How to explain Poland’s swing against the European Union? How to explain the election of the Catholic fundamentalist, authoritarian, populist, Eurosceptic Law and Justice Party to rule a booming country that has benefited from more than €130 billion in EU investment in its roads, railways and schools, a country where only a few years after EU accession in 2004 hundreds of foreign factories and distribution centres opened, employing hundreds of thousands of people, a country whose citizens have taken advantage of EU freedom of movement to travel, work and study across the continent in their millions? If Britain is straining the EU by leaving, Law and Justice’s Poland is straining it by staying, attacking the EU’s contradictory institutional positions – its promotion of human rights, its secularism and multiculturalism, its belief in state welfare, its embrace of mobile capital – with contradictory positions of its own. The typical Briton is slightly poorer now than before the financial crash, almost a decade ago; that might not be the EU’s fault, but at least there’s something to find a scapegoat for. The typical Pole, by contrast, is half as rich again.
Few at the richer end of Europe would begrudge rising prosperity for the hundred million Eastern Europeans who joined the EU between 2004 and 2007, 38 million of them in Poland. Whether or not Poland’s rise is an economic miracle, it’s an economist’s miracle, in the sense that it can, and has been, used to justify most of the mainstream non-Marxist economic currents of the past century. Free traders can claim it shows how opening up a previously closed market has expanded and enriched the European economy as a whole. Neoliberals can claim that the effects of Poland’s post-communist economic shock therapy, the mass closures of state factories and the ruthless privatisation and grievous unemployment that followed, prepared the way for the free market to come to the rescue with foreign investment and a resurgence of local enterprise. Keynesians can point to the vast amounts of public money Western Europe has poured into Poland to validate their argument that everyone gains when the state takes the lead in refuelling an economy that has run out of gas.
None of these economic ideas accommodates the triumph of Law and Justice, just as they do not accommodate Brexit and Trump. Such populist phenomena are linked by their backers’ ability to insist on the centrality of money-in-your-pocket economics to their cause, while at the same time promoting the primacy of romantic ideas of national and racial sovereignity in which, by definition, ideals come before money. The old notion of voters acting out of enlightened self-interest falls short in explaining this; but there are too many ideas, there is too much economics, in the rhetoric of the populists to say, as it’s fashionable to say, that voters are acting ‘emotionally’. The rise of Law and Justice and the Brexit referendum victory only make sense if economics and culture are seen as two aspects of a single field, whose fundamental substance is the collective psyche of voters; a field in which apparently unconnected economic and cultural abstractions (GDP, a lost empire) and apparently unconnected economic and cultural particularities (how much you get paid, the history of the building where you work) have links and relative weights that economics, and globalised consumer capitalism, struggle to measure.
Sometimes globalised consumer capitalism links communities in these two radically non-conformist EU states, links them, in that strange way of globalisation, without doing anything to bring them together. I looked at one such instance. It’s a migrant story, but of migrant capital rather than migrant labour, and as I looked into it I began to feel that the stewards of capital who seemed the obvious beneficiaries of what was going on had lost control of their own machine. They’d programmed it to seek only one thing – efficient production – and accordingly, when the machine set about its task, it attacked the largest obstacle to efficiency, the wants of its human components, blind to the fact its programmers depended on these same human wants to validate its construction.
All factories must close one day, but there’s something particularly brutal about a factory being closed because its owners have found cheaper labour elsewhere. The five hundred workers at Cadbury’s Somerdale chocolate factory in Keynsham near Bristol learned on 3 October 2007 that most of their highly paid, permanent, solidly pensioned jobs were to be moved to a new factory in Poland, not because they had done anything wrong, or because their products weren’t selling, or because the factory was unprofitable, but because their Polish replacements could do the same job for less than one fifth of the money. On the day the announcement was made, the Cadbury bosses locked the workers out and posted private security guards at the site. Apparently they feared a violent reaction, but to the shocked people of Keynsham, where the lights of Somerdale had burned for eighty years, the one-day lockout looked like an attempt to project onto a guiltless workforce an act of violence that had emerged from the company boardroom.
‘They didn’t know the mentality of the Somerdale workers,’ Amoree Radford said. ‘They would have worked to the death for the factory, but the directors didn’t know that.’ She’d worked there for ten years and her daughter Jade and husband Les still had jobs there when the news came. Dave Silsbury, a Unite official at the factory, worked there for 34 years. His father had worked there; he, his brothers, his daughter and his son-in-law were employed there when it shut. ‘Cadbury was all we knew,’ he said. ‘We were institutionalised.’ He was one of the last workers to leave, haunting its near deserted production halls, packing up for the auctioneers before the final shutdown in March 2011. By that time, the production lines had been stopped, one by one, dismantled and shipped off. The Mini Eggs production line was trucked the thousand miles to the new factory in the village of Skarbimierz in February 2010. In March, Caramel and Freddo were moved to Cadbury’s Bournville plant and Fry’s Chocolate Cream went to Blois in France. In June, the Crunchie bar line and Fry’s Turkish Delight were moved to Poland, followed in September by Curly Wurly, and in December by Chomp, Fudge, Picnic and Double Decker. ‘We watched the last few Double Deckers go through,’ said Silsbury. Someone took a photo of the final Fudge to come down the conveyor.
Anna Pasternak, who worked at the new chocolate factory in Skarbimierz, noticed the age of the equipment on the production lines. The wear on the metal caused by decades of Somerdale workers’ hands was the only message the British employees sent to their Polish successors. I met Pasternak in her flat in Brzeg, the nearest sizeable town to Skarbimierz. I asked her how she felt about what had happened to the British factory. ‘I never really thought about it,’ she said. ‘We lost so many jobs here in Brzeg … We didn’t feel sorry that others lost theirs … It’s somewhere else in the world. We don’t physically know these people.’
Somerdale had its origins in the chocolate dynasty founded in Bristol in 1753 when Joseph Fry, an apothecary, started selling drinking chocolate from his shop. He bought out a local cocoa manufacturer and the product became popular with the tourists taking the waters at Bath. A century later, the Frys were owners of the largest chocolate factory in the world. In 1847, they started making the country’s first chocolate bar, Chocolat Délicieux à Manger. Like Joseph Fry, John Cadbury had gone from selling cups of drinking chocolate to manufacturing the base product, in 1831, with the help of a steam engine, in a rented four-storey building in a back alley in Birmingham. In the early years his cocoa got a warrant from Queen Victoria but by 1861, when his sons George and Richard took over the factory, now in different premises, the business was on the brink. A new product the Cadburys had been counting on to turn things around, a drink called Iceland Moss, made of cocoa mixed with lichen, failed to find favour with the public.
The first step to commercial salvation was the purchase, with the last of George’s inheritance, of a machine designed by a family of Dutch chocolatiers, the van Houtens. Up to that point chocolate makers had been held back by the properties of the cocoa bean, which produced a mixture of cocoa solids and oily cocoa butter. Because it was hard to separate them, drinking chocolate tended to be greasy, heavily cut with potato flour or sago (or lichen) to sop the butter up. The van Houten machine squeezed most of the fat out of the beans, leaving cocoa solids for a purer drinking chocolate; the surplus of cocoa butter could be used to make moulded chocolate for eating.
The second stage in Cadbury’s rise to dominance was its use of advertising. The openly adulterated nature of the cocoa on sale in the mid-19th century had made it possible for less scrupulous manufacturers to touch up their wares with brick dust, iron filings, even red lead. Cadburys ran a national ad campaign, backed by the medical establishment, boasting of the unprecedented purity of the firm’s new product, free of adulterants. Finally they used their cocoa butter surplus to enter the emerging market for mass-produced luxury goods, producing a lavish assortment of filled chocolates called the Fancy Box, decorated with the fussy sentimentality of an aspirational Victorian parlour. From there the company grew steadily through the first great age of globalisation until, in 1910, it overtook Fry, while keeping ahead of the other Quaker confectionery giant, Rowntree. The main commercial threat was the technology and business nous of the Swiss – Henri Nestlé, Rodolphe Lindt, Jean Tobler, Philippe Suchard and Daniel Peter, the inventor of milk chocolate. Just before the end of the First World War, Cadbury and Fry undertook a defensive merger to protect themselves against takeover by Nestlé. It turned out Fry was worth much less than Cadbury; Cadbury accordingly became the dominant partner. The merger was a takeover in all but name.
