Tuesday, 25 June 2013

First World Stadiums, Third World Health and Education

In the latest wave of social discontent around the world, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets. The immediate cause of the unrest was the decision by  the government to raise fares on public transport. However, beneath this lies a broader frustration that the government has spent billions on building stadiums for next year’s World Cup, instead of funding other essential public services. One slogan raised by the demonstrators has been: ‘First World Stadiums, Third World Health and Education’. 

The similarities between the situations in Brazil and Poland are striking. The decision by the Warsaw government to raise fares has led to a series of protests. These are of course incomparable in size to those occurring in Brazil, yet as part of a wider campaign they could yet result in the removal of Gronkiewicz-Waltz from her position as President of Warsaw. 

The other obvious similarity with Brazil is the economic and social costs of directing large sums of public money into building stadiums for a major football tournament. As it is now over a year since Euro2012, we have some opportunity to assess the usefulness of this investment. 

Euro2012 was itself a huge success for Poland (at least off the football field) and showed that the country could effectively organise an event of this magnitude and that its population is open and welcoming to people from other cultures. Furthermore, the huge investments made before the tournament was a crucial element in helping to maintain economic growth and a reminder of how public investment can help to counter recessionary tendencies in the economy. 

On the other hand it should be remembered that the Polish government was using funds that it had already gained from the EU before it became a host of Euro2012. No new money was gained by the Polish government for cohosting Euro2012 and therefore public money was  being used for the tournament that may otherwise have been spent differently. 

Poland now has three world class stadiums that can host major sporting and cultural events. The problem however is that for the most part these stadiums have remained empty and the costs of maintaining them are crippling local governments. The PGE Arena in Gdańsk costs 750,000 zloty a month to maintain, rising to 2m in Wrocław and 3.5m for the national stadium in Warsaw. The energy costs alone for these stadiums are 750,000 zloty a month. 

Despite the assurances of politicians, the financial difficulties of these stadiums seem set to continue. The recent fiasco of the National Stadium making a loss out of a Madonna concert underlies the problems that are faced. The National Stadium has as yet not even managed to rent out any of its 40,000sqm of office space. 

The conclusion that must be drawn is that Euro2012 was a waste of resources and misdirected essential public investment during a time when Poland was receiving an unprecedented amount of funds from the EU. As in Brazil the new state of the art stadiums now stand in stark contrast to the country’s deteriorating public services. 

However, it would be unfair to state that while Poland now has some first world stadiums that it also has third world education and health. Despite its difficulties, Poland possesses an infrastructure of schools, hospitals, universities and clinics that most third world countries could only dream of. The general state of the populations health and high level of education is reflective of the fact that universal health and education services are provided by the government.

The problem however is that the political elite does not in general view these services as being important elements of the country’s economic and human capital, but rather as a burden on public finances. It is not understood that these public services need to be continually invested in and developed rather than being considered as an asset that at best may be sold off to private investors. Polish capitalism has had the advantage, over its poorer counterparts, of having inherited the infrastructure (yes one that was often insufficient, heavily centralized and bureaucratic) of a well-developed public sector. Yet rather than build on this advantage, successive governments have run these services down. 

If we just take the example of health, we can see how this capital has deteriorated. Between 1995 and 2011 the number of public hospitals reduced from 696 to 501, with the number of available hospital beds per thousand of the population falling from 55.4 to 46.9.  During the same time period the number of doctors declined by almost 8,000; nurses by nearly 3,000 and midwives by over 2,000. Before our eyes we can see the quality of the health service deteriorate, which fuels the calls of those who can already afford to use private health care for it to be privatised. 

The attempts by the government to close down a number of schools and increase the privatisation of hospitals, has met some resistance within society. If the current degradation and commercialization of these services continue then an important element of Poland’s development will have been removed. Health and education will cease to be a right granted to all and rather become a commodity that can only be afforded by a privileged minority. Such a scenario would see Poland move closer to that in countries such as Brazil.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Far-Right Disrupt Bauman Lecture

Up to 100 far-right activists - organised by the National Rebirth of Poland movement (NOP)  and  football hooligans from WKS "Śląsk" - disrupted a public lecture at Wrocław University by the renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.

