Thursday, June 29, 2006

Are Poles happy now?

Check out this email we got at work today...

...about our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Poznan uprising (see previous post) and of the Radom uprising of 1976. We presented the transition from communism to capitalism in a positive way – well, who wants to live under a regime that shoots its own people when they go out into the streets to protest? – but, it seems, not all Poles agree.

This is from ‘Kamil K’:

‘Do you function as an objective news source [he doesn’t mean the beatroot – least I hope not!] or as a propaganda piece for today’s capitalists? Under ‘communism’ I had a job and healthcare. Now everything is being taken from me and my fellow workers and given to the rich. If communism was such an ‘evil system' then what about this one? Heaven on Earth?’

I have great sympathy with ‘Kamil K’. The transition from commie authoritarianism and a ‘planned economy’ (snigger – those idiots couldn’t ‘plan’ a piss up in a brewery) has been costly to many, many Poles. The unemployment, the increase in the gap between the rich and the poor, the crumbling social services, the growing holes in the roads, etc.

But are we to believe that things were so much better back in those dark days, when people got shot in Poznan, Gdansk, Radom, for wanting ‘bread and freedom’?

Many Poles would say, ‘Yes, they were, actually...’. Depending on what opinion poll you read – and when – between 30 to 60% feel a bit like Kamil. They long for the old, but boring, certainties, when virtually everyone had nearly nothing.

Happiness studies, is a big thing in the social sciences, these days. They try and measure how happy we are and urge governments to make happiness a policy priority (?). Poles, measured by one of the many different criteria they use (what the hell is happiness, anyway?), register in the middle of the international tables. Interestingly, rural dwellers and the religious seem to record greater contentment in life.

Perhaps they have lower expectations?

But , on average, Poles seem normally content/discontent with their lot under capitalism. No more, no less.

The big difference, today, is that Kamil and others who don’t like what is going on have the opportunity - even gays have won the right to protest - to show some self-determination, organize politically and change their circumstances.

Sitting around writing angry emails to not particularly important news providers (in English!) is a waste of his time.

Though I hope writing angry letters makes him feel a little happier.


Michael Farris said...

"I hope writing angry letters makes him feel a little happier."

IME few things make Polish people happier than a chance to complain about how terrible things are now and how they'll probably get even worse.

steppx said...

defining happiness seems rather complex and maybe pointless......might takes several volumes.

But when communism fell in eastern europe -- and in the former Soviet Union, one of the more interesting statistics was the phenomenal rise in suicide. Ive always thought this very important. Suicide in Russia rose something like 400% in the first five years (dont hold me to exact numbers....but its something like that). Loss of job security was the main reason. Romania suffered the terms of this phenomenon....because they resisted structural readjustment. To a degree anyway. People kept working...but for very low wages.

If you travel to Silesia, you see things are very much worse. You travel to Warsaw, things look much improved. Latvia's capital is doing quite well....the countryside very poorly. And on it goes. "Better" and "worse" are terms as hard to define as happiness. I think what is important is to not view the world in stark black and white terms. There were, to be certain, very progressive and positive things under communism......and to be sure there are huge inequalities and suffering under globalization. Corruption lies at the heart of everything. Polish communism was the most dysfunctional of all communist systems, in some respects....and when one looks at the archieval film from the communist period, one sees the struggle for many basic items....including medicine. However, one also sees an absence of advertising and consumerist labels.....and in some ways it has always struck me that people in those old films look a bit happier....or rather, a bit more alive !! So sure, medicine was in short supply at times...but people had free health care....and a doctor friend of mine in Krakow often says (He's quite old now) how sad it makes him to know so many people cant afford to come to his clinic now. He says he doesnt want communism back....but....

So, Im going on a bit here...sorry....but happiness is sometimes a feeling we dont know in ourselves. Kierkegaard thought so anyway. Its important to understand that new high rise apartment complexes in warsaw are not the only indicator for happiness. Ask the coal miners in Silesia...or those with no union security anymore...or small farmers now struggling just to survive. In Prague, most working class Czechs cant afford to even enter the city center. Prostitution is the primary industry in the Baltic states now...and on and on and on. Its not a question of better or worse....its just knowing that states usually fail to help the matter what the system.

Michael Farris said...

"Polish communism was the most dysfunctional of all communist systems, in some respects...."

Interesting idea. It was of course the most westernized of the communist systems in that there was a real functioning opposition with widescale popular support that the government had to pay attention to (while usually pretending not to).

I've read (I don't know how accurate this is) that that was one of the real causes of the mid-late 70's economic meltdown. The government was trying to slowly enforce some economic market discipline and people were having none of it. They tried but even failed to raise the price of bread which was horrendously underpriced by any rational standard (I realize that rational isn't a word that comes up often in discussions of Eastern bloc economics). One famous story is that farmers found it easier to feed their livestock store-bought bread than feed.
That's when they got the bright idea to borrow a lot of money they really had no way to ever pay back.

I always thought it was ironic that Polish people spent _years_ and _years_ undermining the Polish economy (as a way of undermining the very unpopular government) and were then suprised to find when they got rid of the government that the economy was in really bad shape.

beatroot said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
beatroot said...

Mike: I think your analysis of the 1970s is a little unfair. Sure, many then, and now, feared the market and farmers set about trying to scupper reforms.

But the real reason for the meltdown was western Realpolitik - which decided that the best way to nullify the communist threat was to drown it in credit, boost the economy, which would then trade more with the West and gradually converge with it.

What happened, of course, was that the commie government spent the cash on producing white goods, etc, but investing none of it! The credits run out and the economy went back to being on its knees.

At the same time, Poles got used to having more and more. And when they started getting less and less, they got extremely pissed off about it.

Enter Solidarnosc!

Steppx – interesting stats on suicide during the changes…Maybe a classic bit of Emile Durkheim would be useful here. Anomie, and all that…

Sophie said...

You're still living under Jews like we all are in the Western World.