The Market Is the New Religion

The Market Is the New Religion

Back in Warsaw after my trip to Gdansk, I talk about the economy with the outgoing government’s spokesman on reform. He is more specific on what is to be done than on how it should be achieved.



Back in Warsaw after my trip to Gdansk, I talk about the economy with the outgoing government’s spokesman on reform. He is more specific on what is to be done than on how it should be achieved. Stalinist coercion must be replaced by the direction of the economy through financial incentives. He raises the question of ownership–interesting, since private property accounts for about 7 percent of the gross national product outside agriculture, and public ownership is likely to predominate for some time to come. Yet what form will that ownership take: communal, cooperative or collective? And if collective, will it be run by the workers, by a share-owning management, by whom?

He either does not perceive the social and political consequences of the various choices or does not want to talk about them. While mocking the almost religious awe with which the market is now treated in Poland, he offers me a scoop with the utmost pride: In the government that Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski is to announce this afternoon, the Minister of Industry, Mieczyslaw Wilczek, head of a joint-venture firm with foreign capital, is a “real millionaire.”

To watch the government’s inauguration I proceed to the sejm, or diet, a big white building that stands where it did before the war but has been modernized with a glass rotunda. It is a sort of pilgrimage for me: My father, a parliamentary commentator, exercised his wit there against Marshal Jozef Pilsudski and the colonels, whose regime is now being prettified by the nostalgic portion of the opposition. I cannot quite recall Byron’s lines about giving the pugnacious Poles a diet, then telling them to keep quiet. In the elegant hall during the recess I get quite close to Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. He walks as if he has swallowed a stick; I am sure he must be wearing a corset. Next to him, recognizable by his big ears, is Jerzy Urban, the skilled journalist turned government spokesman, who appears to relish his position as the most hated man in the country. Rakowski has just finished his speech, which is considered modern and original because it lasted only thirty minutes. Its true originality lay, in fact, in the way this well-known anticleric wooed the Catholic hierarchy, quoting Jozef Cardinal Glemp and promising to provide rapidly what the church had been awaiting a long time–legal status for its property.

The new Prime Minister did mention a “historic compromise,” only between party and church, not Solidarity. The line was clearly shifting. In his press conference next day, Rakowski stressed that Poles were less concerned with a roundtable than with a table laden with goods. But what Warsaw wits ironically call the “Korean solution”–military dictatorship plus a free market–is just not on. Gorbachevism is not a favorable environment for a further tightening of political screws, and foreign capital will not pour in to boost production. Does appointment of a millionaire mean Rakowski is pinning his hopes on the moneymakers?

The Western contrast between rich and poor is becoming a part of Poland’s social landscape. On the plane in from Frankfurt I sat next to a handsome, bejeweled Polish woman who carried her capital on her arms and neck. She was returning from South Africa, with no qualms of conscience, and intended to buy a villa in the seaside resort of Sopot and open a restaurant. One evening in Warsaw a friend wanted to take us for a drink to Gessler and Sons, the fashionable cafe in the Saxon Garden, where two giant figures in armor stand guard at the gate. Inside, there was an open-air mime show and lots of “beautiful people.” We couldn’t stay: It was a private party. The bowler-hatted host, I was told, hovered somewhere on the frontier between government service and shady foreign trade. Booking the place, though it must have cost a fortune, was not unusual; it was to be “closed” again the next day for a wedding party.

Although this conspicuous consumption does shock one, the new rich are still marginal. They are the most privileged section of the well off, who are estimated to be roughly 15 percent of the population. Many of these are connected in some way with the outside world because of the mad exchange rate. At the other extreme are an estimated 25 percent–old-age pensioners, low-wage earners, large families with little income–close to the subsistence level. In between, a majority who just manage to make ends meet. The economic reform, if It works, is bound to polarize society further, with unforeseeable political consequences. At this stage, however, whatever the admiration for the Iron Lady, there is no room for a Polish version of Thatcherism–privatization, gifts for the rich, the bribing of part of the working class, all amid a spurious air of prosperity. In Poland, where production and consumption are still below the levels of ten years ago, what is needed for the reforms to have a chance is a social contract with the labor movement. This Cardinal Glemp cannot offer, whatever his good intentions and his influence on Lech Walesa. The reign of Rakowski is likely to be a continuation of the crisis.

