Thursday, May 2, 2013

Thatcher's Poland

My mistake was not waiting to light my cigarette until after I'd passed the pawn shop. The lombard, as they call them here, opened only a few months ago but it's quickly become a favorite hangout for young and old alike. Bizarrely, you're just as likely to see a group of old fogies as a gang of kids ogling the phones in the window, dreaming of the day when they can afford to light up the screens with the slide of a fingertip to signal to the those around them they are worthy while sending and receiving signals from around the world.

As I hit the corner of the main drag, I suddenly remembered I needed cash. Lucky every other building is now a bank while the majority of those in between are oft-time ironically named cheque cashing joints like Happy Credit, mortgage brokers and aptly named kantors (foreign exchange) such as Joker Kantor, so cash was flowing free and easy. Well, apparently not for buddy who was on me like a fly on shit as I waited for the bank machine.

- "Daj mi papierosa" (Give me a cigarette) Came the predictable plea.
- "Jest moj ostatni" (It's my last) I tried to parry.
- "Give me cigarette"
Fuck. Something about my amazing (!?) accent had given me away making me both a prey and a mark.
- "Cigarette!" He barked.
My smoke was now the focus of both our attentions as I raised it to my lips and dropped it to my side. A couple of quick drags and I hand him the butt but he still doesn't budge.
- "One, two beer. How much?" Guess he's thirsty, too. After all it's almost noon.
- "I dunno, depends which" I answer, giving him a shoulder slap to his right shoulder while dodging to my right and slide into the bank machine as the previous customer walks out.

Cash in hand, smoke accoster nowhere in sight, I continued my walk towards first the train and then my work station beyond. As the flow of traffic peppered with the odd late model Porsche and communist era Polski Fiat 126p whizzed by I pass the Golden Arches just in time to see a herd of diabetic fat kids stream out the door, miraculously avoiding the two drunks splayed on the pavement leaning against each other for support as they dream of their next drink. Next up is the wheelchair beggar at his post just past the rail yard and in front of the trade center on the corner where I turn toward the university. Fortunately I'm shielded from his view as I pass by a gaggle of home decor/gardening/fashion enthusiasts clutching their conference bags filled with soon-to-be landfill waste and don't have to respond to his plea for the zloty (cash) he'd need to survive the next 24 hours.

Turning onto the bridge I walked past the newly completed portion of the train station, already covered in grime thanks to the pollution along with the road work and construction of the monstrous mall and even more ginormous parking garage that will be attached to the new Poznan train terminal. Wired gates control traffic at the end the bridge where the roadworks are most intense. Cars jockey for position from all sides as I emerged onto the zebra crossing with my usual contempt for motorized traffic. My second confrontation of the day comes when a car creeps up to my knee and we lock eyes, I point to the crossing and he starts yelling through his windscreen. Flipping him the bird I've already had two opportunities to fight and I haven't been out of the flat for 20 minutes.

That's when I found out Margaret Thatcher had died. I didn't have to wait to read about it in the obituaries or the newspaper, the words accompanied the beep that lit up my cellphone (fortunately I'm still holding onto my decade old Nokia brick and haven't yet needed to join the gawkers in front of the lombard).

"Ding dong, the witch is dead!"

Having come from a British friend that's all that was needed to convey the news. The fraction of a second it took for the impulse to smile to travel from my brain was long enough to allow the guilt for having such a feeling to arrest the curl of my lips before they'd even crinkled. I had to stop and look around. Here I was in Poland about to walk into university to teach a group of students whose parents most likely believe the Iron Lady was at least in part to thank for causing Communist USSR to crumble. The knowledge was more likely than not passed to their offspring subconsciously, like the information transmission of DNA, the kids probably don't even know what they, well, know. The terms Thatcher's Britain and Thatcher's child took no time to enter the lexicon and then the OED, and now standing on the corner with a Beyonce for H&M billboard to my left commanding women to buy her swimsuit or suffer social ostracism, if one's different, one's bound to be lonely, and a Szybcy i Wsciekli 6 (Fast & the Furious 6) billboard to my right reminding me of Thatcher's possibly apocryphal quote "[a] man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure", I couldn't help wonder how much this was Thatcher's Poland.

