Monday, 29 February 2016

Green Party Provide Left Voice at KOD Demonstration, But Receive a Cool Reception

Once again large pro-democracy demonstrations took place in Poland this weekend, partly in response to the allegations made against Lech Wałęsa recently. For the first time a left voice was clearly heard from the podium, although it did not get a very warm reception from the crowd. Below is a report on this, translated from the website Trybuna

Many participants on Saturday's Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD) demonstration did not like to be reminded of the sins of the Third Republic. 

The co-leaders of the Green Party, Małgorzata Tracz and Marek Kossakowski, addressed the KOD demonstration in Warsaw saying: 

The Poland that we built is obviously not a 'Poland in Ruins' (this is what PiS claimed in the elections - GR). But Poland is also not a country of happy people! The 'success' of the transformation was only felt by a small section of society, whilst millions were left in poverty and unemployment. In Warsaw we can have another metro line and we see new trams, buses and highways. However, in many small towns it is common to see just poverty and dilapidated walls. Millions of Poles were turned into a category of the worse sort (...) Something is broken in Poland. People are frustrated, disappointed and angry. This is why so many of them voted for PiS at the last elections. In order to succeed, we must build a democratic community in Poland. (...) There is no democracy without social justice. 

This assessment of the Third Republic and interpretation of why PiS won the elections were given a acool reception by demonstrators. Some of them openly expressed their opposition to the opinions of the Green Party politicians.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Accumulating the Myths of Lech Wałęsa


As the news spread around the world about the discovery of new documents, concerning Lech Wałęsa’s alleged collaboration with the Communist authorities, the man himself was addressing the new right-wing parliament in Venezuela. This former trade union leader and avowed champion of democracy and human rights, was supporting the return of the right-wing in Venezuela. He then flew to Miami, to meet Cuban oppositionists and was once again received as a hero. Wałęsa was in his element – the heir of Reagan; the great anti-Communist who had helped to bring down the Soviet Union. Yet at home he was once again being accused of being a Communist agent and the betrayer of the Solidarity movement. Still others defended him as a hero of the nation who had brought freedom and sovereignty to the country. These conflicting narratives have little to do with the actual truth of Wałęsa’s past, but reflect the ongoing conflicts within the Polish elites and the present state of Polish capitalism.

Capitalism has always emerged out of destruction, swindle and usually violence. The Highland clearances; the destruction of indigenous populations; the expropriation of the peasants’ land. In order for capitalism to grow, it not only  needs an initial accumulation of capital but also the creation of a particular social relation. Labourers must be separated from their own means of production and subsistence, whether this be their land or their workshop. Once achieved two groups of commodity holders then come into direct contact with one another. Firstly, are the owners of money, the means of production and subsistence, who are eager to increase the sum of values they possess by buying other people’s labour power. Secondly, are the class of labourers themselves, who must survive primarily by selling their labour on the market. And once achieved, the whole sophisticated machinery of capitalism is set in motion, as it expands into ever wider circles of economic and social life, bringing greater sections of society into this commodity relation.

As capitalism emerged from the womb of ‘really existing socialism’, so a new process of capital accumulation had to occur. This time capital confronted an industrialised economy, with its class of organised labourers. Unlike during the transition from Feudalism, work was already socialised and organised in large factories or offices. However, labour did not exist as a commodity that was freely exchanged on the market. The state’s monopoly control over production and the policy of full-employment, meant that the vast majority of work and economic life was organised outside of market relations.

And in order for the new to flourish, the old had to be destroyed. Throughout Eastern Europe a programme of rapid privatisation and liberalisation was undertaken, producing an economic collapse of unprecedented proportions and a simultaneous increase in poverty and social destitution for millions of people. Simultaneously, private capital began to circulate and expand, creating new found wealth and riches. Often oligarchs grabbed the spoils that were made available, particularly in the countries of the ex-USSR, where the economic collapse was most severe. There was nothing fair or honest in all of this. Corruption, political connections and sometimes brute strength determined who were the winners in this competitive game of expropriation.