The Beautiful Suit and Our Ugly World. Walking through Nowy Swiat I saw an advertisement at the Economists’ Club for a show of Jewish humor. Though it was a premiere and invitation-only, I managed to get a table by taking advantage of my father’s reputation. It was a one-man show, with the actor telling all sorts of Jewish jokes–good, bad and indifferent–not in Yiddish but in Polish with a phony Jewish accent. Yet if it all suddenly seemed sinister to me, this had nothing to do with the quality of the performance. It happened in the middle of one of my favorites, about the customer who complains to his tailor for taking a couple of weeks to finish a suit, while God took only seven days to create the world. “Look at this beautiful suit,” the tailor replies, “and look at the world.” This was worse than gallows humor; it was wit in a cemetery. The stories had their roots in a vanished world. We were within shouting distance of the ghetto, in a town where Jews once numbered more than 350,000. When the show was over I looked at the sixty or so people in the hall, most of them women: Here were the remnants of a tribe.

The nice young couple at our table happened not to be Jewish. The man was here because his firm was taping the show (60,000 cassettes and more to come, things Jewish being fashionable these days). The subject of conversation was unavoidable. They had thought Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah unfair, almost racist, in lumping all Poles together, though they did not deny the present shameful Polish phenomenon of anti-Semitism without Jews. They thought it would die out together with the prewar generations, while admitting that some of their contemporaries still echoed the anti-Semitic stereotypes of their parents. Marek Edelman, the heroic and lonely survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, whom I met a couple of days later, agreed. Indeed, he thought anti-Semitism would have vanished already without official encouragement. Since he was obviously referring to such sins as the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, I asked him about the Jewish presence in the government, specifically about Jerzy Urban. “Oh no. He has achieved the feat of being hated for himself.”

Let there be no misunderstanding. The Jewish question is, unfortunately, unimportant in Poland, merely a symptom. I bring it up here as a means of conveying the right-wing revival within the Polish intelligentsia. The 1981 military coup, the absence of a progressive solution, the government’s determination to talk with the church and not with the labor movement, have all contributed to this swing to the right. If the French tend to look at the past through the prism of the present, the Poles allow the ghosts of the past to walk upon their political stage. Marshal Pilsudski has his followers in today’s Poland; they have made him synonymous with national independence and, hence, opposition to the Soviet Union. Roman Dmowski, prewar leader of the anti-Semitic National Democracy, also enjoys support. The epigones of National Democracy (or endecja), less hostile to the Soviet Union and the regime, and the more conservative Catholic groups that have flirted with the government tend to define Polishness in ethnic and religious terms.

Jan Jozef Lipski, the morally strong and personally gentle literary critic, guides me through this political panorama of the opposition. He moves on to a third group, his own Polish Socialist Party, or P.P.S. “Socialism, alas, is not a very popular word because of guilt by association. The P.P.S. fares somewhat better as it is not linked with ‘them.’ Altogether, however, Solidarity has tended to be anarcho-syndicalist in this respect and mistrust people linked with any party. This is why some of my colleagues from the lay left chose not to follow the same path.”

Lipski’s colleagues don’t deny it, convinced that real party politics is still to come. Of Poland’s established institutions, the Communist Party represents postwar history and the imperatives of geography; the Catholic Church stands for tradition, Its moral authority enhanced by the bankruptcy of the party. But who will represent the interests of private peasants? And will Solidarity again manage to speak for the bulk of the working class? How will the intelligentsia divide? At present no side can seriously measure its own strength. One acute opposition analyst thinks the regime, while it lasts, can rely on the support of 15 to 20 percent of the population, and Solidarity, at this stage, on 25 to 30 percent. The remainder, while hostile to the regime, thinks nothing can be done about it. If a compromise is reached and gradual change becomes a tangible possibility, this silent majority could ask for everything at once.

As the economic reform begins to bite, as questions over the nature of power and property in the factories are tackled, cleavages will deepen. Solidarity will not be spared. Some of its economic experts, with Milton Friedman as their guru, may for now appear to be ascendant. But they will find it difficult to preach the virtues of political suicide to a labor union whose strongholds are in the shipyards, the steel mills and the mines. If the party had the imagination and guts to recognize Solidarity, sharp tensions would appear at once within the opposition over the degree of collaboration with the regime and the nature of economic policy. As it is, the only open divisions are those within the C.P.