One of the reasons for Fry’s relative weakness was the company’s failure to replace its sprawling, ramshackle network of factories in the middle of Bristol with a new factory on a greenfield site, as the Cadburys had done, moving from central Birmingham to Bournville, and Joseph Rowntree, which shifted production from urban York to suburban Haxby Road. Once the Cadburys took charge of Fry’s, they enforced change, and in 1920 a site of nearly 300 acres was bought in a meander of the River Avon, a few miles east of Bristol, outside the little town of Keynsham. In 1923, the company announced a contest to give it a ‘brief, easy to pronounce, striking and unique’ name. The winner was ‘Somerdale’.
The moves to Bournville, Haxby Road and Somerdale weren’t mere efficiency and tech upgrades. In its poster announcing the naming contest Fry’s says of the site: ‘there is ample room, not only for factories, wharves and sidings, but also for playing fields, bathing pools and sports grounds.’ The Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree families were successful capitalist industrialists, but they were also Quakers, bound to care for the welfare of their employees. In the high Victorian age it was still possible to see a potential harmony between Quaker ideals of simplicity, temperance, pacifism and charity and the handsome profits made by Quaker companies like Barclay’s and Lloyd’s banks, Bryant and May matches, Swan Hunter shipbuilders and Cadbury itself. In Victorian Britain, Quaker businessmen had competitive advantages. Ron Davies, in his biography of George Stephenson (Quakers were early financiers of the railways), talks about a Quaker ‘moral mafia’. In a commercial landscape filled with fraudsters and dodgy dealers, non-Quakers liked doing business with the Friends, knowing the extraordinary lengths the community would go to to vet its members’ entrepreneurial ventures and, if things went sour, to prevent, or make good, the consequences of bad loans and bankruptcy. As for the workforce, Robert Fitzgerald, in his account of the Rowntrees, points out that since ‘business and wealth were viewed by the Quakers as a God-given trust, labour could not be treated as a mere commodity’.
In fact, some Quaker industrialists treated workers very badly, notably Bryant and May. At a time when the mass of poor Britons were malnourished, under-educated, underpaid, ill-housed and unprotected against disease, Quakerism wasn’t enough to make a model employer; nor were the Quakers the only businesspeople to show more than minimal concern for the welfare of their workers. But for decades the Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree families seemed to achieve a particularly successful synthesis of profitable capitalism and private, paternalistic welfare. At Haxby Road, Bournville and later Somerdale, there was subsidised housing, healthcare and sports facilities. George Cadbury partly disinherited his children to build a garden village around the chocolate factory; Joseph Rowntree built the model village of New Earswick, and was an early adopter of pensions for his workers. The Quaker chocolate magnates wanted their factories to be handsome as well as functional. They wanted them to be surrounded by green spaces. They cared how their works appeared to God, their workers, their peers and their neighbours. Their ideology of practical, aesthetic social justice, formed at the confluence of fundamentalist Protestantism, capitalism, socialism and the Victorian fascination with an idealised medieval England, was both contradictory and, to many contemporaries, inspiring.
Over generations, the original Quaker rigour faded away under the pressure of the prosperity that rigour had brought them. In 1860, the Quakers abandoned the requirement that Friends observe ‘plainness of speech, behaviour and apparel’. Edward Fry accepted the previously unthinkable worldly honour of a knighthood. George Cadbury moved into a mansion with thirty servants. In the 1930s, when Rowntree scandalised the Cadburys and the Frys by trying to patent industrial processes – some Victorian Quakers had rejected the idea of patents altogether – it was lawyers, rather than a meeting of the Society of Friends, who settled the dispute. By the 1960s, members of the Fry and Cadbury families who had shares in the merged company were clamouring for it to be floated on the stock market so they could turn their paper assets into money. In 1962, the deed was done, and Cadbury-Fry was no longer a Quaker venture.
As much as worldly success, however, it was the success of their ideals that sped the decline of the crusading wing of Quaker capitalism. Many of the liberal and socialist ideas the Rowntrees, Cadburys and Frys campaigned for, and tried to implement on a small scale, were taken up by the unions, by the Labour movement, and eventually implemented by the state. This was good and necessary, but had its downside. The counterpart to the great privatisation of the British economy of the past forty years is the great nationalisation of culture that occurred much earlier, when swathes of life that had been covered patchily, erratically, unfairly and archaically by religion, private employers, local custom, charities, local committees of worthies and the unreliable benevolence of the rich – education, healthcare, pensions, safety at work, women and children’s rights – began to be provided universally by government. It was a triumph. But it also marked a critical stage in the depersonalisation of institutional culture. It made it easier for companies whose owners have no interest in the cultural weight of the enterprises they control – who see such ideas as history, place, community, aesthetics and paternalism as outmoded obstacles to efficiency – to act as if they operate in a space outside culture, even as their decisions radically transform it.
Post-Quaker Somerdale was a decent place to work. The residual Quaker legacy, combined with the power of the unions the Quakers had embraced, meant they were well paid, with job security, good final salary pensions and paid holidays. A short walk from the heart of the factory – three long, parallel blocks four and five storeys high made of brick and steel, with enormous windows – were the sports club, the football pitches and tennis courts. In the 1970s the factory had its own chiropodist, dentist and doctor. And these benefits came without the heavy hand of Quaker paternalism. The pay was good enough to enjoy the fruits of consumer capitalism – the foreign holidays, the gadgets and appliances, the nights out and the hobbies, not just in work, but in retirement – and if some struggled to make their overtime cover a mortgage or, later in the era, their credit card debt, they knew the state, up to a point, had their back. Their children wouldn’t go uneducated, and if they fell sick, they’d be cared for.
Amoree Radford gave up a job in a bank to work at Somerdale. Andy Nicholls, who headed the Unite union branch at the factory when the closure announcement came, started work there in 1972, the year before Britain joined the EEC. He’d been working as a trainee chef, earning £20 a week, when he saw an advert for a job at Fry’s for £7 a week more. ‘They were pretty desperate for staff,’ he told me. ‘Unless you were diabolical you couldn’t get turned down.’ He was put on six months’ probation, spending four nights a week making cream teddy bears. Afterwards he went on to the Fry’s Chocolate Cream production line. The company had already been making that bar for a hundred years. ‘Funnily enough it was a popular bar with miners,’ Nicholls said. ‘They used to dip it in their tea and the glucose would melt and it would help push the coal dust down their throats.’
He was one of the leaders of the effort to persuade the Cadbury directors to change their minds about closure. He encountered a disconnect in his fellow workers’ minds between what the company was doing and their image of the firm:
There was a family feeling about the company. One of the problems we had when we got to the closure programme was people felt so much loyalty to the company they didn’t want to fight for their jobs, no, ‘Cadbury is telling us they want to shut down’ … One of our problems when campaigning was discouraging members from ever telling the press what their wages were because they were earning anything from £20-50,000. There was a lot of overtime.
Like everyone I spoke to in the West of England, Nicholls expressed no resentment towards the Poles. ‘They want a job just like I do. You can’t blame the Polish worker. It’s the company.’
I tried to ask the members of Cadbury’s board at the time about their decision to close Somerdale. There were three executive directors – Todd Stitzer, the chief executive, Bob Stack, the chief human resources officer, and Ken Hanna, the chief financial officer – and a changing cast of nine non-executive directors. Stitzer eventually walked away with £40 million in pay, pension and cashed-in shares when he left Cadbury after the company was swallowed up by another multinational, but at the time the Somerdale decision was taken the board was coming under fierce pressure from Cadbury’s big shareholders, particularly the hedge fund partner Nelson Peltz and his Qatar sovereign wealth fund investors, to deliver fatter returns on their investment. I contacted the three executive directors and 11 directors – Sir John Sunderland, Roger Carr, Rick Braddock, Ellen Marram, Guy Elliott, Rosemary Thorne, David Thompson, Sanjiv Ahuja, Wolfgang Berndt, Lord Patten and Raymond Viault. Only Berndt replied (Chris Patten’s assistant told me he was in ‘rural Asia’ without email, then, when the deadline was extended, too ill to respond). Berndt told me he couldn’t remember whether the entire board had been asked to sign off on the closure, but remembered that all the directors were informed, and wholeheartedly endorsed it, ‘while everybody regretted the loss of jobs’. ‘It is a reality of life,’ he added, ‘that painful decisions like these are sometimes necessary to keep a company viable and a responsible and well-paying employer for the people who remain.’
