Friday, October 7, 2011

Polish Political Predictability

Here we go again. Poland goes to the poles October 9th to elect members of the lower (the Sejm) and upper (the Senate) houses of parliament. Owing much to the language barrier and the near-indecipherability of the alphabet soup that makes up the party system, I've learned more about politics in Afghanistan than in Poland over my five years of living here. But it's more than just words with five-letter consonant clusters ('Szczwana wieszczka wskrzesiła przechrztę' - More or less 'The crafty female prophet resurrected a convert') and letters decorated with diacritics (ą ć ę ł ń ó ś ź ż) that makes it so hard to penetrate Polish politics, it's a society built on a long history of loss, upheaval, dashed hopes and survival that has created a poisonous political climate that turns many people off. With seven parties running candidates in every electoral district along with four others fielding a few, it would seem the voters are offered a wide spectrum of choice, true democracy, but scratch a little deeper and the particular dichotomies of Polish democracy are revealed.

I'd guesstimate that nearly the same percentage of Poles would profess their faith in democracy as to the Roman Catholic Church, around 95%. Coincidentally, somewhere about half of those eligible to vote will bother to cast a ballot come Sunday, about the same percentage who will join their flock for prayers in the pews during Sunday mass. Both numbers have fallen steadily since the fall of the wall, after all there's a plethora of new malls open on Sunday to which they prefer to make their pilgrimages to pray to the shinier gods of consumerism. Ballots and bibles pale in comparison to BMWs and iPhones making the outcome of Sunday's election a foregone conclusion, one determined by technocrats in Brussels and traders in London and New York instead of the people themselves. Donald Tusk will remain prime minister becoming the first since the fall of communism two decades ago to win two consecutive terms. (They did re-elect Aleksander Kwaśniewski as president, but in Poland the head of state holds little real power.)

Geology, geography and history haven't been overly kind to Poland. The curse of an abundant supply of carcinogenesis, climate change causing coal and neighbors on either side with occasional expansionist itchings have doomed the country to backwardness and suspicion. For every moment of historic glory like the Battle of Grunwald there's a Jedwabne, Katyń or Auschwitz to cast a shadow on Polish pride. It was partitioned three times in the 18th century, disappearing completely off the map for 123 years and the victim of both fascism and communism (well, Soviet totalitarianism) in the 20th century. Yet, since 1989, Poland has been held up as a model to the world of what democracy and capitalism can bring a nation. After all, Poland was the only OECD nation not to fall into recession following the 2008 financial crisis. It is these very rose-coloured glasses, however, that make it difficult for the average Pole to see the economic, political and environmental dangers that lurk around every corner.

It's easy to understand the average Poles basic economic math: Capitalism = Good; Socialism = Bad. After all, the nation's economy was left in ruins as a result of 45 years of Soviet domination. The Balcerowicz Plan, implemented in 1989, is held up as a success story of Shock Therapy, a neoliberal triumph, as market reforms have led to rising average incomes and inclusion in the European Union in 2004. Mix this myth making with that of the Catholic Church and it's little wonder that many Poles give thanks for their feeling of prosperity from car-filled streets and new technological gadgets to the holy trinity of Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. The reality though is 2004 simply formalized the need for market conformity created in 1989, the drive for eurozone membership institutionalized social cuts in the name of progress. Transition and ascension are part of the same pathology; the intensification of neoliberal restructuring of European social relations of production.

While the reforms of '89 tamed inflation and the budget deficit and made a market economy possible, Balcerowicz himself later admitted that he neglected to consider the element of human motivation in his calculations, while his adviser, Jeffrey Sachs, who also oversaw the transition to crony capitalism in Russia, has criticized his own advice as incorrect. Overnight, wealth was transferred from one elite to another as the people in nomenklatura positions in 1989 were able to convert their political capital into private economic wealth, while the prole Poles once again had to adjust to a new reality, trading one master for another. Ironically, the alteration of class forces saw those who had struggled the most to establish freedom and democracy come out as the biggest losers. Solidarity, a movement guided by the principles of worker self-government, self-management and the 'self-liberation' of civil society implemented the neoliberal economic shock therapy that has led to trade unions being virtually nonexistent in the private sector and on a clear path to complete extinction. It also created a political divide as those who were in the right place (and the right age) at the right time instantly became entrepreneurs and executives while those who were unconnected or too old fell by the wayside helping create today's populist political climate.

