Photo: Ewa Dabrowska-Szulc

Photo: Ewa Dabrowska-Szulc

Reviews Gendered voices from East-Central Europe. Breaking out of the deadlock of neoliberalism vs. rightwing populism

Solidarity in Struggle: Feminist Perspectives on Neo-liberalism in East-Central Europe, EszterKováts (ed.), Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2016,115 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 4 2016, p 92-94
Published on on February 3, 2017

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The volume Solidarity in Struggle: Feminist Perspectives on Neoliberalism in East-Central Europe1 is a pioneering effort to bring gendered voices and experiences from East-Central Europe  into public debates and research on neoliberalism. Exploring the post-1989 transformation and the current socio-economic order from a feminist standpoint, the papers shed light on the gendered consequences of neoliberal reforms, as well as their long-term consequences for the political scene in the region. This critical reflection on the dark side of the transition is all the more needed in light of the illiberal transformations currently taking place in the region.

As I write these words, Hungary is coming to terms with the results of a populist anti-refugee referendum, in Poland attacks on reproductive rights continue despite the initial success of the “black protests”, Britain is experiencing a drastic increase in racist violence after the Brexit vote, the far-right AfD is celebrating its third-place finish in German local elections, and the French National Front leader is luring her voters with a promise of an EU exit referendum. The Chinese have a perverse blessing: “May you live in interesting times.” And I think we can all agree that we are indeed living in such times.

Academics and policy experts all across Europe are still trying to identify the set of causes that led to the recent surge of rightwing populism, pointing to the influence of such diverse factors as growing inequalities and economic insecurity,2 shifts in the labor market that have undermined the electoral base of the left,3 accelerated globalization and Europeanization that have weakened the nation-state,4 economic crisis and austerity measures,5 cultural backlash against the progressive revolution of the New Left,6 failure and detachment of mainstream political parties,7 and even the changing media culture.8 Based on the growing research into this question, it is safe to say that no single-factor explanation will suffice and that these processes are at work to varying degrees in numerous political contexts.


Still, it is clear that all these factors have contributed to a profound change in the relationship between citizen and state, and undermined various basic components — social, economic, political, and cultural — of the security of the citizenry, components that have to a large extent been guaranteed by the postwar welfare state. Many people all across Europe, especially in East-Central Europe, feel that they live in a state which is “weak for the strong and strong for the weak” (this sentence is widely attributed to the Polish populist rightwing leader JarosławKaczyński), that is, a state that is lenient towards big business, international corporations, and transnational institutions, yet at the same time increasingly unable to guarantee citizens’ basic economic and social rights, leading thus to growing social insecurity. This diminution of safety nets and the subsequent change of the social contract between the citizen and the state has had profound consequences for liberal democracy. After all, as Mabel Berezin reminds us in her analysis of the rise of illiberal parties, “secure people are democratic people […] insecure people are fearful and risk-averse. Insecure people expand the community of potential enemies and threats. Secure people expand the community of friends”.9

It is against this background that the populist right has emerged across Europe as the most vocal proponent of the idea of strengthening the nation-state and increasing the economic, social, and cultural security of the citizenry — introducing such policies as nationalization of crucial branches of the economy, increased taxation of sectors which are predominantly foreign-owned, and money transfers to families; as well as promising to protect national dignity against foreign threats and grant security and solidarity to a restricted, homogenous community.

But while we are bombarded daily with news about new anti-democratic maneuvers of the right, it is important to remember that illiberal ideas and networks did not appear out of the blue a year ago; in fact, as numerous studies of rightwing mobilizations remind us, these networks have long been present, fighting their often local and unseen battles against European integration, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, and sexual education. What has changed, however, is that more people are ready to support them today than 20 years ago — and, more importantly, that fewer people are willing to support the liberal (or neoliberal) status quo that has long been presented as the only alternative.

As Andrea Pető observes in her epilogue, after 1989 the globalized neoliberal democracy was presented to us in East-Central Europe as the only alternative, as a system that is not driven by politics or ideology but is simply a rational choice. This conviction that 1989 marked the end of ideologues and opened an era of technocrats has been voiced by, among others, economist Leszek Balcerowicz, the driving force behind the Polish transformation. “Economics”, he once said in a lecture, “is like building a bridge. There is no place for rightwing or leftwing political views; one simply needs to make the right decisions. And what is right has been empirically proven. Capitalism has worked. Socialism has not. There is no other way”.10 Up until today, the polarization between neoliberal democracy and rightwing populism, the ostensibly rational and technocratic, on the one hand, and, on the other, the openly ideological, continues to structure the political debate in our countries.