The demonstrators gathered at the back of the lecture hall and before Bauman could begin his speech they shouted obsenities at him and slogans such as "Nuremberg for Communists". The demonstrators were removed only after the police and then an anti-terrorist unit intervened. Bauman was then able to deliver his lecture to the packed audience.

The far-right are arguing that intellectuals such as Bauman support totalitarianism and should not be allowed to speak freely at public universities. Bauman was forced out of Poland during the anti-Semitic purges in 1968, when a number of prominent intellectuals were expelled from the country, and has resided in England since 1971. After the Nazis had invaded Poland in 1939, his family escaped to the Soviet Union. He served in the Soviet controlled Polish First Army and participated in battles at Kołobrzeg and Berlin. He worked for the Communist government after the war and remained a committed Marxist. However, he became critical of the Communist government, which eventually led to his expulsion from the country.

Bauman had been invited by the Lassalle Centre for Social Thought and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation in order to mark the 150 anniversary of the formation of the German Social Democratic Party (Ferdinand Lassalle who helped create this movement was from Wrocław). After the far-right demonstrators were removed, Bauman was able to deliver his speech. He reminded the audience how since the election of Gerhard Schröder, the German SPD has lost over 1/3 of its vote and at how European social democracy has capitulated to the programme of the right.

 For the far-right Bauman's political biography means that he should not be speaking at public universities in Poland. This is the latest in a series of attempts by the far-right to break up the lectures of left-wing speakers at universities and intimidate the participants at these meetings. 

It is essential that the far-right are not allowed to prevent such meetings from taking place. They wish to demonise the left and remove its voice from the public debate. The large turnout at Bauman's lecture and the fact that it was able to proceed after the demonstrators were removed was an important victory for all those that believe in free-speech and democracy.

For an eyewitness view of events in Polish see here 

And for photographs here

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Congress of the Left

This weekend the SLD have helped organise a Congress of the Left In Warsaw. It brings together a range of groups and individuals from different traditions, although interestingly excludes the liberal populist Palikot Movement. Below is an article (Polska Wersja tutaj) on the congress.

Is something starting to change on the Polish left?   A movement calling for the resignation of Gronkiewicz-Waltz in Warsaw, the ongoing campaigns against the closing of schools around the country; the growing radicalisation and unity amongst trade unions; the stabilisation of the SLD and programmatic turn to the left on issues such as poverty; the return of Trybuna and finally the holding of a Congress of the Left next weekend. Taken on their own these green shoots of resurgence may not seem much. Even together they are fragmented elements of a political movement that lacks coherence and direction. But after years of decline it does seem as though the left may finally be in a position to start rebuilding itself again. 

So what lies behind this change in events? Well, to steal a phrase, it’s the economy stupid. The ability of PO to become the first government in Poland’s history to be reelected was primarily due to the sustained economic growth and fall in unemployment that occurred during its first term in office. The slogan that Poland was Europe’s ‘green island’ may have stunk of cheap propaganda – and contradicted many socio-economic indicators – yet it was built upon some real economic advance. Tusk represented Poland’s new post-political elite – easy on the eye and slick in presentation, symbolising the country’s on-going  modernisation. 

Yet once the EU funds ran out, so did the economic growth. Once Poland’s youth were no longer able to satisfy their dreams in London or Dublin, so social frustration returned. The government had no strategy for sustained growth; it failed to invest public money in projects that would be of long-term benefit to the country; it could not rebuild a labour market to entice young Poles to return or stay in the country; it continued the degradation and commercialisation of essential public services like health, education and transport. The green island is now slowly sinking into a sea of red, and as it does so the passivity and arrogance of the government has become apparent. 

In these conditions the fear about the opposition wanes, although the old complaint that there is no alternative remains. PiS can mobilise their core supporters but no more (although this may be enough for them to regain power in an election with a low turnout); as they offer no solutions to Poland’s growing problems. And although the SLD may try to regain its credentials as a real left party in Poland, it is still restrained by the baggage of its past failures. But outside of this party political game, activists are beginning to mobilise and offer some resistance to the destructive economic policies of the government. 

