Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.
On April 10, 2010, Polish President Lech Kaczynski traveled with his entourage to Russia to attend a commemoration of the Katyn massacre. In 1940, the Soviet NKVD murdered 22,000 Polish army officers, police, and intellectuals in the Katyn forest and then pinned the blame on the Nazis. In 1990, the Soviet Union finally admitted its guilt in the matter. Twenty years later, the Poles and the Russians were to have a historic meeting to commemorate the massacre. But on the morning that the Polish delegation was to arrive, the weather was terrible. The plane crashed on its descent to the airport near Smolensk, killing all on board.
Despite evidence of pilot error, any number of conspiracy theories became popular in Poland. There was a bomb on board. The Russians held up the plane because they didn’t want the Poles to participate in the commemoration. The Russians wanted to assassinate Kaczynski. Some conspiracy theorists even speculated that the Russians produced artificial fog to cause the crash. The official Russian and Polish investigations, though differing on some details, both attributed the crash to pilot error. Still, some conspiracy theories remain popular.
But “Smolensk” means more in Polish political culture than just the circumstances surrounding the crash. It also represents a division in political attitudes. And it signals as well a profound distrust of official narratives.
Tomasz Kazmierczak is a keen observer of social trends in Poland. I first met him in 1990 when he was working as an advisor to the vice minister of labor and social policy in the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Today he teaches social work and studies community development. When we met up again in Warsaw in August 2013, our conversation inevitably turned to the deficit of trust in Polish society, the legacy of the Round Table negotiations, and the problem of “Smolensk.”
“We Poles are, unfortunately, terribly suspicious,” he told me. “It’s best not to look too closely at where this comes from, but it’s passed on from generation to generation. Connected to that, what happened after 1989 could not satisfy everyone. There were those who expected a settlement with the Communists and were disappointed since fortunately there was no settlement, in the larger civilizational sense. I believe that was wise. However, there were those who felt that no, there should be a very spectacular and dramatic end to the Communist era. But that didn’t happen either.”
These disappointments were not just abstract. They also helped make people’s careers. “Some of those people, who had political aspirations, were dissatisfied that they could not occupy the political position they would have liked in the new governing structures that formed after 1989,” Kazmierczak continued. “They too started to question those structures. Now the right wing, the Law and Justice party (PiS) and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, disqualifies or undermines the legitimacy of the Round Table. It also takes the form of trying to delegitimize the current government. For them ‘Smolensk’ becomes this foundational myth of a new order that can function as an alternative to the order created by the Round Table. These are pure political games.”
This mistrust is not just a product of 1989 or the Communist era that preceded it. „Contemporary Polish society is a peasant society,” Kazmierczak explains. “The vast majority of Poles today have peasant roots. I also have peasant roots. And mistrust is an element of peasant culture. Poland, in comparison to other European countries, maintained the system of serfdom for a very long time – up to the middle of the 19th century. And it was liquidated not as a result of the actions of Poles but only at the initiative of the occupational authority. The legacy of that system remains. It lies deep in the psyche of people. And if I don’t take care, the peasant pops up in me as well.”
The devastations of World War II didn’t help – the Katyn massacre of the cream of the intelligentsia, the Nazi exterminations. “It’s not just a question of the extermination of the intelligentsia, but also the extermination of the peasant elite who were educated after Poland regained independence,” he said. “They were all liquidated by the Germans. Anyway, all of which is to say that mistrust exists. If various things happen that have complex consequences or unclear results, then of course that’s good soil or favorable conditions for the emergence of the kind of mistrust that we have.”
Kazmierczak remains an optimist on this matter. “I believe that it should change,” he concluded. “Maybe it’s even changing now but we don’t have any way of evaluating the change. It should change because the educational level will rise, first of all. Second, it should change because the weakness of social capital, this mistrust that we have now, is at the moment a subject of public debate. It’s being named and as a result of this, it’s being talked about. It’s obvious that this is a problem and social capital is something we lack. Already it’s very important that the patient knows that they are sick, recognizes that they are weak.”
First of all, please tell me what you are doing at the moment.
I’m working at the university. I teach social work to students. In other words, the sphere of my interest is social work, community service, and in particular the development of local communities. Finally, I’m also interested in what we call social entrepreneurship.