It is precisely here that Solidarity in Struggle makes a meaningful contribution to ongoing discussions in East-Central Europe about the neoliberal democratic model and the rise of anti-democratic rightwing forces. By gathering lesser-known examples of feminist theorizing, interventions, and activism from East-Central Europe, it makes the point that there has indeed always been an alternative, there have always been different visions of what society can be. For example, ZofiaŁapniewska shows that approaches critical of both state socialism and the free market model were in place as far back as the system change. Alexandra Ostertagová points out that, in the 1990s, various schools of feminist thought, among them deconstructivism and radical feminism, were present in Slovakia. Elżbieta Korolczuk gives examples of successful intersectional activism in Poland, where feminists managed to build alliances with trade unions, protesting nurses, and women threatened with eviction, and Kata Ámon draws our attention to the way social movements in Hungary have striven to serve the rights of the poorest women by repoliticizing housing.

The studies from this book also give us some ideas for successful feminist action against “neoliberal neopatriarchy” on the one hand,11 and “illiberal patriarchy” on the other.


First of all, as the editor EszterKováts frames it in the preface, the chapters in this volume encourage us to break out of the deadlock of neoliberal democracy vs. illiberal democracy, to reject blackmailing that forces us into this false dichotomy and instead formulate our own vision of society. They urge us to look to both our own feminist legacies and the experiences of other countries and realize that there is an alternative. Some studies in this book, e.g. those by AngélaKoóczé and Kata Ámon, make a direct connection between failures of neoliberalism and the rise of the far right, by showing that structural inequalities created by neoliberalism have made such groups as the Roma or the homeless prone to becoming collective scapegoats. Other authors, e.g. AnikóGregor and myself, point to how the ingraining of individualistic values and the logic of efficiency into the very fabric of our societies made collective resistance and the very functioning of social movements more difficult if not outright impossible. Audre Lorde once famously asserted that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”12 On a similar note, the authors in this volume remind us that while we have little choice but to use the financial and political instruments available to us, there is at the same time a need to rethink the feminist toolkit, including such instruments as gender mainstreaming, the EU legislature, and a reliance on donors who set the agenda.

Second, the authors in this volume remind us that our feminism must be intersectional lest it be ineffective. The hegemony of so-called cultural feminism, which has in large part been imported to East-Central Europe from the West and implemented by various funding agencies, has rendered feminists helpless and unprepared for the confrontation with structural economic oppression brought about by the free market. Unfortunately, “cultural feminism” or “white middle-class feminism”, which only sees one axis of oppression at the expense of others, is alive and well even as the neoliberal order itself is in crisis. This became clear recently in Poland, when the new populist rightwing government introduced universal child benefits for every second child, the first wide-scale redistributive policy in post-1989 Poland. Some progressive commentators and feminists spoke out against it, claiming that the program is a weapon against women’s emancipation, as it will force women out of the labor market. One prominent feminist public intellectual even went so far as to suggest that the money would be mostly wasted on alcohol. While both the effectiveness of the program and its familialist underpinnings should be an object of critical evaluation, such claims reveal a much larger problem on the part of some liberal feminists, whose conceptual framework, focused as it is on gender difference, clouds their vision in such a way that they miss other types of inequalities at work, and makes it difficult for them to acknowledge that the sheer economic security granted by money transfers can indeed be empowering to legions of women. Therefore, to break out of the deadlock, we need a complex understanding of social justice — one than includes issues of redistribution, recognition, and political representation all at once.13

Third, the chapters in this book address the need to overcome individualism and the “power to women” perspective, and instead rejuvenate the old slogans of “solidarity” and “community” that have been so thoroughly hijacked by the populist right. Unlike the national solidarity offered by the right, which is based on rigid boundaries and hierarchies, and restricted to those who are just like us, the community that emerges from feminist efforts is broad, inclusive, and built upon the ethics of care.

