THE BLOG
01/11/2015 12:39 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2015

What Happened to Poland's Red Capitalists?

When revolutions happen bloodlessly, it's usually because some part of the elite has found its place in the new order. They don't just open up the gates of the city to let in the Trojan Horse. They become founding members of the Trojan Horse party. They set up kiosks that sell Trojan Horse trinkets. They host TV specials that rewrite history so that the arrival of the Trojan Horse seemed all but inevitable.

In Poland in the late 1980s, Polish sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis began writing about "political capitalists." These were colloquially known as "red capitalists" -- technocrats and enterprise managers who were technically part of the Communist system but had already begun to function like capitalists. Indeed, they were both transforming the system from below and also feathering their own nests to cushion their own personal transitions.

The economic transformation in Poland was, in other words, prepared for in advance. "It is rarely remembered but the market order was introduced in Poland not after 1989 but in 1988, by the Party. The plan at that time was to introduce market rules and privatization -- all these new tools - with the support of the Party and part of the opposition," sociologist Maciej Gdula told me in an interview last year in his Warsaw apartment.

Later, these preparations ensured that the "shock therapy" reforms went through with almost no political opposition. "When Tadeusz Mazowiecki came to power and hired Leszek Balcerowicz to do this shock therapy, the plan was supported by the post-Communists in parliament," Gdula continued. "There is a great quote from Balcerowicz in which he remembers the first parliament after 1989 when everything he put on the table was voted on without discussion and how this was a great opportunity to implement real reforms. Now there are many political parties and you have to discuss things. But then you had a bill, it was brought to parliament, and it was signed by Jaruzelski in two weeks. Balcerowicz just comes out and says this!"

What Staniszkis failed to appreciate, however, was how deep the collusion went. It wasn't just about a layer of former Communist technocrats who struck it rich because they used their former positions and their continued political influence to find a place in the new order. "It was also about creating a vast middle class, which is well-paid, which is used to having stable jobs, which operates in a non-commercialized working environment, and which is embedded in a system of social support," Gdula pointed out. "This middle class and the elite are in alliance."

The free market certainly contributed to shaping a new middle class. But, as Gdula observed, "the new middle class was created by the state. Social services were kept in reasonable shape. There was no reduction in the staff in the public schooling system or in hospitals. The social services were not privatized for many years during the transformation. Also, there was a huge increase of officers and people working in administration. This was due to reforms introduced by the Polish state related to decentralization and creating a new level of administration at three levels. And of course with joining the EU, the number of administrative officers increased again."

The role of his middle class, which is dependent in many ways on the state, will prove critical for Poland's future. Gdula imagined two scenarios. "One is optimistic: the middle class will align with the popular class to secure social standards and social inclusion and to fight against inequalities," he told me. The middle class, in other words, stands with trade unions and the preservation of a broad social compact.

The second scenario, which he called the "authoritarianization of politics," resembles what has taken place in Hungary. "This will be present at symbolic level, and related to it will be the real persecution of minorities," he continued. "It will also hit the social movements and trade unions. When the crisis becomes more present, it will hit us that the government is taking actions against social movements. I'm really afraid of this, especially since the technical means of making such an authoritarianization possible are becoming more sophisticated."

We talked about his grave disappointments with post-Communist rule, his work with Krytyka Polityczna, and why he finds dependency a more interesting topic to focus on than emancipation.

The Interview

The sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis wrote about the rise of "red capitalists" in the 1980s, not just technocrats but also managers in the workplace who began to act as capitalists. Did this theory have an impact on how people looked at the Communist Party?

Her perspective was a most sophisticated version of the popular version -- the right-wing critique of transformation that pointed to the phenomenon of "red management" of the economy. The right wing, of course, claimed to finish the transformation through decommunization: "we have to change the Reds for normal people, for our people." Staniszkis used some popular emotional perspectives to build a broader theory about the reproduction of elites that was rational in some way. The elites were trying to construct their interest in the new global order. At the end of the 1990s, she was claiming that it was over. The "red management," the nomenklatura, was not able to control the transformation. They were losing ground in the competition with global capital.

