Communism Unwrapped: Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe

By Paulina Bren; Mary Neuburger | Go to book overview

12
Keeping It Close to Home
Resourcefulness and Scarcity in Late Socialist
and Postsocialist Poland

Małgorzata Mazurek

“This is just everyday life for us,” answered a Warsaw sociologist in 1982 when asked why the informal economy received little attention from the social sciences. His interlocutor was an American anthropologist, Janine Wedel, who had come to Poland to study how Poles manage their day-to-day circumstances under restrictions of martial law and shortage-driven consumption. For a curious Western observer, the seemingly banal and gray landscape of early 1980s Warsaw, with its queuing committees and the incessant finagling and hunting for basic food staples, might indeed have been an intriguing object of inquiry. “For almost everyone in Poland, even the intellectual elite, private arrangements are a way of life,” wrote Wedel in her ethnographic diary. “My introduction was an education in the ways of informal give and take, in the ways of a society which is extremely sophisticated in terms of individual need and help.”1

Wedel was struck by what others in Poland found to be commonplace during the crisis years of state socialism: the rich world of social skills based on family ties that enabled people to cope with omnipresent shortages. The “Polish crisis,” a period of economic slump during the late 1970s and 1980s, was a crisis of the centrally planned regime of consumption. But at the same time it constituted the revival of other forms of provisioning and procuring goods, including that organized by one’s family (together with their circle of friends) and for one’s family. What Wedel dubbed “familial society” was a consumer society in which family members formed

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