Two Kinds of Commissar. In the party building at the corner of Jerusalem Avenue and New World Street, I meet a friendly high-level official in the propaganda department of the Central Committee Offered the choice of languages, he opts for English and its handicap. He also takes me for an innocent abroad. When he says in an introductory statement that Stalin described socialism as suited for Poland like a saddle for a cow, I make the mistake of correcting him: Stalin said revolution, not socialism, and he was talking about Germany, not Poland. Yet it was not here that things went wrong. In his passionate version of recent history, which rather baffled me, everything was the handiwork of the C.P., including the Gdansk strike and the creation of Solidarity. His purpose, I understood after a time, was to brush aside my suggestion of a compromise between the two sides. The party was ready to talk to society at large, of which Solidarity was only a small fraction. And not all of Solidarity at that. The names Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik provoked his wrath; they would never sit round the conference table. And if your party decided otherwise? Never. Then, after a very long reflection: Unless they changed their position altogether.

His veto was not limited to these two intellectual advisers of Solidarity. It also applied to the union leader from Wroclaw, Wladislaw Frasyniuk, whom he accused of having promised, when strong enough, to “kick the Communists out of factories.” I had never heard such a threat. In any case, I argued, who gams the upper hand on the shop floor is a question of genuine Influence, not of boasting. He replied, banging the table: “It is provided in the Constitution that the P.Z.P.R. [Polish Communist Party], and only the P.Z.P.R., has the right to be present in the factories.” In fact the Constitution provides for nothing of the kind. This was simply my propagandist’s interpretation of the passage about the party’s crucial role in the state. But I was no longer arguing, we were getting along much better. Just before leaving I asked him what, in his opinion, socialism stood for at this stage. The answer was prompt and brief: efficiency. No more controversy, so I waited until I had reached the street before muttering to myself: Only this and nothing more….

While the party building is huge, if not architecturally striking, the seat of PRON, a front organization for the regime in the vast Ujazdowskie Avenue, is very different–a small, elegant villa that presumably was once the property of a rich landowner. PRON’s Secretary General, Stanislaw Ciosek, is not quite 50. He is a party Secretary who climbed the ladder as a student and youth leader, negotiated with Solidarity and more recently took part in preparations for the proposed roundtable. Flexible and known as a pragmatist, he has a quite different power of imagination from the man in the propaganda department. The question on compromise does not throw him off his stride: Socialism in its Stalinist or post-Stalinist versions has dragged us out of backwardness; let’s leave it to the historians to decide whether the price paid was too high. But this social formation is now a spent force and is being reshaped throughout the region. Our pioneering task in Poland is to include the opposition in the socialist system.

Without any prompting from me, he raises the question of what socialism now means and, unfashionably, tackles the problem of equality: A few months ago, he says, I watched a TV debate on private education. A monthly fee of 25,000 zlotys per child was mentioned. I have two kids and at the time–salaries have gone up since–I was earning 82,000 zlotys as a Deputy Prime Minister…. The opposition has changed, we have changed and so has society. Its future shape will have to take into account that our people now refuse any form of servitude. Historians will puzzle one day over how a totalitarian system could produce such a democratic people…. Naturally, he tries to score some points. He argues, quite rightly, that this year’s strikers were fighting against injustice and asking for dignity. But when I observe that their only concrete demand was for an independent union, Solidarity, he does not press the point. What, except for a party card, does he have m common with my diehard from the propaganda department? The fear of unleashing uncontrollable social forces and the desire for a neat solution imposed from above. By the party.

He makes it quite plain that an immediate deal is off. (“Trade-union pluralism is acceptable. But not yet. For the moment it is too explosive.”) Later, in the taxi taking my wife, Jeanne, and me to the airport, I reflect on the obstacles that lie ahead. A concrete proposal for a coalition, a joint electoral list, is attributed to Ciosek, with 60 percent of seats going to the party and 40 percent to the opposition. But nobody in Solidarity will accept this. A farce, electoral or otherwise, does not cease to be one just because you have joined it. What rules of the game can be established to give some guarantees at the top and yet allow the movement from below ultimately to shape the fate of the country?

