1980-1989: Poland Leads Eastern Europe Into the Abyss

“There may be fresh ways of bat­tling out of the terrible contradictions of Third World–style polarization and ex­ploitation — and if there are, the remark­able Poles, if anyone, show promise of finding their way clear to them.”


The Path of Most Resistance

During the season of its first flower­ing, at the outset of this decade, Halina Bortnowska, one of the foremost theorists of Polish Soli­darity, characterized the move­ment as an expression of the country’s “subjectivity,” by which, she went on to explain, she meant Poland’s renewed ca­pacity for acting “as the subject instead of the object of its history.” The distinc­tion was a fertile one — and perhaps most evocative at a purely grammatical level. Almost continuously for the past two centuries, and certainly throughout the last two generations, Poland, tragically wedged as it was between the German and Russian dynamos, had been forced to receive the actions of other people’s sen­tences, hardly ever being allowed to initi­ate any of her own. Things were done to her, not by her. If, starting in 1980, Po­land recovered her subjectivity, it was precisely through the projections of soli­darity — through the astonishing transfor­mation made possible when 10 million atomized objects began surging as one, demanding as such to be taken into ac­count, indeed to be the ones doing the accounting.

That grammatical formulation in turn helps to clarify what General Jaruzelski and his colleagues were up to with their imposition of martial law, back in De­cember 1981 — they were trying to turn all those pesky renascent subjects back into good little objects once again, just so many passive bricks ready for slotting back into The Wall. The drama of much of Polish history during the rest of the decade came to reside in the contest be­tween those two opposed ambitions: the regime’s relentless repression and civil society’s stubborn resistance. To varying degrees, speeded-up versions of this same drama have been taking place all over Eastern Europe the past few months. If I choose to focus on Poland in these re­marks, it is in part because I know Po­land best, and in part because Poland is out in front, leading the other countries, encountering the difficult and perplexing ironies of victory first. And, indeed, it is one of the most perplexing ironies of Pol­ish society’s recent triumph that that vic­tory may now be opening onto a new atomization, a new objectification.

WHILE SOLIDARITY, in its first flower, was a decidedly egalitarian phenome­non — its very name tapped into a centu­ry-old reservoir of socialist rhetoric, re­claiming it as its own, demanding in fact that it be made real — the Solidarity that emerged from the half decade of repres­sion is much less selfless, much less com­munitarian, much more individualistic, much more in thrall to the romance of the free market.

In part this transformation is one of desperation — the economic situation, al­ready dire at the outset of this decade, has been rendered all the more calami­tous by the hapless paralysis of the last several years. The zloty is plummeting in value, the country sits poised on the verge of a terrifying hyperinflation. Something drastic clearly has to be done, and classic communistic central planning, as it has been practiced everywhere in Eastern Europe over the past 40 years, has proved itself utterly incapable of fac­ing the challenge; it has caused the chal­lenge; the old model is obviously bank­rupt. Meanwhile, Solidarity’s onetime socialist theoreticians no longer feel they can afford to experiment with such un­proven approaches as worker self-man­agement or decentralized community control. Over and over again, they’ve tak­en to explaining how they feel they have to go with the one system that’s been tested and proven, and that’s the wide-­open free market.

As a result, ironically, Solidarity’s lead­ers are about to launch the country into perhaps the most harrowing macroeco­nomic experiment ever attempted by anyone — a virtually immediate, wholesale shock transition from a centrally planned economy to a vigorously open market. Even the optimists are anticipating at least momentary dislocations for upward of 30 per cent of the country’s workforce, as inefficient, once heavily subsidized in­dustrial behemoths are forced to shut down: the optimists insist that most of those suddenly unemployed will quickly find other, more sensible and more pro­ductive, work. The pessimists aren’t so sure: they anticipate an explosion of worker unrest, the sort of thing they’re seeing over in Bolivia these days.

THE CRASH PLAN Solidarity will be at­tempting to force through in the weeks ahead is a variation on one first proposed this past summer by Jeffrey Sachs, a bril­liant young Harvard economist who first introduced himself to Solidarity’s parlia­mentarians as, among other things, the man who a few years ago helped bring an end to Bolivia’s horrendous hyperinfla­tion, virtually overnight, through the ap­plication of a similar sort of radical ac­tion plan — combining sudden cutbacks in government subsidies, a balanced budget, stabilization of the currency, privatiza­tion of government-owned monopolies (and, incidentally, suspension of payment on the foreign debt, a twist that has hard­ly endeared Sachs to Western bankers).

A few weeks ago, the Bolivian govern­ment, responding to the growing labor unrest that plan has in the meantime engendered, ended up having to declare a state of siege, and incarcerated over 3000 labor leaders. I called Sachs to ask him what happened. He reminded me that even when he’d first proposed his Boliv­ian plan, he’d told the Bolivians that they lived in an appallingly poor, atrociously unlucky country, one which was further afflicted by hyperinflation, and that all he could promise them was that after they’d instituted his plan, they’d live in an appallingly poor, atrociously unlucky coun­try, one no longer afflicted by hyperinfla­tion. If anything, he went on, their luck had proved even more appalling during the last few years than ever before.

But Poland was different, Sachs as­sured me, Poland had possibilities — if only it could move quickly to stabilize its economy, as difficult as that process might initially be. And how, I asked him, did things seem to be going over there in that regard? “Well,” he said, “they’re inching their way closer and closer to the edge of the diving board, and their knees are trembling.”

