Monday, 27 February 2012
Thursday, 23 February 2012
For years the left in Poland was represented primarily by the SLD, whose left-wing credentials began and ended in its name. A kind of virtual political reality ruled, whereby a person's connection to the left was more due their own personal history than any real political conviction.
The SLD had become complacent in its role as the sole ambassador of the mainstream left. Other pretenders were swept aside and genuine left-wing activists marginalised to the sidelines or restricted to single-issue campaigns. Even after the SLD had led the left to a series of disastrous electoral defeats, no challenger to its leading status appeared. That is until the emergence of Janusz Palikot, and his modestly named Palikot Movement (RP) at the last elections.
Palikot and RP have usurped the SLD as the leading representative of the left, they lead their rival in the polls and they are openly declaring their ambition to unite the left at a congress on May 1st.
The party (is it actually yet a party?) has made a name for itself through the media of 'political happenings'. Palikot announces that cannabis will be smoked in parliament in protest at the country's draconian drug laws, but then burns an incense stick instead (all too reminiscent of a teenager's bedroom). His party enters parliament claiming that it will remove the cross from the debating chamber, yet the cross still hangs. He drinks beer with the miners at galas and holds press conferences with those campaigning against eviction from their houses. Yet he openly supports the government's decision to raise the age of retirement.
What exactly is the Palikot movement? Who do they represent? What do they want? These questions circle around the conversations on the left in Poland unsure whether to embrace or react against this new phenomenon.
Palikot has already made his place in history. The simple fact that prominent feminists, gay activists and transsexuals are amongst their MPs has ensured that. This after all is no mean feat in a country like Poland (and not just Poland, when will the first transsexual MP make an appearance in the House of Commons?) However, this is a millionaire businessman who once edited an arch conservative and at times homophobic magazine. He is someone who rose through the ranks of PO as the arch supporter of liberal economic reform.
If Palikot is anything he is the establishment's rebel. He rallies against the state and claims to wish to set people free from its clutches. He represents the frustrated young professional, the struggling business owner, the unwilling self-employed. Cut bureaucracy, remove their tax burden and the creative and entrepreneurial will bloom.
However, there are two more aspects to Palikot's character – ambition and intelligence. He realises that a liberal party in Poland (and can anyone actually tell me when there was a true liberal party ever in Poland's history?) has a limited electoral appeal. He does not wish to simply be PO's precocious young sibling, he wants to rule the roost himself. So he looks left. He looks both to that part of the political scene that is under and poorly represented and he seeks to speak for those who feel let down by 'really existing capitalism'.
Presently Palikot talks left, he surrounds himself by (sections) of the left and he dons the symbols of the left (a nice red shirt being one of his favoured outfits). In addition to his liberal secular rhetoric he rallies against homelessness and social exclusion. He appears on the demonstrations against ACTA sensing that this is potentially his movement; and although he is greeted with a mixed reception at these demonstrations, the decision of RP MPs to put on Guy Fawkes masks in parliament captures the mood.
But scratch the surface and the Palikot of old remains. He has opposed the campaign by the trade unions to call a referendum on the government's plan to raise the age of retirement (over 80% of society oppose this plan). He does not support the SLD's proposal to increase the minimum wage, despite the scandalously low wages received by a huge section of society. Palikot has opposed the raising of taxes for the most wealthy in society, although the country has one of the most regressive tax systems in Europe.
Despite these shortcomings the emergence of Palikot and RP on the political scene should be welcomed. It is heartening to seek a new political movement take on the conservative establishment and raise issues that are of real concern. A vocal liberal party in Poland, that possesses some social conscience, could be an invaluable ally to the left.
The problem emerges however because Palikot does not wish to complement the left, he wants to take it over. A recent article by left wing veteran Ryszard Bugaj puts this into some perspective. He notes how the strategy of the post communist left, led by Aleksander Kwasniewski, has always been to ally the left with the liberal centre. This has continually failed and driven the left into deeper defeat and isolation when attempted. According to Bugaj the efforts of Palikot to unite the left under his own auspices, which is being supported by Kwaśniewski, is a continuation of this project.
It is therefore also welcome that the SLD has so far refused to go along with Palikot's plan. Presently under the leadership of Leszek Miller, the party has supported a campaign for a referendum on raising the pension age and initiated a bill to increase the minimum wage. Miller has held joint press conferences with the Solidarność trade union (something that would have been unthinkable previously) and has adopted a strategy of positioning the SLD to the left of Palikot on a number of socio-economic issues.
