Anti-Gender Campaigns in Poland and Beyond: Questioning the Symbiosis between Neoliberalism and Right-Wing Politics
Elżbieta Korolczuk and Agnieszka Graff
Since 2015 Poland has often made international headlines due to its continuous attacks on feminists, the liberal proponents of gender-equality policies and the LGBT+ community. In the summer of 2019, this trend led to street riots and direct violence: in July the Białystok Equality March was attacked by 4,000 neo-Nazis, football fans and representatives of Catholic groups, who enjoyed the full support of the local Catholic church and the Law and Justice Party (Dehnel 2019). Although representatives of the ruling party distanced themselves from the violent acts, claiming that the perpetrators were just hooligans, direct incentive for these attacks came from the party’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński. In April 2019 he went on record for claiming that the ‘LGBT movement and gender are a danger to our identity, our nation and our state’ (Chrzczonowicz 2019). As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in March 2020, one of the Polish bishops compared the virus to gender and announced he was not sure which was more dangerous to the nation (Steinhagen 2020). The view that the pandemic is a punishment for homosexuality was also expressed by other priests, echoing views concerning AIDS promulgated by ultraconservatives in the US during the 1980s. Spring and summer of 2020 witnessed a pandemonium of politicized homophobia in Poland: the entire presidential campaign was dominated by the theme of ‘LGBT ideology’ as a threat to the nation and Christianity,and before long Poland’s minister of justice officially announced the intention to withdraw Poland from the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s treaty to prevent violence against women. In August 2020 Poland was again present in world media as a country where police violence was used against LGBT activists, the rainbow flag becoming the emblem of resistance against the populist-right government (Human Rights Watch 2020).
Attacks on the LGBT community, attempts to introduce further restrictions to access abortions, efforts to stop sex education in schools – all these are elements of a broader phenomenon known as anti-gender campaigns (Kuhar and Paternotte 2017). Anti-gender mobilizations feed on religious sentiments and employ moralizing discourse, but they can only be properly understood in the context of the rise of right-wing political forces seeking ideological and affective means for gaining hegemony. The patterns of emergence of anti-gender campaigns simultaneously in Poland and other countries – including Brasil, Germany, France, Italy and Russia –show that gender is no distraction from real politics. Struggles around gender reside at the heart of politics today, both as a set of specific policy issues and a site of symbolic struggle, a space where differences are negotiated and defined. Not a marginal controversy, no mere ‘cultural’ issue, gender has become a centre for powerful and often violent struggles. Consequently, attacks against gender are at their core a political phenomenon, a struggle for power. The question is why have they emerged in so many countries in the last decade and why have they become an effective mobilizing tool in the hands of right-wing populists worldwide?
Our analysis contributes to the rapidly developing body of work that examines the relationship between gender-conservatism and neoliberalism, one that offers an important corrective to the paradigm that links the right with pro-market views. We argue that anti-gender mobilization is a reaction to, and partly a form of resistance against, neoliberalism. Following scholars such as Brown (2019), Cabanas and Illouz (2019), Harvey (2007) and Gregor and Grzebalska (2016), we conceptualize neoliberalism not just as an economic doctrine and governance regime, but also as a cultural paradigm, a rationality permeating all realms of life and social strata. The core of neoliberalism is that economic rationality saturates all spheres of human activity, including cultural production, practices of citizenship and intimacy, identity and emotions. Profit-maximization and efficiency become unquestioned values overruling cooperation, democratic politics, social solidarity and the pursuit of justice.
Why do we still need to talk about neoliberalism?
As an economic practice, neoliberalism operates at the intersection of global and local trends and entails privatization and the erosion of the welfare state accompanied by austerity policies, an unregulated flow of money and goods as well as imperial ambitions of economic domination. As a social and cultural trend, it includes extreme forms of commodification and individualism, deeply transforming social relations and value systems. In the words of Cabanas and Illouz (2019):
[…] neoliberalism should be understood not only in terms of its structural features and consequences, but also in terms of its infrastructural assumptions; that is, in terms of its ethical and moral maxims according to which all individuals are (and should be) free, strategic, responsible and autonomous beings who are able to govern their psychological states at will, fulfill their interests and pursue what is understood to be their inherent objective in life: the achievement of their own happiness (51).