Both main parties in Poland today trace their roots to Solidarity, PiS (Law and Justice) may be the favoured among the more religious but it's the PO (Platform) that pushes the right buttons to appeal to today's god, finance. Instead of taking advantage of the growing class divide, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczinski opts to play to the xenophobic fears of the semi-literate, while the prime minister gets a pass on policy problems, like pension reform, poverty and the ecoside of hydraulic fracturing. A perfect example took place this March when Kaczynski paid a PR visit to a local shop to spotlight the increasing burden of rising food prices and blurted "We didn’t go to Biedronka [a cheap supermarket chain] where the poorest people do their shopping but to a local shop". A perfect opportunity was wasted to point out that while there are more goods and services available today than ever, prices of those most basic, such as sugar and rice, have skyrocketed thanks to the pernicious influence of the financial markets which have also brought escalating job insecurity and decreases in real wages with particular sections of the population worst hit, for example the elderly and rural communities. Kaczynski, instead of the markets, was once again demonized in the press (Polish link). As the Washington Post put it, PO can count on the votes of many of the younger wine and cappuccino-drinking Poles in cities buoyed by the country’s growing wealth while PiS is popular among the less privileged, less educated and those outside the cities.

We may make fun of the American two-party system that cheers on the near-indistinguishable red and blue teams to determine who gets the chance to govern in the name of their corporate sponsors, but at least they represent American interests, albeit of the elite 1%. In Poland, what they say in the Vatican, Brussels and London determine the results and right now, the PO has the confidence of the latter two as they are more likely to follow the neoliberal policy handbook of privatization and deregulation. Meanwhile, the more reactionary PiS is portrayed as further to the right, which is true in terms of social policies but they are much to the left of PO in terms of economics. In this blackwhite world, stability is increasing economic dislocation, freeing the market is seen as the more stable course though it leads to perpetual upheaval, increasing political union with a failing EU is a victory while sacrifice in a perpetual war to aid an ally who has abandoned and humiliated you time and again is a moral duty.

As the Arab Spring turns to the American Autumn (or Fall as you prefer), most Poles are completely oblivious to the changes that are sweeping the globe. Willfully blindfolded, boxed in by their beliefs and their information sources, they believe things will continue to improve if they just toe the line and follow the Financial Times advice. The other ballot box choice may defend Polish economic sovereignty but also advocate an increased role for the church while persecuting anyone different and humiliate you in the eyes of that mythical west over and over again. A vote for PO is a vote for the least bad choice. The Polish political paradigm (hey what do you know, that's PPP, just like a right wingnut party) makes the conspiracy theorist the mainstream, in which Tusk collaborated with the Russians to bring down the presidential plane last year. This distraction gives a free pass to stealing pensions while hiding the fact that the retirement age will have to go up to align with EU standards, or using roadwork accounting tricks and selling state assets that can only be sold once in a vain attempt to fill budget gaps while advocating handing over economic decision making to Brussels and Berlin.

Russian conspiracies have always dominated Polish politics adding to the irrationality. Did Catherine the Great's influence on her former lover Stanislaw August Poniatowski the last king of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lead to the partitions? Although Piłsudski pretty much won the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1919-21 it didn't stop his opponents from branding him as a Russian agent. Many still believe Lech Wałęsa was a Soviet agent so it's not surprising to see Kaczynski trying to play to the Polish fear of the Russian menace. Chasing ghosts however, allows real conspiracies to pass undetected. See, Poland seems to have lots of natural gas but unfortunately it's trapped in shale deep underground, possibly 5.3 trillion cubic meters, energy independence from Russia for decades. Back in 2005, as Vice President of the US, Dick Cheney got the Energy Act passed which exempted his former company Halliburton's method of extracting shale gas, hydraulic fracturing, from environmental laws. Now, despite obvious environmental and health problems to humans and animals that have mushroomed in the regions where 'fracking' has taken place, Poles are being sold on its safety by advertising how widely used it is in America. Meanwhile, the recent opening of the Northstream pipeline that cuts out Poland as gas is transported directly to Germany under the Baltic from Russia will mix in some minds with someone whispering that the Oscar nominated Gasland, which documented the harmful effects of fracking, was financed by Russian gas giant Gasprom, seriously, you can't make this fantasyland up.