Are you doing any particular research projects?
Yes, I’m doing some research and participating in various other research projects. I’m writing texts. That’s what’s been occupying me.
Twenty-three years ago, you worked as an advisor in the ministry of labor and social policy.
That was a relatively short experience. I’d earlier worked with the then-vice minister of labor and social policy, Joanna Starega-Piasek. She was not a professional politician. She was also involved in research, and she worked in higher education in the 1990s. She was in politics for about a decade. She was a vice minister, an MP, and then again a vice minister. We knew each other earlier and worked together. In connection with that first period of her political work, I helped her out a bit.
But it was a brief episode compared to my main occupation. It started around the period of the Round Table talks when I participated in the sub-table that focused on the reform of social assistance. So, my connection with national politics lasted from the Round Table talks to the middle of 1993. So, about three years in total.
How would you evaluate the Round Table process from today’s perspective? Was it a good process?
Decidedly so. I don’t have any doubts. If we were to identify five examples of wise events in our history, the Round Table would be one of those five. It was very wise, very sensible. Also, everything flowed out of the Round Table: the Mazowiecki government, the Balcerowicz reforms. It brought together some fantastic political personages: Jacek Kuron, Leszek Balcerowicz, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Thanks to the quality of those people, we were able to accomplish everything that could be accomplished — and the best of what could have been accomplished. I am absolutely certain of that, and I don’t agree with those who criticize the process.
In fact, maybe there should be another Round Table process today.
It’s not possible.
You can’t step into the same river twice. It’s not possible. Today’s it’s a completely different political situation. No, it’s not possible.
Because there’s simply no consensus in society?
Yes, there are definitely deep divisions. Perhaps always in Poland there have been such divisions: between those who want to move forward and connect with the world – a perspective linked to a pro-Western orientation – and those who are more closed and conservative and are more focused on looking backward rather than forward and more to the East than to the West. In the Solidarity camp fortunately at that moment those divisions were buried. They rather quickly began to surface, but if they had been present earlier the Round Table would not have been possible with such overwhelming support. Moreover, the Round Table was an unusual solution. We are now living in a normal country where there are various democratic institutions that allow us to somehow manage.
Why do you think that part of political society believes in this conspiratorial theory about the secret deals at Magdalenka during the Round Table negotiations?
First of all, I’d say it’s a feature of Polish society. It’s not new. It has its roots much earlier. And it’s a case of mistrust. We Poles are, unfortunately, terribly suspicious. It’s best not to look too closely at where this comes from, but it’s passed on from generation to generation. Connected to that, what happened after 1989 could not satisfy everyone. There were those who expected a settlement with the Communists and were disappointed since fortunately there was no settlement, in the larger civilizational sense. I believe that was wise. However, there were those who felt that no, there should be a very spectacular and dramatic end to the Communist era. But that didn’t happen either.
Some of those people, who had political aspirations, were dissatisfied that they could not occupy the political position they would have liked in the new governing structures that formed after 1989. They too started to question those structures. Now the right wing, the Law and Justice party (PiS) and its leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, disqualifies or undermines the legitimacy of the Round Table. It also takes the form of trying to delegitimize the current government. For them „Smolensk” becomes this foundational myth of a new order that can function as an alternative to the order created by the Round Table. These are pure political games.
As it happened, I was in Bosnia Herzegovina at the end of 1990s. I had a chance to talk briefly with people who lived there and were involved in social work. I heard a sociologist there, I don’t remember his name, who spoke with such great bitterness about the results of all the wars in Yugoslavia and the destruction of all the relationships, all those connections that linked neighbor to neighbor (and sometimes even people who were closer). That’s when I understood that what had happened in Yugoslavia was the result of various games, of completely irresponsible politicians who in their ambitions tried to win through appeals to nationalism.
We avoided this here in Poland. But I am fully convinced that if people like Kaczynski and those similar to him had been in key positions in 1990, it might not have been another Yugoslavia, because Poland is not Yugoslavia. But the process of transformation could have been much worse, in an atmosphere of much more heated conflict among politicians. So, in other words, I’m trying to say that Magdalenka is also an attempt to delegitimize the current governance for contemporary political purposes. This kind of “Magdalenka” thinking, a conspiracy in other words, involves a mistrust that is swallowed with the mother’s milk, passed down through socialization from generation to generation. It’s sad for me to see that this current generation, which has not had the experience of the Communist period in Poland, also reveals the same attitude, which means that it’s an element of the culture.