The question that comes to mind, of course, is: Is… there… any… water… in the pool? And the answer, frankly, is that no, there is none, at least not at the moment. Even the plan’s proponents in Poland admit as much. They assure their countrymen, however, that the mo­ment they leap, water will start flooding in — that it won’t start flooding in until they do leap, that in effect it will be the leap itself that will provoke the flooding, but that there will be just enough water in the pool by the time they reach the surface to cushion their fall.

Thus, for example, as quickly as possi­ble, Poland intends to create a stable currency at a unified rate. Today, while it’s true that the average wage in Poland is the equivalent of about $25 a month, it’s also true that subsidies and various currency deformations result in the avail­ability of such things as energy, housing, transportation, and food staples, for zlo­ties (granted, often at the end of long lines), for a fraction of their Western cost. That’s how people survive. Those deformations, however, all but cripple the possibility of profitability for any indige­nous entrepreneurs, let alone for foreign investors. Get rid of those deformations, immediately, and while it is true that coal will suddenly cost the same in Poland as it does in West Germany and Polish sala­ries will not have risen anywhere near enough to make up the difference — still, it can be hoped that the new economic conditions will foster a sudden upsurge in entrepreneurial spirit, both domestic and foreign, and that within a few months, in the nick of time, salaries will start rising fast enough to make it possible for people to live.

That’s the idea. That’s the wager. That’s the experiment. “But really,” Ha­lina Bortnowska, the Solidarity theorist who coined the subject-object distinction almost a decade ago, told me last summer as these ideas were just starting to be bandied about, “we’re not laboratory rats here, and really we’ve had enough of grand experiments.”

But actually Poland is indeed about to revert to being an object once again — this time, the object of a grand economic ex­periment. (“Really,” another theorist commented to me, “economists are too much to the fore these days. It’s like the rabbi and the chicken farmer. You know the story? Chicken farmer goes to the rabbi and says, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi, my chick­ens are all sick,’ and the rabbi says, no problem, just do such and such. Guy comes back the next day and says, ‘Rab­bi, I did exactly like what you said, and, Rabbi, two of the chickens died!’ Oh, says the rabbi, in that case you’d better do this and that. Next day, the guy comes back and five of them have died. Rabbi says, oh, in that case you’d better do this that and the other. Next day the guy comes back and 11 of them have died, so the rabbi offers yet another variation. The next day the guy comes back and says, ‘Rabbi, I did exactly what you said, every single detail, and Rabbi, they’re all dead.’ The rabbi is flabbergasted: ‘All of them?’ he stammers. ‘All of them? Ach, and I had so many more solutions.’ ”)

The point about this specific experi­ment — even assuming it does work — is that it requires that the Poles abandon their earlier solidarity, that they start be­having as atomized, ruthlessly self-inter­ested free-marketeers: each workplace squared off against the next, each indi­vidual squared off against his neighbor, as little government intervention as pos­sible — survival of the fittest. “The Tri­umph of Capitalism.”

THERE IS NO doubt that some Poles will do well under the new system — perhaps many Poles will. Assuming the experi­ment works, a great deal more wealth will be generated (the old system, in any case, proved woefully incapable of generating any wealth whatsoever). The trouble is, the distribution of wealth across society will become more and more polarized, and many Poles will fall ever farther be­hind. (In capitalism, only the wealthy get to be subjects.)

It is one of the ironies of our age that capitalism appears to be “triumphing” al­most everywhere in the world at the very moment when most of those living under its purview are witnessing, for the first time in several generations, a distinct shrinkage in their own standards of living. Some are getting much richer, but the middle class is being whittled away, and the poor are falling ever farther be­hind. And that’s in the “successful” capi­talisms — Reagan’s America, Thatcher’s Britain. As for the Third World, go ask Brazil or the Philippines or Mexico about the Triumph of Capitalism.

During the past several years it has become fashionable to speak of “real so­cialism” — socialism as it really came to be lived in the world as opposed to how it was supposed to be lived in some ideal­ized simulacrum. But in exactly the same way as one should consider the opera­tions of “real socialism,” one ought to consider those of “real capitalism.” And real capitalism — as a world system — con­sists not just of Germany and Sweden and Japan and the boutiques along Madi­son Avenue; it also consists of Mexico and Brazil and the Philippines and the homeless along Madison Avenue. The latter make the former possible.

I say this not out of ideological petu­lance. Rather, the question the Poles should be asking themselves at this juncture is what role international capitalism has in mind for them. Are they going to be Sweden (as they so fondly imagine, as they are being invited to imagine), or are they going to be Mexico (a continuous source of cheap labor for the emerging Western European powerhouse, a handy threat that its capitalists will be able to use whenever they need to bludgeon their own uppity workers back into line­ — “Watch out, because we can always just pick up and move our operations to Po­land”)? It might even be better to be Mexico than to be Poland mired in con­tinuing “real socialist” stagnation; cer­tainly it will be for many people. There may, if necessary, be fresh ways of bat­tling out of the terrible contradictions of Third World–style polarization and ex­ploitation — and if there are, the remark­able Poles, if anyone, show promise of finding their way clear to them.

But those are the sorts of issues that lie ahead. (And now, with the simultaneous “openings” in all the other Eastern Euro­pean countries, international capitalism is going to start playing each of them against the others — not only telling indi­vidual Polish workers to accept substan­dard wages and working conditions or else accept unemployment, but also tell­ing all of Poland to accept such ground rules or else Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria or Romania — or the Philippines or Mexi­co or Brazil — certainly will.)

And I just end up wondering how con­cerned Western media are going to be, five years down the line, about the plight of Polish workers laboring, for example, in West German plants in Gdynia or British-owned factories in Lodz, or for indigenous millionaires in Wroclaw and Poznan. What will become of that romance? ■


Strange Angels Flying Into the Next Century
By Laurie Anderson

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 7, 2020