There were aspects of life like health, education and housing, that served the public good better under Eastern Europe’s socialist experiment, than under today’s rule of the invisible hand of the market, says the Polish left-wing journalist Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat. And opening to social and labour movements is a good base to build on for change to the EU’s paradigm – from the EU of capital, to a social EU, in order to face the challenges of our time
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat is a Polish journalist, deputy editor-in-chief of the leading Polish left-wing news and analytics website Strajk.eu, and one of the authors of “Dziennik Trybuna”. She holds a degree in Eastern European affairs from University of Warsaw, and specialises in labour movements and current politics of the region, as well as the history of revolutionary movements in Russia and Eastern Europe.
This text represents an answer to Transform!Europe’s invitation to the wider European left-wing community to discuss the theses from this strategic document.
What are the elements of the Polish government’s answer to the economic crisis generated by COVID-19? How much were the measures aimed at the relaunch of business and how much did they aim to support vulnerable categories – freelancers, people who are not employed full-time, homeless people, the working poor, etc.?
It is highly symbolic that when speaking about the anti-crisis measures, government representatives always underlined how much support they offer to entrepreneurs, how devoted they are to saving businesses. We have barely heard about supporting the people/society in crisis, we have heard about supporting business. This shows the government’s philosophy and priorities.
The anti-crisis measures included immediate help for the banking sector. Also, everyone who runs a business which suffered a significant turnover decrease could apply for a three-month exemption from social security fees. Small businesses (which often do not employ anyone) could also apply for a microloan, a sum around 1,000 euros, which the state would not claim back if the business survives. In addition, the state agreed to pay 40% of workers’ salary (again, in companies hit by crisis) if the employer still covers another 40% and the remaining 20% is temporarily slashed together with working hours. This, however, applied to those who had been employed under a standard employment contract. And we need to remember that in Poland, nearly 1.5 million people are employed under “flexible” or “trash” contracts (umowa zlecenie and umowa o dzieło, usually translated as work contract or specific-work contract). There was just one kind of help that they [those employed with contract work] could apply for: a state subsidy worth less than 500 euros, given for no more than three months. They needed to prove that their income had significantly fallen and their application had to be sent by their former employer. In many cases, it was not sent at all, because [employers] wanted to avoid questions: Why were these people employed under flexible, and not standard, contracts? And so people were left without any support at all. Only a few days ago the employees were authorised to apply for this kind of support themselves.
There was another disappointment concerning state anti-crisis packages last week, when the government finally unveiled the long-awaited program of raising the unemployment allowance and introducing a new “solidarity benefit” for those who lost their jobs and could not find new ones. However, it turned out that the “benefit” will be available for just three months, it will not be summed up with the unemployment allowance, but rather replace it for those who do not meet the allowance criteria, and the allowance itself would be raised no sooner than September. Finally, both the benefit and the allowance are going to be desperately low compared to the cost of living, in cities in particular – the “solidarity benefit” would be worth around 300 euros per month and the unemployment allowance no more than 250 euros.
From March on, a dozen of proposals concerning the job market in Poland were formulated by trade unions and progressive commentators. They all agreed that the crisis could have been an opportunity to do more than just introduce temporary measures to keep the economy from collapsing. They pointed out the rising number of working poor in Poland, to the inadequate level of workers’ rights protection and discussed how the state could play a more active role in stimulating the economy. All of them agreed that “trash” contracts were an absolute shame to Polish job market and that they should have been eliminated long before. But no matter how productive, sometimes even visionary, these debates were, virtually nothing from them was actually taken into consideration by the government. The ruling right has even outright turned away proposals from a sympathetic trade union federation named Solidarity. It generally approved of the government’s actions, but suggested that the unemployed should be allowed to combine the unemployment allowance and solidarity benefit, thus getting an income of some 550 euros. However, the government, in pure neoliberal logic, decided that an unemployed person just cannot get such a sum, for this would discourage him or her from looking for a job.
To whom is the Polish government closer to in the debates on the European budget (where there is division between “Frugal Four” and “Friends of Cohesion”, who want more funds for the EU periphery) and in the debates on responses to the crisis (including on euro bonds, where there is again a division between the EU core and countries of the periphery)? Is the EU’s [eastern member states] leaning to Germany and the north or to France and the south in these debates?
It is quite a shame to say, but the right-wing coalition that now holds power in Poland seems more interested in exploiting the EU in its propaganda designed for the“internal market” than in participating in the debates within the EU. At the beginning of the crisis, in March-April, both the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and the President Andrzej Duda claimed that the EU had done nothing to tackle the crisis, that Poland received no extra funding and that nation states turned out far more effective in struggling against the pandemics (here, here and here). Later, the same politicians suggested that Poland actually received huge funding due to the government’ efficacy and successful lobbying for the national interest. Again, a serious debate on how the EU has been dealing with the crisis and how it should prepare for more turbulence was overshadowed by short-term propaganda games.