My building of castles in Spain is sharply interrupted by Polish reality. At the airport, after the passport check, we are taken aside. Two officers pounce on our luggage Anything printed, all notebooks and tapes, the film of the May strike in Gdansk, are taken for inspection to some mysterious higher authority. The suitcase and our bags are thoroughly examined, including the linings. Jeanne and I are taken, separately, to a cubicle for a personal search. Two men check under my cap, in my socks, beneath my shirt, inside my trousers. After a couple of hours, everything is returned. This would be a profitable experience if I were writing a thriller. As it is, it’s a useful reminder that power is not just an abstraction.

Afterthoughts. Once airborne, the plane is less on my mind than Arthur Rimbaud’s drunken boat, le bateau ivre. Can a ship sail into uncharted waters without a compass and without a vision of some distant horizon? Paradoxical Poland, where “Communist” leaders publicly envy Margaret Thatcher’s ability to cope with the labor movement; where the scourge of the British miners parades as a defender of trade unionism; and where the supporters of Solidarity in Gdansk, prospective victims of “restructuring,” applaud the Iron Lady, its apostle. A better example of the Tower of Babel would be hard to find. And yet Poland is only the extreme example of Eastern Europe’s intellectual disarray. The entire region is in transition. Its rulers visibly act only by conditioned reflexes, and one-party rule is justified by nothing more than the perpetuation of power. Public ownership and some form of economic direction from above (“planning” being too big a word) are justified through the same reason, by the need of a nomenklatura to give jobs to the boys. For the moment, on both sides of the fence, the market is the new religion.

One emerges convinced that all these countries will have to travel further toward a market economy, and not only to clear away the mess, to rediscover some yardstick after years of miscalculation, to provide more transparence–glasnost–in order to see who is exploiting whom and how. The change is also needed for people to perceive the vices of our Western system as well as of their own, for Eastern Europe’s social movements to find their bearings and their political expression. How long that will take and how the process must run will vary from country to country, but the conservative admirers of Solidarity may well be in for some unpleasant surprises. Even if right-wing elements sometimes give the impression of gaming the upper hand, especially in moments of defeat and retreat, the Polish labor movement still appears capable of resuming its progressive role.

One is struck in Poland by the degree of freedom of expression, not only in the spoken but in the written word, not only underground but in official publications. “Daniel, you know Poland,” I was scolded by my friends in the opposition. “You ought to know that politically that’s irrelevant.” Disagreeing profoundly, I recalled the old story of the East German political satirist who is hounded from his own country, sets up a successful political cabaret in West Germany and remains gloomy as ever: “There 1 could say nothing but it mattered; here I can say everything and it doesn’t.” Whether or not this was ever true in Germany, it is manifestly not the case in Poland. The problem is not just freedom of speech but how to use that freedom to drive people to action.

Let us illustrate the argument. Amid the recent Polish talk of possible collaboration, the question arose of common lists, joint commissions and a second parliamentary chamber. The latter idea was born in 1981 at the height of Solidarity and the fashion for self-government. Indeed, the second chamber was intended to be the expression at a national level of the workers’ councils that were to be set up throughout the country. The first chamber, by granting political power, was supposed to recognize geopolitical realities; the second, even with limited prerogatives on economic and social issues, was to express the legitimacy of the labor movement. This institutionalization of dual power was conceived as the best framework for a “creeping revolution.”

Today the situation is quite different. Workers’ councils do exist, but in most cases they are a parody of self-government. It is easy, therefore, to dismiss official proposals on the ground that building a second chamber on such a false basis would simply discredit a precious idea. But what if a second house took shape in two or three years’ time, after authentic workers’ councils had been set up throughout the country? Let there be no illusion: Self-government in itself is no solution. Yet, faced with the genuine need to restructure industry, Solidarity could use the platform of self-government to tackle both the problem of property and power in the workplace and that of democratic planning on a national scale. Naturally, it is easier to stand defensively–as Solidarity’s present leaders often do–on the slogans of independence and pluralism, but that is not the way to forge the future.

“Really existing socialism” is at the end of its tether. Though it is unclear what will take its place, it would be a pity if socialists faded to take part in the contest for lack of ideas. Poland can continue to play a pioneering role in this vast process of transition because, since 1970, its working class has reminded the world that in Eastern Europe too the future can be shaped from below. And the Polish labor movement is not a spent force. I ended my journey with the contrasting impression that while the immediate perspective is of a political impasse, some form of compromise is historically inevitable. Unless, that is, the present leaders, preoccupied only with their immediate survival, provoke the angry young proles into desperate action and drown all hopes in blood.

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