Populism, inequalities and the decline of social citizenship

The world is changing. In recent years, right-wing populist parties such as UKIP in the UK, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Freedom Party of Austria, Golden Dawn in Greece and the Swedish Democrats have moved from the fringes to the centre of political life in Europe. It is hardly a European trend: today, several of the biggest economic and political powers in the world including the United States and Brazil are ruled by right-wing populists. There is no consensus as to the definition of populism, but anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism and the myth of direct communication between the leader and the masses have become intrinsic elements of modern politics (Mouffe 2018, Mudde 2015, Wysocka 2010).
Researchers debate whether right-wing populism is a coherent ideology, a way of doing politics, a peculiar conglomerate of expectations and emotions, or the articulation of a demand for a replacement of the political, economic and cultural elites. British political theorist Margaret Canovan noted that ‘the term [populism] is exceptionally vague and refers in different contexts to a bewildering variety of phenomena’ (Canovan 1981: 3), including both direct democracy techniques such as referenda and grassroots initiatives and certain types of dictatorship, like Juan Peron’s rule in Argentina. What is more, in the European context, including Poland, populism has more pejorative connotations than in Latin American countries or the United Stated, where the distinction between right-wing and left-wing populism is often emphasized. According to such thinkers as Chantal Mouffe (2018), left-wing populism may be the only effective response to the threats resulting from the growing prominence of extreme right-wing parties. These important differences notwithstanding, it is clear that the division between the elites and the people has emerged as one of the most important political cleavages today.

How can we explain the electoral successes of parties representing a wide spectrum of right-wing populism in countries as diverse as Poland, Italy, the United States or Austria? Scholars and commentators propose different explanatory models, such as the crisis of the European Union; mistakes and distortions of liberalism; neoliberal policies of austerity and privatization; the effects of the global economic crisis of 2007–8 and the continuation of culture wars coalescing around issues such as gender equality, minority rights and sexual democracy. The main point of contention is whether the successes of right-wing populists have economic foundations, or if the source of the problem lies in the sphere of culture and social relationships. It is either the economy or culture, stupid! However, the data gathered so far suggest that growing social and economic inequalities are strictly connected to cultural shifts. In short, both culture and economy matter. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart (2016) have shown that a lack of social security fosters populist attitudes, which in turn are expressed as a backlash of ‘angry white men’ (Kimmel 2013) feeling that their social position and economic status are threatened, because ethnic minorities and women are ‘skipping the queue’ and benefiting from the situation (Hochschild 2016).

Of course, the economy matters, but it is always closely related to cultural shifts, as shown by cumulated macroeconomic data and political analyses. According to Thomas Picketty (2018), there is a close relationship between growing inequalities and right-wing populism, related to changes in the electorate of the right-wing and the left-wing parties in many Western countries. The French economist compared the data from France, the UK and the US gathered between the 1920s and 2016, and found that in all three countries the electorate of left-wing parties (such as the Labour Party or the Greens) had changed significantly. From the mid-1960s a distinct and stable tendency could be observed: parties traditionally representing voters on lower income and without higher education increasingly attracted well-educated representatives of the middle class. Today, it is mostly the representatives of intellectual elites – ‘Brahmins’, as Picketty calls them – who vote for the left-wing parties. The lower class, in turn, is attracted not so much by the ‘old’ conservative parties traditionally trying to allure better-off voters, but by the right-wing populists who promise to get rid of the elites. The shift in the class structure of the left-wing electorate, accompanied by an unaltered structure of the traditional conservative parties’ electorates, has resulted in a political shift. In many countries none of the dominant parties has any reason to represent the interests of the excluded or to make sure that the fruits of economic growth are evenly distributed. In effect – as Picketty argues – inequalities are growing, social conflicts are swelling and the gap in the political scene is filled by populists, who aim to represent people from the bottom of the social hierarchy, or those who feel vulnerable.

To get a better understanding of the roots of the current political shift, we have to examine the relationship between economic instability and the fear of changes in norms, lifestyles, family life and sexuality. The foundation of the populist imaginary is the division between ‘the corrupt elites’ and ‘the people’ who are colonized and marginalized by the elites, but the key is not just the hierarchy of power and resources, but also cultural distinctions, different norms and practices. The key to the success of the right-wing populists are inequalities understood not only in terms of income levels, a sense of economic insecurity and growing precarity, but also inequalities in the sphere of dignity, voice and visibility. The latter are much more difficult to grasp than wage inequality, but both reflect profound changes in the ways in which citizenship is defined in the contemporary world. Both the political discourse and the political practice of citizenship rest on marginalizing social issues, while awareness that social citizenship is crucial for the stability of political systems and societies is missing.