I think this is wrong in one crucial point concerning how the elites were able to control the political process to gain support for what they were doing. It was still democracy, not authoritarian rule. It was not China. How were the elites able to create support for their actions? The Right and the Left have the same answer: ideology. There was a transition ideology. Adam Michnik was saying that we have to stop the ideology of communization, the ideology of the witch-hunt, and instead build a democracy that is gray, not black and white. The Right was using this black-and-white rhetoric, with the Communists as the "black" guys. They were using very sharp distinctions, a highly moral discourse, the same kind of discourse that Adam Michnik was using in the 1970s and 1980s. But when Michnik became one of the most important public figures during the transformation, he abandoned this strong moral language. Or, he used it only to control who is "rational," who should be listened to, in order to exclude the far Left and far Right from power and from public space. So, the Right had this idea of how the elite was able to hold on to power.

The Left response was for many years that elites controlled the political process also through ideology, but it was the ideology of the free market, of the "naturalness" of market relations. All this rhetoric, of course, was about going back to normality, abandoning any discussion of the model of capitalism. According to this ideology, there was only one way to organize things under capitalism: privatization, reduction of deficit, cuts in public spending, etc.

But this was only half the truth. Of course ideology played a role, and Adam Michnik was important. But it's also clear today that the media played a central role. At that time there was one big newspaper not owned by the government: Gazeta Wyborcza. It really shaped all the public discourse. There were only two channels of public TV and one very weak private television channel, Polsat. Today, Gazeta Wyborcza is not the same newspaper. You can still buy it in the shop, but it has lost the symbolic power it had in the 1990s. Now it's one newspaper among many. And TV is no longer the same. There are plenty of channels. And you have the Internet, which is really important now. All the people in the 1990s were saying that the Internet is changing everything, and nothing happened. But after 10 years, the change has really come. We see now that TV is losing audiences and money. Today, and this is my thesis, we no longer have a mainstream. In Gazeta Wyborcza there's a pluralism among the journalists, sometimes leftish, sometimes neo-liberal. You can find anything there. It wasn't like that 10-15 years ago when there was a strict line at the newspaper.

Though it's hard to say that there's a mainstream, this doesn't mean that communication is more free. It's more pluralistic, but there are important actors who are influencing the discourse. Those important actors are politicians. The politicians are more important than 10 years ago. Donald Tusk and Jaroslaw Kaczynski are very important. They don't say much. But when they enter the public sphere, everybody listens very carefully.

Ideology was important. But an even more important process was the creation of the middle class. Both right-wing and left-wing critics of transformation don't like this story of the middle class because it undermines their critique and shows that there is some kind of broad social force that has benefited from the transformation. I made a study based on Marxist assumptions about how to investigate social structures. To make a long story short, the study shows that the middle-class bubble is growing. The middle class has a larger share within the labor market, while at the same time the industrial class or working class has been shrinking. There was a real deindustrialization in Poland. Unemployment for the working class rose, and their income shrank. At the same time, the middle class was growing bigger and getting more decent money. We cannot forget this when we speak about the transformation.

The second point in my opinion is more interesting. While the market created some middle-class positions -- such as all the new professions in public relations, marketing, and new corporate services -- the core of the middle class has been built up by the state. The market is delivering some places for the middle class. But it's also delivering very low-paid jobs in industry and services. When you walk through the suburbs of Warsaw, every single house has its own bodyguards. These are the low-paid jobs created by the market: the privatization of security. But in Poland, the new middle class was created by the state. Social services were kept in reasonable shape. There was no reduction in the staff in the public schooling system or in hospitals. The social services were not privatized for many years during the transformation. Also, there was a huge increase of officers and people working in administration. This was due to reforms introduced by the Polish state related to decentralization and creating a new level of administration at three levels. And of course with joining the EU, the number of administrative officers increased again.

What Staniszkis and the Right were saying about the manipulation of the elites, with the opposition and the Party agreeing to make a deal, is to a certain extent true. But it's not only this. It was also about creating a vast middle class, which is well-paid, which is used to having stable jobs, which operates in a non-commercialized working environment, and which is embedded in a system of social support. This middle class and the elite are in alliance.

I have a good example from the theater. I made a study of how people from different classes experience theater. Our first assumption, based on Pierre Bourdieu's theories, was that there will be a division between upper class and middle class. The upper class would be more oriented to more intellectual, avant-garde theater and would criticize more popular, comic, easier theater. We were astonished to find out that people from the upper class -- from the dominant sector like the entrepreneurs or sometimes the lawyers -- did not criticize theater that was oriented toward entertainment. They said that the theater should be open to normal people, and it should amuse people. Meanwhile, people from the working class are not going to theater. Sometimes they went on school trips to the theater, sometimes they have interesting ideas about how theater works. But they are not theater visitors.

