Society is the realm of eternal return, so as the fascination with the 1980ties slowly fades away, the decade of 1990ties comes back to capture our imagination and inspire our investigations. There is, however, more to it than just the kind of hipster recycling that we know well from fashion or pop. The 1990ties are a decade that truly deserves our deep attention as the very roots of today’s politics – especially of the ubiquitous populist revolt – go deep into that period. Those looking at it from the liberal perspective cannot help being surprised that such a dark and depressive development has originated from such an enthusiastic and positive epoch. It was, after all, a period of great hope and bright perspectives: the Soviet empire crumbled, centrally planned economies went bankrupt, communist parties dissolved and it looked like there was only one option left for everyone: free market combined with liberal democracy. Some, like Francis Fukuyama, went even as far as claiming that history had ended – there was supposed to be no other major shift in the general direction of universal history. Not everyone, of course, succumbed to that generalized and obligatory enthusiasm, but dissenting voices, even those articulated from the progressive and critical intellectual milieu, were few; and they were silenced before they could establish any position in the public discourse. There was supposed to be only one possible world and everyone should have been happy with it. After all, as we have heard from early 1980ties on, “There Is No Alternative!” and the 1990ties were supposed to provide the final proof.
It was in that social and intellectual climate that the notions of “post-socialism” and “post-communism” were born. All the problems that the Eastern Europe might have been facing at that time were blamed on troublesome leftovers from the Soviet era and on the supposed lack of civilizational development in the East, a kind of infancy in political and social training. What Eastern Europeans needed to do was to learn from the developed, adult West. Boris Buden devoted quite a lot of effort to analyzing and deconstructing that infantilization so there is no need to repeat it here. It is worth adding, however, that thus defined post-communism and post-socialism were just another – and the very last one – incarnation of what was called “modernization theory” in 20th century social science. Its funding analysis were provided by such authors as Walter Rostow or Daniel Lerner in the 1950ties and 1960ties. Its basic premise affirmed that there was just one desirable and effective way of economic, social or political development and all societies would eventually follow it in a very similar way, though in different temporalities. Lerner compared social and political change in Turkey that was modeling itself after Europe and was evolving, as he held, the same way as Germany or France, but with a delay of 50 -100 years. The same was supposed to be the case with the former eastern bloc: it embarked on the path of modernization and needed to model itself after the West. Neoliberalism was the doctrine of the time so nobody bothered to look for an alternative; those who did were regarded as dangerous lunatics.
Such a trajectory had important consequences for the region, but what remains often overlooked, is the role the transformation of post-socialist Europe played in the development of neoliberalism itself. It shows clearly in the very structure of the argument Fukuyama presented to support his thesis that the history had ended. As he affirmed in an article published in 1989: “The passing of Marxism-Leninism first from China and then from the Soviet Union will mean its death as a living ideology of world historical significance. For while there may be some isolated true believers left in places like Managua, Pyongyang, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fact that there is not a single large state in which it is a going concern undermines completely its pretensions to being in the vanguard of human history.”
The irony and self-confidence of Fukuyama’s statement are striking today given the triumphant come-back of socialism even in the contemporary US politics, however what is the most interesting in the context of Eastern Europe is its crucial role played in the transition to the alleged end of history: it is not modernization of Africa or democratization of India that provides the final proof of superiority of the West, but the fading away of the last and only structural alternative to the liberal order in the once “communist” world (or, at least, aspiring to communism as it is a more accurate description of the experiment undertaken first in Soviet Russia and later in other parts of the world). After all it was a truly spectacular victory: not only centrally planned economies went bankrupt, but they gave way to the most radical form of free market fundamentalism; it happened not only with democratic support of concerned populations but to their cheering enthusiasm epitomized in the incredible success that McDonalds restaurants have enjoyed in post-socialist countries. Its restaurant in Moscow quickly became the busiest in the world and the opening of the first McDonalds in Warsaw in 1992 was attended by state official including the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy (sic!), the iconic opposition activist Jacek Kuroń (the very same one who in the 1960ties tried to make the Polish communist party more communist by writing open letters together with his comrade Karol Modzelewski). That remarkable success played a key role in promoting neoliberalism to the position of globally hegemonic regime. Born and tested in post-colonial peripheries (the first country to be ruled by neoliberals was Pinochet’s Chile) it established a foothold in the core of capitalist world-system in the 1980ties; it was confined, however, to the Anglo-Saxon countries such as Thatcher’s Great Britain and Raegan’s United States. It was only after the alleged macro-economic success of radical re-modeling of post-socialist Eastern Europe that neoliberalism became the one and only doctrine of social-economic common sense. Its victory was something comparable to the triumph of the ideals of French Revolution in Haiti as observed by Hegel: it was a repetition that paved the way to universalization.