Poland did not escape this course of events, although it was less severe than in most other Eastern European countries. The economic collapse was the shortest in the region (the economy ‘only’ shrank by around a quarter between 1989 and 1992) and double digit unemployment, high poverty and inequalities were seen as an inevitable stage of a painful transformation.  Poland’s own creative destruction involved a deep deindustrialisation, with at least two-thirds of the country’s medium and large industrial enterprises collapsing, leading to around 2 million people losing their jobs. This provided the room for international capital to move in and quickly monopolise large areas of the economy. Although this was not an oligarchical capitalism similar to that further east, a new group of the rich and wealthy consolidated itself in the country. And once again there was nothing fair in this. It was often those with the strongest political connections, both within the former Communist and Solidarity elites, that prospered the most.

The advantage for the economic elite in the developed capitalist world is that its theft has long ago been hidden and forgotten. Its original accumulation of wealth submerged in the fog of time as it has passed through the generations. In the ‘post-Communist’ world it is laid bare and continues to be contested. It is this contestation, within the elite, that underlies the latest wranglings over the historical legacy of the former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa. Was this the leader of a trade union who led the strikes in that Gdańsk shipyards, that evolved into a social movement of 10 million people and then negotiated the peaceful fall of Communism in Poland, leading to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union itself? Or rather was he a Communist agent, who took money from the authorities and collaborated with the government in order to sustain the system long enough so that a section of its leaders (in collaboration with the Solidarity elite) could line their pockets once the green shoots of capitalism began to emerge?

Both of these versions of history are accumulated myths, and of the most primitive kind.

 The first is now perpetuated by a liberal elite, connected to international capital, who see their privileged position as being under threat. They forget the fact that at its height Solidarity was a trade union movement, which demanded a real socialisation and democratisation of ‘really existing socialism’ and for the creation of a Self-Managed Republic. They close their eyes to the betrayal of this movement by the Solidarity elite and at how the intelligentsia forgot about its alliance with the working class. They ignore how the first Solidarity government and its President Lech Wałęsa, ushered in the first set of neo-liberal reforms in Eastern Europe, against the agreements of the Round Table negotiations that paved the way for the transition of power. Furthermore, they put out of their minds how they themselves spent much of the 1990s disparaging Lech Wałesa. He was a good opposition leader and someone who could lead a strike they said; but ultimately an uncultured man and a simple electrician who failed to even master decent Polish (Nie chcem ale muszem).

The second version of history is now gathering pace, under the government of the Law and Justice Party. Wałęsa: the agent and collaborator. The person who worked for the secret services in the 1970s, delivering them information in return for cash. The Solidarity leader who betrayed his movement by forming an alliance with the former Communist leaders to construct a new corrupt elite. The President who opposed a process of lustration against the Communist elite. This version of history is repeated most loudly by those who fell out with Wałęsa in the early 1990s, many of which are prominent members of the present government. They blame all the ills of capitalism in Poland on what they see as this unfair usurping of power by a corrupt elite. It assumes that if this elite were to be removed, so capitalism could press the reset button. A new fairer and normal capitalist economy would then at last be able to develop.

This is a struggle between two sections of the elite, each accusing the other of the same thing. For the liberal elite, the PiS government is a throwback to the past; a party that replicates the centralised and undemocratic practices of the previous system; that offers populist solutions whilst undermining the market economy. Meanwhile, the conservative right claim they want to redress the injustices of the past, and complete the ‘Solidarity Revolution’, through a fresh process of lustration and ‘decommunisation’. Both of these groups continue to compete for the historical legacy of Solidarity and claim the mantle of the real anti-Communists.

The course of growth through destroying the productive elements of the previous economic system has now exhausted itself. Whilst the liberal intellectuals have spoken of a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity, around 2 million people have chosen to chance their luck abroad. This liberal elite's former foes within the Solidarity movement are now seizing the day, and capitalising on social dissatisfaction to carry out its own purge at the top, that seeps down to the bottom. And as Poland sits in the middle of a disintegrating Europe, in a global economic system possibly facing a new financial crisis, in a world ridden with wars and uncertainty; so the government averts its population’s eyes to these new show trials in the media. Collaborators, files, agents, code names….







Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Offices of Left-Wing Journal Raided

It is being reported that officers from the Central Bureau of Investigation Police (CBS) have raided the headquarters of the left-wing anti-clerical journal, 'Fakty i Mity' (Facts and Myths).