I agree that on the one hand these are political games and attempts at delegitimation and on the other hand a question of trust. This is a problem throughout the world.
Yes, and speaking of trust, we are talking also about social capital. Countries can be differentiated by their level of social capital. This is the famous work of Robert Putnam in Italy. Northern Italy has a very high level of social capital. On the other hand, Sicily in southern Italy, has the phenomenon of so-called amoral familism.
According to this thesis, contemporary Polish society is a peasant society. The vast majority of Poles today have peasant roots. I also have peasant roots. And mistrust is an element of peasant culture. Poland, in comparison to other European countries, maintained the system of serfdom for a very long time – up to the middle of the 19th century. And it was liquidated not as a result of the actions of Poles but only at the initiative of the occupational authority. The legacy of that system remains. It lies deep in the psyche of people. And if I don’t take care, the peasant pops up in me as well.
That’s why I say that this mistrust has a deep cultural conditioning effect and is very deeply rooted. That’s why it is passed down from generation to generation. Of course, subsequent historical events, for example World War II, led to the extermination of those who might have built up the social capital of trust in Polish society. That was another of the often unanticipated results of World War II. The level of trust can be correlated with education. Those who are better educated don’t have the tendency to believe in every manifestation of reality, every conspiracy, all these secret forces and devils and so on. If those people aren’t around, it only opens up more space for people who think differently.
It’s not just a question of the extermination of the intelligentsia, but also the extermination of the peasant elite who were educated after Poland regained independence. They were all liquidated by the Germans. Anyway, all of which is to say that mistrust exists. If various things happen that have complex consequences or unclear results, then of course that’s good soil or favorable conditions for the emergence of the kind of mistrust that we have.
How is it possible to solve this problem? In other words, is it a question simply that culture will gradually change, or can the government or other social institutions do something to change the situation and create greater trust?
It’s not something that can be achieved from one day to the next. It must be a process. I am an optimist, and I believe that it should change. Maybe it’s even changing now but we don’t have any way of evaluating the change. It should change because the educational level will rise, first of all. Second, it should change because the weakness of social capital, this mistrust that we have now, is at the moment a subject of public debate. It’s being named and as a result of this, it’s being talked about. It’s obvious that this is a problem and social capital is something we lack. Already it’s very important that the patient knows that they are sick, recognizes that they are weak.
Traditionally, the third sector is the area of society that can both take advantage of the resources of social capital and be the source of that capital. This third sector in Poland has been developing. Everyone complains that it’s weak and bureaucratized, that it’s dependent on public finance. I too complain about the third sector this way, but I nonetheless appreciate that it’s developing and that people understand now that it’s possible to organize from the bottom up. We have now something called a citizen’s advice bureau organized through an association that I’ve been the president of for 15 years. And believe me I have full confidence that all the financial activities of this bureau are in order. I know that something like this can fail. Sometimes it happens. But just as long as there’s no cataclysm, such organizations will gradually build up their capacity. At the same time, everything is changing, which makes this process more difficult.
In fact, things are changing so completely that we are in a long-term transition similar to the break between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment. Here everything is changing. What we have now is not what it was in the past and not what it will be in the future. Everything takes a transitional form. It’s not easy to catch hold of these changes. Everything is uncertain because it’s difficult to predict what will happen. In stable times it’s certainly easier not only to rebuild trust but to build it up from scratch. But we’ll see.
I’d also like to ask you about the Balcerowicz plan, specifically about the social situation. At this point, how would you evaluate that plan from the point of view of today, 23 years later? Should the plan have been different, or was it in general a good one?
I’m not an economist, so I don’t feel especially competent to answer that. But looking at the plan and the results of the plan from the point of view of a citizen, I have always defended the Balcerowicz plan.
