Saturday, September 15, 2018

Resentment and Right-Wing Populism

Anne Applebaum, an American journalist married to a Polish politician, has a long but very interesting essay in the Atlantic explaining the rise of right-wing populists to power in her adopted country. The supporters of the Law and Justice Party, she writes, have become so estranged from its opponents that friendship or even conversation across party lines has become impossible. Families have broken up; one neighbor told Applebaum, “I’ve lost my mother. She lives in another world.” What, she wonders, has happened to so strongly divide Poles against each other?

Applebaum thinks the new Poland is becoming a one-party state like many others in recent history:
Unlike Marxism, the Leninist one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power. It works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite—the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite. In monarchies such as prerevolutionary France and Russia, the right to rule was granted to the aristocracy, which defined itself by rigid codes of breeding and etiquette. In modern Western democracies, the right to rule is granted, at least in theory, by different forms of competition: campaigning and voting, meritocratic tests that determine access to higher education and the civil service, free markets. Old-fashioned social hierarchies are usually part of the mix, but in modern Britain, America, Germany, France, and until recently Poland, we have assumed that competition is the most just and efficient way to distribute power. The best-run businesses should make the most money. The most appealing and competent politicians should rule. The contests between them should take place on an even playing field, to ensure a fair outcome.

Lenin’s one-party state was based on different values. It overthrew the aristocratic order. But it did not put a competitive model in place. The Bolshevik one-party state was not merely undemocratic; it was also anticompetitive and antimeritocratic. Places in universities, civil-service jobs, and roles in government and industry did not go to the most industrious or the most capable. Instead, they went to the most loyal. People advanced because they were willing to conform to the rules of party membership. Though those rules were different at different times, they were consistent in certain ways. They usually excluded the former ruling elite and their children, as well as suspicious ethnic groups. They favored the children of the working class. Above all, they favored people who loudly professed belief in the creed, who attended party meetings, who participated in public displays of enthusiasm. Unlike an ordinary oligarchy, the one-party state allows for upward mobility: True believers can advance. As Hannah Arendt wrote back in the 1940s, the worst kind of one-party state “invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”
But really, why should those who win out in a pseudo-meritocratic system have any right to riches and power? Surely even the most convinced meritocrat will admit that certain horrible personality traits contribute to that sort of success: ruthless ambition, vaunting pride, a willingness to lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead, and so on. What about the rest of us? What about good people who play by the rules; shouldn't we get our chance to rule?
Notably, one of the Law and Justice government’s first acts, in early 2016, was to change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks. The Polish foreign service also wants to drop its requirement that diplomats know two foreign languages, a bar that was too high for favored candidates to meet. The government fired heads of Polish state companies. Previously, the people in these roles had had at least some government or business experience. Now these jobs are largely filled by Law and Justice Party members, as well as their friends and relatives. Typical is Janina Goss, an old friend of Kaczyński’s from whom the former prime minister once borrowed a large sum of money, apparently to pay for a medical treatment for his mother. Goss, an avid maker of jams and preserves, is now on the board of directors of Polska Grupa Energetyczna, the largest power company in Poland, an employer of 40,000 people.

You can call this sort of thing by many names: nepotism, state capture. But if you so choose, you can also describe it in positive terms: It represents the end of the hateful notions of meritocracy and competition, principles that, by definition, never benefited the less successful. A rigged and uncompetitive system sounds bad if you want to live in a society run by the talented. But if that isn’t your primary interest, then what’s wrong with it?

If you believe, as my old friends now believe, that Poland will be better off if it is ruled by people who deserve to rule—because they loudly proclaim a certain kind of patriotism, because they are loyal to the party leader, or because they are, echoing the words of Kaczyński himself, a “better sort of Pole”—then a one-party state is actually more fair than a competitive democracy. Why should different parties be allowed to compete on an even playing field if only one of them has the moral right to form the government? Why should businesses be allowed to compete in a free market if only some of them are loyal to the party and therefore deserving of wealth?
Damon Linker calls this "the revolt of the losers." The response of many people to their own failure to reach the top in our neo-liberal system is not to work harder, but to believe that the system is rigged against them by nefarious forces. They become so attached to this belief because the only alternative is to think of themselves as losers, and all human experience shows that people will do almost anything rather than accept that.

But it's not like our allegedly meritocratic system doesn't offer plenty to be outraged about. Consider a single case, that of Les Moonves, who was just fired from CBS for sexual harassment but may still walk away with a severance package worth $120 million. Who isn't outraged?

The trap of meritocratic capitalism was recognized a long time ago, but – weirdly to me – its defenders still refuse to see the problem. Most people do not think it is ok that some people get rich while others go hungry. Many people do not think it is ok that slimy bastards get rich while good, hard-working people struggle. The Republican obsession with leveling the playing field so that anyone ambitious enough can get ahead – the “right to rise” – misses the point. The point is the rising, not the secondary question of who gets to do it.