Of course, the real winner will be big oil and the losers the Polish people. Foreign capital will flow in to provide, well, capital equipment, to pump the poison into the earth to release the gas to sell here and abroad, taking the profits and leaving the mess. The French revoking gas permits, the delay in issuing permits in Wales and the German report raising concerns about uncertainty over fracking are all thanks to Russian meddling too I'm sure. Nothing to do with the millions of gallons of water mixed with hundreds of chemicals, including known carcinogens, pumped through the water table, only some of which is recovered, dozens of times for each of the hundreds or thousands of wells. Another irony is to be found in the justification for fracking that the gas will lessen dependence on climate change causing coal, currently used in 95% of Polish energy production, even though most Poles will tell you that global warming is, well, a conspiracy. Donald Tusk's government has announced they will veto any move by the EU to ban or limit fracking and the ninety shale gas exploration permits that have been issued so far to energy companies such as Total and ExxonMobil will be pumping gas by 2014. Most of the public won't know what hit them as the propaganda machine of Polish Gas and Oil Mining Company (PGNiG) will propagate the benefits of shale gas with "The Flame of Hope" advertising campaign.

Neither the PO or PiS has a realistic shot at winning an outright majority of the seats with both polling around 30% and will therefore need to find allies to form a coalition government. The party that wins the most votes is charged with forming a government whose final makeup will depend not only on which party wins but by how much. In order to enter parliament, a party need to attain 5% of the vote, leaving only three other parties with a realistic shot. Presently the junior coalition partner is the PSL (Polish Peasants' Party), formerly a left-of-center-now centrist party with roots dating back to the inter-war period which under the guise of the United People's Party (ZSL) was officially recognized during communism, that now has a mainly rural and small town electoral base. However, their market-unfriendly ideas, including a referendum on whether to go ahead with Poland's nuclear power program along the five main themes of their manifesto, social security, food, economy, environmental safety and state have them on the outs. More troubling is their influence on EU farm subsidy allocation which has led to not only distortions in rural-urban migration but have seen an explosion of fraudulent-yet-legal organic farms.

While the government won't have any time for the EU if it wants to limit the destruction of the ecosystem, they're more than happy to sit down and talk about how much money they'll get. You see, it's thanks in no small part to Poland being the biggest recipient of cohesion funds from Brussels, currently worth more than 3% of GDP, that they have been able to achieve the largest GDP growth of the post-Soviet states. These EU cohesion funds, administered by local political agents, have become an important resource in local political exchange while a whole industry has popped up that specializes in funneling as much as possible to those with the means to navigate the Byzantine application process. Poles hate the bureaucracy they've created themselves by never fundamentally overhauling the system, instead, they built property rights onto Soviet foundations which had been tinkered with in the decade leading up to 1989 and have grafted EU policies post-2004 onto the constitution created in 1997. All of this has created a system bloated with inefficiencies and nurtured a thriving industry to navigate the nightmare which unproductively siphons off profit and time. While the rest of the world places bets on when the eurozone collapses, Poles will obliviously reelect a government bending over backwards to join it. Last September's Eurobarometer poll showed that across the EU, the proportion of people who said that their country had "benefited" from membership had fallen to 49%. In Poland, the same figure increased 3% over the previous year to 77%. Unsurprising really, considering it's true in the only way that counts, cash.

The other traditional party of power, SLD (Democratic Left Alliance) also has its roots in a former communist times party, PZPR (Polish United Workers Party). Their party manifesto reads like market wisdom heresy, hiking of tax levels for higher earners, as well as increasing benefits for families and raising the minimum wage (gasp!) at a time of exploding inequality between the haves and have-nots. For a democracy born from solidarity, Poland displays very little of the words characteristics with higher levels of child poverty than the US and twice the UK level, the country has a gap in life expectancy of 15 years between Warsaw's richest and poorest districts. Bizarrely, you'll hear more people arguing here for a flat tax than for making the taxation more progressive considering this situation is partially attributable to the most regressive taxation in the OECD (see graph on right). Not only do the SLD's policies offend the sensibilities of god-market, they also advocate the abolition of religious symbols from public institutions and signing of the EU’s Fundamental Charter of Human Rights, which Poland has so far opted out of, alongside the UK and Czech Republic. In other words, they don't have a chance.