What seemed not to matter at that time was the massive social cost of neoliberal policies introduced in post-socialist world. In Poland in the space of just two years unemployment tripled and kept growing until 2002 when it reached 20%. It dropped below 10% only in 2006 and it was mainly due to massive emigration after Poland joined the EU in 2004. So neoliberal reforms of late 1989 resulted in almost two decades of double digit unemployment. It brought an incredible social havoc: around one third of population was treated as cannon fodder of free market capitalism, their lives “wasted” as it was described by Zygmunt Bauman.
What also went internationally unnoticed and locally misinterpreted in Poland in the 1990ties was instant and strong populist opposition to neoliberalism. The first disruption typical for populist revolts rocked Polish political scene already in 1990: Stan Tymiński, an unknown and obscure Polish-Canadian businessman made it to the final round of presidential elections, beating the iconic figure of liberal opposition, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first post-communist prime minister of Poland. Tymiński was our Donald Trump toutes proportions gardées: he campaigned against the entire political establishment of the time, both post-PZPR and post-Solidarity, presenting himself as a virtuous outsider and claiming that all other politician were corrupt and needed to be purged from Polish political life (“Drain the swamp!”); he bragged a lot about his personal success, while claiming to represent the losers of neoliberal transformation; he was spreading conspiracy theories and proclaimed his allegiance to traditional values; he also promised to make Poland “great again” turning it quickly into an economic paradise. He managed to secure 25% of votes in the final round of the elections losing only to Lech Wałęsa, ex-leader of Solidarity.
The following year brought the birth of truly and thoroughly populist movement of Samoobrona (meaning “Self-defense”) with its charismatic leader Andrzej Lepper. It was animated mainly by disillusioned and broke small farmers and thus resembled the original and the first agrarian populist movement of late 19th century United states that Lawrence Goodwyn described in his book The Populist Moment. Samoobrona maintained a steady support of around 10-15% of votes all the way until 2005 when it formed a government with… Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party (Polish: “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość”, short: PiS). That was a turning point for Polish politics – formerly neoconservative PiS devoured the electorate of Samoobona and turned into a populist-conservative party that it is today.
Throughout the 1990ties various pundits attempted to explain the burst of populism in Polish politics by our post-socialist/post-communist condition. Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka proposed a classist concept of “civilizational competences” allegedly lacking in Polish society so prone to wild affects and savage actions. A priest and philosopher Józef Tischner turned classism into a pop-anthropology, popularizing the term Homo sovieticus that was supposed to describe lazy and un-entrepreneurial people who were spoiled by the ancien régime to such a point that they had become blind to the value of freedom. Curiously enough, those who supported such explanations were often very affirmative about Anglo-Saxon politics, believing England and the United States to be the ideal model of political live and social organization. It looks at best ironic nowadays as all those beautiful traditions and institutions, whose alleged lack turned Polish political life into a somber barbarian spectacle, proved to be of no use for English or American society in resisting the populist plague. To make the whole thing even more complicated and troubling for liberals, these are precisely United States and Great Britain that have become the most devastated by populism out of all core countries in the last years. So much for the value of culturalist explanations of politics.
Thus the current populist turn in world politics spells a double end of modernization theory. Firstly, the alleged convergence of peripheries towards the center has failed to materialize. It does not seem that today’s politics and social relations in the post-socialist Eastern Europe are on the way to become what the West was in the 1990ties. Secondly – and even more importantly – it rather looks quite the opposite: the peripheries have become a sort of perverted avant-garde, a model that the center seems to follow. As I argued elsewhere, it is a part of a larger and more complex pattern of de-modernization: a reversal of the direction of universal history stipulated by modernization theorists. John Feffer is right when he argues that Eastern Europe is “the Birthplace of Trumpism” – it is the right-wing populist politics of the region that provided a blueprint for the likes of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage. Thus populism constitutes the ultimate limit of any usefulness of the concept of post-socialism and post-communism unless we want to argue that Donald Trump won the presidential elections in the United States in 2016, because Stalin ruled Eastern Europe in the 1950ties which is a total absurd.
We will never grasp the nature of that surprising twist if we base our reasoning in culturalist perspective. A materialist approach gives a much better account of what has been going on both in the post-Soviet Europe and elsewhere. Populism is ubiquitous, however its victories are not: it has enjoyed the biggest success in the places, where neoliberalism has been the most ruthless in the last decades and where, in general, capitalism has inflicted the biggest social damage: the US, the UK, Eastern Europe and other (semi)peripheral countries. It should not surprise – it is austerity with its precarization of labor and destabilization of society that feeds populism, to put it in simplest terms. People who were stripped of their dignity and of any progressive forms of community – be it class or trade union – turn to the most primordial things left after the neoliberal tsunami: nation, family and religion.
As traditional politics keeps on crumbling, it becomes clear that neither liberalism nor conservatism are able to successfully counter the populist revolt. We can either take a step forward and build new, just and egalitarian societies based on new modes of redistribution of wealth or populism will take us many steps back to where we’d rather not be: to the 1930ies with their somber and tragic ending. Notions of post-socialism or post-communism will not be of any help in this formidable endeavor. The time has come to put them finally to rest.
The author is a sociologist.