01/14/2015 04:52 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

The Strange Non-Death of Polish Neoliberalism

Ralf Hettler via Getty Images

Neo-liberalism, like the famous cat, seems to have nine lives in Poland. The effort to cut back the state and give freer rein to the market has suffered at least three near-death experiences. The initial "shock therapy" approach implemented by Leszek Balcerowicz in the first Solidarity-affiliated government in 1990 generated such high unemployment and social dissatisfaction that voters ejected these first neo-liberal politicians from office and replaced them with the former Communists. But it turned out that the former Communists were more than happy to implement the same kind of austerity market reforms as their predecessors -- with similar results. And they too eventually were booted from office.

The global financial crisis that swept the world after 2007 should have been the final nail in the coffin for the neo-liberal model, for hadn't the unregulated market nearly sent the global economy into an irreversible tailspin? And yet, globally, neo-liberalism didn't die. This was because of what Colin Crouch, in his book The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism, calls "privatized Keynesianism." A combination of government deregulation and new market instruments provided easier credit for the poor and middle class and lucrative "derivatives" for the wealthy. Although these mechanisms took a hit during the crisis, they have more or less remained intact, substituting for what in a previous era would have been government support programs.

Poland, meanwhile, managed to avoid the worst effects of the financial crisis. Indeed, the Polish economy even grew modestly during the period when virtually the entire rest of Europe slumped. But of course Poland had an additional source of covert Keynesian funds: Europe.

"In Poland, the government has a neoliberal discourse but a Keynesian practice," explained Michal Sutowski in an interview at a Warsaw café in August 2013. "We have a Keynesian inflow of money from Europe: 2.3 percent of Polish GDP every year is coming each year from the EU. But the government still sounds neoliberal because of its pride in having a consolidated budget and still relatively low public indebtedness. The public debt to GDP ratio is around 53 percent."

Sutowski is on the staff of Krytyka Polityczna, the Polish Left movement devoted to critical thinking and political action. He focuses a great deal these days on the structural problems of the Polish economy.

"Polish competitiveness is based on cheap labor, not on innovation, which is seen as too risky and expensive," he told me. "In the global chain of production, we are in a rather low place. We do quite well on exports because we have no Euro. The value of the zloty has been quite low, which is good for the export industry. On other hand, we export a lot to Germany as subcontractors of German industry, who are re-exporting to others. Germany's export success is destroying the rest of the EU, but in the short term it has advantages for Poland. If they do well, we as subcontractors do well too."

The failure of the state to invest in R & D, to effectively allow the European market to determine Poland's low position on the production scale, has kept neo-liberalism alive in Poland but at a significant cost.

"If you try to compete with cheap labor, you create a structural problem," Sutowski explained. "We have a high unemployment rate, over 13 percent (and over 20 percent among young people). There's very weak domestic demand because there are so many unemployed people who, when they do work, get paid little money. In the long term, the flexibilization of the labor market combined with low wages destroys human capital. People emigrate, to find jobs or if they have bigger aspirations to educate themselves. Over 1.5 million people have emigrated from Poland: the largest amount of people to emigrate during peacetime in Poland. It's a vicious circle. You pay people very low wages, and they have no incentives to educate themselves further. So you cannot make a knowledge-based economy with a high level of innovation. In the short term, a flexible market helps, but it is bad over the long term. It threatens progress toward an economy with a high innovation level."

We talked about how he became involved with Krytyka Polityczna, why he doesn't like the term "civil society," and why he considers the creation of the European Union one of the greatest innovations in history.

The Interview

Why did Krytyka emerge when it did and why has it proven more successful than other independent Left formations elsewhere in the region?

In Poland there is no Left. There are post-Communists and liberals. Because of their cynicism and pragmatism, the post-Communists are neoliberal in terms of economy and quite conservative in terms of culture. Of course we live in a country with a very bad legacy of the Communist Left, and state socialism is remembered as a dysfunctional socio-economic system of authoritarian rule and economic planning. So, first we had to regain the Left. This takes time as well as some intellectual work. As Gramsci argued, first you have to win at the level of ideas, at the level of culture. Why is there no leftist party in Poland? Because it is almost impossible to formulate a leftist approach to economics in the mainstream media. There were minor leftist groups on the margins. But they were not invited into the mainstream media.