Nicholls, Silsbury and Radford all voted in June for Brexit. A few years ago Radford joined Ukip. I met her in her large, comfortable house in a street within walking distance of the former factory. She’s still angry about Somerdale, about the government’s failure to intervene, and as we talked about chocolate-making’s lack of industrial glamour, a certain amount of bitterness towards the public in general spilled out. ‘You can’t compare steel and mining with making chocolate. People didn’t get the history. It didn’t mean anything to them. They didn’t care whether they were going to get their Crunchie from Poland.’
We spent a long time talking about Britain’s post-EU future. Much of what Radford said didn’t make sense to me; I couldn’t see, for instance, how ‘We want free trade’ fitted together with ‘Why should we buy Chinese steel, we’ve got our own?’ Sparring, our voices rose. Partly I still felt raw after the referendum result. But partly my discomfort was towards the institution I was defending, because I couldn’t disagree that, in this case, the EU had let the people of Keynsham down badly. ‘How many billion pounds did it cost us?’ Radford asked of the new factory in Skarbimierz. ‘Because it’s in the middle of nowhere. They had to do all the roads, all the infrastructure, and that was all paid for through our donations.’
Not all; and not billions. But a sizeable proportion – definitely. And the full story makes the EU look even worse than Radford knew.
On 10 April 1741, the 29-year-old King Frederick II of Prussia fought his first battle, in deep snow, on a low plateau to the west of the Oder, in Silesia. It was a chastening experience; he took his senior commander’s advice to run away, only for the Prussian army to beat his opponents, the Austrian army of the Hapsburgs, once he’d gone. Frederick’s proxy victory in the Battle of Mollwitz, named after one of three villages around the battlefield, was decisive. Silesia would, for the next two centuries, be part of Prussia and, after unification in 1871, Germany.
In the 1930s, the Luftwaffe built an airfield on the site of the battle. During the Second World War, there was a training school for fighter pilots there. In 1939, a prisoner of war camp, Brieg-Pampitz, was built near the base. Initially it held Polish and French POWs. After August 1940, it was turned into a slave labour camp. About a thousand Jews were brought from the ghettos established by the Nazis in Będzin, Sosnowiec and Czeladź and forced to work in brutal conditions on expanding the airfield. In the early years sick and exhausted Jewish workers were sent back to the ghetto, from where many would be sent on to the death camps. After August 1944, the Jewish prisoners were dispersed – those unfit for work to Auschwitz, the rest to another labour camp – and replaced by Poles from the Gestapo’s Pawiak prison in Warsaw, many of whom later died during the camp’s evacuation.
After the defeat of Germany, Poland’s borders were shifted westwards. In the east, territories that had been part of prewar Poland, including large cities, became part of the Soviet Union (after 1991 they became parts of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine). Polish Wilno became Soviet, then Lithuanian Vilnius; Polish Lwów became Soviet Lvov, then Ukrainian Lviv. As it lost territory to the USSR in the east, Poland gained from the old Prussian regions of Germany in the west. German Stettin became Polish Szczecin; German Breslau, Polish Wrocław; German Brieg, Polish Brzeg. The triangle of villages around the battlefield turned airfield, a mile outside Brzeg, were also given Polish names. Mollwitz was renamed Małujowice. Pampitz became Pępice. The third village, Hermsdorf, was rechristened Skarbimierz.
Although Silesia hadn’t been under Polish control since the 14th century, Poland’s new communist government called it part of the country’s ‘regained lands’. Its German Jews had been slaughtered by non-Jewish Germans; its non-Jewish Germans mostly fled, were driven out or interned. Poles seeped in to the depopulated land, the majority of them from the Kresy, the lost eastern territories, and repopulated it. They took over apartments, shops and farms, changed the toponyms, and made Silesia their own.
For much of the time that Radford, Silsbury and Nicholls worked at Somerdale, Skarbimierz was a Soviet air-force base, one of the biggest in the Warsaw Pact, where squadrons of fighter-bombers crouched in readiness for war with Nato. But communist rule collapsed, the last Soviet flying unit at the base, the 781st Fighter Aviation Regiment, departed for Smolensk on 10 June 1991, and the airfield went quiet. Somerdale’s nemesis was a farmer and Polish People’s Party politician called Andrzej Pulit, mayor of Skarbimierz, who looked at the derelict airfield that dominated his tiny district and thought: ‘Foreign investors’.
I met Pulit in his office, in a smart new prefab put up after a bout of flooding. He was wearing a jacket and a bright red shirt, open at the neck. He was a small man with a folksy didacticism and a strong resemblance to the late magician Paul Daniels. He sat at the head of a long table. In front of him was a copy of the daily Rzeczpospolita with a picture of Theresa May on the front page. It was mid-January and May had just made her speech declaring that Britain, as part of leaving the EU, couldn’t stay in the single market. ‘May: It’s A Full Divorce with the European Union,’ the headline ran.
‘You kicked yourself in the arse,’ he said.
I told him I was a Remainer, but I did my best to put the Leavers’ case to him. He didn’t buy it.
‘They want to close their country. Whoever does that just loses,’ he said.
We talked about Somerdale. He ruminated about capital, and Jews, and when I asked what Jews had to do with it, said: ‘The question is, where’s the capital which rules this world? … I’m just making a point about who has the capital: the Jews from the USA. Of course they’re all over the world, but mainly the US. It’s not that we’re complaining about it. This is what we’ve waited for, to have this capital coming, so we don’t have to go around the world searching for work. And now I think our ruling party has a bad position on foreign capital. They say foreign capital is not necessarily for us. And this, in my opinion, is bullshit.’
I asked him what he’d say to the workers of Somerdale about most of their jobs being in his village now.
‘I have a son in France and he earns €4000 a month,’ Pulit said. ‘When he talks about it, it comes out how people work there. They take it easy. Nobody cares about their job or pays much attention to it. As far as I can see that’s the difference. Our people lived through these socialist times, they experienced the transition, but there, in France, in Great Britain, they want big social benefits without any increase in productivity.’
Was he saying British workers were overpaid and lazy?
‘Exactly. Gypsies go over there from our part of the world because they can get all these nice social benefits. And now that’s just what’s happening in Poland, because salaries have grown.’
Many agencies were involved in bringing foreign investment to Skarbimierz, but Pulit claims the credit for rallying his district to get its one asset, the abandoned airfield, into shape to attract the overseas capital that would rescue the area from the ruins of communism and the free market shock therapy that followed. Cadbury already had a factory not far away, in Bielany on the edge of Wrocław, and wanted to expand, but land there cost 190 złoty (€48) a square metre. ‘Here we were basically ready to give the land away,’ he said. In the end they sold it to Cadbury for 5 złoty (€1.25) a square metre and promised to fix the roads and install the necessary services. To fund this the district sold off the old Soviet barracks at below market value, borrowed money, obtained government grants set aside for dealing with the legacy of Cold War military infrastructure, and got help from layers of local government above them. In the end, by one route or another, much of the money came from the EU, and although the biggest share would have come from Germany, as the EU’s biggest net donor, the next largest would have come from Britain.
Apart from the jobs Cadbury would bring, there was a direct financial incentive for Pulit and Skarbimierz. In the Polish system, the district, or gmina, the smallest unit of local government, gets the property taxes of any business on its territory. Cadbury actually decided to build two factories in Skarbimierz, one to make chewing gum and, later, the Somerdale replacement, to make chocolate. Since they opened, Skarbimierz’s cluster of villages, which only have eight thousand inhabitants between them, have benefited from 18 million złoty (€4.5 million) in property taxes.
For Cadbury, the incentives were numerous. The move would replace expensive, unionised workers with cheap workers in a country where the unions are weak. Much of the cost of the new factory would be covered by selling the Somerdale site for housing. Chocolate sales in the eastern EU, Russia and Ukraine (this was before the Ukrainian rebellions and sanctions against Russia) were growing, and Skarbimierz was in the middle of the new Europe, rather than, like Bristol, out on the far fringe of its road system. It’s right next to the E40, the longest designated Euro-road, which runs west in a straight line to Calais, and east through Ukraine and Russia to Central Asia. On top of this, Poland (and the EU) offered one more highly lucrative incentive. In 2007, Skarbimierz got zoned.