Over the course of the 20th century two different populist solutions have been tried, right and left. The left-wing solution is to declare a revolution, seize the property of the rich and distribute it among the revolutionaries, and if the economy is destroyed in the process, if the result is Camus’ “slave camps in the name of freedom,” then so be it. At least the greedy bastards got what was coming to them. The right-wing solution is to make a fetish of loyalty – to nation, to party, to leader – declare those insufficiently loyal to be enemies of the state, seize their wealth, etc. Neither has worked very well, except as catharsis.

But if you don't want that to happen, then you have to work hard, all the time, to make a free society work for all its members. You have to limit the wealth and power of the successful – ideally they would do this voluntarily, as in the 1950s, but if they refuse, then tax the hell out of them. You have to prove, if necessary by show trials of celebrities for minor infractions (Martha Stewart), that nobody is above the law. You have to give poor people things they value (Medicare expansion, drug treatment for everyone who wants it). Above all, you have to treat the mass of the citizens as worthy human beings.

The current crisis has been created, I believe, by the selfishness of the western elite: by greed, by cultural snobbery, by a refusal to defend our civilization by working to make the world better for everyone, not just themselves.


G. Verloren said...


The chief took the paper, unfolded it, and, raising his hand, “Heaven be praised, and his holiness also,” said he in a loud voice; “here is a pardon for one of the prisoners!”

“A pardon!” cried the people with one voice — ”a pardon!” At this cry Andrea raised his head. “Pardon for whom?” cried he.

Peppino remained breathless. “A pardon for Peppino, called Rocca Priori,” said the principal friar. And he passed the paper to the officer commanding the carbineers, who read and returned it to him.

“For Peppino!” cried Andrea, who seemed roused from the torpor in which he had been plunged. “Why for him and not for me? We ought to die together. I was promised he should die with me. You have no right to put me to death alone. I will not die alone — I will not!”

And he broke from the priests struggling and raving like a wild beast, and striving desperately to break the cords that bound his hands. The executioner made a sign, and his two assistants leaped from the scaffold and seized him.

“What is going on?” asked Franz of the count; for, as all the talk was in the Roman dialect, he had not perfectly understood it.

“Do you not see?” returned the count, “that this human creature who is about to die is furious that his fellow–sufferer does not perish with him? And, were he able, he would rather tear him to pieces with his teeth and nails than let him enjoy the life he himself is about to be deprived of."

"Oh, man, man — race of crocodiles,” cried the count, extending his clinched hands towards the crowd, “how well do I recognize you there, and that at all times you are worthy of yourselves!”

Meanwhile Andrea and the two executioners were struggling on the ground, and he kept exclaiming, “He ought to die! — he shall die! — I will not die alone!”

“Look, look,” cried the count, seizing the young men’s hands — ”look, for on my soul it is curious. Here is a man who had resigned himself to his fate, who was going to the scaffold to die — like a coward, it is true, but he was about to die without resistance. Do you know what gave him strength? — do you know what consoled him? It was, that another partook of his punishment — that another partook of his anguish — that another was to die before him."

"Lead two sheep to the butcher’s, two oxen to the slaughterhouse, and make one of them understand that his companion will not die; the sheep will bleat for pleasure, the ox will bellow with joy. But man — man, whom God created in his own image — man, upon whom God has laid his first, his sole commandment, to love his neighbor — man, to whom God has given a voice to express his thoughts — what is his first cry when he hears his fellow–man is saved? A blasphemy. Honor to man, this masterpiece of nature, this king of the creation!”

And the count burst into a laugh; a terrible laugh, that showed he must have suffered horribly to be able thus to laugh. However, the struggle still continued, and it was dreadful to witness. The people all took part against Andrea, and twenty thousand voices cried, “Put him to death! put him to death!”

Franz sprang back, but the count seized his arm, and held him before the window. “What are you doing?” said he. “Do you pity him? If you heard the cry of ‘Mad dog!’ you would take your gun — you would unhesitatingly shoot the poor beast, who, after all, was only guilty of having been bitten by another dog. And yet you pity a man who, without being bitten by one of his race, has yet murdered his benefactor; and who, now unable to kill any one, because his hands are bound, wishes to see his companion in captivity perish. No, no — look, look!”


Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo, Chapter 35: La Mazzolata

Unknown said...

I think there's much in the Applebaum-Linker analysis that's right. It seems to me part of today's neo-liberal meritocratic hypertrophy goes back to various academic and cultural movements of the late 60s and early 70s, for example those centered on Milton Friedman. By about 1975 his "business exists to make money, and forget the rest" philosophy seems to have been combinging with a more general "I'm awesome, so screw you all!" cultural wave. I think this happened, but I wish I knew more about it. It would be interesting if some cultural historian could, for example, track sales of "Atlas Shrugged."

Shadow said...

The virtue of greed?

It's a Wonderful Life

Greed is Good!!!

I just heard the Greed is Good rhetoric of the 90s on POTUS radio channel las week.

pithom said...