I believe that what Balcerowicz did was what was necessary to do at the time. The problem began in Poland a little later. In the middle of the 1990s when the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) came to power and began to consume the fruits of development. By the middle of the 1990s so much good energy had been expended on the changes that they should have been continued. Here I’m thinking, above all, about social politics, which is close to what I’m involved in. In other words, as I said about social assistance 23 years ago, at the end of the 1990s it was necessary to be radical – not in the ideological sense but in the sense of a certain courage – in continuing the reform of social politics, in particular the reform of social assistance. It wasn’t done. I said something then that is true as well today: the political elite doesn’t appreciate or understand social issues.
They were focused on the economic themes.
Yes, what was important for them was finance, banking, infrastructure. However, they totally didn’t understand the weight of social issues, something that is much more appreciated by politicians in the liberal United States than here. The Balcerowicz plan is criticized from the aspect of social results. But the plan, which integrated economic reform with the social safety net as an important element, was very quickly followed by sensible changes in the sphere of social politics, the labor market, social services, and personal resources. Of course, If we go back to the mid-1990s and talk about what might have been a wiser politics, for instance around housing, we would be in a different place today. But that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because the political elite didn’t depend on political parties. At the moment, it doesn’t matter who is in Civic Platform (PO), or PiS or SLD or PSL. It doesn’t matter because generally the political elite doesn’t understand, or appreciate social issues. What’s worse, they neglect social issues. So, the Balcerowicz Plan was not bad, but it did not implement major changes when it came to social politics.
That means that it was above all a problem of representation and there was no kind of relationship between the elite and society.
In some sense you could say that. That role should have been occupied by trade unions, but trade unions focus on the shorter-term interests of workers and not on the interests of those without work. Of course, in this sense, civil society is still weak. Non-governmental organizations talk about these problems. But the situation has improved to the degree that politicians can’t say that they didn’t hear. If you send him a letter, the minister replies. If you want to meet, he’ll agree. So, politicians know that such organizations are important, but they are not especially concerned about what these organizations say. You can say that there’s an asymmetry in government-society relations. So, social needs are not sufficiently strongly or powerfully expressed in a way that politicians will pay attention.
The West has its welfare state. It also had that moment when social issues became critical from the political point of view. Connected to that there were big social-political reforms, for instance in Great Britain at the beginning of the 1960s. Poland didn’t have that experience. In fact, the politics of the Communist period in the sphere of social assistance was a step backwards compared to what was in place before World War II. This is one of the unanticipated consequences of the Communist period. Because of that, the political elite didn’t consider social issues to be important.
When you worked in the ministry, It was very important to create new institutions, new social infrastructure, and of course this was very difficult. But from your point of view, what was the biggest challenge?
In the first half of the 1990s?
I can’t tell you anything new. It was the execution to the end of the entire transformation. It succeeded. In the first five years at the beginning of the 1990s, it succeeded. Although there were certain risks that it wouldn’t succeed, the elite was sensitive to social problems. But as soon as a critical mass was reached, the momentum was lost. That was the mistake. In the middle of the 1990s it was necessary to create a different way of thinking, acting, and conducting politics, and that wasn’t done.
The situation at the moment – in terms of social institutions and social politics and social welfare — what do you think is good here in Poland in comparison to other countries in the region?
Honestly speaking, I know that in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary also in the 2000s there was new legislation changing what had been established at the beginning of the 1990s. The solutions and infrastructure that were created at the beginning of the 1990s worked at the time, but then they were not further reformed. Everyone who worked on the issue of care or social assistance knew that this system had drifted for ten years and was in need of change. It wasn’t possible to demolish it all and start from the beginning. If we’re talking about social assistance, the solutions that were put into effect in 1990 reflected the experience, the structures, and the institutional pattern of actions that existed before. They were efficient at the time. But now it’s necessary to sensibly reconstruct.
In the Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Hungary, those structures and functions must be on the one hand rooted in a certain tradition – otherwise they won’t be successful – and on the other hand they must try to cope somehow with new problems. I am not convinced that in for example the Czech Republic everything functions like that. The texts that I’ve glanced at describe a situation that’s similar to what we have in which things have not succeeded. So, I wouldn’t compare. I wouldn’t say that in Poland the situation is better than in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Everyone has their own path.