While a series of political scandals were the official reason for the SLD slide, it's really their link with the Soviet era. This is of course the biggest conspiracy of all, that Poland lived under communist rule for 45 years, creating a distrust among many, especially the young who only heard the stories, for all things deemed socialist. Yet, no matter what you think about the USSR, it was not communist and by the transitive law, this means neither was Poland. It is important to know that the original thoughts of Marx and Engels were indeed the absolute opposite of Stalinism, Maoism etc. Russia managed to achieve socialism for a very short while immediately after the revolution. But this newly-fledged socialism was defeated in the most humiliating way. Not only did the counter-revolution win over the communists but it kept the name and the symbols to the overjoy of the capitalists of the rest of the world. Russian communism ceased to exist as soon as Stalin came to power. The most fitting description of the USSR and by extension Poland from 1945 to 1989 is State Capitalism. Simply, the state took on the role of the ultimate Capitalist and set about exploiting the workers. Some of the practices it had, like the suppression of individuality, the strict hierarchical spread of power and the like, are identical to the ones within a corporation, or for that matter, the EU. Others, like it’s inability to work efficiently or its large bureaucracy are problems that any sufficiently large corporation has as well. There hasn’t been a corporation of the sheer size of the Soviet Union of course so a direct comparison is impossible, but looking at the dinosauric movements of some of the biggest ones certainly points in that direction. As for the EU, well, most of us see where that's heading.

All this leaves an opening for a wildcard in a landscape normally reserved for serious, vacuous simpletons. Enter the biggest joker in Polish politics, former PO MP Janusz Palikot and his RP party (Palikot's Movement). Best known for stirring controversies with his antics, his anti-clerical message seems to be resonating as polls show his percentage of the decided vote has skyrocketed from 2.7%, under the threshold to enter the Sejm, to around 9% in a fortnight. During back-to-back press conferences in April 2007, he first appeared with a t-shirt that read "Jestem z SLD" (I'm from the SLD) on the front and "Jestem Gejem" (I am gay) on the back and then brandished a gun and a dildo a few days later. In the first case he claimed to be reminding his party (PO at the time) that they should be defending the rights of minorities, in the second the objects were in his opinion modern symbols of law and justice in Poland as it was a press conference to discuss a rape case involving police officers. He also committed a crime (Polish link) by calling former President Kaczynski "an oaf" (yes, an illegal act under Polish anti-defamation laws) but wasn't prosecuted, as well as questioning the sexuality of the President's twin brother (and former Prime Minister and current leader of PiS). With the PSL and SLD both hovering around 10% in the same poll, it seems likely that Palikot will overtake them and claim the right to be part of any governing coalition.

The electoral triumph of PiS back in 2005 turned into a disaster for Poland. The twin brother-prime minister-president-pair's pledge to end corruption and restore moral integrity to the country was sidetracked by scandal and extremism. The political forces that offered resistance to the neoliberal onslaught were also xenophobic and nationalistic. With allies such as LPR (League of Polish Families) and Andrzej Lepper's Samoobrona (Self Defense) there were high profile attacks on gay rights, movements to reintroduce the death penalty and demands for a complete ban on abortion. Not only did this have the negative effect of humiliating Poland on the international stage, they poisoned any anti-EU/neoliberal position due to their association with such a stance. So, although one needn't be a homophobic xenophobe who wants the US to build missiles to point at Russia to maintain a sober, take it slow approach with a faltering EU project, that is the public's perception. Mix this with their ties to the Catholic Church and increases to social benefits during their rule and we can easily see how resentment on the part of 'successful' Poles for the poor has been fertilized. Playing on these feelings along with the perpetual Polish inferiority complex is the PO playbook in matters such as health care, welfare, pensions and privatization.