The idea came out of Ireland. In the 1950s Brendan O’Regan, who established the world’s first duty-free shop at Shannon Airport on Ireland’s west coast, realised that improved aircraft technology posed a threat to his and the area’s income. The only reason flights stopped at Shannon was to refuel before or after crossing the Atlantic; the new generation of passenger and cargo jets had a longer range, and could fly between their North American and European hubs without stopping. O’Regan had the idea of replacing Shannon’s position as a safe haven for global travellers with a new role as haven for global capital. In 1959 the Irish government set up the Shannon Free Zone in and around the airport. Within its perimeter, local and international companies who set up factories and exported the goods overseas would be exempt from Irish tax and duties for 25 years.
Companies liked this. Shannon got businesses and jobs. Variations of the (tax) free zone have since spread all over the world, from the maquiladoras of Mexico to the Shenzhen special economic zone, the incubator of China’s economic rise in the 1980s. ‘Shannon has been kind of an inspiration for Chinese leaders since then,’ Tom Kelleher, a near fifty-year veteran of Shannon Free Zone and its spin-out consultancies, told me. ‘The Chinese embassy in London was constantly bringing guys to Shannon, it was a kind of Lourdes to them. Visit Shannon and you get an indulgence.’ Among the pilgrims was Xi Jinping, now China’s leader, who paid lavish homage to Shannon on a visit in 2012. Kelleher was one of the Shannon consultants hired to design a free zone for Poland in the 1990s. ‘I think Shenzhen had started at that stage, and somebody said: “If you want to make progress, a free zone is the answer.” The free zone was the way you went from communism to capitalism.’
The first ‘special economic zone’ in Poland opened in Mielec, in the south-east of the country, in 1995. The city had been devastated by the collapse of work at its main employer, an aircraft factory dependent on Soviet and Warsaw Pact military clients. The zone was deemed a success, and 13 others followed, all centred on areas where the economic slump was especially deep. The idea was to create business-friendly regulatory islands, but there were big financial incentives, too. Investors, Polish or foreign, were offered the chance to pay no tax for ten years, and 50 per cent tax for the next ten.
When Poland joined the EU in 2004, the rules changed. In principle the EU bans national subsidies to businesses on the grounds that it gives those companies an unfair advantage, but it makes an exception for regions that are significantly poorer than the EU average. There are many. In Britain today, Cornwall and west Wales come into this category; the whole of Poland, apart from Warsaw and its environs, does too.Once inside the EU, Poland’s special economic zones had to abide by the organisation’s caps, but they were free to carry on subsidising. It’s hard to know exactly how big a subsidy from the Polish government Cadbury was counting on when it made the decision to close Somerdale, but one version of the calculation, based on an investment of €250 million, would have given Cadbury a tax break worth about a third of that.
In other words, not only did the EU pay for much of the infrastructure that enabled Cadbury to shut down its English factory and move it to Poland; it signed off on a massive financial inducement for Cadbury to go. It’s the kind of thing that could give a lumbering supranational bureaucracy a bad name – although not, you would have thought, in Poland. Yet the system is coming under attack there, too, both from the defeated and scattered political left and from the victorious Law and Justice Party. At every level, from Warsaw to the regions, from government ministers to local party bosses and political appointees, you hear versions of the same seemingly contradictory Law and Justice line: we gladly take and deserve the billions of euros we get from the EU, whose cultural values we openly and contemptuously repudiate. We gladly receive and welcome the foreign investment that brings jobs, but it’s a neocolonial relationship; all we do is put parts together.
‘We see borders open for capital, which is a good thing, but we also see a bad side to the foreign investment in Poland and other former Soviet Bloc countries. It wasn’t investment in high-tech industry,’ Maciej Badora, the president of the zone where Cadbury chose to relocate, told me. ‘The philosophy has been about cheap labour. They may not see it in Western Europe, but a lot of economists are pointing out that Eastern Europe has become like the post-colonial countries. To put it bluntly, we’re just a big market for them to sell their products and to use our labour.’
I met Badora in Wałbrzych, a former coalmining town whose miners lost their livelihood after the fall of communism. It had an urban landscape I became used to in Silesia outside the big cities: a mix of handsomely restored (by private and public funds) old German buildings; refurbished communist-era housing; crumbling, unkempt blocks of all eras that had been rotting for decades; and the great, windowless, spick and span, low-rise slabs of factories built by the multinationals. As I drove into town, the whiteness of the snow emphasised the soot-stained lintels and cornices and window frames of unrestored stretches of old streets, like wrinkles round the eyes and mouths of miners who’d fallen asleep without cleaning the coal dust off their faces. The new industrial areas seemed to exist in a parallel dimension, adjacent, yet detached.
Badora operates out of a smart new office building tucked in among the new factories, between their loading bays and car parks and security guard booths. He hasn’t been long in the job; he’s a political appointee, put in place by Law and Justice after he failed to win a parliamentary seat for the party in the election that brought them to power in 2015.
Look at Luxembourg’s tax breaks, he said to me, before you complain about ours. I asked him whether there wasn’t a contradiction between Law and Justice’s assertion of Poland’s sovereignty, its scepticism about immigration and multiculturalism and free-flowing global capital, and its seeming determination to continue embracing foreign investment and EU aid.
‘If you define traditional Conservative Catholic values as, for example, honesty, hard work and social solidarity, I don’t see any contradiction between these traditional values and the global economy,’ he replied. ‘Globalisation becomes dangerous whenever it gets rid of values.’
Speaking of solidarity, I said, what about solidarity with the British workers who lost their jobs when their factory got moved to Poland?
‘Nobody can better understand this problem of closing down factories than people from our region. In this area, especially in the coalmining areas, almost all industry was liquidated in the 1990s. And we do understand that to close such a factory, especially one so long-established, is really painful and sad for local society. But decisions to close down factories are made purely by companies, and we have no influence.
‘These processes are going on all over the world, and the difference these days is that Western Europe society is noticing it more. These countries, until recently, were totally indifferent; they didn’t pay attention to even more painful processes going on in Eastern Europe. The only advice they had for us back then was for us to work harder. We took it as good advice.’
Talking to Poles in Silesia I was struck by the sense of economic insecurity and past, or incipient, injustice that lay just below the surface even among the administrative class. To resentful Britons, it might seem the Poles of this region are lucky: they can stay at home, where wages are rising, the infrastructure is being transformed and jobs are plentiful, or they can get work in Western Europe, where salaries are much higher. From the point of view of their Polish counterparts, this is crass nonsense. On the one hand, Poland’s population is falling and its best and brightest young people are leaking westwards; on the other, the foreign capital that has brought the country prosperity has no loyalty to Poland. From Britain to Poland today; from Poland to an even cheaper country tomorrow. Poles, too, have their immigrant neuroses. As Britain is to Poland within the EU, so Poland is to its non-EU neighbour Ukraine.
‘In Poland we lack doctors, and therefore we have to employ people from Ukraine,’ Badora said. ‘There is a huge immigration from Ukraine to our country. This is something Western Europe doesn’t know. It used to be that we only saw Ukrainian workers in eastern parts of Poland. Now, even here, there are factories where 40 or 50 per cent of the workers are from Ukraine. They study here. They rent apartments.’
Criticism of the special economic zone system, which involves Poland essentially buying jobs on the global investment market in exchange for billions of euros in foregone corporation tax, is being heard more frequently from the Polish left. ‘You can think of them as industrial tax havens,’ said Iwo Augustynski, a Wrocław-based economist and activist with the left-wing party Razem. ‘When you look at levels of corporation tax in the EU, Poland has one of the lowest. When you look at the special economic zones, it’s effectively zero.’
