Elżbieta, you have been working on the intersection of gender and politics in Poland. To begin with a broad question, do you see in the rise of right-wing populism—as embodied in the Law and Justice Party (PiS)—a sign of the decline of social citizenship and the result of neoliberal reforms?
There is a strong tendency to think that right-wing populism is combined with neoliberalism, as was the case among neoconservatives in the United States in the 1990s. Today, both Poland and Hungary are examples of the ways in which right-wing populism can provide a version of welfare chauvinism rather than neoliberal politics. When we look at countries such as the United States or Bolsonaro’s Brazil, we see right-wing politics—right-wing in cultural terms (anti-pluralist, anti-equality, anti-minority rights)—being combined with neoliberal social policies. Brazil, for example, is a clear example of the fact that right-wing populists and extreme right-wing politicians tend to implement austerity measures and cut social spending, with the result that money flows from minority groups to elite supporters of the power holders.
Poland and Hungary are a very different type of regime. You have very extreme forms of homophobia, anti-feminist politics, and anti-refugee and migration positions on the part of the ruling party, and an increase in social spending, which is a huge difference from previous governments like the Civic Platform (PO) in Poland.
In 2011 the Civic Platform introduced a program called Maluch (“Little One”) that was oriented toward supporting childcare, especially broadening access to childcare for children of pre-school age. They spent around 120 million Polish złoty on this per year. The program that has been the main staple of Law and Justice politics, “500 Plus”—direct cash transfers of 500 złoty per child per month to families with children—costs around 26 billion złoty per year. And they have actually continued the Maluch program as well. If you look at Polish GDP, there has been a huge increase in the percentage of GDP spent on social policies, from 1.78 percent in 2015 to 3.11 percent in 2017.
It’s the same in Hungary, where Minister for Families Katalin Novák has been boasting that in the past couple of years, spending on different types of social programs—especially for families with children—has been increased to levels unheard of before Viktor Orbán came to power. In 2021 government spending on family support will supposedly reach 7.1 billion Euro. Is this money well spent? That is debatable: many researchers argue that the funds should be directed toward improving the quality of social services rather than spent on direct cash transfers. Still, a substantial part of the electorate appreciates generous social policies of the kind offered by PiS or Fidesz.
It is, of course, nothing new for extreme right-wing parties to support some forms of welfare chauvinism or an exclusionary welfare state. By definition, some groups are excluded from this state support. In Hungary, for instance, the system is very much oriented toward excluding Roma women. In Poland, the government has cut financial support for the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and battered women.
Could you elaborate on the articulation between Poland’s relationship to the EU and moral conservatism? How does the defense of the so-called traditional family overlap with the narrative on Poland’s sovereignty vis-à-vis “Brussels”?
The Polish Law and Justice Party is very much a nationalistic party, in the sense that it imagines society as a nation that has power through the strength of its families. Family, rather than the individual, is seen as the basic unit of society. In that sense, PiS promotes the vision that only by strengthening so-called traditional families can Poland retain its sovereignty and its cultural integrity. The party portrays liberal values—emancipation, minority rights, and individual rights—as coming to Poland from abroad and foreign to the traditional Polish soul.
Nationalism or nativism is a very powerful, affective, and effective form of politics. As Ruth Wodak has pointed out, right-wing politics is often politics of fear. Today, it is often the fear of moral corruption, pedophilia, and disruption of the gender binary that are being evoked. In the propaganda materials promoted by the state and the Catholic Church on the visual and textual level, one can find constant references to the need to protect children from sexualization and moral degradation and to protect families from the outrageousness of genderists and promoters of so-called LGBT ideology. Such messages reflect the view that the West has basically lost its integrity or its moral orientation due to 1968 and the sexual revolution. So now the role of Poland and basically Central and Eastern Europe is to save the West from its own moral corruption.
This narrative marks a shift in the existing geopolitical perception of Poland and other post-communist countries as having to “catch up” with a more developed West. Now the idea is that actually, we can save the West because we have retained the values and moral compass that form the cornerstone of Western Christian civilization. This reversal is something about which Polish intellectuals representing the ultra-conservative anti-gender movement speak very openly. Of course, the ultimate danger to Europe’s safety is Islam, which is why ultraconservative activists and right-wing politicians promote the view that there is an analogy between now and the moment when Polish King Sobieski rescued Europe in the battle against the Ottoman Empire. The idea is that Poland—thanks to its moral integrity and its Christian values—is able to protect the West from the dangers of migration, Islam, multiculturalism, and refugee influx. Finally, Poland has become the protector of Europe: it will save Europe rather than being saved by it. Thus, the anti-EU position of PiS and its coalition partners is ambiguous. Rather than expressing anti-European views, they claim that they want to save the EU from the clutches of liberal and leftist elites.
What are the intellectual roots of this antigenderism and how is it embedded in the social fabric of society? I am interested here in the question of illiberal civil society. Who are the grassroots actors who push for an anti-gender agenda, with or without the support of the state?
