IN asked a European comrade who spends a lot of time in Poland to comment on a recent article, “Poland: Anti-government rallies continue as Lech Wałęsa warns of civil war,” in the (Trotskyist) World Socialist Web Site. Here is what he wrote. —The Editors
You have asked me what I think of WSWS’s reporting on events in Poland: the new government’s sidelining of the Constitutional Court and further developments like the coup-style takeover of a NATO military intelligence facility. WSWS’s description of events is pretty much in line with what the liberal mainstream press here have been writing over the past weeks, so I guess they have got the facts right.
Their political analysis however seems to me just empty rhetoric, some Trotskyist 101. Basically, they claim that “the Polish bourgeoisie are preparing for violent class confrontations” and that the attack “is aimed first and foremost at the democratic and social rights of the working class” because “a working class revolution will inevitably erupt if out of control capitalism continues on its current course.” Of course I agree that authoritarian regimes always include an element of (preventive) counter-revolution but in the current situation liberal democracy would suffice entirely to keep the Polish working class down. There are no parliamentary forces potentially threatening capitalist rule in Poland. All previous governments after 1989, managed by the current “democratic” opposition or the “left-wing” social democrats, have done their best to “attack the democratic and social rights of the working class.” By the way, the Constitutional Court to whose defense liberals are now rallying has in 1997 prevented a re-liberalization of the draconic Polish abortion law introduced in 1993 and produced solid conservative rulings ever since.
I also agree that there is more than enough reason for social unrest. Twenty-five years into Western style capitalist “transformation,” the life of the Polish working class looks grim. Wages are low, about one third of those in Germany beyond the open border. They also remain low. Real wages have been stagnating since 2009 and sinking since 2011. Working conditions are increasingly precarious. Almost half the waged workforce have no permanent work contract, more than anywhere else in the EU. There is a mass exodus of workers: Almost 3 million out of 38 million Polish citizens live and work abroad, mostly in Britain and Germany.
The “democratic,” pro-EU Civic Platform (PO) party which ruled the country for the past 8 years has managed to avoid recession and deliver rising living standards to their urban professional core electorate while avoiding a breakdown of the public health system and other basic state structures. PO has been calling this an “economic miracle,” but for waged workers the miracle is limited to a precarious low-level stabilization without much hope for a better future. No wonder workers largely haven’t voted for PO any more. The same goes for the “left.” Leszek Miller, the last prime minister (2001–2004) for the social-democratic Union of the Democratic Left (SLD) party and a staunch neoliberal, didn’t even manage to lift SLD over the election threshold this time.
Only the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party have actually made promises to the workers like the lowering of the retirement age, higher benefits for families with children, higher income tax-free limits and an end to job cuts in (unprofitable) Polish coal mining. Their constituency being “the people,” not “the working class,” they have also made promises to other groups, like a tax on supermarkets which might benefit small shop owners. These promises helped them win the elections (keeping in mind that the absolute turnout was just over 50 percent and PiS won an absolute majority in parliament with just 19 percent of the total electorate). It is very unlikely however that they will be able keep any of these promises. The last time PiS won the elections, they were kicked out of office after two years because they couldn’t deliver (2005–2007). This is the main reason why they are taking quick and decisive action to cement their power. They know that populist mobilizations can carry them into office but cannot keep them there for long.
When a mainstream party like PiS puts its own power games above democratic rules and procedures, above the integrity and continuity of the state, one may wonder, firstly, about the level of emotion in politics. The “nationalist” right in Poland (led by PiS) hates liberals, leftists and also the “democratic” center (led by PO) at least as much as Tea Party Republicans hate Democrats in the United States.
Secondly, one may wonder about the level of cohesion of the ruling class. It is important to understand that the higher ranks of the Polish ruling class are fundamentally a managerial class, not private capitalists. There are of course several million private enterprises in the country, including many self-employed workers but also some capitalists employing tens, hundreds or thousands of workers. Unlike in Ukraine or Russia however, there are hardly any oligarchs, i.e., really rich private capital owners in Poland. The list of Polish billionaires is short and unimpressive. Some people from the Nomenklatura started their own version of “wild privatization” as early as 1986, but were unable to privately take over the entire economy. This was mainly due to the existence of Solidarnosc, i.e., of a large alternative elite (anti-communist journalists, politicians, lawyers, etc.) who also wanted to take over the country but unlike the Nomenklatura had no easy access to the country’s productive wealth. Needless to say, people from Solidarnosc have also come up with their own rackets like the savings and loans associations (SKOK) which were set up in 1992 and now have their books full of bad debt. But the former opposition mostly tried to take over the state apparatus through elections and block privatization by the Nomenklatura. Today, most of the biggest companies in Poland are either still state-owned (like the biggest bank, PKO, the biggest oil company, Orlen, or the postal service) or have been taken over by foreign capital (most of the other big banks are now owned by Italian, Spanish, Austrian, French, Portuguese, German and American banks; Telekomunikacja Polska has been taken over by France Telecom; the biggest auto maker has been taken over by Italian Fiat, now Poland’s biggest exporter). Large new investment projects are usually being made by foreign capital (German Volkswagen, now Poland’s second biggest exporter; US retail giant Amazon, etc.).
Most private capital owners are pro-EU and “democratic” because they are integrated into international supply chains and see the EU as good for business. It is usually small local capitalists or capitalists tied to certain national niches which see international integration and the EU as a threat and thus take on a “nationalist” perspective. Managers linked to public capital also tend to be more skeptical and thus “nationalist,” fearing more buyouts by foreign capital. “Nationalists” are also closely associated with the Catholic church which has become one of Poland’s biggest landowners over the last 25 years and offers lots of political and business opportunities. While the “democrats” want to go on developing Poland into a low-wage manufacturing platform for global capital within the EU, some of the “nationalists” like PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski publicly dream of an alternative development model based on a strong state along the lines of Taiwan, South Korea or maybe Russia. I think this is completely unrealistic. It might be realistic however to get US (military) funding for counteracting EU countries like Germany and France who might be potentially subverting US hegemony.
None of this is directly linked to real workers’ struggles. After accession to the EU in 2004, an influx of productive investments from the EU and a massive emigration wave to Britain (which immediately and unconditionally opened its labor market for Polish workers) quickly led to falling unemployment rates which in turn put workers in a much more favorable negotiating position for a few years. In 2006–2007 a strike wave in the public sector (and especially in the hospitals) won wage raises around 30 percent which in turn started to “pull” wages in the private sector before the financial crisis hiked unemployment up again, thus putting an end to the strike wave. As mentioned above, wages and working conditions have stabilized at a low level. Unlike Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or Greek workers, the Polish working class has never experienced a period of prosperity before the financial crisis. Today, Amazon workers in Poland make 3.25 Euros per hour while a three hour drive away in Germany they make 10 Euros, three times as much for exactly the same work. Workers know this and they talk about it. One of the last flyers of the “Workers Initiative” grassroots union at Amazon in Poznan was headlined “Amazon says: You are the best workers in Europe. We ask: Then why do we earn least in Europe?”
Still, there are very few open workplace conflicts at the moment. There are some promising signs that workers risk conflict when local unemployment is low. For example, local unemployment in Poznan is below 5 per cent and if you get kicked out by one employer it is not so difficult to find a similarly shitty job somewhere else. This might explain why hundreds of Amazon workers in Poznan have overcome fears and signed petitions for higher wages and lower norms.