Nearly 25 years since the end of Communism a new cultural and political divide has opened in Europe. This is being exploited by the conservative right,that promotes a regressive ideology of division around issues of gender in the East and immigration in the West.
As the Winter Olympics begins in Russia, international attention has turned to the discriminatory laws signed by Putin last year that outlaw the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’. These laws have helped fuel homophobia in Russia and have been justified by the Russian President as protecting conservative family values against the ‘genderless and infertile tolerance’ that has grown in the West.
This conservative turn in Russia has been replicated in other countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). In Poland the Catholic Church has rejected the mild liberal turn taking place in the Vatican and declared war on ‘gender theory’. Gender has become a ubiquitous term for the conservative right, bringing together diverse issues such as sexual identity, contraception, equality, abortion, in-vitro treatment, etc. Presently, the conservative right (including many in Citizens Platform - PO) has been engaged in trying stop the passing of laws that outlaw discrimination against lesbian and gays in the EU and defending ‘traditional family values’ in Poland.
An awkward political alliance has been formed on this question, uniting Catholic right-wing conservatives in Poland with those governing in the Kremlin. Both see themselves as opposing the spread of liberal values from the west, and rather ironically attempt to uphold the official social conservative stance to sexuality that was propagated during Communism.
This rise of conservative ideology is not occurring in a social vacuum. In Russia the laws were passed with virtually no opposition in parliament and are supported by the vast majority of the population. In Poland, despite society gradually becoming more liberal on issues of lesbian and gay rights, around 60% of society still oppose allowing same-sex legal partnerships. To some extent, the preservation of conservative attitudes on this issue is one of the failures of Communism, which entrenched the idea that homosexuality is abnormal and a western deviation. Moreover, it reflects the limitations of liberalism, where cultural liberalism has been combined with the precepts of neo-liberal economics. The ideals of individual tolerance have become the symbolic property of a privileged section of society, which excludes the vast majority. In response, large sections of society have fallen back on the certainties of traditional conservative values.
Whilst the criticisms made against this conservative ideology are correct and necessary, the hypocrisy of the West is evident. Obama may describe the laws passed in Russia as being unacceptable but we hear no similar denunciation of America’s ally Saudi Arabia where homosexuality is both outlawed and punishable by death. The calls for a boycott of the Olympics are reminiscent of the exaggerated and stereotyped representation of the problem of racism in Poland and Ukraine made before Euro2012. There is a certain neo-colonial smugness, that sees those in the east as uneducated hordes who have not yet caught up with the west’s civilised attitudes.
This viewpoint also represents an idealised view of life in the West. For example, in 1988 Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced laws that were almost identical to those recently passed in Russia and were only repealed in 2003. In the 1980s, those supporting equal rights for lesbians and gays in Britain were termed the ‘loony left’ and were a minority even in the Labour Party. Homophobia remains a serious problem in the West and any advances that have been made have been hard won and certainly not handed down by a benign liberal elite.
The mainstream conservative right in the West can no longer use homophobia as its ideological weapon, as society has generally moved beyond it on this issue. Yet in these times of economic difficulty, a scapegoat is needed to turn attention away from the regressive economic policies of austerity and follow the tried and trusted strategy of ‘divide and rule’. The chosen culprits are immigrants.
Whilst the conservative right in the east of Europe fear the incursion of liberal values, those in the west of the continent see the influx of migrants as the major threat. The availability of a new pool of cheap and skilled labour from CEE has been exploited by businesses in Western Europe over the past decade. However, since the outbreak of the economic crisis these migrants have become a target for many venting their frustrations at declining living standards. The proposal of new laws restricting the right of migrants to claim benefits in Britain is part of this upsurge in anti-immigrant populism. The right-wing media paints a picture of people from the east `flooding’ the country to live off the social security system, when in fact over the past decade economic migrants from Europe have paid 34% more in tax than they have received in benefits. An atmosphere of near hysteria was whipped up before labour market restrictions were lifted on migrants from Bulgaria and Romania at the beginning of this year, although the predicted flood has turned out to be little more than a trickle.
Within the EU, the viewpoint that borders should be closed, and the process of economic and social convergence halted, is most strongly held in the richer states in the west. Conversely, the most liberal and progressive stance on the movement and integration of people is held by those in CEE, including by parties of the conservative right. The dictum that ‘being determines consciousness’ is once again confirmed.
The depiction of migrants from CEE as benefit scroungers and criminals is a different version of the same conservative ideology that sees sexual equality as an unnatural deviation. It feeds on the inequalities existent in Europe and offers simplistic although misguided solutions to complex socio-economic problems. When the left is weak or succumbs to this (as to some degree the Labour Party has on immigration in Britain), so the conservative right and its retrograde ideas are strengthened.