As the election results filter through, Poland today began to brace itself for life under a far-left government. The newly elected Law and Justice (PiS) party have promised to lower the retirement age, while providing free medicine and higher pensions for retirees; greater subsidies and insurance for farmers; more state-subsidised housing; cash handouts of 500zl a month to families for each child they have; bailing out households who took mortgages in Swiss francs and have seen their repayment rates balloon; and state support for failing industries such as mining. The estimated 45bn zloty annual cost of this radical agenda – enough to make Jeremy Corbyn blush – will be funded in part by higher taxes on banks and big supermarkets.
The above, of course, is something you will not hear anywhere in the international media, amid the welter of headlines decrying Poland’s new ‘right–wing‘ – or even ‘far right‘ – government. But it’s an important reminder that the left-right spectrum applies separately in economic and cultural spheres, and can often cut across them in ways that surprise or confuse westerners used to a simplistic division in which parties are on both counts located towards the left (the British Labour Party and American Democrats) or the right (the British Conservatives and American Republicans).
Far better, certainly when looking at Poland, to view politics not as a single line, but as a graph with two axes: one a scale of cultural conservativism/liberalism, the other of statist/free-market economics. (One could also add axes for elitism/populism and authoritarianism/democratism, but that’s a separate issue – plus, no one wants to deal with a four-dimensional graph!)
In this regard, while PiS are culturally conservative in a way that westerners would associate with the right (they support a strong position for the church in public life, oppose abortion, stoke xenophobia, advocate a more ‘patriotic’ telling of history), in economic terms they offer a programme that most would regard as leftist.
Update: Judging by the response since I published this piece, it seems as though some people (perhaps those who only read the headline, in which case this update is pointless) actually believe I think PiS are ‘left-wing’. I hoped it would be obvious that I don’t, and that the headline and first paragraph was written with tongue firmly in cheek. But maybe I was too optimistic. Just to clarify: PiS obviously cannot be classified as a ‘left-wing’ party, but nor can they be regarded simply as a ‘right-wing’ one. This piece was intended as a counterweight to the overriding media narrative of PiS as right wing, and as a reminder that reductive political labels (especially transplanted from one political culture to another) are often unhelpful.