Therefore one of the benefits of having some competition on the left has been that it prevents a continual drift to the right. The SLD are now painting RP as being a liberal party that is only left on certain social and cultural issues. In turn Palikot has attacked Miller and his party's own dubious record. In particular he has stated that he would refuse to work with Miller if it is proved that he was aware of the CIA interrogating prisoners in secret prisons in Poland when he was PM. This is a principled stance, although quite why he doesn't extend this to Kwaśniewski is unclear.
This is the new dual virtual reality of the left. The accusations flying in both directions between the SLD and RP are true. Miller is a pragmatic politician, with little political conviction. In the early 1990s he was the leading left-winger inside the SLD, opposing as Minister of Labour and Social Policy the SLD government's attempt to privatise the pension system. By the time he became PM in 2001, he had transformed himself into the main advocate of neo-liberalism on the left. As the political wind again changes direction, so Miller once more adjusts his image. But for how long?
Palikot will be unable to unite the left because he is not part of this movement himself. Despite the SLD's failings it is a party that has emerged from the traditions and structures of the Polish left, however treacherous and distorted these may have been. Miller's strategy of positioning the SLD to the left of RP has succeeded in, at least temporarily, halting the party's slide towards oblivion. By maintaining this position the SLD will only gain, particularly if Palikot becomes the informal partner in parliament that Tusk needs to push forward his reform agenda. However, due to Miller's own political biography (imagine Tony Blair returning to lead the Labour Party on a new left-wing platform?) he lacks the credibility to broaden support for the SLD beyond its core supporters.
Competition on the left is a good thing. The question now is how to capitalise from it.
Tuesday, 21 February 2012
Wilders has a long history of stoking hostility towards immigrants in Holland. Last year he was in court facing five counts of giving offence to Muslims and of inciting hatred against Muslims and people of 'non-Western immigrant origin'. Wilders has recently turned his attention towards immigrants from CEE, particularly Poland. He has, for example, proposed that migrants from CEE should be returned home if they lose their jobs or are homeless. It is estimated that there are currently around 200,000 Poles living in Holland, plus a further 100,000 from other CEE countries (primarily from Romania and Bulgaria).
Despite his extreme views, Wilders has managed to exert a certain influence over mainstream Dutch politics, as the country is presently run by a minority right-wing government that partly depends upon the support of the PVV. The PVV is the third largest party in Holland and frequently increases its anti-immigrant rhetoric as a way of boosting its support. The PVV's latest website is an attempt to further disseminate negative stereotypes about immigrants from CEE amongst Dutch society.
As Europe continues to struggle with the worst economic crisis for a generation, politicians such as Wilders are seeking to build upon people's frustrations through racism and xenophobia, including against immigrants from Poland and CEE.
Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Last weekend saw tens of thousands of people across Europe taking to the streets in protest against the international treaty to enforce intellectual property rights. European politicians are gradually distancing themselves from the treaty, largely as a result of citizen mobilisation initiated in Central Europe.
Several hundreds gathered in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw Saturday Feb. 11, for a two-hour modest protest. That was a far cry from the intense street actions that drew thousands in all major cities in Poland a little over two weeks back.
Kinga Pozniak has written an interesting article on the relevance of the recent ACTA protests in Poland:
As the economic crisis washes over Europe, political and economic discourses across the continent make it sound as if “there is no alternative” to widespread belt-tightening that withdraws and privatizes areas of social welfare and undermines social solidarity.
This discourse is certainly hegemonic in Poland, a country frequently held up as a token success story of neoliberalization. Following socialism’s collapse in 1989, Poland eagerly embraced a variety of neoliberal reforms, including rapid privatization of formerly state-owned enterprises, withdrawal of price subsidies, cuts to state spending and decentralisation of state responsibility for social and family policy.
Thursday, 2 February 2012
Kalecki states that full employment can be gained if the government instigates a programme of "public investment (e.g. builds schools, hospitals, and highways) or subsidizes mass consumption (by family allowances, reduction of indirect taxation, or subsidies to keep down the prices of necessities), and if, moreover, this expenditure is financed by borrowing and not by taxation." Such ideas obviously contradict the mainstream economic opinions being promoted in Europe today (that are leading to spiralling unemployment) and are therefore still highly relevant.