Finally, several authors in this volume agree that, in order to bring about change, we need to strengthen international cooperation both at the level of social movements and at the level of transnational institutions. A single country has limited capabilities to resist the globalized economic system. Therefore, we need to build transnational solidarity and push for reforms at the EU level, if not even more broadly, rather than fall into the trap of national independence proposed by the right and the Euroskeptic left.


Through the various country-specific examples, this volume sheds light on how the globalized, neoliberal, democratic model has profoundly changed the social contract between the state and citizen in East-Central Europe, and has gone so far as to make masses of people feel that their social, economic, and cultural security is threatened. By illuminating this phenomenon, the book issues a stark reminder that there is a need on the part of feminist researchers and activists to address these fears and insecurities and offer a set of progressive reforms and solutions instead of the populist slogans and policies proposed by the right. As feminists, we have to acknowledge these fears and start treating them seriously, instead of either demonizing people gripped by these fears, and viewing them as insufficiently self-reliant and modern, or behaving as if the conditions leading to these fears don’t really exist. Not long ago, I was doing field research in the city of Lublin in eastern Poland, talking to young men who decided to join rightwing paramilitary organizations. After one such conversation, I asked my respondent why he is such a strong proponent of the traditional family. He looked outside the window and pointed to the surroundings telling me that there are no jobs left, and that his father had to emigrate to Germany to support their family. That is why, he explained, when he gets older he wants to have a steady job in the military, and be certain he eats dinner with his family every day. One of the strengths of Solidarity in Struggle is that it makes readers more sensitive to complicated connections between neoliberalism and rightwing populism such as this one. ≈



1 EszterKováts, ed., Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, 2016,, accessed October 1, 2016.

2 Michael Hirsch, “Why Trump and Sanders Were Inevitable”, Politico, February 28, 2016,, accessed October 1, 2016.

3 Russell J. Dalton and Martin Wattenberg, Parties without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

4 Hans-Georg Betz, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994); “Against Globalization: Xenophobia, Identity Politics and Exclusionary Populism in Western Europe”, in Fighting Identities: Race, Religion and Ethno-Nationalism, eds. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (London: Merlin, 2002), 193—210.

5 HanspeterKriesi and Takis S. Pappas (eds.), European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ecpr Press, 2015).

6 Roland F. Ingelhart and Pippa Norris, “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash”, Faculty Research Working Paper Series, (2016).

7 John O’Sullivan, “Populist Parties Are Rising Because Mainstream Conservatives Have Failed, National Review, December 31, 2015,, accessed  October 1, 2016.

8 ŁukaszPawłowski and Anne Applebaum, “Populist Seduction”, interview, Eurozine, May 9, 2016,

9 This sentence is widely attributed to the Polish populist rightwing leader JarosławKaczyński.

10                  Mabel Berezin, Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security and Populism in the New Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 254.

11                  “Conditions for Fast Economic Growth”, lecture organized by the Association of Graduates of the Warsaw-Illinois Executive MBA in Warsaw, April 19, 2006,,23485,ekonomia-a-mosty-czyli-o-wyzszosci-kapitalizmu-nad-socjalizmem.html, accessed October 1, 2016)

12                  Beatrix Campbell, End of Equality (Seagull, 2013).

13                  Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters House” in Sister Outsider (1984): 112.

14                  See e.g. Nancy Fraser, “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition and Participation” in Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, ed. Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth (London: Verso, 2003).

  • by Weronika Grzebalska

    is a sociologist and independent analyst whose work focuses on militarism, security, right-wing politics, and gender in Central Europe. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the Polish Academy of Sciences where her dissertation explored the post-1989 paramilitary organizing in Poland. Currently, she is a Rethink.CEE Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, working on the gendered implications of changing national defense policy and civil-military relations in post-2014 Central Europe. She also lectures on military issues at the American Studies Center and the Gender Studies program in Warsaw. In the past, she was a fellow at the Trajectories of Change Program of the ZEIT-Stiftung, a Kosciuszko Foundation fellow at Clark University (United States), member of the FEPS Young Academics Network, and a president of the Polish Gender Studies Association.

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Solidarity in Struggle: Feminist Perspectives on Neo-liberalism in East-Central Europe, EszterKováts (ed.), Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2016,115 pages