This individualistic paradigm was developed in close alliance to neoconservatism, whose emphasis on family responsibility and the moralization of social inequalities made neoliberal policies appear inevitable and ‘natural’. In the US, as shown by Melinda Cooper (2017), the entire history of neoliberal transformation was made possible by the neoconservative ethos of self-sufficiency, responsibility and the return of carework to the home. The private space of the family, and women’s unpaid work within it, served to absorb the social impact of cuts in health and childcare, as well as other social programmes addressed to marginalized populations and the working poor. While the retraditionalization of gender roles was the goal of neoconservatives, in practice it happened almost by default as an effect of neoliberal policies in the Reagan era. ‘Traditional values’ and the ‘traditional family’ model were in fact a conscious reinvention of neoconservatives, a project of re-imagining the social world in a way that would fit the new form of capitalism. Cooper cites neoconservative sociologist Nathan Glazer, who stated that the ‘creation and building of new traditions, or new versions of old traditions, must be taken more seriously as a requirement of social policy itself’ (2019: 313).
The hegemony of ‘neoliberal political rationality’ (McRobbie 2009) has made struggles for gender and social justice even more challenging, as it has resulted in the rise of neoliberal feminism, which reduces feminist struggles to individual efforts to achieve a work–life balance and personal success (e.g. Fraser 2009; Rottenberg 2018). Nancy Fraser (2009) claims that feminism was not simply ‘framed’ or ‘co-opted’ but rather it succumbed to the general logic of neoliberalism as a cultural phenomenon. However, there was also something about the movement itself that made it possible for neoliberalism to ‘resignify’ feminist ideals. Fraser locates the source of this problem in feminism’s cultural turn, its transformation into a critique of culture. The evolution of academic feminism is, of course, central to this tendency:
In practice, the tendency was to subordinate social-economic struggles to struggles for recognition, while in the academy, feminist cultural theory began to eclipse feminist social theory. […] The timing, moreover, could not have been worse. The turn to recognition dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social egalitarianism. Thus, feminists absolutized the critique of culture at precisely the moment when circumstances required redoubled attention to the critique of political economy (Fraser 2009: 109).
It has become increasingly clear in recent years that Fraser’s diagnosis has serious consequences for feminist movements, not only for academic feminist theory. Mobilizations for women’s rights are most effective when they abandon the neoliberal framework and turn to radical egalitarianism (e.g. Arruzza et al 2019; Korolczuk et al 2019), thus challenging the right-wing monopoly as being the voice of the common people.
Are ultraconservatives always neoliberal?
For such a change to become possible, we need to reconsider the assumption that ultraconservative mobilizations are inevitably neoliberal in orientation. We argue that this view is grounded in an unacknowledged US-centric bias, i.e. the universalization of assumptions based on specifically American cultural and political patterns: the alliance between neoliberalism and neoconservatism. Based on our research on anti-gender campaigns, we argue that this alleged symbiosis may not be quite as strong in contexts outside the US. In fact, ultraconservative actors’ position regarding neoliberalism has varied from country to country and over time. While the right in the US has been neoliberal by default, the new right-wing populist parties in Western Europe often employ welfare-state chauvinist positions (e.g. Andersen and Bjørklund 1990; Finnsdottir and Hallgrimsdottir 2019). As observed by Herbert Kitschelt and Anthony J. McGann (1995), right-wing parties in Western Europe have long built their popularity on promises of general safety-net programmes available only to legal residents. These spending regimes would be both generous and highly restrictive, eliminating immigrants’ rights to state-sponsored healthcare, housing and childcare. Such actors employed a ‘racist-authoritarian strategy’ while
studiously stay[ing] away from an admiration of market-liberal capitalism. The main point is the mobilization of resentment on the authoritarian/libertarian axis. The attack on foreigners, the vilification of feminist and environmentalist movements … and the stress on national symbols and historical reminiscences are critical for racist-authoritarian strategy (Kitschelt and McGann 1995: 22).
