Letter from Poland

By Ost, David | The Nation, November 25, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Letter from Poland

Ost, David, The Nation

You know things have changed when you go to the historic Gdansk shipyard, where Solidarity was born, and find unemployed shipworkers hired out as ushers for a theater company renting part of the famed site. The company's doing a run of Brecht's Happy End, and these workers escort theatergoers from the factory gate to the theater, telling stories about the glory days. You thank them when you get there and wish them better luck, but then the curtain comes up and there they are, on stage, holding signs reading "Unemployed! We Want Work!"

In other words: unemployed workers temping as former workers doubling as part-time actors playing unemployed workers. Right by the monument erected in 1980 to those "who died so that we might live in dignity."

Taken together, the pieces of the decline of the neoliberal model in Poland are all right here. The dire economic situation has created critics where once there were only boosters. The humbling of a powerful labor movement has led to the specter of an authoritarian populist backlash. And then there's Brecht. This Old Left master was purged from the repertoire after 1989. His revival here is a sign too, of the willingness of a new generation to think left alternatives again.

The success story so often told about Poland is not what you find when you get there. "When I go abroad," the leader of the Solidarity trade union in the Krakow region told me, "and everyone starts congratulating me on how well Poland is doing, all I'm thinking is, Are they talking about the place where unemployment is 18 percent, youth unemployment near 50 percent and hundreds of firms, both old and new, are this close to collapse?" It's not that the country has not had successes. It has a number of modernized plants, a sizable, if recently declining, middle and professional class, and exciting world-class cities in Warsaw and Krakow. But it has hit a wall, both economically and politically, that has people more frightened than they've been in quite some time. Unemployment is now higher than at any time since the fall of Communism, and hundreds of thousands of young people, a product of the baby boom following the imposition of martial law in 1981, are entering the labor market with no prospects whatsoever.

The country had a severe crisis after 1989 too, but while that was a crisis of the transition to capitalism, this is a crisis of the real thing. Whereas that one was expected to happen, this one was not. That it has happened seems to throw everything into disarray. Where once the TINA shibboleth--"There is no alternative"--was on everyone's lips, now it seems all anyone can talk of is precisely that: alternatives.

Because this is post-Communism, however, the interest in alternatives first of all strengthens the radical right, which has been the chief opponent of capitalist transformation all along. While the former left-liberal oppositionists of Solidarity (Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Bronislaw Geremek, Tadeusz Mazowiecki) saw marketization as the chance to "join Europe" and create an enlightened civil society, and the former Communists cheered them on in order to demonstrate their democratic bona fides, the religious-nationalist right denounced the post-1989 transformation as a betrayal of the nation, an assault on Christianity and a sellout to (a new set of) foreigners. One of the most dismaying things is to see the extremist right-wing newspaper Nasz Dziennik filled not only with authoritarian and anti-Semitic diatribes but with sympathetic coverage of the plight of the poor and powerful criticism of the ravages wrought by the new elite. Liberals have so focused on the positive sides of the transition that they have left the field of criticism wide open to the right. When things go so wrong, as they have now, it's no surprise the right is the first to benefit.

For now, that means "Self-Defense," the right-wing party that polled more than 10 percent of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections and has since emerged as the second-largest party in opinion polls.

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