You might assume that, because Skarbimierz is part of the Wałbrzych zone, it must be part of the town of Wałbrzych, or at least next to it. It isn’t. It’s eighty miles away. Since they were set up, the original 14 special economic zones have speckled the map of Poland with scores of sub-zones, sometimes even further from their origin. The Mielec zone, for instance, near the Ukrainian border, is offering land to investors in a sub-zone 450 miles away in Szczecin, on the Baltic, as if a local investment agency in Sunderland were trying to entice investors to open factories in Dover. Odder still, in Wrocław, the capital of Silesia, a thriving, attractive, high-employment city of IT workers and service industries, zones based in depressed towns far away have bought up development sites and designated them as aid-worthy sub-zones.
‘We don’t have unemployment here,’ Augustynski said. ‘Wages are higher than average, among the highest in Poland. But we still have some zones here, and there are plans to expand them further. We have a global bank here, Credit Suisse. There’s an IBM service centre, a Hewlett Packard service centre. They are all in the city centre. And they’re all in special economic zones.’
Supporters of the zone system would argue that Augustynski has his sequence wrong: Credit Suisse, IBM and Hewlett Packard moved to Wrocław many years ago, not as riders of the wave, but as part of the reason the wave began to rise. They point out that the tax exemptions for zone companies do eventually expire. They could point to the recent pushback for another Swiss bank, UBS – which didn’t get the zonal designation it wanted for its new service centre in Wrocław, but moved to the city anyway – as a sign of a new maturity in the Polish economy.
In 2014, too late for Somerdale, the EU recognised its error and banned the use of national subsidies to entice multinationals to move production from one EU country to another. But the EU also extended the period the Polish zones and sub-zones will be allowed to operate until 2026. And when you look at the EU’s aid map of Poland, Augustynski’s case becomes clearer. The poorest parts of Poland, the areas in most desperate need of jobs, are in the east. Yet the special economic zones – even, in some cases, zones in the east of the country – are helping foreign investors set up subsidised factories in the west. One of the biggest investors in thriving western Poland, just outside Wrocław, is the Korean company LG. But the sub-zone where LG built its factories was originally set up to help get jobs in Tarnobrzeg, near Mielec, 250 miles away in the struggling south-east. The explanation, according to Augustynski, is simple: the investors, the multinational firms, are in the driving seat. ‘My complaint is that the main actor, the main entity who makes the decision about where this investment is, is the investor,’ Augustynski said. ‘It’s not the local community, local government, not even the central government, it’s the investor. Mercedes was the decisive example. They said ‘western Poland’ and when they got some proposals they chose the one that suited them best. The Polish administration is a client. It’s got nothing to do with the unemployment rate in the area or structural economic problems.’
Barbara Kaśnikowska, who was sacked as president of the Wałbrzych special economic zone after Law and Justice’s 2015 election victory so the new government could give Badora her job, agreed that Augustynski had a point. Sometimes foreign investors would decide where they wanted to build a factory, then put pressure on the Polish authorities to declare that place a sub-zone for subsidy purposes. (There is no suggestion that this is what happened in Cadbury’s case.) But she still had faith the system was working as it was supposed to. Foreign investors who started out with simple assembly operations were staying on long after their subsidies expired; they were using Polish suppliers; those Polish firms were beginning to supply foreign investors in their home countries; Poland would become a base for research. The trouble is that the party now running the country doesn’t share her confidence. Last October Mateusz Morawiecki, the former banker who, as the new government’s finance minister, was taken in German and American boardrooms to be a reliable, globalist, business-as-usual free marketeer, an ally on the inside, gave a startling interview in which he denounced rich Western countries for conspiring to keep Poland in a state of economic dependency. ‘Having reached a peak of development themselves, the rich countries are now defending deregulation, the liberal approach, globalisation, because it suits them,’ he said. The IMF itself, he claimed, had concluded that ‘in countries like Poland the cost of the traditional neoliberal model exceeded the benefit.’
The chocolate factory was built as planned in Skarbimierz, except for one detail: it no longer belonged to Cadbury. A few months before Skarbimierz began production in 2010, Cadbury was bought for £11.5 billion in a hostile takeover by Kraft Foods, a US conglomerate four times its size. During the takeover, Kraft had promised to keep production at Somerdale, but once it had the British company, it reneged and went ahead with the closure. Two years later, Kraft spun off its stagnant North American processed foods business, leaving a vast global enterprise that it hoped would grow through heavy marketing of sugary snacks to newly prosperous families in India, Latin America, Africa, east Asia and Eastern Europe – households, for instance, with family members who worked in a new factory built by a multinational. After an internal contest to find a name for the reconfigured company, it was called Mondelez, meaning ‘world delicious’ in a nonce pidgin Esperanto.
From Wrocław, where I stayed, it was less than an hour’s drive along the E40 to the Mondelez factories in Skarbimierz. You leave the solid grandeur of central Wrocław and the jostle of its shiny new office districts (the city was almost destroyed in 1945, when it was one of the last Nazi strongholds to fall to the Red Army) and hit the new factory and warehouse areas. Modern factory architecture, low, windowless, hangar-like, looms all around. No matter how close you get, the buildings lie: they never stand. The exit from Wrocław is marked by a sprawling Tesco, an enormous Ikea (not that there are non-enormous versions), the older Mondelez factory – still with its Cadbury sign – and by Amazon warehouses bigger than any of them. Factories on the flat horizon mark the land, but they aren’t landmarks.
The two new Mondelez factories in Skarbimierz, one for gum and one for chocolate, have roofed over seven and a half acres. The chocolate factory is a giant shed, a blank oblong with a series of slightly higher blank oblongs jutting out of it. Most new factories are monochrome but the Mondelez factory is two-tone – grey and another, darker grey. It is digital-neat, as if it hadn’t so much been built as computer-rendered onto the bright white snow. On either side are other industrial sheds, nodes in the global supply chain: a distribution centre for the Portuguese food company Jerónimo Martins, an air filter plant built by the Minneapolis firm Donaldson and a car-seat maker, Johnson Controls, based in Wisconsin.
There’s a set of turnstiles in the fence around the factory but nobody stopped me going through. A sign promoted a kind of managerial cult called Integrated Lean 6 Sigma, designed to reduce defects on the production line. A slogan in multicoloured letters on the corner of the factory exhorted employees to work, have fun, and live safely. I peered through the glass entrance doors. Another poster read connected through joy. A quizzical security guard wandered towards me. I hadn’t told Mondelez I was coming. I made myself scarce.
Just behind the factory, the remains of the old runway are still there. Driving along the road on the far side of the plant you start to see the characteristic shape of military aircraft shelters among the trees, barn-like structures with thick walls and heavy metal doors designed to protect Soviet aircraft from attack by Nato. I had lunch in a restaurant close to the industrial area. Judging by the decor and the prices it was aimed at the new executive class, the supplier representatives, the local managers and the head office mandarins passing through on inspection. I found out later that there’s a memorial nearby to the labour camp, put up by local Polish groups in 1998. The inscription reads ‘Prisoners of various nationalities worked here on the construction of the local airfield; among them were soldiers of the Polish national army, many of whom were killed.’ The plaque bears the Christian cross and the Kotwica, the wartime symbol of the Polish resistance, later adopted by anti-communists. There is no Jewish star.
The block in Brzeg where the former chocolate factory worker Anna Pasternak lives, a five-storey prewar German apartment building, had just been restored and painted cream and green, the stucco swags around the bullseye windows in the loft painstakingly re-created. A small red sign in front directs patrons to an Erotic Shop down a side street. On the other side of the road, a building once the equal of Pasternak’s stands derelict, sprayed with tags, its windows smashed, crumbling brickwork shedding plaster. Further along are twin 14-storey communist-era tower blocks, perilously conjoined by a flimsy walkway at their top corners, their recent coat of jaunty pink starting to grime up.