This position evolved over the last two decades into right-wing populist welfare-state chauvinism promulgated by parties such as the French National Front, Poland’s Law and Justice and Fidesz in Hungary. Recent scholarship shows a similar dynamic at play in Scandinavian countries, including Denmark, Norway and Sweden, pointing to the key role of gendered dynamics in the context of right-wing politics and claims-making. Parties such as the Sweden Democrats ‘position the Scandinavian welfare state as a zero-sum social good that cannot be shared with outsiders, while at the same time framing outsiders as risks to the social contract that has created the welfare state’ (Finnsdottir and Hallgrimsdottir 2019: 2).
In Eastern and Central Europe the neoliberal revolution – dismantling of the socialist welfare state with its generous universal healthcare system, job security and state support for families – took place as part of the systemic transformation in the 1990s and was accompanied by the retraditionalization of gender roles. The important difference between the post-socialist and the American contexts is that in the US, the return to ‘family values’ was conceived of mostly in terms of strengthening individual responsibility and was thus fully compatible with a neoliberal ethos, whereas in post-socialist countries the neoliberal revolution has been experienced by many as a destruction of community and tradition. This dynamic was diagnosed by anthropologist Elizabeth Dunn (2004), who examined the effect of privatization on the self-concepts of women’s workers in a pioneering study of the women employed at the Alima Gerber factory in Rzeszów (Poland), which was being privatized by an American company in the 1990s. Dunn’s respondents identified individualist discourses as oppressive: a force pushing them into a mould that they associated with the exploitative regime of the factory that employed them. Domesticity, motherhood and a focus on childcare, which today are promoted by ultraconservatives as paramount traditional values, were to these women a respite and refuge from the alienating world of capitalism. It is such sentiments and identifications that were eventually harnessed by the populist right. Dunn (2004) shows that resistance to feminism and neoliberalism were interconnected, reflecting not so much ideological choices but rather resistance to rapid socio-economic change.
The US-centered paradigm fails to account for the central dynamic of right-wing populism in Europe and other parts of the world, namely its ability to mobilize resentment against neoliberalism, both as unbridled dominance of the market and a cultural project based on values and social patterns associated with modernity: individualism, self-sufficiency and effectiveness. In post-socialist states populists often challenge the collusion between liberal democracy and market liberalism, even though they may continue with neoliberal policies, combining them with generous state support for ‘our families’ in order to attract voters. Parties such as Fidesz and Law and Justice have not only promoted retraditionalization but have also supported increased social spending on family-oriented policies,which can explain, at least in part, wide public support for the populist right in recent years. Consequently, the collaboration between ultraconservatives and right-wing populists in Europe should be carefully distinguished from ‘the American nightmare’ discussed by Wendy Brown (2006).
Today’s anti-gender movement – a powerful ally of right-wing populism – can thus be viewed as reactionary opposition to neoliberalism, rather than a continuation of the neoconservative movements of the 1980s and 1990s. In the words of Weronika Grzebalska:
[contemporary] conservative protest movements create a space for [marginalized] people to vent their fears and insecurities, voice their anger and dissatisfaction with politics and claim a sense of agency and empowerment that European liberals and social democrats once promised – but failed to deliver (2016).
Similar insights can be found in the writings of Elena Zacharenko (2019), who urges liberals to break with neoliberalism in order to effectively oppose the ultraconservative movements. She points out that struggles around gender result from a broader trend clearly visible in European mainstream politics in recent decades: the tendency to employ a discourse on human rights and a focus on minority issues, while simultaneously cutting social provisions and dismantling the welfare state in general. Zacharenko claims that the anti-gender movement is a reaction against this trend that equates gender progressivism with neoliberal governance, ignoring distinctions and divisions on the progressive side, especially the existence of left feminism.