Kalecki is part of a long line of prominent left-wing Polish economists that include Rosa Luxemburg, Włodzimierz Brus, Oskar Lange and more recently Tadeusz Kowalik. These economists have dealt with such things as the realities of early peripheral capitalism in Eastern Europe; the harsh realities of the Great Depression in countries such as Poland; the injustices and imbalances of the Stalinist command economy and the negative effects of the shock-therapy return to capitalism after 1989.
These economists often bridge the traditions of both Marxist and Keynesian economics and attempt to offer concerete and practical solutions to immediate economic problems. Kalecki is famous for having devised many of the ideas of Keynes, before Keynes himself (but was less known in the English speaking world.)He came to these ideas through applying the methodologies of Marxist economics.
Unfortunately many of the ideas of economists such as Kalecki have recently been largely neglected, not least in his native Poland. In light of the present 'Great Recession' in Europe, the Polish left could do a lot worse than return to these works as a way of helping to devise an alternative economic policy for the left.
The article below was written in the perspective of socio-economic life in inter-war Poland. By 1939 around 8m people were unemployed, which equalled a third of the population.
Political Aspects of Full Employment1
by Michal Kalecki
1. A solid majority of economists is now of the opinion that, even in a capitalist system, full employment may be secured by a government spending programme, provided there is in existence adequate plan to employ all existing labour power, and provided adequate supplies of necessary foreign raw-materials may be obtained in exchange for exports.
If the government undertakes public investment (e.g. builds schools, hospitals, and highways) or subsidizes mass consumption (by family allowances, reduction of indirect taxation, or subsidies to keep down the prices of necessities), and if, moreover, this expenditure is financed by borrowing and not by taxation (which could affect adversely private investment and consumption), the effective demand for goods and services may be increased up to a point where full employment is achieved. Such government expenditure increases employment, be it noted, not only directly but indirectly as well, since the higher incomes caused by it result in a secondary increase in demand for consumer and investment goods.
Wednesday, 1 February 2012
As the economist James Meadway explains:
Strip away the eurojargon, and the EU’s fiscal compact is a despairing embrace of terminal decline. Austerity will now carry the force of law. Forget democracy, as Angela Merkel sternly warns, the European Court of Justice will now determine economic policies, and “Never will you be able to change them through a parliamentary majority.”
Southern Europe is being torn apart by the austerity programmes. There are simply no realistic prospects for recovery while the cuts are being applied. A fatal mechanism is at work: cuts reduce demand. Falling demand means firms selling less. Firms selling less means falling wages and rising unemployment, further reducing demand. This is the vicious circle Europe is locking itself into.
Elsewhere, FT columnist Wolfgang Munchau – no bleeding-heart Keynesian – has described the treaty as “quite mad”. He’s too generous: it is wholly lunatic, economic folly on a grand, continent-wide scale. Austerity is driving Europe into a state of permanent stagnation. The crisis was not provoked by public spending, but by the collapse of the banking system and persistent trade imbalances. And yet the whole argument, at least for Europe’s elites, is framed around the need for sharper and sharper spending cuts. The diagnosis is wrong, and the prescription actively dangerous. Voluntarily agreeing to it, as the 25 treaty signatories have, is suicidal.
Poland went to the negotiations in Brussels yesterday with the aim of ensuring that the French position of restricting the pact to the eurozone countries was defeated. This was a clear and (leaving aside the details of the pact) principled position, which sought to make sure that Poland remained at the centre of decision making inside the EU.
What the Polish delegation achieved were assurances that it and other non-eurozone member states will be allowed to attend summits at least once a year that discuss the "architecture" of the euro zone and competitiveness. Such countries will not be able to vote and will be left outside the other meetings held by members of the eurozone.
While the Czechs decided to join the British in standing outside of the fiscal pact (for similar Thatcherite eurosceptic reasons given by David Cameron) Poland has signed up to the agreement. It was unsatisfactory – declared Tusk who had previously threatened not to sign the agreement – but it was the best that could be achieved.
Fortunately non-eurozone countries will not be subject to the sanctions written into the Pact for countries that break its fiscal rules. For this reason alone, the fact that Poland is not fully integrated into current economic decision making brings it some benefits.