The question that is raised is whether the organisations of the left will be able capitalise upon the growing frustrations within society. The Congress of the Left offers some prospect for bringing together a number of social and political currents into a new left movement of activity. Alternatively, it could go down as yet another failed attempt by the leaders of the left to impose their political authority and end as just  another talking shop where no new ideas or direction are found.

Scepticism about the present SLD leadership amongst many on the left remains. Is their conversion to more left-leaning policies an act of pragmatic cynicism or a real political conversion? Whatever the answer to this question is, the Congress of the Left has been made possible due to one real success on the part of the SLD. In face of another attempt to weaken the left from the liberal centre, the SLD has helped to defend the autonomy of the left by opposing the rise of the Palikot Movement. Despite decades of different attempts to build a so-called non-communist left, the SLD continues to stand as the sole representative of the mainstream left. It is the only party in Poland that has the political authority and organizational strength to pull together different currents on the left. Yet on the other hand,  it has reached a glass ceiling in its support that it cannot break through and as yet has failed to produce a new younger leadership that could take the party forward.  

The reality is that the SLD needs the support of these new movements and activists as much as the wider left needs the SLD. The Congress of Left offers an opportunity for the SLD to show that it is willing to support these movements and give them political expression in parliament. Simultaneously, the growth of new social movements creates a new pressure upon the SLD to maintain its left course. In these circumstances it is important that the whole of the left recognises that unity between its diverse elements is crucial. But such unity cannot be built upon ideas of identity or past political affiliation. Rather the Congress of the Left should definitively draw a line between what it means to be or not to be on the left in contemporary Poland.

The dividing line in Polish politics is the same one that is forming in other European countries. It is between whether one is for austerity or not; whether one supports investment to drive economic growth and create jobs or is in favour of cutting public spending. Past political biographies or sides taken during previous conflicts have no meaning in this discussion. The left has to decide which side it is on now and then agree to act upon this. It will involve a plurality of activity and an acceptance that there are differences of opinions on many issues. It is only in this way that the left can rebuild its credibility (both inside and outside of parliament) and begin to offer a real alternative to the PO-PiS oligarchy that continues to hold power. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

Poland - The Green Island Sinking into a Sea of Red

A special edition of the CESifo Journal, (published by the CESifo group Munich) has been devoted to the issue of the Polish economy. It consists of a number of articles, including one of mine entitled  "Poland – The Green Island Sinking into a Sea of Red".

The Left Should Learn from the Experiences of France

The recent meeting of the SPD’s candidate for German Chancellor, Peer Steinbrueck,  at Warsaw University took place in an atmosphere of optimism. The feeling was that the left is heading towards victory in the EU’s largest and most important economy. Speaking at the meeting, Aleksander Kwaśniewski remarked that the last time he had shared a platform with Adam Michnik was during a  similar meeting before the election of Francois Hollande as President of France. He joked that he hoped they would bring Steinbrueck similar luck, and we were left anticipating a victory in Germany that would provide the European left with a new opportunity to shape the future of a Europe that remains in the economic doldrums. 

Although Kwaśniewski’s remark was meant as a light-hearted quip, it reveals much about the current situation facing the European left. On the one hand, social democratic parties have the opportunity to take advantage of the unpopularity of many right-wing governments throughout Europe. This was certainly the case in France, where the electorate chose Hollande and his Socialist Party as an alternative to Sarkozy’s failed administration. This scenario may repeat in Germany, where an economic slowdown is weakening support for Merkel and her party. It is certainly probable that the British Labour Party will be able to capitalise on the growing unpopularity of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government at the next general election.  

But move further into the peripheries of Europe, where the crisis has hit the hardest, and the picture does not look quite so rosy. In Spain, where support for the ruling right wing party has nearly halved since the last elections, the Socialist Party’s support still remains lower at just 20%. Support for Greek’s social democratic party slumped during last year’s parliamentary elections, with the more radical Syriza party overtaking them as the main representative of the Greek left. These centre-left parties lost support due to them implementing policies of austerity whilst in government, that helped to further erode the living standards of their populations. 

