emerge from those crises in a very different form which means that Poland’s relationship would be very different anyway because it would have to reconfigure its relationship, we do know that the attitudes of young Polish people are less romantic, more pragmatic, more transactional, and as it becomes less obvious what those economic benefits are then a very different dynamic could take place.

CD:  As the sentimentality about Europe dissipates, the sentimentality about Polish history and martyrology seems to grow, the return of Polish martyrology amongst the young, the hero-worship of certain historical figures, some of which are very controversial.

AS: ‘Martyrology’, if you want to use that phrase, is a key element of Polish national identity, so it’s not something that’s unique to this generation or to younger Poles, it’s something that a lot of Poles are brought up in – it’s often said that we celebrate failures much more than we celebrate [victories], because we’ve had so many more failures than [victories], but the fact is that what you’re taught is that failures lay the basis for future successes, so it’s tapping into quite a rich historical stream.

I think there’s a section of young people for whom the lack of security or rootedness, the inability of Western liberalism and the liberal transition to emotionally provide them with any kind of rooting creates a space for younger people looking to get some kind of identity to be interested in figures like that.  In that sense it falls on plentiful ground.

Having said that, I think we should be careful not to over-egg this.  When you see these [re-enactment] events you see a lot of young people at them, but that doesn’t mean necessarily that statistically young people are more interested in history, and actually the historical knowledge of young people is pretty poor.  So you should be careful about generalising from it to a whole generation. But there’s certainly an element for whom it goes with a trend of what a lot of them will have been brought up with anyway, plus the fact that it’s a source of identity and historical rooting, compared with a liberalism that doesn’t emotionally involve people or fire people up.

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