Dr. Frankenstein Cures Us of Liberalism

15. 3. 2017

Rafał Woś, “Dziecięca choroba liberalizmu” [Infantile Disorder of liberalism], Studio Emka 2014

A review of Rafał Woś’s book Dziecięca choroba liberalizmu [Infantile Disorder of Liberalism] could be reduced to saying that it is a pamphlet, abundantly filled with quotes, about the fact that the author sincerely hates capitalism. This is how the book would probably be treated seven or eight years ago. But today it is Woś who represents the mainstream, while advocates of capitalism are on the fringes of intellectual debate.

The year 2014 was a good year for anti-liberal critique of the market. The quarter-century anniversary of Poland’s regaining of freedom was split between two main discourses. The first was ritual memories, interesting mostly to participants of those events. The second was radical criticism, based on an anachronous exploitation of the weaknesses of transition in today’s context of attacking capitalism due to the economic crisis. One of the most prominent critics of capitalism in Poland, Rafał Woś, published his book on the wave of this criticism.

The book is eminently journalistic. In fact, the author admits in the introduction that most of the content of the book has already been published in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna as articles or interviews. But instead of publishing a collection of these texts, as more recognized authors sometimes do, he decided to write a book based on them. And it was an unquestionably better idea. One-sidedness of Woś’s conclusions (as well as of the tribute paid to him on the book’s jacket by his older colleague, Jacek Żakowski) would inevitably alienate the reader by its monotony and repetitiveness, in texts seemingly devoted to varied subjects. But this one-sidedness made it relatively easy to construct a book out of these texts.

Woś is most interesting when he forgets— which unfortunately is very rare—about his ideological mission and becomes a distinctive economic journalist, weighing various arguments against each other. His discussions, even if biased, of reports and literature on the crisis and inequalities are interesting, and the bibliography he incorporates in the book is still too little known and commented upon. Very interesting, for example, is the work of Michał Kalecki, who formulated the principal assumptions of the Keynesian theory even before its author, and yet for many years he has been virtually non-existent in Polish public discourse.

“Since a quarter of a century we are suffering from an infantile disorder of liberalism,” writes Woś. Every author driven by revolutionary fire will dig up dozens of quotes from economists, journalists and politicians, including those wearing their hearts on the left-hand side, who, especially in the 1990s, spoke about the inevitability of the laws of the market and the need for necessary reforms. Most of the pro-reform arguments are familiar and predictable. And this is what warranted their success. It is also thanks to them that liberal democracy and capitalism were successfully built in Poland in the early stages of transition despite the absence of a social and cultural foundation (I wrote about it in my first article for this journal: “How to Save Capitalism?” Aspen Review 4/2014). Liberalism, or rather its peculiar “reformist” version, remained the language of communication for the elites. The essence of the “language of reform,” identified with liberalism in Poland, was the function it fulfilled throughout the transition period. Contrary to what its producers and users thought, it was not an instrument of political change, but a way of manifesting group loyalties. It is no coincidence that it was so eagerly seized upon both by the former dissidents from the trade union movement, and the pragmatic people from the communist party apparatus.

Woś criticizes the fact that Polish economy, which in the early stages of transitions had a huge surplus of labor and a great shortage of capital, was opened to foreign investment. But Poland should be compared to the countries of the region which travelled a similar path to ours. Not only from authoritarianism to democracy, but also from socialism to capitalism. In addition, they were on the verge of bankruptcy, aspired to membership in Western institutions, and were afraid of falling into a black hole, as it happened to Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, the Balkans and at one point even to Slovakia under Mečiar. The fact that Poland did not enforce sufficient standards which Woś demands from foreign companies was due to poor functioning of the government. Or perhaps due to lack of alternatives, for the absence of native capital meant that the only alternative was unemployment. The introduction of a new labor culture (sharply contrasting with the communist “I pretend to work and you pretend to pay me”), not to mention the very fact of having a job, was one of the major benefits bestowed on the fledgling capitalist Poland.

Woś extols the virtues of the welfare state, but he does not stop to reflect on why even the wealthy Sweden has been significantly curtailing it since the 1990s. All European countries are struggling with the demographic challenge, which will make the welfare state in its current shape simply unsustainable, for the demographic growth potential has been exhausted. Similarly dishonest is his fundamental criticism of the pensions reform in Poland—unfinished and then partly reversed by successive governments.

Agitating for wage raises in Poland, Woś uses the examples of Germany and Scandinavian countries, which have high taxes and high growth rate. But he does not say a word about the countries of southern Europe, which decided to squander cheap loans, over-expanded social privileges, and their wage increases did not translate into growth of productivity. Introducing Woś’s recipes in Poland would mean following in the footsteps of Greece or Spain. The belief that developed countries owe their success to high wages is equally justified as the belief that the main factor of success is wearing expensive watches. Raising wages in a country with low productivity, where more money is spent on religious instruction in schools than on research and development, would only cause a decline of competitiveness and a repeat of the Greek or Spanish scenario.

When Woś writes about the responsible role of trade unions in Germany, all he has to say about the reduction of wages which Schroeder negotiated with them (and thanks to which, as well as to the euro, Germany came out of the crisis almost unscathed and today enjoys a budget surplus), is the fact that it led to a conflict within the left and “of course” to the collapse of the Social Democratic government.

A good illustration of Woś’s criticism could be his attack on using the theory of the New Public Management in Poland. Woś is honest enough to admit than in many cases public administration has benefited from using methods known from private business. But his charges stem from the fact that NPM is not a panacea for all bureaucratic evils and there are areas where it does not work. But is there a theory of management which works in every time and place? Perhaps we should rather ask if the centralist bureaucracy focused on procedures, predominant in Poland and many EU countries (as well as in the USA), is really better?

Woś quotes authors who complicate an un-ambivalent picture of capitalism disturbed by the 2007 crisis. However, he uses their arguments only in order to simplify this picture. He counters the cliché “government is bad, market is good” with its mirror image: “government is good, market is bad”. This is a rather trivial maneuver, although the author supports it with a number of otherwise interesting works and reports. I would do a big disfavor to the readers if I discouraged them from reaching for these texts. And it would be a real shame, because, since the crisis, political economy has become a fascinating subject. Woś is competent and erudite enough to familiarize the Polish reader with this debate. But he chose a simpler and more secure way. He ridicules it from his position of superiority rather than stoop to polemics. He dons a classic, paternalistic role of the missionary enlightening the ignorant mob by saying that the idols they worship are false. The difference is that in his missionary zeal Woś desecrates the old deities, but all he has to offer is an attempt at cobbling them back together, only in a different form. As a result, we get a kind of voodoo religion, a dead body which, unfortunately and despite Dr. Frankenstein’s efforts, does not come back to life.

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