A similar situation is recurring presently in France. Just a year after being elected as President, Hollande has suffered an unprecedented fall in popularity. Nearly 70% of society has declared itself as being disappointed with his performance  and according to opinion polls Sarkozy would win a comfortable majority if an election were now to be held. Hollande and his party are losing the support of many of their core supporters, and worryingly many disaffected voters are now looking to the far-right Front Nationale (FN) as an alternative. For example, in a recent re-run election for a seat in the National Assembly, the Socialist Party candidate was defeated at the first round and during the second round of voting the centre-right candidate only narrowly beat his rival from the FN (gaining 51.4% of the vote against the FN’s 48.6%).

The reason for the slump in support for Hollande, has been his administration’s inability to reverse the country’s economic decline. France has just entered a ‘triple dip’ recession, after its economy declined by 0.2% in the first quarter of 2013. The French economy is now 0.4% smaller than when Hollande took office a year ago and unemployment is approaching 11%. 

 Despite being elected on a political platform opposing the austerity policies of Sarkozy, Hollande has essentially continued with the economic programme of his predecessor. He has argued that France has to undergo a period of public spending cuts and tax rises in order to make the French economy more ‘competitive’. Public sector jobs are being cut and their salaries frozen. Although these austerity policies are mild compared with that in many other European countries,  deficit reduction has become the primary  aim of the government. The lack of an alternative investment policy, to boost growth and jobs, is  fuelling the increasing unpopularity of Hollande in French society. 

The lesson for the European left is not only that austerity does not work, but that it leads to a rapid fall in support for left governing parties. As the left is a political movement that is supposed to protect workers and society’s excluded, when it does the opposite it tends to be severely punished. Furthermore, the combination of an economic downturn and an unpopular left creates the perfect conditions for the rise of xenophobia and racism upon which the far-right thrive. 

The Polish left is not excluded from this general process, although its circumstances are indeed unique. The SLD has still not recovered from the failures of its last term in office, which led to such a large collapse in its vote, that two parties from the right have been able to dominate politics for nearly a decade. Support for the PO government is beginning to wane, driven by an economy that is now stagnating (GDP only rose by 0.4% in the first quarter of 2013). This is opening up a new period of uncertainty and unpredictability in Polish politics. 

The likes of Kwaśniewski and Michink will continue to promote the idea that the left should seek an alliance with the liberal centre. The decline and political fragmentation of PO may lead to some desperate liberal currents inside the party to look for new alliances on the left. All such political projects (the latest being Europa Plus) have ended in political failure for the Polish left. Even if it were  able to gain some political power (e.g. through the SLD entering a coalition government with PO) this shortcut to government would leave it tied to an economic programme that would worsen the living standards of the population. As the experiences of France and beyond have shown this would only harm the left, further erode its remaining social support and open up the way for the most divisive elements on the right to grow.

Cięcia duże – sukcesów brak

Kiedy MFW zaczyna nawoływać rząd twojego kraju do złagodzenia polityki głębokich cięć budżetowych, to wiedz, że coś jest nie w porządku.

Tymczasem właśnie w kwietniu 2012 roku  Międzynarodowy Fundusz Walutowy stwierdził , że brytyjski rząd powinien rozważyć spowolnienie reform opartych na radykalnych oszczędnościach i przyjąć bardziej elastyczną politykę ekonomiczną, jako że dotychczas stosowane rozwiązania negatywnie wpływają na stan brytyjskiej gospodarki.

Wciąż w stagnacji

Dane makroekonomiczne są w istocie alarmujące. Wielka Brytania ledwie uniknęła bezprecedensowej trzeciej recesji w ciągu ostatnich pięciu lat, dzięki temu, że jej PKB wzrósł o skromne 0,3 proc. w pierwszym kwartale 2013 r. Od ostatniego kwartału 2011 r. produkcja przemysłowa wzrosła o zaledwie 0,4 proc., kurcząc się przez dziewięć miesięcydosięgnęły ją skutki globalnego kryzysu gospodarczego.
minionego roku. Brytyjska gospodarka jest więc niewątpliwie w fazie stagnacji i nie może wrócić na ścieżkę trwałego wzrostu po tym, jak