Of course the health care system has problems, the devious scam the welfare system, the pension system is bankrupt and the trains are overcrowded and never on time. That's what happens when only 6.7% of GDP went to health care in 2009, well below levels elsewhere. This financial squeeze creates waiting lists up to 12 weeks to see a cardiac consultant manufacturing resentment for the public system, one in three believe the system is poor and since cash seems to guarantee speedier service, many believe they'd be better off with an American system. As baby steps are taken towards privatization no one mentions the fact that the US spends more any other country, 16% of GDP, and growing faster than anywhere else, for a system that consistently underperforms relative to other developed countries. Welfare doesn't help if you just pay people to get drunk like they do in Poland but instead of reforming the system, the elite are happy to see resentment build and thus justify the reduction and elimination of any kind of social safety net.

Instead of using the EU's clarification that what is owed to private pension funds counts as part of the government's liabilities as an opportunity to reform pensions by among other things allowing competition among government pension plans and admitting the retirement age will have to be raised to bring the system in line with EU standards the government chose sleight of hand. Shunting taxpayers' money from privately managed pension funds to government controlled 'ZUS managed' funds just makes the numbers look temporarily less terrifying, at least until after the election. As far as anyone can see any logical purpose behind this arrogantly arbitrary move, it is to temporarily and very marginally slow down the rapid rise of the budget deficit. Rather than irritate voters in an election year the government made a grab at future pensioners' savings, issuing unfunded IOUs in return. Rather than use EU funds earmarked for railway improvements it's more politically astute to divert some of that money to roads when the budget for the latter runs out, achieving the double goal of heightening public discontent with publicly owned trains and thus more willing to accept privatization as well as using creative accounting to stay below the budget cap.

The official name of Poland is Rzeczpospolita Polska, that difficult looking world means 'common cause'. While the last 20+ years have been good in many ways for much of the population, there is an increasing unwillingness to examine the direction of society and attempt to correct its course, away from the common cause of greed and graft, toward the common cause of a healthy society. The more distasteful side to Poland's 'successful' transition are massive permanent unemployment, widespread and continuing poverty and the removal of the historical layers of social protection. In an era of apparent increasing prosperity, a significant portion of the community is being left behind. Poland is increasingly marked by 'traditional' forms of poverty that have emerged since the collapse of traditional cradle-to-grave welfare provision but there are striking changes in the nature and shape of poverty. Many of the new poor are simply not represented in official statistics. The official unemployment rate is intentionally emphasized as the figure is distorted by considerable concealed unemployment, up to one third simply don't bother to register as benefits have declined over the transition period with further restrictions coming in 2002. One needs to be blind or be intentionally ignoring the legions of homeless people roaming from dumpster to dumpster or the surplus of twenty-something kurwa spewing (mostly) men with nothing better to do than scrounge up their next beer. Unemployment is concentrated in rural communities where there is a considerable surplus of labor resources, a problem temporarily allayed by mass migration following EU ascension but threatening to become a big problem now so many are returning following the perpetual economic crisis. Opportunity to those in the east are exemplified by a 2004 study that found only one in every 130 children from a peasant background reaches higher education.

Poles, even more than much of the west, have been duped into the belief that governments and not markets are to blame for the lingering economic hangover from the economic crisis. They somehow missed the part where deregulation and lower taxes created incentives to assume too much risk on the supply side while growing inequality created more need for credit to keep up with the cost of living on the demand side leading to the predictable catastrophe. Appearance is more important than substance, formality wins out over rationality and conformity crushes originality. Democracy doesn't offer a choice when it's determined by capital, where half the voters are more worried about updating their Facebook profiles to lament the loss of a slave owner and the other half are more concerned about their right to riot after Euro 2012 matches than the the real problems facing the country. Pity the poor Poles for a moment this Sunday as democracy here, as elsewhere, has become nothing but a symbolic exercise in futility.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


That's the video for the single Bailout off Guitar Not So Slim's forthcoming album of the same name. Full disclosure - that's my brother Troy playing guitar and singing while the video was made by my beautiful and talented wife, with a little, non-technical, help from me. The story's pretty self-explanatory, the economic crisis caused by the greed of financial speculators who were then of course bailed out by governments around the world which has led to those very same governments now needing bailouts of their own, financed of course by you and I. Please feel free to spread it around plus if you've got any suggestions on how to make it go viral or want to add some new translations (there's only Spanish so far), leave them in the comments below.