"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past"
- Orwell, 1984

Upon noticing a book carried by one of my first Polish private students with Ronald Reagan on the cover, I was informed that Saint Ronnie along with John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher were his heroes: the holy trinity of freedom, a triptych of Maggie, Ronnie and JP2 on the mantelpiece of every good home. It's one of those things everyone here just knows just as I knew at that moment that Thatcher's passing wasn't going to go quietly; an information war every bit as deadly as the shooting kind she loved so much was already under way to remake her legacy, reframe the perspective and retard the rest of us.

Had she been a man, Margaret Thatcher could easily have been called Iron Balls as she had conviction in her beliefs if she had anything. Instead, thanks to her power to make most shrink around her, she was ironically given the nickname she came to love by the system she loathed. Accusing her of trying to revive the cold war, the Soviet Army newspaper Krasnaja Zvezda (Red Star) dubbed the then leader of the opposition železnaja dama (the Iron Lady) in January of 1976.

Seems as with everything else about Lady Thatcher, measuring the impact of her role in the fall of the Soviet Union is too subjective to measure, a hagiographic effort at best. Sure, after meeting Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984 she declared "We can do business together" and shortly thereafter the official party policy of glasnost was adopted in the USSR. However a near identical phrase "I think they can do business together" had been uttered in February of the same year by the American Senate Majority Leader Howard H Baker Jr. in reference to Reagan's potential meeting with the then Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko.

Her bold assertions that there was no alternative nor any such thing as society, delivered in a tone both boring and boring, made her seem so decisive and divisive but when examined in context become wishy-washy and banal. Should we celebrate the life or death of a lady who may have had a hand in bringing about a Brave New World order by bringing down the (iron) curtain on our 1984 future? How does one shed a tear for a woman who had no qualms about ordering the death of hundreds of 'Argies' sailing away from a fight, not only allowed the US to station nuclear tipped cruise missiles on British soil to up the Cold War ante but also to use British bases for bombing raids on Libya, and above all, taught us to be selfish and that the pain of others isn't our problem?

But did she help save the Poles and the rest from communism? Unanswerable and doubtful but Poland's neoliberal lackey foreign minister Radek Sikorski eulogized her as a "fearless champion of liberty". We can guess how the Argentinians feel about how she saved the Malvinas. Barack Obama trotted out the obligatory praise saying she was "one of the great champions of freedom and liberty". Why don't we ask a Chilean if she helped or hurt their struggle against her buddy Pinochet by thanking him for "bringing democracy to Chile" by murdering the people's elected representative. I'm sure the tens of thousands murdered, hundreds of thousands tortured and million plus forced to flee Chile under his dictatorship would disagree.

The Economist magazine, bringing the tru to Minitru and where 2+2=5, eulogized "[t]he essence of Thatcherism was to oppose the status quo and bet on freedom", thus doing their part to ensure her support of the South African apartheid regime is lost down the memory hole. Not only did she once refer to Nelson Mandela's ANC as a "typical terrorist organization" while her spokesman said it was "cloud-cuckoo land for anyone to believe" they could run the country, she somehow worked the doublethink trick of projecting opposition to the racist regime while befriending then Premier P.W. Botha. She celebrated her friendship with Indonesia's General Suharto calling hime "one of our very best and most valuable friends" for having killed 500,000 suspected Communists in Indonesia before moving on to invade East Timor in 1975 to massacre around 250,000 men, women and children on the island. Her government helped arm Saddam Hussein, lent a hand to Pol Pot and hailed General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq's work in Pakistan that laid the groundwork for the Islamic radicalization of a whole generation.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of the woman was just that, she was a woman. In 1970, a week after becoming Secretary of State for Education and Science, she was asked if she would she like to become the first woman Prime Minister. "No," she answered emphatically, "there will not be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime—the male population is too prejudiced." Of the movement and activists which possibly did more to change the 20th century than any other and opened the door to 10 Downing to her, she reportedly told an adviser, "[t]he feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison." In 1982 she said "The battle for women's rights has largely been won" which explains why she never felt the need to speak out against domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse or harassment or how women earned about 60 cents to the dollar of men's wages. She gave the appearance of smashing the glass ceiling while in fact pulling up the ladder, famously promoting only a single woman to a cabinet position preferring instead to surround herself with vegetables. Is it sexist of me to wonder how a mother of two could also become Maggie Thatcher the milk-snatcher by taking away kids' milk? Despite her portrayal as a greengrocer's daughter who had to fight to the top, she seems to have been a daddy's girl who married well which allowed her the luxury to study and hire a nanny.