It seems to me that the level of dissatisfaction here in Poland is quite high. Perhaps that’s because there’s a lot of unemployment, particularly among young people. Maybe it’s because a lot of people decided simply to leave. But in general the Polish economy is more or less okay.
So, why is there this mismatch between the levels of dissatisfaction and the economic situation?
If you look at objective indicators, for example economic ones, we should be very happy. If you look at the hard data, these last 23 years have been a continuous success from every point of view. For instance, in comparison to Czechoslovakia and Hungary, we were a decidedly poorer country 23 years ago. Now we have caught up to Hungary. We didn’t, in fact, have a recession. We had economic growth all the time. Growth might have gone down to 1 percent of even .5 percent, but it wasn’t a recession. The entire time we were developing. To compare Warsaw 23 years ago and today, it’s simply a completely different city. So, we’re getting by.
But it’s true that there’s a lot of dissatisfaction. There’s some well-known research done periodically by Professor Czapinski called the Social Diagnosis. The results of this research are that the level of individual satisfaction has grown. Privately, we are satisfied with life, but we are dissatisfied with public life. There is a bifurcation of the two spheres: private and public. Privately we are happy, publicly we are unhappy. The question is: where does this bifurcation come from?
First of all, the mistrust that we were talking about probably has some significance. Second of all, people endlessly talk about how bad the political environment is. The mass media performs a negative role here by emphasizing the sensational and the negative. If someone is only watching television they would be convinced that in fact everything here has collapsed. I have a sense that the journalism profession has completely declined. Journalists also have such a feeling. This is connected to commercialization.
So, that’s why the improvement in the level of life has been overlooked. There are certainly difficulties for the average person. But to relate the macroeconomic indicators to the life situation of individuals requires knowledge. If we had sensible journalists, on TV programs or in the newspapers, they could try to explain this.
We also – and this is part of our culture – complain all the time. Even today, as I was traveling by tram, before we met here, I was laughing to myself, thinking that if someone asked me how things were going and I answered in English, I’d say, “Super, everything’s fine.” But if I answered in Polish, I’d say, “Ach!” That’s the way it is. It’s not proper to say that things are going well. It’s normal to complain. If you sit in a taxi, and the taxi driver wants to chat with the passenger, it’s in order to complain. If the taxi driver starts that way, it means that this is his way of making contact.
In other words, there are many factors that suggest that objectively things are getting better, and yet dissatisfaction in the public sphere keeps growing. A lot depends on the economic situation. There were a couple of months back when I thought to myself, “Ach, here I am in a dark hour and I can’t get out of it because it’s not clear what’s going to happen.” At these times, individual consumption falls, for example. These are the cyclical fluctuations connected to the economy. During the 2008 crisis, everyone said that we’d entered a crisis. And then people looked around a little later and said, “Where’s the crisis?” It’s necessary to remember these fluctuations in the economic cycles.
That means that you think that emigration is also cyclical.
Emigration is a very interesting thing. What did Poles do in the 19th century when they didn’t know how to improve their lot in life? They left. Emigration is a definitely a cultural coping mechanism for dealing with economic hardship. But it’s not always been possible to do given the borders established after 1945. And whereas a Polish peasant once emigrated to America, now they go somewhere closer where they can earn more money. So, emigration is in part connected with the cultural means of getting by. But a person could also say “I’ll roll up my sleeves and start a business.” Leaving, however, can be easier than doing that.
It’s not just the emigration of peasants but also intellectuals. Young people, for instance, are leaving. Doctors can work today in Sweden or Germany and earn more money. It’s a brain drain, and that can be dangerous.
Yes, though doctors are earning a bit more these days in Poland – it’s not like it was before.
That means in the past –
There were problems. Yes.
How is it possible to solve this situation? From the point of view of social politics.
Sometimes money is the most important thing, but it’s not necessarily so. For instance, my daughter, who is 22 years old, was in Madrid for a year studying there. She has now returned and is in love with Warsaw. Young Warsaw intellectuals often feel this way about the city. And there are a lot of places like this, though I don’t know much about it since I’m not in that generation. But Warsaw is a city with its own character and it can retain people. If they can only find work here, then the major reason to leave is removed. But there are also people who are going to study medicine and go abroad because that always results in a better-playing job.
Right now we’re not far from the office of Krytyka Polityczna. What do you think of that organization and its political and social criticism?