It was only on June 17th that Mateusz Morawiecki actually presented a statement that might be considered a semi-official position of Poland in the great debates. According to an article he published in Euractiv, he stands for a European Recovery Fund that would “possess two qualities: magnitude and swiftness”, for expanding the bond-buying programme, and, this is the most precise proposal, for “building sustainable collective resources” by the EU. In what way? Morawiecki names three sources: the digital tax, financial transaction tax and carbon tax. Another key statement refers to the Recovery Fund, which, according to Morawiecki, must not replace a cohesion policy but remain a temporary and emergency solution. This places Poland definitely among the “friends of cohesion”.
I doubt, however, if there is any deep reflection on how the community should work in the future and get ready for huge civilization challenges like climate catastrophe. I do not have any doubts that our current rulers want to secure funding from the EU. But do they want to participate in a debate on how to make the EU an organism that we all need – honestly, I do not think so.
Significantly enough, a more comprehensive vision of change in Europe came from outside the government – just like in the case of anti-crisis economic measures, where the trade unions and left-leaning authors advocated for more courageous moves than those which were finally made. No later than March, a group of academics, social activists and economists came up with the “Europe, a patient” initiative. They appealed to save European values by more solidarity in the moment of crisis and specifically, they called for introducing unconditional support for all for at least 3 months, subsidising enterprises for employment retention and income socialisation, public service subsidisation through eurobonds, and pan-European research on medicine and the vaccine.
Poland has vested interests on the issue of Brexit, because of its traditional bonds to the UK and its big immigrant community there. What does a left-wing view on Brexit negotiations between the UK government and the EC look like? To what extent does Brexit run the risk of an agreement that undermines social rights and the welfare state for both parties and strengthens capital?
The issue of Brexit shows yet another aspect of how Polish right-wing elites treat the EU as an instrument and not as a project worth involvement. Not long before the Brexit vote, Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski suggested that Great Britain should be Poland’s main partner within the EU, supposedly because of the staunch anticommunism that is part of British political culture and because the Conservative party was in power in London. The Polish Foreign Ministry seemed to be absolutely shocked by the outcome of the Brexit vote and by the loss of their supposed ally within the community. Only then the politicians began to analyse the situation of Polish citizens who had settled down in the UK.
Concerning the risk to social rights – one must note the fact that the UK’s presence within the European Union did not stop the Conservatives from austerity policies that hit the working class directly, did not save the healthcare system from cuts that undermined its basic capacities, neither helped to work out more egalitarian policies within the sphere of education, nor to save workers from a more and more unfriendly job market. In fact – and it is an opinion widely shared among both reporters and academic observers – it was neoliberalism and austerity that provided ground for social anger, which in turn paved the way for the success of the NO campaign. In this context, the Brexit story is rather a warning for the EU: how people left in uncertainty become angry, and how they may fall into the hands of the most cynical politicians who offer false solutions to their problems. For, indeed, one could also agree that an isolated working class – and the workers in Great Britain have indeed become more isolated – is even easier to beat. And, had the EU began to work on its redesign towards a more social Europe, the UK would not have taken part in this process. This is not good news for British workers.
The EU is not a uniform reality. There is the EU of capital, a neoliberal EU and a grassroots and social EU, which strives for empowerment and social change. Transform!Europe suggests a vision for the EU’s redesign, speaking about a “long process for the refoundation of Europe, based on a post-capitalist vision, this requires, a sovereign, freely elected parliament interacting with trade unions, the social, ecology and civic movements”. How much do you agree with such a vision and how realistic is its realisation? Transform!Europe also proposes through its strategic document an opening towards labour unions, ecology and feminist movements. To what extent can these social groups and organisations generate the EU’s refoundation on socialist and progressive grounds, when you judge by their activities in Poland?
To be exact – what we have now is the EU of capital, and the grassroots and social EU is so far a vision, an aspiration of social movements. However, at the time when income inequalities have reached an unprecedented scale, a redesign of the EU cannot remain a mere dream. In previous decades we could have discussed possibilities of giving a “human face” to capitalism, we could have talked about revolution and reform, we could have wondered if there existed any post-capitalist alternative. Right now such an alternative is a necessity! Human civilization possesses enough means and resources to liquidate famine and extreme poverty worldwide. However, it continues to work according to the pure principles of profit and accumulation, and we know too well what that means – more wealth in the hands of the few, worldwide exploitation of both people and the environment.
I would even say that we do not have time for a “long process for the refoundation”. We do not have unlimited time. Bold steps and courageous moves towards a social, a socialist Europe are needed. Freely elected parliament interacting with trade unions and ecology movements could be one of such bold steps, and then a platform to make more. But this can happen only if we reformulate our economic institutions too: people must be put before profits, we cannot be terrorized with the “necessity of permanent growth”, states must step up their engagement in regulating the market and in running their own industries again. We have already tried privatization and we got what we have now: extreme inequalities and lack of good quality public services. The pandemic proves that in this aspect the difference between center and periphery is smaller than we might think.
