From your very first encounters at the modernized Warsaw airport you know that you have entered the kingdom of private enterprise. The operator at the money exchange hands me $30 worth of zlotys, though I gave her $40; when I protest, she adds the difference without a fuss. A cabbie offers to take me downtown for 200,000 zlotys, explaining that the cheats in the taxi stand outside will charge more because their meters start at 50,000. When I reply that the radio taxi coming to collect me will cost less than a third of his “reduced” fare, his knowing smile and shrug say, So not all new arrivals are suckers. But you have to try to get on in this world.
Returning to Poland after a year, I wanted to see how the patient was faring after nearly three years of “shock therapy” introduced by Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister, and sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. My first impression was that things are the same, only more so. The image of Western prosperity is striking. The heart of Warsaw is packed with cars. They may not be more numerous but they are bigger, Western Europe’s compacts replacing the tiny Fiats made in Poland. “Marketing is an art” says the slogan at the railway station advertising a magazine called “Businessman”. Across the street, outside the Marriott hotel, the bellboys wear pith helmets; inside, the gambling casino is open twenty-four hours a day. The latter is mainly for foreigners, but along the city’s two most elegant avenues, New World and Krakow Suburb, the smart shops displaying expensive cars, elegant amber jewelry and other luxury goods cater to the natives; and these stores have customers. The upper crust is visibly rising.
On my last visit I wanted to know how fast this buying spree could produce a capitalist class, so I looked at the new rich [see “Poland’s New Men of Property,” November 11, 1991]. This time I wanted to know how the rest of the country lives, including the much-faster-spreading new poor. To see them, you don’t really have to leave the capital, yet I advise those who still echo the hymns to the “Polish miracle” of Harvard free-marketeer Jeffrey Sachs and his ilk to make a short train journey from the Marriott to the city of Lodz.
Down and Out in Lodz
With foreign capital and the huge czarist-era market for its textiles, Lodz grew like a mushroom in the second half of the nineteenth century to become Poland’s second-largest city; its population is 850,000. Its factories are spread haphazardly across the metropolitan area. My wife and I walk along one such proletarian fortress–building after building behind a brick wall–stretching, it seems, for miles. At the end, along Weaving Street, is a grim block of flats for the workers; opposite, next to a lake, is a white gem of a palace, yesterday the home of the manufacturer, today a textile museum. With such a socially eloquent landscape the inhabitants may not require a long refresher course to grasp the nature of capitalism.
Poland’s textile capital, however, is not what it used to be. Deprived of the Soviet market and attacked on the home front by cheap imports, Lodz is in crisis. Although restructuring, so far, has led to the closing of departments rather than whole enterprises, unemployment, by official count, has already reached 18 percent of the labor force. The contrast with Warsaw hits the eye. Even in the upper parts of the main thoroughfare, Piotrowska Street, the shops do not have the chic of the capital’s. At the other end of this very long road poverty sweats through the walls. The nearby flea market, with peddlers from Vilnius or Kiev, is miserable not only by Western but also by Polish standards. Anka Rozanska, a sociologist prominent in the local League of Women, knows a great deal about this wounded city. Usually, she works with single mothers or distributes contraceptive devices received from France. She has much to say about the growing shadow of the Catholic Church (of which more later), but to hear about unemployment she takes us to the horse’s mouth.