I would say that the anti-gender movement is a part of a global civil society, which is often presented as a harbinger of liberal and progressive values even though in reality it is much more heterogeneous. There are basically three main sources of support for the ultraconservative “anti-gender” movement: religious (the Vatican leads the way, but the movement is now ecumenical), anti-communist, and anti-liberal.
Some conservative groups—such as Tradition, Property and Family (TFP), which originated in the 1960s in Brazil—had from the very beginning a very strong anti-communist and neoliberal orientation; they also opposed the reforms of the Catholic Church that took place during this period. Since then, TFP has evolved into more of a global franchise. They are very active in Poland: originally TFP helped to launch the Piotr Skarga Association, which in turn played an important role in establishing the Ordo luris Institute, which is today a highly influential civil society actor in Poland and has a growing presence in the European Union because it cooperates with several European organizations, such as the European Center for Law and Justice. Due to its close cooperation with right-wing populists in power, in Poland the movement is becoming institutionalized within state structures. Many of those who established the Ordo luris Institute are now working in highly influential institutions such as the National Institute for Freedom, the key body that manages relations between the state and civil society in Poland. They have become the new cadres in the process of state-sponsored elite change.
Geographically, we can trace the lineage of the current anti-gender movement to its roots in Latin America, but also of course in the United States. The World Congress of Families (WCF) was established in the US in the 1990s and has cooperated with Russian actors for quite a long time. WCF is one of the key actors bringing together different groups: politicians, representatives of grassroot organizations, powerful NGOs, aristocrats, and people representing different denominations. I attended the World Congress of Families in Verona two years ago and could see people there who were evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox, representatives of many African ultra-conservative organizations, and members of the European aristocracy. Officially, the Vatican did not send any high-ranking representative, but the local bishop from Verona was present.
Ultraconservative organizations such as CitizenGO, which was established in Spain, employ new technologies to mobilize people for petition drives around the world. And we have witnessed mass mobilization of people, such as the 2013 La Manif Pour Tous in France opposing the marriage equality law. La Manif Pour Tous managed to mobilize millions of people, who took to the streets of Paris and Lyon because they felt threatened by the speed of cultural change, exemplified by a more inclusive definition of the family.
That brings me back to the question of family and social policy. While the left is really trying hard to reconnect the economic with the cultural, the right is doing it quite easily and quite effectively. What they’re trying to project is the image of people who care about those in need, especially hard-working locally rooted traditional families, who have allegedly been abandoned and ridiculed by the liberals and leftists. The main slogan of the World Congress of Families was “Welcome Family Heroes.” And even the American head of the organization, Brian Brown, who in the United States is known mostly for his attempts to first stop and now reverse the marriage equality laws, spoke about the fact that we need to support mothers, people with disabilities, and older people—that the state needs to provide a range of services to really meet the needs of local populations.
The public image that ultraconservative actors aim to project is that of “family heroes” devoted to traditional family values—that is, people who defend local cultural norms and innocent children against the twin dangers of “gender ideology” and the power of global markets, driven by what Pope Francis has described as the “idolatry of money.”
This is something that I discuss in detail in my forthcoming book co-authored with Agnieszka Graff, Anti-Gender Politics in the Populist Moment (to be published by Routledge in September 2021). We claim that the anti-gender ultra-conservative movement gained momentum because of its ability to present itself as a conservative response to neoliberalism. Of course, they don’t use the word neoliberalism; rather, they talk about rampant individualism, alienation, the demise of family, and so on. But in reality they are tackling a lot of issues that have become really important to many people today, issues that have to do with the precarity of living and working conditions, with austerity measures, and with the neoliberal politics of economization. I think that the left tends to think it “owns” opposition to neoliberalism, but the field of struggle has shifted and the opposition to neoliberalism as a socio-cultural formation has been mobilized—maybe hijacked, maybe just constructed—very effectively by ultra-conservative forces.
This brings me to the role of the Church. How does the Church mobilize the antigenderism narrative, sponsor pro-family lobbies, and organize actions such as the so-called “LBGT-free zones”? Does it play a leading role or a companion role to the PiS? Can we see dissenting voices rejecting the Church’s reactionary positions?
Poland is often misunderstood as a case illustrating the moral power of the Church to make the society more conservative. But I see it differently, and many studies confirm that Poles are not as conservative as the Church would have it. Indeed, the Church acts as a political institution, working closely with politicians on the local and national level. This is something that has been documented, for example, by Anna Grzymala-Busse in her 2015 book Nations Under God, which shows how the church in Poland has become the closest partner of those in power.
At the same time, Poland is witnessing rapid secularization. Comparative studies by Pew Research have shown that the speed of secularization in Poland is the highest of over 100 countries under study: only 16% of young adults declare that religion is very important to them. In that sense, the less power the church has in society, the more prone it is to weave strong ties with politicians to secure its economic and symbolic power and its privileges.