So, first, we had to explain what the Left is. One of the first books we published - Przewodnik Lewicy - was a guide to what the Left means today. Theoretically it was based in part on Chantal Mouffe's theory of agonistic democracy. The liberal public sphere is superficially very inclusive. In fact, however, this consensual model excludes quite a lot of views and approaches because they are not perceived as political positions. They are deemed to be irrational. If you had different views on the economy, then you were labeled populist or demagogical.

That's why we had to introduce or reintroduce these ideas into the public sphere and do that with different means. We didn't just write articles or papers. We also published quite a lot in the mainstream media that wanted to stimulate pluralism. We were seen as a good opportunity for that because we were young, not Communist, and speaking of something new.

Krytyka started with an Open Letter to European Public Opinion. This letter, published in Le Monde, El Pais, and Suddeutsche Zeitung, was signed by 200 Polish intellectuals in favor of more open, more federalist European policy by the Polish government, which was nominally leftist at the time. Krytyka organized this letter, and there was a big response. Sierakowski and the professors who signed the letter were invited to the presidential palace for a big conference on this topic.

Part of our liberal or mainstream allies, for example at Gazeta Wyborcza, were free-market-oriented on economics but were open in their views about European integration. A more open Europe was good for them. We had some support at the beginning. But the most important factor was our ability to gather people. Our magazine was organized in fact to organize a milieu -- not just to put out yet another intellectual magazine - that included not only professors from political science, economics, and sociology but also visual artists, filmmakers, and social activists. Then of course came the Kaczynski brothers. No one in the mainstream understood their success. We tried to explain why through Mouffe and Laclau's theory of populism, that this was a symptom of people who were excluded in a nonpolitical way through labels such as "irrational" or "mentally undeveloped." The book by Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas, was very inspiring for us. We saw a similar model in Poland of a nominally leftist constituency that departed from its traditional base. If the Left deserts the masses, then of course the Right fills the vacuum.

The last years of this liberal, cynical, opportunist government of Civic Platform--in the context of the European crisis - saw the emergence of new social movements. For instance, there was the wave of protests throughout Europe last year against the Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the European regulation on intellectual property. Also, new technologies and new media have reshaped the media landscape in Poland. All the old-school, mainstream papers are no longer as influential as they once were. The discourse is more dispersed.

All of this brought us to an idea that the problem was the lack of a Left here in Poland and a not sufficiently inclusive public sphere. We started to think that maybe there was something wrong with society - the lack of social bonds, the inability to act collectively, and of course the lack of thinking about different models of society. The new social movements know what they don't like, but their specific proposals are very abstract, vague, or nonexistent. Occupy Wall Street doesn't raise specific demands. Of course there were people demonstrating with placards that read "Reintroduce the Glass-Steagall Act." That's okay, but it's not a movement with a clear agenda. It's not their fault. It's hard to do this, of course.

That's why we decided, on the one hand, to work on social imagination, which is why we stated our institute. On the other hand, we want to help organize people to act collectively, to become involved. Chantal Mouffe formulated it like this: to create chains between different movements and create alliances. That's what we try to do in practice: organize people in different cities like Bialystok, Wroclaw, Krakow. We also have cultural centers in Lodz and in Gdansk. That's where our people intervene locally, for instance in urban struggles for public space. Sometimes this means directly occupying, as people did in the main market in Krakow. But in other cities, such as Lodz especially, it has meant encouraging the participation of citizens not only against municipal policies but also in favor of reshaping the city, determining whether space should be public or private or where the border should be.

I never heard about the occupation in Krakow. When did that take place?

It was a tent camp in the main market back in 2011. So, people cooperated with us on direct interventions in local politics. But they have also organized debates, movies, shows, and discussions of our books. We publish around 40 books a year.

In terms of realistic expectations for the future, do you want to create more of these cultural centers throughout Poland, more alliances with other organizations, more similar structures in other countries?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.