In his classic essay ‘Citizenship and the Social Class’, the British sociologist T. H. Marshall (1950) wrote that citizenship itself can function as a source of social inequality, which is why political rights have to be accompanied by social rights. The state is obliged to combat economic and educational inequalities and widen the space in which its citizens can experience community, also in terms of common culture. People deprived of healthcare, women burdened with full responsibility for care work, or the ‘working poor’ trying to make ends meet – all these groups have no chance of enjoying their political rights if they are deprived of state support in the social sphere. They will not be able to cast a vote, as they are incapable of leaving their homes; they will not be running for office, as their limited time and resources will not allow them to engage in any activities beyond the bare minimum; in fact, they will not even be able to follow the public debate due to lack of time and cultural capital. They may not be stripped of citizenship, like migrants or refugees, but in practice they become second-class citizens.

Obviously, people struggling with economic difficulties do not automatically become supporters of populist parties, and those who are well off do not necessarily vote for liberals. Research on Donald Trump’s electorate shows that the Americans who elected him for president were slightly better off than Hillary Clinton’s voters. In fact, among the poorest Americans the Democratic voters prevailed. A similar pattern could be observed during the 2015 elections in Poland: although the electorate of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) was dominated by people with lower levels of education, the elderly and those living in smaller towns, the party would not have won without the support of a significant group of well-off city dwellers. An analysis by Maciej Gdula (2018) of PiS voters’ attitudes in a small town in the Mazovia region (mid-north-eastern Poland) suggests that the party’s supporters also include representatives of the middle and lower classes who identify with the anti-elitism promoted by the right-wing politicians and share their critical opinion of the previous governments. It appears that the success of the right-wing populists in Poland results from a coalition between the deprived and the discontented (Marcuse 2009), that is, between those who experience real deprivation (working on short-term contracts, or for wages significantly below the national average, or evicted from privatized buildings) and those who are dissatisfied because they are losing a sense of dignity and feeling that someone is is getting in the way of their betterment.

PiS supporters’ statements recorded by Gdula show that the sense of marginalization and sense of victimhood stem both from economic injustice and from the conviction that others have succeeded not due to their hard work and dedication, but rather because they knew the right people and lacked all morality and scruples. Both attitudes – actual deprivation and the sense of being ignored – result in the belief that one is deprived of something that others have gained. That in turn evokes anger and fear of further losses. According to an Austrian researcher, Ruth Wodak (2015), populism can be defined as the politics of fear: it provokes and feeds on the fear of losing one’s job, fear of ‘the other’, fear of losing traditions, values and sovereignty and also fear of cultural changes. Economic problems increase people’s anxiety levels, but they are not the only condition for populism to emerge. For those who have more are also afraid of losing their privileged position, but they usually have sufficient resources not to fall off the social ladder (or at least not to the very bottom).

‘We still are a green island. It is just that people are angry.’

The first signs of the right-wing populist wave rising in Poland were met by disbelief of the liberal mainstream. Both politicians and commentators were puzzled as to why the majority of voters supported populists, considering that we had had such a well-functioning democracy and the country had managed to overcome the economic crisis of 2007–8 and maintain economic growth. If we are to believe macroeconomic indicators, in 2015 Poland really was a ‘green island’ in a sea of countries affected to a smaller or greater degree both by the economic crisis and the effects of austerity measures. The vision of Poland as a stable and fast-developing country was reflected in its GDP and other macroeconomic indicators, hence no one had dared ask whether the policy of economic growth should be replaced by one of redistribution. In the actions and public speeches of the politicians of Civic Platform (PO) – the ruling party between 2007 and 2015 – one can spot harbingers of the bafflement accompanying PiS’s victory in 2015, as well as symptoms of intellectual helplessness in the face of socioeconomic challenges. In 2012 Prime Minister Donald Tusk made an emblematic declaration during an interview with Monika Olejnik: ‘I think we’re choosing the right tools. We still are a green island. It is just that people are angry.’

