Prawo i sprawiedliwość: the radical right versus actual answers to questions of social justice in today’s Poland

For two decades in Poland, no government has spoken about equality, the need to fight poverty and support the weakest in the way that Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, PiS) is doing. Some of their reforms have actually helped to improve living standards of an average citizen. Yet their political project has very little to do with genuine social justice.

Under their nearly four-year rule, Polish conservatives have introduced Family 500+, a program of supporting families (500 PLN – approximately 100 euros – benefit every month for every child after the first one), raised the minimum salary and introduced minimum wages for those who work on other basis than a permanent contract, lowered the retirement age and offered special pensions to mothers who raised 4 children and did not work. None of these would have been possible under the preceding neoliberal governments, some of the measures had been long ridiculized by influential commentators. Now even they have to admit that the programmes did bring a change: the labour market did not collapse when the employers were forced to raise the lowest wages, and the families with many children, who used to be extremely vulnerable for poverty and social exclusion, now see their situation stabilise.

A vision of society similar to Spain under Franco

However, raising the living standards in Poland, not to mention building a more egalitarian society is not the aim in itself for PiS. They strive toward a vision of conservative society with strong families, men working and women taking care of their (numerous) children. Family 500+ is one side of this tendency – the other one are restrictions imposed on access emergency contraception , attempts to introduce complete ban on abortion (if it had not been introduced yet, this is only thanks to unprecedented women’ mobilization and mass demonstrations) and constant verbal abuse of sexual minorities. The fact that PiS has systematically launched an anti-immigrant hysteria and stays on good terms with extreme right nationalist groups has also nothing to do with social justice. The Poland they want to build is more similar to Spain under Franco: nationalism, catholicism, anticommunism (the current Polish government keeps attacking the long-gone Polish People’s Republic at any occasion and falsifies its history) and conservatism are to constitute the state ideology. If the living standards are raised, it happens in order to keep people grateful to the government and unwilling to protest.

Repression of unionist engagement

People are to be grateful for the state’s help, but not to organize themselves from below. Under the conservative rule, a few important social protests took place – nurses, young doctors, airline workers, families with disabled children – and another one, an all-Poland teachers’ strike, has started on April 8th. In every single case, the reaction of the so-called „social” government was outrageuos. The workers were accused of being sponsored by the liberal opposition in order to overthrow the government or even of being inspired „from abroad”. Absolutely legitimate demands of raising their improportionately low salaries were portrayed by state media as sabotage and greed. With the teachers, the situation is particularly disgusting – the minister of education angered them first by reforming the school system with no attention to parents’ and teachers’ remarks, then she manipulated the data on teachers’ salaries in numerous interviews, making the public think that they had no reason to be dissatisfied with the money they earn (in fact, Polish teachers are paid far worse than their colleagues in most European states). [1]

PiS is also quick to hide the „social” mask when reforms would reach a more serious level and touch on big business and general neoliberal principles. In their four years’ rule, they have never even mentioned how unjust and unfavourable for the middle and lower classes the Polish taxation system is.[2] They never challenged a belief once imposed by neoliberal economists that state administration must cost as cheap as possible: as a result, Poland now cannot afford an urgent reform of state medical care. The government has also not dared to change the main directions of housing policy: the program Mieszkanie+ is rather a way to support giant building companies than to offer affordable housing to citizens, just like the precedent programs introduced by neoliberal governments.

Poland needs a reform of the taxation system and investment in infrastructure, education & public health

Had the Polish government been truly devoted to the idea of social justice, it would start the reforms from the taxation system. Of course, it would not be easy to persuade the society, including entire generation grown up on one-sided pro-free market discourse, that higher taxes for those who earn well and very well are a must if the state is to ensure a quality education, universities, healthcare and social care.  However, if the taxation system is not reformed and the budget income does not rise, we may forget about other egalitarian policies. Access to healthcare, hospitals, specialists will not be guaranteed in all the regions of Poland. There will be no renaissance of public transport, which, outside the biggest cities, has suffered serious blows under the capitalist transformation, leaving the entire counties without a permanent connection to the nearest city. We should also not expect a wider network of schools, libraries, culture centres – all the local institutions that help to equalize chances. There will be no cheap housing and flats for rent, like it works in many European countries. Last but not least, Poland will face a  a catastrophic shortage of workers in jobs like teacher or nurse, if the low salaries offered for the hard and responsible work are not raised. All these are tasks for a government of genuine social justice fighters in Poland – and all these depend on a change in thinking about taxation and „cheap state”.

A truly egalitarian government would also change profoundly the official rhetorics, ending the attacks against women and minorities and dropping the official politics of memory which produces blatant falsifications of history in favour of extreme nationalism. It would also co-operate with trade unions and workers’ organizations instead of ignoring or offending them. In short, a genuine turn from neoliberalism is what Poland needs. PiS has seeded first doubts about the free market mythology that seemed unquestionable in previous years. The left must go further with the criticism and point out the government’s inconsequences and failures, yet not allowing itself to position with the liberal opposition whose only aim is to restore the status quo ante. It is not a task for a few months and not even for a year or two. But still, what PiS proposes for Poland is not a real solution – there is no guarantee that in a few years, if they stay in power, they would not revoke some of the social measures due to another financial crisis. Another generation of different policies must be advanced.

 

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat is a Polish journalist, expert in the field of modern history and current politics of Eastern Europe, with a particular focus on Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States.
She is deputy editor of the Polish left media platform STRAJK.EU (Strike).

 

[1] Polish teachers’ salaries vary between € 600–1000 monthly. In absolute terms, this is less than half the OECD average and among the very lowest in this group of comparison. In relative terms, Polish teacher salaries are somewhat lower than national average salaries. Controlling for national price levels, they are in the upper half of the OECD comparison. Note: when comparing teachers salaries it is important to distinguish starting from advanced-career (“statutory”) salaries as well as taking into account the diversity of school types.
Sources:
DW.com: Polish teachers go on strike
data.OECD.org: Teachers’ salaries
Businessinsider: Teachers’ salaries by country

[2] Poland has both one of the lowest income and corporate tax rates in Europe.

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