Pasternak’s parents, who bought the flat from the state, recently handed it over to her and retired to their hometown in the east of the country. The flat has big rooms, high ceilings, yellow and lime walls, and an enormous pot plant towering over the TV. Pasternak was on her laptop when I arrived. Its cooling system was broken and she had it sat on her coffee table on a layer of empty dessert tins to stop it overheating. She’s 37 years old, an engineer and an improviser, and her work history is a paradigm of Silesia’s recent economic frenzy. She finished high school in 2003 and began an eight-year course of studies at a series of vocational schools, learning to build, control and manage assembly lines. From the start, she worked at the same time, studying at the weekend and working all week. Her first job was at a chicken factory in Opole, the capital of the province where Brzeg and Skarbimierz lie, up the river Oder in the opposite direction from Wrocław. Every day the chicken factory bus would pick Pasternak up from Brzeg at 4.05 a.m. and wind through a string of villages, gathering workers. ‘It took around one and a half hours to get to the factory, you did eight hours’ work, and you were home by 3.45. We started with a live chicken, then it was cut and processed and it would come out on trays. It wasn’t very skilled. The requirements were not high. You just had to have been to school, have a health certificate and be willing to work.’ She got 850 złoty a month, cash in hand, about €212 at today’s exchange rates. ‘It lasted ten months,’ she said. ‘They fired me when they found out I was studying.’
Her next job was on the checkout of one of the foreign supermarkets that had rushed into Poland on accession. There she only got 800 złoty a month (€200) but she was glad of the work. ‘Back then you would take any job. The unemployment round here was around 50 or 60 per cent so if you got any job you clung to it with your hands and feet.
‘The supermarkets came in kind of gradually, and then, when the chewing gum factory was built, there was another factory, another, boom, boom! People were glad. Suddenly we could choose to work here, or there.’
In 2005, Toyota built a diesel engine factory in one of the Wałbrzych sub-zones 15 miles away. Pasternak got a job on the production line. It was her first experience of working as one human component in a multinational, in a single global manufacturing, assembling and distribution system, encompassing more than 300,000 workers in 53 factories in 28 countries. The work consisted of a single set of procedures, lasting a minute, that she’d repeat 445 times in the course of an eight-hour day, starting at 6 a.m. At eight she’d get an eight-minute break; at ten, twenty minutes; at noon, seven minutes.
She described a typical series of repeating assembly actions. ‘I had my square metre of the shop floor and I’d operate there for the whole day. The production line would be moving, I’d take a connecting rod, put rings on it, then place a piston on top and block it with a gudgeon pin. After that I’d place the assembled piston in a special basket and it would go to another person who was assembling it with cylinders.’ There was leeway for about five seconds either way, for someone else to make up your delay, or for you to make up someone else’s. Any more than five seconds and the whole assembly line would stop. Seventy people would be left standing idle. ‘There was no time for talking, plus it was super loud in the factory, so we all had earplugs, and could only communicate by nodding heads and with the eyes.’ For this, Pasternak took home 1200 złoty a month (€300) – a 50 per cent increase on her wages in the supermarket. Today, the basic take-home pay for a production line worker in one of Toyota’s British plants, where some of these engines were destined, is €1600 a month, and the breaks add up to 55 minutes, compared to the 35 Pasternak got.
Pasternak got a job at Cadbury’s new gum factory in Skarbimierz in 2009, as Mondelez was about to take over. The work was easier than at Toyota – ‘I just had to stand there and see everything was working’ – and the pay better, the highest of any factory in the area, at 1500 złoty (€375) a month. In five years, her salary had almost doubled. She got private health insurance, a card entitling her to use private sports facilities, and a free bus on the short ride to work.
One former union official from the gum plant, who asked not to be named, told me that the factory worked well for the first year and a half, when Spanish, French and American managers were running it, but conditions worsened when Polish human resources staff were brought in. Union representation was weak; only one in four workers belonged to a union, and the union officials were inexperienced and poorly supported by their national organisation. Full-time contracts were replaced by temporary contracts; pay was cut. Union officials complained they were subjected to relentless management bullying. In 2011 the union leader at the Mondelez factory, Tomasz Wachowski, was fired for allegedly aggressive behaviour at work. He won his case for unfair dismissal but by that time he’d already moved to the Netherlands. Soon afterwards his deputy was fired, and such power as the union had was broken.
‘These multinational companies, they don’t just move production to countries that are cheaper, but also to places where workers are easier to manipulate, where there are no strong traditions of worker unions,’ Wachowski told me from Holland on Skype. ‘We had no previous experience. We got no help from the union. We were like a leaf in the wind.’
An anonymous spokesman for Mondelez in Poland said, by email: ‘In general we have a constructive relationship with our labour representatives. We are not aware of any Polish industrial tribunal in this case … We do not accept any kind of discrimination, bullying or victimisation.’ Pasternak – who wasn’t a union member, and spoke of the union in question, Solidarity, as ‘totally incompetent’ – said she’d been promised, when she started work at Mondelez, that she’d get a full-time contract after 15 months. Before the 15 months were up, she was told full-time jobs were no longer on offer; nobody would get more than a two-year contract.
Then the world went off gum. Sales plummeted. There were rumours the plant would be closed completely. Local managers reacted harshly. In 2013, rather than formally announcing that a certain number of people would be laid off, they sought justification for firing people, one by one. ‘Basically they fired anyone who’d taken too much sick leave, or talked too much, or expressed dissent,’ Pasternak said. ‘In my case, it wasn’t allowed to bring a mobile phone into the factory, and one day I just had to have my phone with me … I just took a look to see whether I’d received a message and I was seen by a supervisor – not even mine! – and because they were looking for reasons to fire people, they fired me.’
Pasternak found another job in a nappy factory built by the Swedish firm SCA in another Wałbrzych sub-zone, in the town of Oława. To get it, she was obliged to be employed not by SCA directly, but by an agency, on a new kind of contract. Formally, the contract was full-time, but in practice, it was only good for a month. Every month she’d get a text message from the agency telling her whether she still had a job or not. In 2015, she found work at the Mondelez chocolate factory, on similar terms. It was a seasonal job, from May till November, packing chocolate bars into Cadbury’s ‘selection boxes’ – Mondelez still uses the Cadbury brand name – for Christmas. For 24 hours a day, three shifts of sixty to seventy people worked a 100-metre packing line. Pasternak liked the job and the banter, and in a good month she could earn 2000 zloty (€500). She didn’t get the full-time job she wanted, and the next year, she came back.
This time, Mondelez employed her for the whole season, instead of making her endure the monthly wait to see whether her contract would be extended. But the pay was lower than the year before, and the supervisors made them work harder. They were desperately short-handed, sometimes missing a third of the shift, but they were expected to stuff selection boxes and imitation Christmas stockings with Crunchie bars and Curly Wurlys at a faster rate. ‘In chocolate the job was physically exhausting, you had to work hard and fast and the wages were much lower,’ Pasternak said. ‘People felt they were being treated like garbage. The team leader would come over and yell at us: “You’re the worst brigade in the plant! If you can’t cope with this, you’re the worst!”’Pasternak left before the end of the season and got a job at Donaldson. She’s still waiting for a permanent contract.
Mondelez Poland said it employed ‘around four hundred people’ on ‘permanent contracts’ and a ‘variable’ number on temporary contracts. But under Polish law, a ‘permanent’ contract can actually mean a job that is renewed, or not, every month. Poland leads the EU in temporary contracts, by some margin: 22 per cent of its workforce is on one. Employment agencies in Poland keep coming up with new variants; one agency offered Ukrainian workers with a year’s guarantee, like a domestic appliance. ‘They recruit in Ukraine and give an employer a warranty – this person will work for one year, and if not, we’ll replace them with someone else, equally qualified,’ was how Kaśnikowska described it.
Temporary jobs ; temporary factories. In 2009 the first multinational to invest in the Wałbrzych zone, the Japanese car parts maker Takata Petri, closed its plant with the loss of 600 jobs and moved production to a special economic zone in Romania, where workers are cheaper. In 1996, in Britain, the Welsh Development Agency agreed a £124 million grant to LG electronics on its promise to invest £1.7 billion and create six thousand jobs. In the end, LG invested much less and ten years later shut down its last assembly lines in Wales, as it ramped up production at its new, subsidised plant outside Wałbrzych. Now LG is sharply cutting jobs at its Polish plant.
Iwo Augustynski was in no doubt that globalisation, unemployment and inequality were behind the success of Law and Justice. The contradictions in their response, he said, were to the party’s advantage. ‘They don’t need to find solutions,’ he said. ‘It’s conflict that gives them power, not solutions.’