Tusk, like many other politicians and commentators, thought that the anger expressed by part of Polish society was irrational and artificially created, and that the government just needed to explain this to the people, who would then support PO and the Polish People’s Party (PSL). He seemed not to see the problems that large groups of society were facing. There was a failure to understand that dissatisfaction generally peaks not when the situation is at its worst, but when people expect improvements that do not happen. Unfulfilled expectations and shattered hopes often become a stronger foundation for mass protests than a predicament that is dire but fairly stable. Constant boasting about how well the Polish economy was doing reinforced the disappointment and anger of many people, especially in comparison with their everyday experience. This is because in reality not all Poles lived on the ‘green island’; many of them actually lived in a country where the gross median wage was slightly above 3,000 zlotys (c. 700 euros) and the working conditions of many groups had deteriorated significantly.

The reality of life in Poland in the first two decades of this century is presented by the authors of two important books that shed light on the reasons for the social dissatisfaction and even on the anger shown by some of the voters, contradicting the claim that all Poles had benefited from the growing GDP (Czerwińska 2010; Theiss 2017). The authors of the later of these publications point out that between 2008 and 2015 the working conditions for many professions worsened, employers became more demanding and the amount of work increased. These changes were accompanied by the state’s escalating demands towards its citizens. ‘The most important qualities expected of workers were flexibility (including readiness to accept poorer working conditions), entrepreneurial skills and self-education’ (Theiss 2017: 226). Similarly to the 1990s, when unemployed workers and poor farmers were shamed by being labelled as lazy and insufficiently active or determined, those who dared to complain about their working conditions and wages during the economic crisis were considered demanding and undeserving.

During the crisis, the differences between specific groups of employees became greater. Those with permanent job contracts were in a significantly better situation and were paid more than an expanding group of people with short-term contracts. Working conditions and payment depended also on people’s position in the gendered hierarchy of prestige and power. Hence, while the situation of doctors definitely improved, those in other medical professions such as nursing were still underpaid and increasingly overworked, and thus forced to switch to self-employment or to take on two or three jobs to make ends meet. Research shows that, despite the growing GDP, employees in Poland were being given bigger workloads, increasingly had to work overtime without extra pay and often had their salaries reduced. At the same time, Poles declared a sense of job insecurity much more often than workers in such countries as Great Britain, Germany or Sweden, which were more heavily affected by the economic crisis (Kurowska 2017: 117–8). This situation whereby the position of employees significantly weakened vis-à-vis the employers and the state had consequences also for the political sphere. As Theiss points out, ‘it facilitated the growing delegitimization of the political system in the final period of Civic Platform’s rule’ (2017).

In the case of certain occupational groups, these negative trends worsened their already difficult working conditions. As shown by sociologist Julia Kubisa, in recent years the already difficult situation of women in feminized professions such as nursing had become unbearable. Kubisa notes that the trade union activists she talked to pointed to a ‘schizophrenic situation whereby the message conveyed by the government through the media is that Poland has not been affected by the crisis and that GDP is growing, while at work they are constantly overburdened and have to deal with so-called restructuring problems, in other words downsizing, job cuts, reluctance of employers to sign long-term contracts, outsourcing, cancelling of promised pay rises and longer working hours’ (2010: 60–1). As usual, those who experience a crisis the hardest are society’s most vulnerable groups, including women, who are paid less and have the burden of unpaid care work. Women are affected by welfare and social expenses cuts much more than most men; they also have to put more effort into meeting the increasing requirements of the job market because of the unpaid work they do at home. In the context of the 500+ cash benefit scheme (for every second and consecutive child, introduced by the PiS government in 2015), many commentators claim that such support ‘makes women lazy’, ‘pushes them out of the labour market’ and ‘makes them stay at home’, discouraging mothers from taking jobs. However, those who raise such arguments do not seem to take into consideration the conditions and wages the women were offered while working.

Politics of emotions and social citizenship

In the light of the above analyses, it becomes easier to understand why right-wing populists have won not only in the countries heavily hit by the crisis, but also on the ‘green islands’. Populism is sometimes defined as the ability to publicly express the emotions and demands of those groups of people that were previously marginalized and pushed out of the mainstream debate. In this respect, PiS undoubtedly recognized the situation and responded to people’s needs better than the ruling PO. Thus the right-wing party’s victory should be seen as the effect of noticing and expressing the expectations of those who were being persuaded that the GDP growth would, much like a rising tide, ‘lift all the boats’. But is it only about naming the hidden problem and promising to right the wrongs? The key to the electoral successes of right-wing populists is their ability to stoke fears and to pinpoint those who are guilty.

