There’s a word that unites culture and the economy: politics

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Politics:

Law and Justice MEPs sit in the same group as British Conservatives. Ashley Fox, leader of the Tory group in the European Parliament, came to the new government’s defence over the criticism it has received from Western media and from the European Commission. Even though Brexit threatens Poland with a significant cut to its EU funding, and means difficulties for Poles in the UK, Kaczyński has been energised by it, seeming to believe the shock of Brexit will force Germany and France to give Poland the freedom of action he wants it to have within the EU. In a recent interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung he portrayed the EU as a creature of Germany, a country in thrall to left-wing ideas, which had pushed Britain towards Brexit as a result of its enforcement of a pro-homosexual ideology. Kaczyński doesn’t want to leave the EU: he wants the EU to leave the EU. Whether you call this a bluff, or a calculation that Western Europe has invested too much in Poland not to give it what it wants, Kaczyński is raising the possibility, however remotely, of Poland parting company with the bloc. To be pushed out by an exasperated Germany would be the perfect bloodless modern martyrdom for a modern Poland. But the special economic zones might not look so special afterwards.

Tomasz Wachowski, the sacked union leader at Cadbury’s gum factory in Skarbimierz, posted ‘well done Britain!’ on his Facebook page the day after the Brexit referendum, although he was evasive when I asked him about it. When he lived in Brzeg, he was a founding member of the local branch of the extreme right-wing movement ONR. His sacked deputy was a Law and Justice supporter. Anna Pasternak was hostile; the party’s attempts to establish a religious state annoyed her. But nor did she care for Civic Platform, Law and Justice’s economically centre-right, socially liberal rivals, who ruled Poland for eight years before Kaczyński’s triumph. Like almost half of Polish voters, she sat out the 2015 election. Brexit was won on the votes of more than a third of the electorate; the Conservatives and Donald Trump won power in Britain and the US with the support of a quarter; Law and Justice won it with the support of less than a fifth. The more important question for the Polish opposition is not ‘How could they vote for that?’ but ‘Why did they prefer not to vote at all than vote for us?’ The populism of Law and Justice is much better known outside Poland than the un-populism of Civic Platform, which raised the pension age, raised VAT – the tax that hits the poor the hardest – and bent over backwards to please foreign investors.

Law and Justice restored the old retirement age and introduced a hefty non-means tested child benefit allowance of 500 złoty a month (€125) for a couple or single parent with a second child, to be funded at least partly by new taxes on foreign investors: not those who built factories – not yet – but those who’ve come to dominate shopping and retail banking. It also increased the minimum wage. Civic Platform doesn’t ask what makes these policies popular: inequality caused by an unfair tax system? Resentment towards foreign supermarkets for the crushing of small Polish shops? A sense that low birth rates threaten Poland’s existence? Instead it characterises them as reckless handouts that will destroy the economy. One of the nails in Civic Platform’s coffin was a series of transcripts of secret recordings of conversations between government officials published in 2014 in the magazine Wprost. Civic Platform, the champion of press freedom, sent in the security services in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the recordings. On one of the tapes a Civic Platform minister, now an EU commissioner, can be heard telling the country’s anti-corruption chief that ‘only an idiot would work for less than 6000 złoty a month’ – €1500, twice Poland’s average salary.

Barbara Kaśnikowska, the shrewd former head of Wałbrzych zone, suggests, persuasively, that Law and Justice benefited from resentment not of the have-nots towards the haves, but between haves; that as Poland boomed, ordinary people didn’t resent those who’d become super-rich so much as people just like them who, for no good reason, earned twice or three times as much as they did. In her view, Poland’s non-voters didn’t despise Civic Platform: they took its achievements for granted. A Pole, on this analysis, is much more likely to vote to say ‘screw you’ when they are angry than ‘thanks!’ when all’s going well. You can see her point. Andrzej Buła, the marshal of Opole and Civic Platform leader in the province, told me that the EU was funding 40 per cent of the provincial budget, while unemployment had dropped from 14 to 8 per cent. In some counties it’s as low as 5 per cent – essentially full employment. Without the Ukrainians, he said, they’d be short-handed. Yet in the 2015 parliamentary elections Civic Platform lost Opole on a swing of 40 per cent to Law and Justice.

There’s a word for the work of those who navigate the single field that unites culture and the economy in people’s minds: politics. Whatever they are doing, Law and Justice, Ukip and the English nationalist wing of the Tory Party are doing politics. New Labour, the Tory neoliberal wing and, perhaps, Civic Platform, have drifted into something else. Most shareholder-owned multinationals, away from their home countries, attempted to opt out of culture a long time ago. Instead of forcibly reminding them that they were always part of local culture, whether they wanted to be or not, parties like Civic Platform and New Labour followed business, and began treating economics and culture as two separate things. Out of power, the separation continues, manifesting itself as a split between those waiting for the populists to be destroyed by economic disaster, and those who protest, reactively and sequentially, against each new cultural outrage. In Britain, seen from the point of view of the workers at Somerdale, the politicians of the first decade of the 21st century merged their vision with the governing ethos of multinational corporations like the once paternalistic Cadbury, the ethos of overpaid bosses and the drive for yield on behalf of remote institutional investors. In Poland, Catholic and post-communist culture struggle to interact with the faith-blind, place-blind, history-blind giants of global industry.

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