According to a statement by the editorial board of 'Fakty i Mity', officers from the CBS entered the journal's offices on the morning of 15 February. They were there for 11 hours and took copies of editorial and accountancy disks, as well as some paper materials. They interrogated members of the editorial team for around 4 hours and arrested the editor Roman Kotliński. 

The editorial board says they had no prior warning or information about this action and they do not know why it occured. They are viewing it as a political attack on the journal that has been openly critical of the PiS government. They hope to publish their next issue according to schedule. 



Tuesday, 9 February 2016

National Capitalism and the Dilemmas of the Polish Left

The Following article was originally published on the Transform! Website. 


Over the past few months Europe’s eyes have been on Poland. Most of the attention has been on the political changes introduced by PiS, but less concern has been paid to the economic programme of the new government.
Most of the attention has been on the political changes introduced by the conservative right-wing party, Law and Justice (PiS), since it formed a majority government in October. The introduction of reforms to such things as the Constitutional Tribunal and Media has seen the country move in a more authoritarian direction. However, less concern has been paid to the economic programme of the current government, outside of some general criticisms that it is planning a series of irresponsible social reforms that threaten the country’s fiscal stability. Yet, the PiS government has a distinct economic policy that could potentially result in a significant change in the country’s economic course. This conflicts with some entrenched vested interests, both international and domestic, and raises new dilemmas for the Polish left.
From Neoliberalism to National Capitalism        
Over the past couple of decades, Poland has been integrated into the international division of labour as a country with low wages, taxes and labour standards. The country attracted large inflows of foreign capital, often through the sale of its state industrial and financial assets. This has left the country with an underdeveloped national capital base, with around 70% of Polish banks owned by foreign banks. The country underwent a huge period of deindustrialisation during the transition. At least two-thirds of the country’s medium and large industrial enterprises collapsed, leading to around 2 million people losing their jobs (http://tinyurl.com/j6q45eb). Since this time, at least 45% of the Polish workforce has remained inactive (i.e. they neither work nor study), with large areas of the country suffering high unemployment and poverty. Average salaries continue to be more than 4 times lower than that in countries like Britain or Germany; and more than a quarter of those in work are employed on temporary insecure contracts. It is little wonder that around 2 million people have emigrated since Poland joined the EU in 2004, nor that a large percentage of them are settling abroad long-term.
The standard economic recipe to this situation has been for more liberalism. Poland may have amongst the lowest and most regressive personal and business income tax rates in Europe; just 12% of the workforce may belong to a trade union; wages may remain low and labour standards lax. But this is never enough. Polish workers must be expected to work harder, under increasing precarious conditions where the dictates of agencies and contractors rule. It is little wonder that a company like Amazon opened up new logistical centres in Poland, where it could employ staff on less than 3 Euros an hour, working 10 hour shifts, with just one half hour and two 15 minute breaks (http://tinyurl.com/jxkg26m). This level of exploitation has left a section of society angry and frustrated, especially in a period of economic growth when the fruits of this development have been unfairly distributed. And with the left in Poland weak and divided, it has been the conservative right that has capitalised on this social dissatisfaction.
The PiS government’s stated aim is to create a new national form of capitalism in Poland. This was laid out in an interview with the Minister of Economy, Mariusz Morawiecki, who described the change in emphasis thus:
‘We did not promote Polish ownership or our own national companies, but we de facto gave a privileged position to foreign capital. We did not try hard enough to develop the Polish economy and businesses, based upon Polish talent or assets. In reality we needed money and we had to open up to it, but we should have been more selective about which Polish firms we sold and only open up where it was absolutely needed (...). We are now in a situation where a large part of the national property, worked on every year through the hard labour of Poles, flows abroad – and we will not be in a state to retrieve it quickly.’
The present government now claims that it wants to support Polish businesses and innovation, in order to make Poland a major competitive economy. The PiS government therefore represents a section of the (aspiring) bourgeoisie in Poland as well as many small and medium business owners who are struggling to compete in the conditions of monopoly capitalism. And in order to become the first party in modern Poland to gain an overall majority in parliament, PiS also reached out to low earners and the socially excluded. This social alliance is presently being kept together through a promise of taxing international capital in order to gain the resources to support national businesses and fund social spending.
Taxation and Social Spending
The government’s first revenue raising proposal is a law, already passed in parliament, introducing a tax of 0.44% on bank assets. As noted above, the banking sector is concentrated heavily in foreign hands and it has enjoyed a period of continuous high profits, along with some of the highest fees and commissions in Europe. The second proposal is to implement a new tax on supermarkets. It is envisioned that this will be a progressive tax, with the larger (mainly foreign) supermarkets carrying the major burden of this tax. The Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, has argued that this tax ‘will give small commercial enterprises in Poland a fighting chance to compete on the market’. The government is therefore attempting to tax large mainly foreign financial and commercial enterprises, whilst claiming that it wishes to help local businesses. Before considering the problems connected with these measures, let us look at the social programmes that they are designed to fund.
Throughout the past quarter of a century there has been an almost one way redistribution of wealth to the richest sections of society. PiS claims that it wishes to reverse this trend and its flagship reform is to provide families with 500 Złoty a month (around 113 Euro) for every second and additional child. This will provide a significant increase in income for millions of families, particularly in those areas where incomes are low and poverty high.  This will be provided for all families irrespective of income, for the second and additional children. However, for the first child this will be means tested at a level below the social minimum (800 Złoty – around 181 Euro), meaning very few families will be able to receive it. This social policy is not only supposed to alleviate poverty but also to encourage families to have more children and thus raise the country’s low birth rate. It also fits the conservative ideology of PiS, based upon promoting the ideal of the traditional family. This is not a social policy based upon a left-wing premise of universalism, with many of those most at need (such as single mothers with one child) excluded from this benefit.  Also, it does not encourage women to work and tackle the low activity rate of women on the labour market, nor provide general help to parents through investing in things such as preschools (where there is a serious lack of available places).
Despite these shortcomings, this proposal offers the first significant downward redistribution of wealth over the past couple of decades and it is therefore supported by large sections of society.  With the government also proposing to more than double the tax-exempt share of household income, raise the minimum wage and reduce the retirement age, so millions of people believe that their living standards will improve under the present government.
Another potential break with neo-liberalism is found in the government’s health care proposals. The Polish Health minister has revealed plans to reform the health care system, that if carried out could be the most important and progressive changes to have occurred in the Polish health care system over the past two decades. Firstly, the government says that it will significantly increase the level of public health care spending, aiming to raise it to 6% of GDP. Secondly, it plans to move from an insurance based system to one where the health care system is funded directly from the central government budget. This would be a move away from a Bismarkian style health insurance system to a Beveridge universal health care system. Around 2.5 million Poles currently find themselves without health insurance and this reform would therefore help to fulfil the clause in the country’s constitution, which states that health care should be provided free of charge by the state to all citizens irrespective of their income.
Support, Criticism and Left Alternatives
The Polish left faces a serious dilemma as to how it should respond to the economic programme of the PiS government. For whilst it must oppose many of the political reforms of the government, it is not so clear what its response should be to the new administration’s economic strategy. The left needs to distance itself from the liberal opposition to the government, by pinpointing those parts of the government’s economic programme that it supports, whilst developing coherent alternatives to those it does not.
Below I outline some of these quandaries:

  • The proposal of the government to tax banks and large supermarkets is a long overdue reform that partly addresses the privileged position of multinational capital. However, this tax will be difficult to implement as finance capital in particular is able to move relatively easily to avoid taxes. Banks and supermarkets may also choose to pass the cost of these taxes onto customers, with some banks already raising charges. Furthermore, international capital possesses huge political and financial clout to fight back against the government’s proposals. In a period of global uncertainty, the Polish stock-market has fallen by around 16% since October; the yield on 10-year government Eurobonds has risen by 80 basis points, and the Złoty has reached a 4 year low in relation to the Euro (http://tinyurl.com/gwg5s8c). These troubles have partly been caused by the decision of the international rating agency, Standard and Poor’s, to cut its rating for Poland from A minus to triple BB plus. This was a direct interference in the internal affairs of Poland, with the rating agency mainly citing political reasons for its downgrade (http://tinyurl.com/hpfjmmt). The left should be unswerving in its support for the government against these institutions of finance capital, which will place increasing pressure on the government to reverse its economic policy. If capital continues to flow out of the country and the currency continues to devalue, so dissatisfaction amongst the country’s urban middle class will intensify, whilst it could actually benefit Polish businesses and exporters. It is certainly not in the interests of the left to ally with international capital and sections of the most privileged sections of society in this socio-economic divide. However, much of the government’s opposition to international capital is simply rhetoric, with the Foreign Minister recently stating the government’s support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), creating space for an alternative left voice on this issue (http://tinyurl.com/zfrnn56).