The right-wing and left-wing solutions were in response to entirely different problems. The left-wing solution was in response to consumption inequality. The right-wing solution was in response to subversion of the nation's cultural foundation by people of every income level. The Weimar Republic was not known for its income inequality; much the opposite. Germany in WWI, on the other hand, was known for its income inequality.

You have to limit the wealth and power of the successful

No, you don't.

You have to prove, if necessary by show trials of celebrities for minor infractions (Martha Stewart), that nobody is above the law.

That's stupid.

You have to give poor people things they value (Medicare expansion, drug treatment for everyone who wants it).

Would only work to alleviate environments in which the far left is successful. Would not work at all to alleviate environments in which the far right is successful.

The current crisis has been created, I believe, by the selfishness of the western elite: by greed, by cultural snobbery, by a refusal to defend our civilization by working to make the world better for everyone, not just themselves.

True in a sense. But you have to define "elite". Journalists and adjuncts may be poor. They're still elites.

Whether the left-wing or right-wing solution is to be preferred to the problems of the current system, the problem isn't meritocracy. The current system does not come close to it.

szopen said...

The problem with this essay is that it is absolutely wrong. There was one sociologist study of Law and Justice workers and it did not found out they were uneducated, resentful and poor. Quuite contrary, many of them are succesful businesmen and the voters quite often were accusing PO of being incompetent, corrupt and stupid. The whole "revolt of the losers" is a figment of imagination created by the former elites trying to explain how it's possible that they've lost. Indeed, the whole fact how quickly the sociologist study was forgot only indicates that the people like Applebaum do not want to know the reality. They desperately hold on to stereotypes. Indeed, in Miastko PiS got 35% of middle class voters, 29% of company owners, 30% in high education - in every group more than the PO. Only in high managers and directors PiS got 1.7% less votes than PO. In interviews PiS voters asked by interviewer often answer that they feel they've succeeded in life and they are rather pleased. The study also have shown that PiS voters are often against the elites, but only exactly because they believe elites were not formed on meritocratic basis - that the elites were postcommunists, are incompetent, immoral and alienated from the common folk - and this attitude (caring about mythical common folk) is widespread even between those most succesful.

(In Polish: - note that krytykapolityczna is associated rather with radical left!)

Another thing is taht Applebaum is married to Sikorski, who currently is part of so called "total opposition". Because of that she ignores (because how can she does not know it?) the fact that there was a whole festivity of hatred from the so-called elites towards the voters. Calling them "mohery", the actions "take back the identity card from your granny" (to prevent her from voting). The sociologists also previously found that it was anti-PiS voters who were more willing to cut friendship with PiS voters, not the other way around.

Another thing is that she says about " change the civil-service law, making it easier to fire professionals and hire party hacks.". The problem is that the anyone who worked in civil service knows that the law was a fiction. Before the "open contests" usually people knew who would be elected. You can easily find the lists of PO-PSL activists and family who find a way to get a lucrative public positions.

Yet another is "better sort of Pole" - Kaczyński once said that in Poland there were also those who cooperated with gestapo, were szmalcowniks, who were "worse kind of Poles". The opposition took that out of context and started to imply he described the opposition voters as "worse kind of voters".

szopen said...

Dammit, "Law and Justice VOTERS" not workers.

I had not voted for them. They are too left-wing for me :D ANyways, on FB i interact with amny voters from the left and the right and my general impression is that the people from "Total opposition" live in their imagination. That is: they do not care WHY people voted by Law and Justice. They generally despise the PiS voters, think they are stupid, poor and were bought by 500+. Those "janusze" and "grażyny", the names without capitalisation, and quite often they are saying, to paraphrase "we are tolerant, cheerful and open, while those dirty rednecks are hateful and sad and I hope they will all die" - quite unironically.

John said...

Szopen, thanks, I was hoping you would comment on this.

szopen said...

Well, it's true that significantly higher proportion of PiS voters is less educated and poorer than with PO voters. But it's still wrong to say only poor losers are voting PiS because they are resentful of the succesful.

According to CBOS, 4% of PO voters and 12% of PiS voters think about their personal situation as bad, 33% of PO voters and 45% of PiS voters think their personal situation is average, and 63% of PO voters and 43% of PiS voters thin their material situation is good. That means that only 12% of PiS voters could be described as "losers".

The people with the highest education are 34% of PO voters and 20% of PiS voters, while people with the lowest education are 14% of PO voters and 23% of PiS voters.

szopen said...

Another interesting thing is that with evaluation of their own wealth, the percentage of PiS voters who described their situation as bad in 2015 was 12%, but now is only 5%; those who described their situation as good was 43% in 2015, but right now it's 55%.

Among all voters, the proportions are currently 6% "bad" situation, 54% "good" situation (and were pretty much the same in 2015, +- few percents)

With all voters, the lowest education in 17%, highest is 30%. Which means that while those less educated, with worse situation, poorer indeed have voted more often than average for PiS, the difference does not justify painting PiS as party of resentful losers.