Can Europe Make It?

Youngsters and refugees, or how exile changes eastern Europe

Official anticommunism never contented itself with making an equation between fascism and communism. It gravitated toward depicting communism as an absolute evil, whose enemies became new role models.

Michal Kozlowski
17 March 2016
Polish youth on the far-right Independence Day march, November 2015.

Polish youth on the far-right Independence Day march, November 2015.Wikicommons/ lithium1989. Some rights reserved.Refugees are now kingmakers in eastern Europe. They seem to have swiped out of office the Polish centrist government, while they have reinforced the wobbling power of Victor Orban who was the first to realize how to make use of them in his political machine. In Slovakia, the government (already at the forefront of an anti-refugee crusade) barely survived the sudden rise of its neo-Nazi party. 

It is important to note that in the first two countries there are no refugees at all (apart from their constant presence in the media) and that they never had any intention of showing up there. This shows quite clearly that the political significance of refugees is independent of their very presence. They serve as ‘empty signifiers’ – any old fear or resentment can be freely and creatively projected onto them. This shows quite clearly that the political significance of refugees is independent of their very presence. They serve as ‘empty signifiers’.

In accordance with such projections, “the refugee crisis” demonstrates that western elites are driven by a leftist ideology that is out to destroy European civilisation. (It seems that Chancellor Merkel has seamlessly replaced Che Guevara as a figurehead for the world’s leftism). Or, in a lighter vein, that they are at any rate detached from reality, tremendously naïve, decadent and incapable of genuine action. In the eyes of a pro-government Polish media, the current exodus is an orchestrated action, a deliberate plan ‘of Islam’ to triumph over Europe in a millennial struggle.

As for the liberal media, they stress the security problem linked to the terrorist threat as well as the alleged univocally negative record of ‘Muslim assimilation’. But there is room for more inventiveness – a successful far-right political leader (currently the third force in the Polish parliament and particularly popular among young voters) has accused Germany of scheduling the mass deportation and forced resettlement of its own Muslims, in Poland…. There is no better prospect to fuel the discourse and the imagination of the extreme right than that of refugees.

It is quite obvious that inter-European tensions over the distribution of refugees in general are not driven by differences in national interests. Certainly not in the eastern part of the Union. Our countries are particularly unattractive to immigrants due to the lack of already existing migrant communities and, more importantly, due to low wages in general. In particular, the lowest wages (which most of these refugees will unfortunately attract) are comparatively speaking very low. At the same time, all our countries suffer a dramatic demographic crisis (Poland has already had a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman for two decades) and our pension systems stand on the verge of collapse. In fact, the refugee crisis could be seen as an opportunity to partly fix a demographic disequilibrium.

But this crisis serves an entirely different purpose. It serves as a tool to deeply rearrange political systems in the direction often referred to as ‘non-liberal democracy’ (which at best should be designated soft authoritarianism). Consequently, there are two separate reasons for the spectacular career that the “refugee crisis” has had in the east. The first is that politicians want to make use of it: and the second is that it actually works very well.

None of eastern Europe’s new strongmen was a political freshman. Kaczynski and Orban have always been there, as well as the leaders of the Croatian HDZ. They have always been populists, but they only recently got radicalized. They gradually came to realize that the alternation of power is not a necessity if you know how to be smart. Although nationalistic populism filled their rhetoric, they manoeuvred towards the extreme centre. The state’s promotion of the middle class was to be maintained, the lower classes disciplined, corruption legitimised by ethno-capitalist projects. But at the same time, the vital interest of foreign capital would be reassured (or even discretely reinforced). After all, everybody in eastern Europe is strongly dependent on industrial production driven by foreign capital. Besides, governments need money. The EU was to be vilified ideologically but at the same time pragmatically instrumentalised. The EU was to be vilified ideologically but at the same time pragmatically instrument-alised.

Victor Orban developed a political technology which was too convenient not to be imitated. Ideologically, the new regimes are based on only a few assumptions – mostly that the nation provides the only viable form of solidarity and loyalty, that religion is an ultimate source of morality, that legal institutions are a cover up for dominant interests (defined vaguely), that democracy is nothing but a way of expressing national interest, and that leftism and multiculturalism are diseases. Islamophobia also serves a specific function: it allows us to universalize the local ideology as a defence of European civilisation in general.

It is quite easy to grasp the outline of this ideology. It is more interesting to work out why it is so successful. 

The young are always right

The survey of 2013 that revealed that 60 % of Warsaw’s high school students would not date a Jew, and that some 44% of them would feel unhappy having a Jewish neighbour, came as a shock to many. It was already known that Polish youth are more “socially conservative” regarding abortion and LGBT rights than older strata, but few suspected that this would go hand in hand with outright antisemitism. In 2015, the three parties of the extreme right together garnered 65% of young voters, some 75% among young males. 