The contemporary Polish Church does not really allow any dissenting voices within its ranks. The people who once dissented have either left the Church or died off due to generational change. The Polish episcopate is much more conservative than the Vatican today, or at least than Pope Francis, although he is also much more conservative than many people care to believe. In that sense, the Polish Catholic Church is an institution that really clings to politics because it is losing the people; the women’s protests of October 2020, when young women protested in front of churches, illustrated this ongoing process. The Church is losing its authority, especially its moral authority. I wouldn’t say that this process will bring major change in a year or two, but I think that it will become part of political change in the future. The scale of the pedophilia scandal within the Church is also motivating religious people to push for deep changes.
I was also wondering about the role of memory in the Polish version of global wars? References to Nazism, to Communism, parallels between anti-LBGTQ+ and anti-Semitic legislation, between fighting against antigenderism and fighting against the communist regime… It seems memory(ies) play an important role in mobilizing and connecting citizens’ actions. Could you tell us more?
Yes, definitely. Already in 2014, Jan Kubik and Michael Bernhard documented the explosion of a politics of memory triggered by the fall of state socialism in Eastern Europe and demonstrated growing polarization around the ways in which people remember the past. I would say that the anti-gender movement, along with right-wing populists, tries to use the memory of the anti-communist fight against the Soviet empire to oppose any progressive emancipatory projects today. This takes place on many levels.
The first level is to accuse, for example, feminists or LGBTQ+ activists of being communists at heart or being like the communists in the sense of planning social engineering, trying to steal people’s souls, trying to indoctrinate children and educate them in ways that will make them alien to their parents, and so on.
The second level is the idea (verging on conspiracy) that there are always some hidden elites with communist leanings who want to bring down the nation. My colleague Agnieszka Graff has written very eloquently about the matrix of this narrative being basically anti-Semitism. The idea is that there is someone out there—the global elites, from George Soros to Bill and Melinda Gates—who controls global institutions such as the UN or EU with the aim of destroying traditional nations. This myth of a global elite is, of course, heavily modeled on the myth of a global Jewish elite allegedly ruling the world. Depending on who the speakers are, these anti-Semitic undertones will be hidden or more visible, but the core idea is that there is someone out there who wants to rule the world and that imposing “gender ideology” on children is part of this plan.
The third level concerns the intellectual underpinnings of contemporary culture. People such as Gabriele Kuby or Marguerite Peeters talk about the ways in which the very basics of our knowledge—especially when it comes to sociology, psychology, and other social sciences—have been corrupted. They talk about how key intellectual figures, including Margaret Mead, Freud, and others, have been utterly corrupted and therefore we need to remake our social sciences and transform the educational system in line with “healthy Christian” values. The anti-gender movement claims to remember the ills of previous emancipatory projects, which makes it well suited to oppose the current ones.
As always, the past is used to project a specific vision of the present or the future. It is quite interesting that the anti-gender movement has been able to create a sense of retrotopia, a utopia based on Golden Age-type imagery that has turned out to be very attractive to some people at a moment when there is so much uncertainty about the present.
My last point concerns the notion of “cultural Marxism,” which is used by the far right and ultraconservatives to denounce progressive projects. This notion captures what they really want to project to the wider public, which is the idea that “gender ideology” exists and is as dangerous as Marxism and Nazism put together. It is imagined as a manipulative top-down project to remake sexuality, gender, the family, and reproduction—basically, a project of colonizing people. This idea of colonization is often brought up in anti-gender discourse, as it can then reactivate the idea that the nation needs to oppose it and be protected.
This is exactly the victim/perpetrator reversal that many scholars looking at right-wing discourses warn against. Once you believe that “gender” or “LGBT ideology” exists, that there is this horrible disease, this “Ebola from Brussels” that aims to infect your children, then you can legitimately use violence against sexual minorities, as happened in the city of Białystok during a Pride march in 2019. At the end of this process is violence, and we have to say it plainly and firmly.
Elżbieta Korolczuk is an Associate professor in sociology working at Södertörn University in Stockholm and at American Studies Center, University of Warsaw. Her research interests involve: gender, social movements, civil society and reproduction. She co-edited two books on motherhood and fatherhood in Poland and Russia with Renata E. Hryciuk, as well as two volumes on social movements and civil society in Central and Eastern Europe: Civil Society Revisited: Lessons from Poland co-edited with Kerstin Jacobsson (Berghahn Books, 2017) and Rebellious Parents. Parental Movements in Central-Eastern Europe and Russia co-edited with Katalin Fábián (Indiana University Press, 2017). Her most recent publications include a monograph Matki i córki we współczesnej Polsce [Mothers and daughters in contemporary Poland] published by Universitas in 2019, and an edited volume Bunt kobiet. Czarne Protesty i Strajki Kobiet [Women’s Rebellion. Black Protests and Women’s Strikes], published by European Solidarity Centre in 2019. In September 2021 Routledge will publish her latest book Anti-gender Politics in the Populist Moment written with Agnieszka Graff. Elżbieta Korolczuk is also commentator and long-time women’s and human rights activist.