  • The PiS government’s strategy of national capitalism means that it will most likely support Polish businesses and wealthy Poles against the interests of the rest of society. For example, despite its attempts to tax banks and supermarkets it has made no proposals to reform the country’s income tax laws. Poland has an extremely low and regressive taxation system, which benefits the wealthy and high income earners. It is estimated that the government’s social reforms will cost around $11bln annually. A reform of the income tax system to increase and redistribute revenue is needed to fund such social spending and help reduce social inequalities. Also, whilst the government is focussing on international capital, it may turn a blind eye to the malpractices and exploitation of workers by domestic companies.

  • The social policies being introduced by the government signal some form of redistribution, for the first time in Poland’s ‘post-Communist’ history. It is not clear how far these policies will go and the left should be placing pressure on the government not to renegade on its promises on such things as health care and the minimum wage. Whilst the left must give critical support to the government’s policy of providing new child benefits, it is also important to point out the deficiencies in this policy. This benefit will leave many of society’s most vulnerable unprotected and without a combined policy of investing in such things as jobs, housing and public services, particularly aimed at increasing the activity rate of women on the labour market, it will almost certainly not increase the birth rate in the country. The left therefore has to support the introduction of a universal child benefit, which is part of a wider programme of social investment which offers an alternative vision of social and family life to the conservative one offered by PiS.

  • The economic programme of PiS is full of promises of new social spending but has no coherent vision of how the wealth will be created to fund it. An economic programme of the left should not just focus on consumption but also include a supply policy of growth through investment. The Polish economy continued to grow through the crisis, mainly through raising public investment, which as a share of GDP rose to the highest level in the EU (http://tinyurl.com/zvlvywf). This was made possible through the inflow of large EU funds, which were used to partly fund a series of infrastructural developments. The uncertainties in the international economy and the national capitalist programme of PiS, mean that private investment through an inflow of international capital is likely to decline. The left should lay out a new programme of public investment that goes beyond simply utilising EU funds, which themselves will begin to wane in a few years. This should be based primarily upon job creation, investment in green technologies and social investment in such things as housing and the health service that would both raise the rate of economic growth and improve the living conditions and standards of the population. 

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Leszek Miller's Degeneration to the Far-Right

Leszek Miller's primary concern has always been Leszek Miller. 


Whilst Minister of Labour and Social Policy in the early 1990s his image was of the principled left-wing member of the government, opposing such things as the privatisation of pensions. Yet, by the time he had become Prime Minister in 2001, he was competing with President Kwaśniewski to be Poland's answer to Tony Blair. He espoused the benefits of a flat-income tax, obediently sent Polish troops to Iraq and (allegedly) allowed the CIA to carry out torture in secret prisons in Poland. At the next elections the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) lost 3/4 of its vote and has remained on the political margins ever since. After a period in the political wilderness he returned to lead the party and then led it through a series of disastrous election campaigns, with the party failing to enter parliament and dwindling into a political irrelevance. 

After resigning as leader of the party after the recent elections, Leszek Miller has begun adjusting himself to the new right wing conditions in the country. He has spent the past few weeks touring various right-wing media outlets convincing all who will listen that he is the most radically anti-refugee politician in Poland (a title for which he faces stiff opposition). So for example speaking about the events in Cologne on New Year's Eve, Miller managed to combine hostility to refugees with patriarchy and xenophobia by stating: 
I am surprised by the reaction of German men. After all the women were not alone, where were their partners, why did they allow this. I cannot imagine that Poles would look on at this without wishing to intervene.  
However, his latest comments on refugees have perhaps gone even further than his right-wing colleagues, after claiming:

Refugees who do not want to integrate are flooding Europe. They want Europe to adapt to them and not the other way round (...) There may come a time when we will have to fight with weapons on the streets of Europe to defend our identity. We are seeing the building of a Trojan horse, to the surprise of the Trojans and with their own money. 
One wonders whether Miller's political degeneration has reached its lowest point, or whether there are even deeper levels of reaction he can reach.