I suggested to Maciej Stefanski, the Law and Justice leader and administration head in Brzeg county, which includes the district of Skarbimierz, that it was unwholesome to make so much of his party’s concern over the damage globalisation and multiculturalism was doing to Poland, while accepting the iron rules of the free market when the damage was done to the cultural fabric of another country and Poland benefited. But he wasn’t buying it; and besides, Mondelez, in its only concession to the fact that it exists in the local space of Brzeg, sponsors the town’s Christmas lights. ‘Poles really value freedom,’ he said. ‘This freedom we fought for after 130 years of Polish partition. We don’t like it when people from outside try to influence our internal affairs, as the EU does very often. Patriotism is very important to us. It doesn’t mean we’re against the free markets. We think the special economic zones have enriched Poland.’
Stefanski’s office, in another nicely restored prewar building, is cluttered with furniture and knick-knacks. There’s a painting of Polish cavalry, another of Józef Piłsudski, who drove the Red Army back from the edge of Warsaw after the Russian Revolution, and a photograph of the town’s monument to Pope John Paul II. Images of the same two inspirational figures, by all accounts, adorn the office of the effective leader of Stefanski’s party, the former lawyer, former Solidarity activist, former child actor and current conspiracy theorist Jarosław Kaczyński; portals to the psychic hinterland of his movement, a hinterland of Polish Catholicism, martyrdom, suffering, heroism, the battle between good and evil, tattered flags, last stands, saints, miracles, blood, incense, cordite.
Formally Kaczyński holds no office save a seat in parliament. Since his mother died he lives alone, with his cat Fiona, leaving him plenty of time to read Thomas Piketty and Carl Schmitt. He always wears black, in mourning for his twin brother, killed in a plane crash near Smolensk in 2010 that Kaczyński variously blames, without any evidence, on Russia and the then Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk. Everyone assumes the president and prime minister only govern on Jarosław Kaczyński’s behalf, that he is the true authority in Poland.
The authority dislikes many things: homosexuals, immigrants, women’s reproductive rights, atheists, criticism, dissent. Since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice government has taken over public broadcasting, filling it with fawning loyalists and right-wing polemicists on the Russian model. Some 118 journalists have been fired; in one case, six producers and journalists lost their jobs when they refused to prepare a false story smearing the opposition. State TV dropped its annual coverage of Poland’s biggest charity event, which raises millions each year for the treatment of sick children, and cut any mention of it from its news programmes, because its organiser also campaigns for the rights of sexual minorities. The government did away with the independence of the chief prosecutor. It tore up the rules intended to ensure senior civil servants are qualified, recruited in open competition, and protected from arbitrary dismissal. The head of the prime minister’s office has spoken openly of firing any civil servant suspected of being infected with the ‘social pathology’ of the previous pro-European, socially liberal, economically centre-right government. The government violated the constitution in order to gain control of the constitutional tribunal, the court that rules on whether laws are constitutional or not. Law and Justice openly encourages emnity towards refugees; just before the election, Kaczyński said they were carriers of cholera and dysentry and ‘other, even more severe diseases’. The party backed a bill that would have made abortion absolutely illegal, even in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life was in danger, and pulled back only after demonstrations. It then passed a law obstructing demonstrations by allowing loyalist groups to reserve potential protest sites indefinitely. It has appointed a militant anti-contraception Catholic theologian to advise on a new sex education course for schools. Senior priests and Law and Justice boost each other. Kaczyński says that ‘there are no other moral guideposts in Poland apart from the teachings of the Catholic Church.’ In a sermon the archbishop of Przemyśl accused opposition MEPs who criticise Law and Justice in the European Parliament of ‘fomenting hatred against Poland’.
Law and Justice MEPs sit in the same group as British Conservatives. Ashley Fox, leader of the Tory group in the European Parliament, came to the new government’s defence over the criticism it has received from Western media and from the European Commission. Even though Brexit threatens Poland with a significant cut to its EU funding, and means difficulties for Poles in the UK, Kaczyński has been energised by it, seeming to believe the shock of Brexit will force Germany and France to give Poland the freedom of action he wants it to have within the EU. In a recent interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung he portrayed the EU as a creature of Germany, a country in thrall to left-wing ideas, which had pushed Britain towards Brexit as a result of its enforcement of a pro-homosexual ideology. Kaczyński doesn’t want to leave the EU: he wants the EU to leave the EU. Whether you call this a bluff, or a calculation that Western Europe has invested too much in Poland not to give it what it wants, Kaczyński is raising the possibility, however remotely, of Poland parting company with the bloc. To be pushed out by an exasperated Germany would be the perfect bloodless modern martyrdom for a modern Poland. But the special economic zones might not look so special afterwards.
Tomasz Wachowski, the sacked union leader at Cadbury’s gum factory in Skarbimierz, posted ‘well done Britain!’ on his Facebook page the day after the Brexit referendum, although he was evasive when I asked him about it. When he lived in Brzeg, he was a founding member of the local branch of the extreme right-wing movement ONR. His sacked deputy was a Law and Justice supporter. Anna Pasternak was hostile; the party’s attempts to establish a religious state annoyed her. But nor did she care for Civic Platform, Law and Justice’s economically centre-right, socially liberal rivals, who ruled Poland for eight years before Kaczyński’s triumph. Like almost half of Polish voters, she sat out the 2015 election. Brexit was won on the votes of more than a third of the electorate; the Conservatives and Donald Trump won power in Britain and the US with the support of a quarter; Law and Justice won it with the support of less than a fifth. The more important question for the Polish opposition is not ‘How could they vote for that?’ but ‘Why did they prefer not to vote at all than vote for us?’ The populism of Law and Justice is much better known outside Poland than the un-populism of Civic Platform, which raised the pension age, raised VAT – the tax that hits the poor the hardest – and bent over backwards to please foreign investors.
Law and Justice restored the old retirement age and introduced a hefty non-means tested child benefit allowance of 500 złoty a month (€125) for a couple or single parent with a second child, to be funded at least partly by new taxes on foreign investors: not those who built factories – not yet – but those who’ve come to dominate shopping and retail banking. It also increased the minimum wage. Civic Platform doesn’t ask what makes these policies popular: inequality caused by an unfair tax system? Resentment towards foreign supermarkets for the crushing of small Polish shops? A sense that low birth rates threaten Poland’s existence? Instead it characterises them as reckless handouts that will destroy the economy. One of the nails in Civic Platform’s coffin was a series of transcripts of secret recordings of conversations between government officials published in 2014 in the magazine Wprost. Civic Platform, the champion of press freedom, sent in the security services in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the recordings. On one of the tapes a Civic Platform minister, now an EU commissioner, can be heard telling the country’s anti-corruption chief that ‘only an idiot would work for less than 6000 złoty a month’ – €1500, twice Poland’s average salary.
Barbara Kaśnikowska, the shrewd former head of Wałbrzych zone, suggests, persuasively, that Law and Justice benefited from resentment not of the have-nots towards the haves, but between haves; that as Poland boomed, ordinary people didn’t resent those who’d become super-rich so much as people just like them who, for no good reason, earned twice or three times as much as they did. In her view, Poland’s non-voters didn’t despise Civic Platform: they took its achievements for granted. A Pole, on this analysis, is much more likely to vote to say ‘screw you’ when they are angry than ‘thanks!’ when all’s going well. You can see her point. Andrzej Buła, the marshal of Opole and Civic Platform leader in the province, told me that the EU was funding 40 per cent of the provincial budget, while unemployment had dropped from 14 to 8 per cent. In some counties it’s as low as 5 per cent – essentially full employment. Without the Ukrainians, he said, they’d be short-handed. Yet in the 2015 parliamentary elections Civic Platform lost Opole on a swing of 40 per cent to Law and Justice.
There’s a word for the work of those who navigate the single field that unites culture and the economy in people’s minds: politics. Whatever they are doing, Law and Justice, Ukip and the English nationalist wing of the Tory Party are doing politics. New Labour, the Tory neoliberal wing and, perhaps, Civic Platform, have drifted into something else. Most shareholder-owned multinationals, away from their home countries, attempted to opt out of culture a long time ago. Instead of forcibly reminding them that they were always part of local culture, whether they wanted to be or not, parties like Civic Platform and New Labour followed business, and began treating economics and culture as two separate things. Out of power, the separation continues, manifesting itself as a split between those waiting for the populists to be destroyed by economic disaster, and those who protest, reactively and sequentially, against each new cultural outrage. In Britain, seen from the point of view of the workers at Somerdale, the politicians of the first decade of the 21st century merged their vision with the governing ethos of multinational corporations like the once paternalistic Cadbury, the ethos of overpaid bosses and the drive for yield on behalf of remote institutional investors. In Poland, Catholic and post-communist culture struggle to interact with the faith-blind, place-blind, history-blind giants of global industry.