Apologists rose to Thatcher's defense to claim her actions were a product of the times, the ends justified the means and of course, war is peace. Her sales pitch to a roomful of Saudis, "I'll have one of those!" while stroking a gleaming missile, to seal the $80 billion Al Yamamah arms deal wasn't meant for public consumption as 'batting for Britain' really involved billions in black money to bribe Saudi princes and add to the bottom line of BAE. Poles have learned Thatcher's buddy system well, er, well, the politicians at least, lining up to sacrifice lives and zloty to the alter of American military hegemony. Polish may have recently become England's second language but Polish politicians speak Anglo-Saxon ass-kissing as good as any lapdog. Most Poles are oblivious to the fact they ranked number four on the 'coalition of the willing' casualty countdown and just last month saw their 39th soldier killed in Afghanistan, while four more stand trial for war crimes committed there. Meanwhile the billions to be spent on a useless missile shield that the majority of the people don't want will piss off the Russians and definitely won't end up in the pockets of the locals.

"Non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature...are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation."
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Thanks to doublethink, the lady wasn't for turning and probably believed in what she was doing but the real trick was to convince not just the people but her own party of the myth that Thatcherism was good for 'ordinary' people and would emancipate the working classes. Attila the Hen found an ally in Rupert Murdoch; she helped him consolidate his media power while he helped her spread the gospel and get reelected twice. The two protestant 'outsiders' who attended Oxford railed against the establishment which they became a part of by helping each other; he by having his tabloid the Sun shift its traditional support for Labour to Thatcher's Tories with a front page editorial arguing Thatcher’s election would be better for the working classes, she by allowing his acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times to avoid scrutiny by the competition authorities thanks to a deal struck during lunch at Chequers. While Thatcherism was tearing the heart out of the industrial heartland and looting the commons to hand it over to a tiny elite of 'wealth creators' who would free up the market and rain wealth on the land, Murdoch helped make sure there would be astonishingly little protest or consciousness by blaming the poor, promoting war and of course giving the people want they really wanted, more football.

The strength of ignorance is both easily built and desperately needed here in Poland. Caught so often on the wrong side of history and geography, convincing the Poles that there is no alternative to the current course has been an easy sell. Football, vodka and the Catholic Church allow the people to imagine they'll get to a better place as long as they keep their head down and work hard. Sure, they have the right complain and the array of choices seems as diverse as anywhere but the media landscape ensures the discourse never strays far off course. German companies like Axel Springer AG spew IngSoc, er, tabloid trash and EU propaganda with their version of the Sun, Fakt, alongside Dziennik and Newsweek Polska, American movies continually revise the past while TV portrays seemingly  possible present from the west or a poor simulation thereof and Radio Maryja spews xenophobic hate cloaked in the hope of redemption. The closest Poland comes to Murdoch is Adam Michnik, editor of the ofttimes leading national daily Gazeta Wyborca who somehow managed the trick of undergoing a conversion from a fearless dissident into a hack propagandist heralding the evils of Islamofascism and convincing women to go shopping on cobblestone streets wearing high heels (er, a forced reference to his paper's women's magazine Wysokie Obcasy - High Heels)

Maggie may or may not have been instrumental in delivering Poland and Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union but it was her amazing electoral success along with that of fellow cold war warrior Rotten Ronnie on the other side of the pond that sped the demise of democracy as we knew it. Yes, the unions they broke had too much influence on Labour and Democrat policy and no, it wasn't her or Raygun's fault those parties ran into the arms of Big Finance but there you are. Poland et al had the misfortune of gaining freedom just as the end of history arrived and democracy became nothing but a choice between  more or less measures of neocon and neoliberal, a lesser of two evil song and dance, a recipe repeated around the world from Ottawa to Warsaw. When asked about her greatest achievement, Thatcher simply replied, "New Labour" and Tony Blair. In Poland the answer would be the ruling Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) and the likes of Oxford educated, husband of Washington Post hack Anne Applebaum, current foreign minister Radek Sikorski (not only did he write this drivel after Thather's death he called for a statue to be erected here in her honour, maybe right next to Reagan's in Warsaw!). Politics have become subordinate to markets and labour to capital, society now serves the economy instead of the other way around.