Emotions constitute an integral part of populist politics and strategy. In fact, they constitute an integral part of politics itself, and while the left-wing projects are often based on emotions such as anger, trust, solidarity and hope, the right-wing populism feeds mostly on fear, resentment and aversion to ‘the other’, usually identified as the elites, whose power and domination are often overemphasized or simply manufactured. As a result, people representing minority groups, such as refugees, are presented as villains. In right-wing populist discourse the victim often becomes a dangerous invader or perpetrator of violence. According to Wodak, searching for the scapegoat is a key element of discursive populists’ practices – it is not enough to raise fear, it is also necessary to point to its source and say: we will defeat them!

In the context of the decline of social citizenship both as an ideal and in practice, fear is often rooted in shame and a sense of humiliation resulting from the lack of recognition of people’s right to dignity and a voice. This is particularly visible in the case of groups that are considered ‘demanding’, ‘undeserving’ and easy to bribe. The debate on the effects of the 500+ benefit in Poland shows the lack of respect for women who decided to give up their jobs and concentrate on unpaid care work instead. The types of criticism these women face shows that stay-at-home mothers, just like the working poor and other ‘unproductive’ groups, are easily denounced as irrational, too emotional and lacking the skills and knowledge to make the right political and life choices. They become the objects rather than subjects of public debate.

Given these tendencies, should we consider Kaczyński’s or Orbán’s pro-family measures as important steps towards the implementation of Marshall’s ideal of social citizenship? Not necessarily. In reality, the right-wing populist political strategy is closely embedded in socially conservative ideology. In the eyes of the conservative right, women who focus solely on unpaid care work are idealized as the incarnation of true femininity, whereas liberals perceive them as victims of political bribery, or simply too lazy to work. However, neither the conservative right nor the liberals are willing to get rid of the inequalities that force so many women to choose between employment and unpaid work. While PiS policies have improved the situation of large families, reducing inequality is not the current government’s political priority. A joint report published in 2018 by Development Finance International and Oxfam shows that Poland is in a distant 20th position in Europe in terms of government-led measures to reduce inequality, and this due only to the increased welfare expenditure.

Populists do not restore social citizenship. Rather, they give its substitute to certain groups that for ideological or strategic reasons they include within the community of ‘the people’. At the same time, their aim is not to build a pluralistic community that would enable the largest possible group of citizens to take part in social life and shared culture. On the contrary, their aim is to create and maintain divisions that propel the political mobilization of their supporters. The respect that PiS shows for women who do care work masks their contempt for other groups such as feminists, lesbians and women fighting for gender equality, sexual democracy and a secular state. The politicians representing the extreme right in Poland establish their emotional relationship with their supporters by constructing the figure of a common enemy in the guise of a cultural elite that shames the people and despises them.

Research conducted by Mikko Salmeli and Christiana von Acheve (2018) delivers important conclusions on how emotions work in populist politics. Comparing the dynamics of emotions in right-wing and left-wing populism, they show how the former is characterized by supressed shame that leads to fear and a sense of instability being manifested mostly in the form of resentment and hatred for imaginary enemies. Meanwhile, left-wing populism allows individuals and groups of people to express shame in the public sphere, thus helping to direct the anger towards the real causes of the problem: the neoliberal policies of austerity and the politicians who implement them.

Emotions, specifically fear, shame and pride, matter in contemporary politics. According to Przemysław Czapliński (2017), in today’s Poland we are dealing with two coexisting, incompatible regimes of shame and pride: the ‘progressive’ regime in which pride comes from expressing shame, and a ‘conservative/right-wing’ regime in which pride comes from negating shame. Shame and pride are the key to political change, not only in Poland. It is not excessive demands that are fuelling the anger of numerous groups of citizens that vote for the right-wing parties in one country after another, but rather people’s desire to get rid of the shame that is so readily used to stigmatize those unable to keep up with the pace of change. The left wing’s lack of language for expressing this shame, coupled with their lack of a strategy for diverting the ensuing anger towards the real sources of the problem and the actors truly responsible for the worsening situation, leaves a gap that is efficiently filled by the populist right. A possible remedy for this deficiency would be the revival of social citizenship understood not only as the need to care for people’s basic requirements and economic security, but also as the process of building a community for the people rather than just for the cultural and business elites.

Elżbieta Korolczuk

Translated from Polish.

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