One of Cadbury’s early acquisitions in Poland was Wedel, a chocolate company founded as a family business in Warsaw in the mid-19th century which by the 1930s had grown to be a thriving example of paternalistic capitalism, offering its workforce healthcare, education and housing benefits. The main Wedel factory was destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. Jan Wedel rebuilt it. The communists nationalised it. The post-communists privatised it. Pepsi bought it. Pepsi sold it to Cadbury. When Skarbimierz was being built, there were fears the strongly unionised Wedel factory would be closed, but it didn’t happen, partly because of a campaign to save it, supported by the then mayor of Warsaw, the late Lech Kaczyński, twin brother of Jarosław.Dariusz Skorek, a union leader at the Wedel plant, told me when I met him in Warsaw that although his union, Solidarity, tended to be described as ‘socialist’, he was, politically, on the other side.
‘The Solidarity movement,’ he said, ‘is based on Christian values, on right-wing ideology. We were always in opposition to the previous government, but Law and Justice – of course they’re making a lot of mistakes, but it’s a government that’s finally started to do something for the workers.
‘It’s hard for unions in Europe in general, but here, the attitude under the previous government was that they should be destroyed, and there would be no obstacles to foreign investment. I know what people in the rest of Europe are thinking about our current government but from the employee and union point of view, it’s our government.’
There’s an alternative narrative to the Somerdale-as-tragedy story. Cadbury’s closure announcement didn’t come as a complete shock: workers had noticed that the firm had stopped investing in the building. There were leaks in the roof. Rumours that the factory’s days were numbered went back at least as far as 1978, when Dave Silsbury started work. Then, 5000 people worked there. By 2007, outsourcing and automation had whittled the numbers down to a tenth of that. ‘It was almost unthinkable that a machine could wrap an Easter egg, because of the nature of the product and the shape of the egg, but now they can,’ Barrie Roberts, a national official from Unite, told me. Because workers in Poland were so much cheaper, automation actually took a step backwards when production moved; the honeycombed sugar in Crunchie bars, which at Somerdale had been automatically cut with high-speed jets of oil, reverted in Poland to being cut the old labour-intensive way with saws. Cadbury could have had a fight on its hands over closure. It had three other factories in Britain, and the national union was ready to support the Somerdale workforce if they chose to strike. But they didn’t. Many workers were nearing retirement age, the company’s redundancy terms seemed generous, and in the end the majority (not Silsbury or Nicholls) voted 70 to 30 to accept.
After a few tough years, Silsbury and his son have found full-time jobs at a local food additives company called TasteTech. Among its customers is the Mondelez chocolate factory in Skarbimierz, part of the £3.8 billion worth of goods Britain exports to Poland every year. This year, Silsbury turns 55, and gets to access his £100,000 redundancy payment, which he put away in a pension account. ‘Keynsham’s moved on,’ he said. ‘I thought there would be a bigger impact than there was. Now it’s just as if it was never there.’
Somerdale’s best playing fields (the ones that don’t flood) have been built over. The architects have made some effort to design the new houses in keeping with the housing built by the company in its Quaker days. But prices are high; it’s an easy commute to Bristol. The core of the factory itself is being converted into retirement flats. A gigantic sign, designed to be seen from the London to Bristol railway line, advertises the new development’s name, the Chocolate Quarter. A sports club has been built to replace the demolished Fry Club. In repudiation of its Quaker heritage, it has a bar.
Although the ex-Somerdale workers I spoke to voted Leave, the area as a whole didn’t. It’s in one of the prosperous Remainer corridors that stretches out from London towards cities of tecchies, hipsters, students, academics, bankers and cosmopolitan retirees: Cambridge, Brighton, Bristol. Matt Cross, the nearest thing Bristol has to a Maciej Badora – he’s director of investment at an agency called Invest Bristol & Bath – told me the UK was at the top of an evolutionary tree of skills, and as low-skilled factory jobs went to cheaper countries, new, high-wage, high-skill jobs were being generated, not necessarily when foreign investors came in, but sometimes, counter-intuitively, when they moved out, releasing highly-qualified people into the West Country’s ferment of start-ups. A spokesperson for Mondelez, Gemma Pryor, told me the company had increased the number of researchers working on its products in Britain from 25 to 250, intended to keep all its remaining British factories going, and was ‘upskilling our wider workforce at Bournville’, where £75 million has been invested to keep manufacturing going ‘for the next generation’.
True, the optimistic version of the story goes, the EU was wrong to allow Poland to offer Cadbury a subsidy to move. But in the long run, in Europe as a whole, everyone benefits. Eastern Europe gets richer and catches up with Western Europe; instead of 400 million people working and shopping and 100 million people working and queuing, you have 500 million people working and shopping. A bigger market, greater prosperity for all, a peaceful commonwealth, warplanes into chocolate.
The chief of the many flaws in this version is that at both ends of the Somerdale-Skarbimierz journey, the new jobs are worse than the old Somerdale ones. Even supposing all the redundant Somerdale workers, and their children, found similar low-skilled jobs, they would never be as well-paid as they were at Somerdale, and, crucially, wouldn’t have the same generous final salary pensions. Some of the Somerdale workers’ children, no doubt, will enter the higher-wage higher-skill world of the professional tech class, but the flipside of Matt Cross’s optimism is that those jobs will be few, and the zero-hours army many. The outflow of old-style manufacturing jobs, with good pay, conditions and pensions, couldn’t be matched by any foreseeable inflow. ‘People at the lower end of the workforce,’ Cross said, ‘start to lose their engagement in the workforce and the jobs they can get are very temporary jobs, minimum wage jobs, the Sports Direct-type model.’
‘They weren’t our jobs,’ Silsbury told me, explaining why, in spite of the good redundancy offer, he’d been ready to fight for Somerdale. ‘We were just the keepers of those jobs. We needed to hand them down to our children and our children’s children.’ Nicholls said he’d been able to retire at 57 and live comfortably, without working, on his Cadbury’s pension. He has a caravan in Dorset; he goes fishing; he visits National Trust properties. Shareholder capitalism’s race to the bottom means that the generations of non-graduates who come after him – ‘there’s nothing wrong with someone who hasn’t got the ability to be a thinker’ – face precarious decades of low-wage warehouse work, followed by poverty on the state pension. Nicholls started out as a trainee chef; now his son is one. But his son is 32. He earns just above the minimum wage and has no Cadbury’s to move to. Nicholls’s daughter works for the RSPCA. ‘She’ll never get a big pension, so that’s where she’ll lose out. She’ll always be like she is now, just managing.
‘What we had, if you stuck with it, you saw an end game. Now there’s no end game. You keep your head above water but the rewards, at the end, don’t come through. Once Thatcher started her game and sold off our houses, our kids are in private rented property, and that seems to go up every year, and wages don’t. It’s going to be a just-managing society. In our generation, the state pension is like a top-up. We are going to have a generation going back to living on the state pension, like the 1930s and 1940s. Do we really want to go back there?’
At Mondelez in Skarbimierz, where casualisation, cost-cutting and fears of being undercut by cheaper labour elsewhere prevail, the target the workers are theoretically aiming for, economic parity with Western Europe, is disappearing from view. The equilibrium, in other words, when the Poles catch up with the Britons, will see a European economy that is, overall, much bigger, but where working-class Britons will have fallen back, and working-class Poles will never enjoy the security and prosperity of their vanished British counterparts in what now seems a mid-20th-century golden age. Scaled up to the global level you have a system which, in its search for short-term efficiency and capital yield, restricts the power much of humanity has to consume what it produces. Multinational manufacturers of consumer goods cut their costs to the bone, sweating their wage and pension bill and buying up robots to deliver yield to the pension funds and sovereign wealth funds and hedge funds and wealthy families that own them; but who then will be able to afford the consumer goods? Those people who work for the other guy? But the other guy is doing the same thing. And robots don’t eat chocolate.