The collusion between liberal democracy and neoliberalism has been especially pronounced in Eastern Europe, where market democracy and gender equality policies were introduced simultaneously and often by the same actors, under the pressure of Western institutions and later as part of the EU integration process. As a result, in Central and Eastern Europe ‘gender ideology’ has become a means of expressing a rejection of the European East-West hierarchy and the failed promises of capitalist transformation’ (Zacharenko 2019). While we agree that raising inequalities and the politics of austerity have been important factors in paving the way for right-wing populism, we view it as problematic to reduce conflicts around values to the effects of economic inequality. We need to acknowledge the importance of economic factors, but also pay attention to the particularity of conflicts over values, identities, beliefs and lifestyles.
Gender traditionalism as a form of resistance against the onslaught of ‘Western individualism’ is a staple of public debate in Eastern and Central Europe, feminism being presented as part and parcel of this new and dangerous regime. As documented by Joanna Regulska and Magdalena Grabowska (2013), this view was typical of older religious women from rural areas in Poland even before the anti-gender campaigns started in 2012. ‘These women are rarely in favor of the free-market economy and equally rarely identify with feminist values. In Poland, some of these older, conservative women have been raising their voices against neocapitalism and the European Union’ (2013: 165). Different social groups, such as conservative mothers’ circles that emerged in the Czech Republic in the 1990s, Polish supporters of the conservative Radio Maryja and parental activists opposed to school reform in 2009 in Poland (Korolczuk 2017), would eventually join the anti-gender movement, because this rhetoric corresponded to their own worldview: at once sceptical of capitalism and feminism, as well as inclined to view them as interconnected.
There is a tendency on the left and within feminist circles to assume that progressive movements have their own resistance to neoliberalism as a social and cultural trend. In reality, however, there is significant opposition to neoliberalism at the other end of the political spectrum. While left-wing Western feminists were discussing the problem of feminism’s ‘elective affinity’ to neoliberalism (Fraser 2009) and the rise of ‘neoliberal feminism’ (Rottenberg 2018), what took hold in the imagination of many women was a sweeping equation between feminism and individualism, a view that was promoted by traditionalist circles over the last decades. We claim that this equivalence may have a stronger resonance in Eastern Europe than in most Western contexts and that anti-genderism capitalizes on this fact.
The present wave of resistance against gender involves new forms of organization and discourse, which allows ultraconservative organizations to mobilize wider audiences. What makes it new is the shift from conservative anti-feminism, which focused on reproductive and sexual rights, to a much broader ideological construct that effectively combines a critique of liberal value systems (individualism, human rights and gender equality) with opposition towards contemporary global capitalism (precarity, crisis of care, austerity measures and the general decline of the welfare state). In contrast to left-wing critiques of the neoliberal regime that focus on economic injustice, the anti-gender movement tends to moralize the phenomenon it opposes. Thus, what the left calls ‘neoliberalism’, the right will call ‘rampant individualism’ or ‘consumerism’; what to feminists is a ‘crisis of care’, the right redefines as ‘crisis of the family’; the demographic trends framed by left-wing feminism as a ‘reproductive strike’ appear in an ultraconservative vocabulary as ‘the culture of death’ or ‘abortion as genocide’. Instead of naming the problem in socio-economic terms, as injustice and exploitation, anti-genderism presents to the world capitalism’s winners as degenerate and morally corrupt, an emotional wasteland destroyed by greed and consumption. The anti-gender rhetoric is best understood as a reactionary critique of neoliberalism as a socio-cultural formation. It is the ability to link the economic, the cultural and the social that is key to the success of this discourse.
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The present text is an extract from the forthcoming book Anti-gender Politics in the Populist Moment written by Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk, published by Routledge.