The Path of Most Resistance: Poland Leads Eastern Europe Into the Abyss
January 2, 1990
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? ■
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