Changing the economy and liberating ourselves from the logic of profit and wealth accumulation is the key. Organising the working people and letting them rediscover their essential place in society’s structure is another one. That is why I am very happy that in the Transform! document the trade unions are mentioned in the first place. Human work is still the force that drives economies. In the past, the working people who understood their own power were able to fight for revolutionary changes and to introduce them. Reviving the great message of solidarity and common power is the essential task of left-wing organizations on the entire continent. And here in Eastern Europe, trade unions are, in fact, the only place where shattered remnants of this message are still to be heard. In Poland the left-wing political parties, once having won seats in parliament again, tend to accommodate everyday parliamentarianism and struggle for petty amendments in someone else’s law projects rather than win people’s minds with great visions of refounding the society. They come up with good ideas, too, but they are just partial changes to our sad reality, and not a big vision. On the other hand, the right-wingers are never afraid to use strong words or announce a ‘total change’ and they are met with approval, even admiration.
If the economy does not undergo a fundamental change then, sadly, working with ecology, feminist or LGBT movements is likely to bring only partial and superficial change. I will say once again: In Eastern Europe, and I guess not only there, the key question is how to tackle the inequalities. This would offer true relief to people who are now desperately struggling for survival and who fall all too easily for right-wing divisive and hateful cliches. Once people get a strong sense of economic security, the whole society will be more open to a more inclusive and environmentally friendly direction. Dani Rodnik and Stefanie Stantcheva are making a good point when saying that green politics must be accompanied by a general rethinking of how production is organised and that bringing security to job markets is a must if more than a tiny elite is to profit from the new green deal.
People will have a sense that work for the common good is being done and not that some “exotic minorities” are being favored or “marginal problems” are being solved. Of course, I am not calling for the feminist or LGBT movements to disappear until we are done with social justice. What I wish to see – and, to my delight, what I already happen to see in Poland – are feminist movements that go beyond liberal feminism and say strongly enough that a real freedom of expression for everyone, the real freedom of being who you are, is to be achieved only in a society which has succesfully fought for [economic] equality. Otherwise, this freedom would be accessible only for a limited number of people of the higher class. And if we are to transform Europe towards a green and diverse continent, we must not satisfy ourselves only with more inclusive language or securing places for women in the top posts. Such moves may be more of a “good impression” than of genuine reformulation.
What could be the concrete and specific contributions of the EU’s Eastern members to the EU’s refoundation? How does change for the whole come from its periphery?
It is the Eastern part of Europe that has actually tried to build a non-capitalist economy and society, and it is worth noting that thirty years after this experiment was deemed a failure a good deal of local societies still claim that life had been better – at least in some aspects – under so-called “real socialism”. This happens even in Poland, where the state memory politics has been doing its best to make us believe that our parents and grandparents survived a 50 year-long reign of bloody terror. We are able to say which aspects of social life worked better when not regulated by the free market and its invisible hands. We remember housing policies that were developed with a clear conviction that people have the right to live in decent conditions, so different from what is happening now in the real estate market in Poland. We remember the times when schools and hospitals were being opened and not reduced “due to the lack of productivity.” We also realized too well that transport networks and railways were being opened at the time when they were considered a service that the state must provide to the citizens – and closed when the “free market regulates all” philosophy was adopted, resulting in more than 10 million people not having a bus or train connection to their place of residence!
Obviously, “real socialism” had its weak points and it was absolutely far from being a genuine grassroots democracy. But this does not mean that the social policies that worked well at that time are to be forgotten. We may get inspired by what worked well and look to improve mechanisms that did not. If searching for a social(ist) Europe is to be done with the resources of the entire continent, and not only with what the periphery had, the starting point seems a thousand times more promising.
In my opinion, it is also our duty, as left-wingers from Eastern Europe, to denounce as loudly as we can, any political projects based on “more flexibility” or the “cheap state”. Our societies paid the heaviest price during the transformation from “real socialism” to neoliberal free market economics, when many of us were made to believe that we must give up our “working class privileges” and “become more flexible” in order to catch up with the West and its living standards. We experienced austerity policies before most Western European societies got to know its ‘benefits’. Perhaps it is also our historical task to break with them decisively, thus setting an example? Once it was a peripheral working class, the Russian working class, which had the courage to try building a non-capitalist society. No matter what went wrong and what mistakes were made in the course, it was the “menace from the East” that hung over capitalist states, which led to the establishing and functioning of welfare states. Are we unable to draw lessons from this history… and to do it better? There is a demand for change in the West. Yellow Vests protests in France and Orange Vests in Italy proved it more clearly than clearly. We need to draw conclusions from the past… and act together.
Photo: Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat (source: Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat)
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Vladimir Mitev is a Bulgarian-Romanian journalist based in Rousse, a town on the very border between the two countries. He is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian website BARICADA Romania, which initially started as a Romanian language version of the Bulgarian portal by the same name. He focuses on international politics. He has worked for the Bulgarian weekly “Tema” until its closure in 2015. He founded the bilingual Romanian-Bulgarian blog ”The Bridge of Friendship”. His articles and translations have been published by the BGNES agency, the magazines of A-specto and Economy, the blog of ”Solidary Bulgaria” and others. He has published also in the Romanian magazines of Decât o Revista și Q Magazine, in the Romanian cultural magazines of Vatra and Poesis, and in the Romanian left-wing portal Critic Atac.