The circle around Krytyka Polityczna has played a very important role — but more in the sphere of culture than in politics. It’s a circle of intellectuals. They publish books. It is, not in the direct sense but in the spiritual sense, a vanguard of Polish artists. I’m speaking now of the visual arts. They have a critical, leftist orientation. They’re a very resilient and very valuable cultural circle. I’m always hoping that this circle will successfully generate a sensible Left political party. I’m convinced that a good, wise, modern Left party would win elections. But such a party doesn’t exist.
Other Left parties exist, but not a modern one.
They’re not modern. It’s definitely time for such a good party with a good program from the Left. A significant portion of the PO electorate would willingly vote for a sensible Left if it existed. But it doesn’t. So, the Krytyka Polityczna circle, even though it undoubtedly does fantastic, wonderful cultural work, has dashed those political hopes.
What should trade unions be doing at the moment? For instance, trade unions are very weak in comparison to 23 years ago, and the situation of workers is not very good from the point of view of wages or pensions. What can a trade union do in such a situation?
The topic of trade unions has not particularly interested me, and the last time I was a member of a trade union was in 1980. As everyone was. But not now. Somehow people look at the activities of trade unions with a lot of mistrust. It doesn’t seem to me that the unions have acted sensibly. It’s also said that in the 1990s a significant number of workplaces collapsed because of trade union pressure. Basically, they are only in those large work places that are state-owned, like coal mines. I imagine that trade unions are necessary , for instance to handle the relations between workers and managers or owners. But that relationship depends on both sides cooperating. There must be mutual agreements. But if that relationship is a relationship of struggle, and often it is, that’s not good.
In this one copper mine, the wages are incredibly high. And there’s a constant struggle between the sensible-thinking president and the claims of the union. It’s not a good situation. It’s also not a good situation when the reasonable claims of the workers are neglected by a primitive owner. That also happens.
Certainly it’s necessary to come up with a new formula for the functioning of trade unions in which those who are responsible for the firm and those who are working in it reach some consensus to establish a common good, a common purpose. It’s important for the enterprise to earn a profit and for the people to work in good conditions. That’s not easy. Particularly since we have a tradition here of Solidarity struggling with management. Besides which, the character of work has also changed, for we now have a knowledge-based economy and innovation. Innovation demands different methods of management. In such a situation, when a worker wants to be innovative, he should know that he will be rewarded and not exploited. If he will be exploited, he won’t be innovative. So that demands also different relations.
Once I was in a meeting in which there was a president of some computer firm that operated as a cooperative. He said something like, “In a cooperative it doesn’t make sense to have a trade union. The worker is a co-owner and can’t imagine that the firm can function other than having its success depend on everyone giving their all.” So I think that the operation of trade unions in this knowledge-based economy also should look somehow different.
The last question is one I ask everyone. Over the last 23 years, has your thinking changed in any significant way?
That’s a difficult question. My thinking has not changed more than it has changed. The cognitive structure in our heads doesn’t change very quickly. I go back to the beginning, to mistrust. That’s something we have. Institutions changed. The logic of action of those institutions changed. Much changed. But the manner of thinking has not necessarily changed. There was a short discussion in Gazeta Wyborczaon this topic. There’s a journalist there that you might know, Jacek Zakowski.
Yes, I interviewed him.
In that article he put forward a thesis that Poland should be given over to the young. By that he means that Poland must somehow develop new thinking. In this polemic, which was in the last issue of Gazeta, there was a contribution from a very sensible economist, someone older than I am, who said that, “Maybe yes, but here you don’t see such young people who want to do that. And what’s worse, sometimes these young people are worse than the old officials.” This change of thinking is neither bad nor good. Nor does it go to the fundamental issues. This thinking still cannot keep up with the objective changes. Those changes are happening faster than we can accommodate in our actions and our learning process, our capacity to function and understand, and in our ability to change our own thinking accordingly.
The last questions are quantitative. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed since then, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being very dissatisfied and 10 being very satisfied?
Around 7.5. Everything depends on one’s point of reference. In comparison to what it was, I’d say 10. But in comparison to what it could have been if we’d acted more wisely, lower than that. So, in the middle.