No wonder that this tendency is confirmed by the attitude towards refugees. The readiness to give them shelter decreases with age. In fact, the highest willingness to support refugees is among Poles of between 55-64 years of age, so the generation that matured under the Ancien Regime. In fact, the highest willingness to support refugees is among Poles of between 55-64 years of age, so the generation that matured under the Ancien Regime.

Among the respondents under 24, 69% of them would not accept any refugees, regardless of the circumstances. Actually, only a handful of Poles (some 5%) would let the refugees settle down amongst them and according to the others, they should be sent home as soon as it becomes possible. Racially motivated violence is on the rise according to human rights organisations. Adam Bodnar, Poland’s ombudsman, notes the most striking fact: the criminal hate speech flowing out of the internet is frequently not anonymous. Not only do perpetrators assume that it will go unpunished but they also consider it socially legitimate. This legitimacy of an extreme right discourse has been built gradually and inexorably, with an important contribution from the state.

Official anticommunism never contented itself with making an equation between fascism and communism. It gravitated toward depicting communism as an absolute evil, which led, quite logically, to revalorising the most ardent enemies of communism. For many young Poles they became role models. But communism as ‘leftism’ is an idiom that can stand for many different things: it embraces the LGBT activist as well as former apparatchiks. In the Polish case, the Catholic church played a role as well. Quasi-compulsory religion classes were introduced into public education over twenty years ago. The main social message of Catholicism since then, has been the idea of a “civilisational death” identified with modern western civilisation. Recent sexual violence in Cologne imbued the far right with one more identity: that of protectors of Polish women. In general, the Polish turn towards the far right can only be understood if the mass adhesion of the young generation to an extreme right discourse and sensitivity is taken into account. Recent sexual violence in Cologne imbued the far right with one more identity: that of protectors of Polish women.

However, it would be wrong to explain this phenomenon by state ideology alone. There is nothing inevitable about the fact that this ideology was first adopted and then transformed and radicalized by the younger generation (especially a male part of it). One could be sceptical about ‘generation’ as a major explanatory factor. Yet, the scale of this phenomenon shows that it cannot be ignored. Obviously, the right disposed of other electoral resources, but the young made the difference that triggered the regime change. In contemporary societies, the support of the young carries a particularly strong legitimising power. The young represent the future and they are always right.

This generation is formally the best educated and it has been the most pampered in the country’s history, not so much due to economic abundance as to demographic factors. They were born during a demographic decline, there were so few of them, and so they were relatively well supported. The stampede for higher education attested to their growing material and symbolic aspirations (between 2003 and 2013, the share in the overall population holding a university degree grew from 14.3% to 40.5%).

The reality of the labour market that then confronted them produced huge disillusionment. In fact, albeit relatively successful, Poland’s semi-peripheral economy is quite unable to come up to their expectations. It is not only that wages are low, but that the competition is also ruthless and labour relations pitiless. The opening of the European labour market improved their bargaining position but those who temporarily emigrated to the UK or Germany suffered a painful nosedive in status. Plus, they often found themselves competing for jobs with other immigrants, often of non-European origin.

For many young Poles, extreme right discourse is the only form of social critique they know. For many young Poles, extreme right discourse is the only form of social critique they know.They reject the claims for social rights: they perceive them as a manifestation of weakness. They blame a cosmopolitan elite for their fate, which has stolen and corrupted the genuine market. The EU basically embodies this clique – the very same elite, they believe, that wants to impose cultural diversity by promoting immigration.

They don’t want diversity. Sameness would guarantee fairness and security. And the sense of insecurity is very strong. Several surveys have shown a very low level of trust when dealing with people from outside the inner circle of family and acquaintances. Attachment to a nationalistic “imagined community” compensates them for defunct community relations. In such a case the refugees serve as the figure of an “imagined other”. It becomes no less than a patriotic duty to prevent their intrusion. It becomes no less than a patriotic duty to prevent their intrusion.

So successful have refugees been in mobilising resentment at large, that they have rapidly overtaken the previous favourite scape goat of the right wing, notably “gender ideology”. Still, gender and refugees share one important feature. They can both be presented as part of the very same conspiracy, sponsored by the EU.

The current ruling party informal electoral slogan was “Poland is in ruins”, a claim bluntly contradicting the reality of rising industrial production and unprecedented, EU-subsidised, infrastructural investments. But it must be conceded that this slogan expresses some truth. Poland, and perhaps most of eastern Europe, actually is in ruins, not material however but moral.

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