European Union

Brexit’s lessons for Eastern Europe (and vice versa)

It's high time to stop seeing the rise of the Right and xenophobia as a matter of national character.
Brexit referendum

Until recently it only happened in godforsaken places: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia. Crazy xenophobic right-wingers come into power, win presidential elections, create governments. If anyone in the West devoted any attention to it, a comforting explanation was always ready: haven’t these places been forever inhabited by gloomy fascists? Isn’t it the true nature of these Easterners, something everybody always suspected was pulsating under the superficial modernization of the post-communist countries, which only just came to light? A nice euphemism to describe this phenomenon is “immature electorates”, apparently savage and easy to manipulate, unlike the truly democratic Westerners.

It should by now be obvious that in the East and in the West, we are all in the same boat.

Upsetting as it was, for the Western public it had nothing to do with the developments in their nice, civilized world. The right wing has been on the rise there too, in France, in Germany, in Great Britain, nobody denied it, but, let’s face it: it was seen as something completely distinct. A problem, of course, a worry, but not a matter of the national character of the French, the Germans, the British. These were open, progressive societies that always managed to restrain and tame the Right. Unlike Eastern Europeans, they had no right-wing prime ministers, no openly nationalist governments, no xenophobic presidents. It became a bit more complicated with the recent presidential elections in Austria, but then Austria was saved by several thousand votes, proving its adherence to European values. And to explain the narrow result one could always argue that Austria lies in the East too.

And then the Brexit referendum came. What seemed to be the very core of the Western democratic world, the United Kingdom, got infected by xenophobic madness. There was no last-moment deliverance, no miraculous salvation: people in Britain voted to leave the European Union, primarily because they were seduced by the right-wing rhetoric of national pride, hatred, and anger. If we are unlucky, something similar might soon happen in the US presidential elections. It should by now be obvious that in the East and in the West, we are all in the same boat. And it’s high time to change the way we talk about these developments.

The most urgent issue is to stop discussing the rise of the Right in terms of national character. Luckily, it has already started in Great Britain where commentators are looking for nuanced explanations of what happened. They are trying hard to go beyond the simplistic explanation of “Britons being racist” and looking for other narratives. They are analysing the referendum statistics and pointing to various social and economic developments that led to the final result. They mention social exclusion, the anger and frustration of people abandoned by the establishment. They are talking about the failure of the Left, which betrayed them by choosing the Third Way and compromising with big business. About the discrepancy between the rhetoric of success and the reality of everyday life in the times of late neoliberalism. About frustration and hopelessness that can be easily turned into hatred against immigrants. About the inability of the dry, technocratic language of the liberals to move the electorates, and the lack of a powerful leftist story which could compete with the right-wing narrative.

This is a picture and a diagnosis the Left in Central and Eastern Europe has known for a longer while when explaining the rise of the Right in the region. The right-wing triumphal parade started earlier in Eastern Europe, as the social and economic drawbacks here were much more acute than in Great Britain. The neoliberalism applied in post-communist countries was a neoliberalism on steroids. The Left could not compete with the right-wingers, because its development was blocked by the still fresh memory of communism, the association between any form of social policy with an authoritarian regime, and the still walking zombies of post-communist parties. In fact, the Left in the region has to be rebuilt from scratch. It would be definitely of huge advantage if the Brexit referendum made Western public opinion notice these developments in their full complexity.

No matter how dangerous the Right looks and how successful it is, it is suicidal for the Left to move towards the centre and form a common front with the liberals. For years, this was the strategy of Eastern European left-wingers and it only made the Right more powerful.

But the Brexit referendum can and should also be a lesson for the Eastern European Left. To a certain extent, this Left has likewise perceived Eastern developments as distinct from Western experiences. It has seen the origin of all ill in the painful economic transformation from centrally planned economies to free market capitalism in the early 1990s. No doubt, the transformation was a model example of the shock doctrine, and it caused the social, economic, and political exclusion of huge parts of society. But, as the British referendum showed, social frustration and anger can very well appear independently of this historical experience, and can equally lead to a vehement rejection of the status quo. Of course, Great Britain has its own history of social depravation and life perspectives stolen by neoliberal policy, but objectively the standard of living and social security in the UK is much higher than in Poland, Romania, or Bulgaria. What seems to count the most is not the depth of the economic crisis or an individual, private story of failure, but the subjective feeling of being neglected and abandoned by politicians, helplessness in the face of the globalizing world and the impression of being robbed of one’s political agency.

Indeed, the main political narratives are becoming more and more alike in many parts of the world, and what we hear are three major voices. There is the liberal mainstream, selling a story about steady but moderate progress, rationality, technocratic expertise, and social peace. It avoids the language of confrontation and argues that there is a way of satisfying everyone. It is by now clear that this narrative of appeasement is a fraud and in fact promotes the interests of narrow political and economic elites against the interest of the common people. As an alternative we have two different emotional narratives which do not avoid the language of confrontation and clash and want to abolish the status quo: the right-wing negative narrative of hostility and exclusion, and the left-wing positive narrative of struggle and hope. The proportions and balances between the three poles of the political scene are different depending on local developments and political traditions. Usually, the tendency of the political scene to reach a bipolar rather than tri-polar equilibrium blurs this pattern in one way or another. Still, one can argue that this applies to places as different from each other as Poland, Spain, the UK, the US, and Tunisia.

The good news is that usually all three political forces have two others to compete with. The bad news is that for the moment, the Left does not seem to be very successful, and is losing its electorate first of all in favour of the Right. This is significant, as especially in Western Europe, this represents a new situation. The western Left is used to fighting neoliberalism, to opposing capitalist elites and big business, but not so much to taming nationalism, xenophobia, and the rhetoric of national pride and exclusion. And this is where the Eastern European experience can be useful. It teaches that no matter how dangerous the Right looks and how successful it is, it is suicidal for the Left to move towards the centre and form a common front with the liberals. For years, this was the strategy of Eastern European left-wingers and it only made the Right more powerful and turned the Left into a laughable variant of the liberal project.

It is the task of the Left to be as radical and as emotional as the right-wingers, but to offer people real and not fake solutions to their state of misery and dashed hopes. It is also our task to be as practical as the Right. We will never beat the simple message of hatred and xenophobia with mantras about democracy, transparency, or with complex theories of inequalities and the Tobin tax. To efficiently beat the “Muslims go home” or “Britain First” narrative, we must get as practical as possible. Do the sums, think it through and organize the left-wing agenda around something simple that can nevertheless truly change people’s everyday lives. Instead of a vague “minimum hourly wage”, talk about “8,5 Euro for every hour of work” (like in Germany). Instead of the unclear idea of an “unconditional basic income”, talk about “550 Euro monthly for everyone” (like in Finland). There might be better strategies to beat the Right. But if we keep imagining that people vote for the Right because this is how they are by nature, we will make the Right unstoppable. Identify the reasons, find the particular problems, and find better answers to them – this is our task.


Marta Tycner is a historian and member of the Polish Razem (Together) party.

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