Same scale, same period of time: your personal life?
When you look into the near future, how would you evaluate Poland’s prospects in the next two or three years on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
- What’s happening today is a globalized world.
And it depends on…
Many things. It doesn’t have to be bad. But in general the near term, the next 2-10 years, won’t be a very good time. It will improve when we can gather all the knowledge and thinking that this new world is arranging. Here’s the problem. No one out there knows what to do with this new world of ours. What’s necessary is a new Keynes, a new Marshall, perhaps a new Marx. That kind of a mind. However, It won’t be individual characters but a team of people that will come up with a way to rearrange everything anew. And then everything will change.
Warsaw, August 26, 2013
Translation from the Polish by John Feffer
An advisor to Joanna Starega, who is a vice-minister of labor and social services under Jacek Kuron, Tomasz Kazmierczak is a researcher into the theory of social welfare. He helped to develop what was to become the government’s social program during the round table negotiations and after. The work began last spring and finished this past fall, conveniently in time to become part of government policy.
He began by discussing the difficulties of simultaneously creating new institutions to deal with new problems (unemployment, growing homelessness, worsening poverty) and eliminating the old structures (nomenklatura privileges, previous bureaucracy). “It would be much easier to implement social welfare if the economy was in wonderful shape. But we can’t just do that.” And the relative lack of interest in social justice? He agreed that, in terms of government priorities, social justice was last. “Now we live in a very pragmatic time. I think it is useless to talk about social justice when there simply is no money. Ten years, such wonderful ideas such as justice, solidarity and freedom were what people gathered together around. But now, improving the economy is number one.”
People are confused, he admitted. “For example, people believed that when Communism collapses, the next day everything will be wonderful: shops filled with goods, everybody with a lot of money.” And it just didn’t happen that way. Kuron, he said, reported on Polish TV that many Czechs were demonstrating that they didn’t want to tighten their belts and “didn’t realize that in order to improve the Czech economy, they must tighten their belts.” The difference in Poland, meanwhile, is that the Polish people were told over and over again last year that reform would mean the tightening of belts. Kuron has subsequently emerged as the chief propagandist for the Balcerowicz plan, since it is his task to explain to people why the government must take these steps.
The Ministry is designed for two functions: mitigating the social costs of economic transition through, for instance, unemployment benefits and also by providing a social safety net. I asked how much money was provided through the benefit system. At first, Kazmierczak made some rather unhelpful comparisons: related to minimum salary, estimated by the government and so on. I asked for an average. Given that average monthly wage is 6-700,000 zlotys, benefits amount to roughly 300,000. What if the worker has a family, surely 300,000 zlotys is not sufficient (for example, an average trip to the supermarket costs 40,000 zlotys and that only for essentials)? He agreed. “I don’t want to say that you should just sit and cry,” he replied, but really didn’t offer any other alternatives. He talked about the growing network of social welfare offices which will, with any luck, be in every Polish community. Such offices would provide some financial assistance, help for sick people, home care and so on. These offices would be financed in part by the state and in part by the community. But the community councils may, of course, decide that they don’t want such an office, in which case, the community would go lacking. And, given the housing crunch, where will these offices be located? He wasn’t sure. Perhaps in old party buildings, I suggested.
He didn’t think that social workers would be a strong enough lobby group compared with businesses, banks and the like. “We do not know what the community councils will do. Very probably, they may say that they have much more important things to consider than poor people.” He cited the popularity of the death penalty in Poland. “The Polish people are very repressive. And now when they feel that they have freedom and can protest different social issues. They say that people are poor because they are alcoholics. When people have such attitudes, they prefer to put people in jail than help them.”
I asked about soup kitchens. “A few months, they got fashionable but now there is not so much noise.” They are financed by various sources, some public, some private. I asked about the growing unemployment. What jobs would be available? He mentioned the growing need for social workers. “This will be an empty place for country people to fill.” [Half of Poland is impoverished; the other half administers to them–and in this way Poland discovers that its comparative advantage is in fact disadvantage!] He also put some faith in the development of small businesses. And with growing social problems, how has the government remained so popular? It is Mazowiecki’s face, Kazmierczak replied: it is so full of suffering. People therefore support the President because he reminds them of Christ.