The complexity of this kind of alliance between the upper class and middle class applies to alliances in politics as well. For instance, there was a consensus that social services in health should be commercialized. When that process started a couple years ago, the only protestors were the nurses, the lower echelon of the working class. Physicians, who are part of the upper class, stayed silent because it didn't affect them or, if it did, they possibly would profit from privatization. A comparable process is happening in education. The government is trying to save money on education by reducing spending and the number of jobs for teachers.

Right now there are some objective processes that are undermining the world of the middle class. This is now affecting administration, which is no longer growing. The government is trying to keep the number of administrative jobs as low as possible. This might be a new chapter in our history. There is a possibility of a new conflict or configuration. The middle class, for instance, might ally with the popular classes in defense of social services. When health care or education is privatized, there will be barriers to access for people without money. Will the middle class make this alliance over the issue of access, or will it stay in alliance with upper class?

I'm afraid that the middle class will stay in alliance with the establishment, but the alliance will not be at the level of interests but rather on the level of imagination. The middle class will imagine that "we are better people and are somehow elevated above the others." This is the fascist scenario. I'm not saying there will be swastikas. But this imaginary alliance of middle class and upper class can be formed against the working class and all minorities and people who are not part of the system such as the poor or the Roma or the LGBT community. It has happened in other countries in the region. This is the worst-case scenario.

The 1980s were the most interesting decade in Poland. Many things were happening then. The most important moment was Solidarity, which is interpreted as a sign of something new, that society was against the Communists and against the old order. But Solidarity was a part of the system. The whole idea of constructing a "third way," of building something between capitalism and socialism or building a good socialism, this egalitarian imaginary was also a part of the old system: it was a dream of the previous system.

What happened next was Martial Law. Martial Law is interpreted as the crushing of society -- but only for the moment. Civil society was present again in 1989, and it was the same civil society. Except that I think it wasn't like that. Many things happened between the declaration of Martial Law and 1989. Those eight years were crucial. What happened during Martial Law was, of course, the crushing of the Solidarity movement: not just crushing structures and putting people in jail but also crushing the imagination, all the people who supported Solidarity. It also came out that not everyone supported Solidarity. Some Solidarity activists discovered that they were fighting alone. In one interview, a Solidarity activist described coming home from prison. She didn't have a key to her apartment, so she knocked on a neighbor's door. She wanted to ask if maybe they had keys to her apartment. But all the doors were shut. No one wanted to talk to her. Her experience was not exceptional. Many leaders discovered that they were not widely supported and that society was not all behind them. A conservative religious friend of mine, when he heard about Martial Law, he grabbed his Bible and went to the university to go on strike and discovered that no one was there.

There's another thing to mention related to Martial Law. It was not only the crushing of the opposition. It was also the crushing of the Party as a political force. The army took all the important positions from the Party and started to govern the country. It was the end of the Party as a kind of parallel society. At the time there was this idea that under socialism, if there wasn't democracy, there was at least a Party democracy that served as a substitute. But this substitute was not there any more. So, Martial Law was the crushing of two leftist forces. The new party leaders, like Wojciech Jaruzelski, were thinking that everything would be put into order again after Martial Law. They were looking for ways to improve the economy, how to organize it anew - and they of course failed. There were three of four years of new economic reforms before they figured out that it didn't work. It was comparable to the situation in France when, after the strikes at the end of 1960s, the government intended to use old institutions and old means to create a new order. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello give a good account of this. The old tools turned out not to be good, so the elites started to search for new tools.

It is rarely remembered but the market order was introduced in Poland not after 1989 but in 1988, by the Party. The plan at that time was to introduce market rules and privatization -- all these new tools -- with the support of the Party and part of the opposition. There is a great text by Andrzej Walicki about liberalism in Poland written in the middle of 1980s. He was here in Warsaw talking to people in intellectual circles. He said, "I am astonished that everyone is liberal! They are the most vigorous and interesting people in intellectual salons -- on both sides." When Tadeusz Mazowiecki came to power and hired Leszek Balcerowicz to do this shock therapy, the plan was supported by the post-Communists in parliament. There is a great quote from Balcerowicz in which he remembers the first parliament after 1989 when everything he put on the table was voted on without discussion and how this was a great opportunity to implement real reforms. Now there are many political parties and you have to discuss things. But then you had a bill, it was brought to parliament, and it was signed by Jaruzelski in two weeks. Balcerowicz just comes out and says this!

It sounds like the discussions at Magdalenka between the Party and Solidarity during the Round Table discussions -- forging consensus across an apparent political divide.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.