"All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind."
- Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

It's this last point which is probably the most important connection between Thatcher and life here in Poland, freedom is slavery. Sparked by the Powell Memo in 1971 and lent an aura of intellectual legitimacy by the Chicago Boys, a new economic ideology was propagated through institutional sponsorship: America has the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute while the UK's versions include the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies founded in 1974 by Thatcher's mentor, Keith Joseph. Despite their benign sounding names, these are radical think tanks with almost nothing to do with the likes of Adam Smith who understood something about Moral Sentiments and the dangers of private monopolies and everything to do with Hayek, Friedman and Rand and their belief in extreme individualism or social Darwinism. Nigel Lawsen, Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer from '83 to '89 summarized their economic philosophy, "Economic planning was both impossible and unnecessary. . . . The price mechanism . . . was a much more efficient means of transmitting consumer wants and needs than the vast bureaucracies of Whitehall and the nationalized industries." Selfishness along with ostentation of power and status was in. Culture was ruled over by money, and the idea that those who win by making more of it do so because they are better was not just permitted but ordained.

Profit and capitalism were good while planning, government and taxes were bad. Conveniently this all worked together as in order to lower taxes, public spending had to be lowered which scaled back government by reducing public services, privatizing whatever was possible and deregulating the rest. Inconveniently most voters viewed the government as subsidizing essential public services, ensuring economic security and helping families in need. The trick therefore was to create a backlash against government waste, resentment against public subsidies to those who were less hard working than themselves and place the blame for inflation on greedy unions. Notice the success as the issue of benefit fraud, which costs the UK about £1.2 billion yearly is a far more emotive topic than tax avoidance, which costs about £70 billion a year. Voters also needed to be convinced that what was taken from the state was being given to them thus enhancing individual economic freedom and unshackling the wealth creators, allowing the wealth to trickle down on everyone. The only valid idealism was to destroy the state by, as Lawson continued, "elevating private actions above public direction and dismissing ‘social justice’ as both vague and arbitrary." Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons - that's philosophy.

Thatcher was swept into power on a perfect storm of global inflation emanating from the US pushing up world prices, IMF imposed austerity in exchange for loans to support the value of sterling after Britain's 1976 foreign exchange crisis which made it impossible to finance the modernization of public industries as it would increase the PSBR (Public Sector Borrowing Requirement), and finally, well, strikes and weather, otherwise known as Britain's Winter of Discontent. Yes, a public sector strike during an unusually cold winter ground the country to a halt, literally, as roads went unsalted, hospital patients were denied treatment and garbage piled up in the streets. Labour, who had tied themselves to those striking unions, found themselves with their hands also tied behind their back. Thatcher picked and chose her battles with labour wisely and pursued a step-by-step program of trade union reform before ultimately crushing them in the '84-'85 coal miners' strike. There was indeed no alternative to the monetarist Thatcherism which created an employers' market by imposing chronic under-employment and shifting enterprise out of the unionized public sector to newly privatized, non-unionized enterprises; Marks and Spencer had triumphed over Marx and Engels.

Ironically, or perhaps just calculatingly mercenary, while destroying unions and solidarity at home she was lionized by Solidarność (Solidarity) in Poland, actually being mobbed by dockworkers in Gdynia when she visited in 1988. If you've gotten this far in reading it hopefully means you realize I understand there was a difference between unions in the UK and Poland, after all, in Poland the military used to shoot striking miners dead. Given the trade unions' role in the democratization of Poland it is curious that Poland today has among the lowest unionization rates in Europe as from 1982 until 2005 membership fell from 80% to below 14% (only  2.4% for employees under the age of 25). There are myriad of factors at play here, from the many mistakes made by the unions themselves, a massive shift of the workforce from traditional industries and sectors such as mining and steel, and the privatization of many formerly public, union dominated industries, but it was the pernicious effects of Thatcherism on human psychology that seem the greatest factors. The transformation of the full-employment ideals of post-WWII society to an economic system based on chronic un- and underemployment has made many afraid of forming or joining a union along with the societal appeal to the narrowest self-interest of individuals having gained the upper hand over the feeling of brotherhood and the desire to work for the collective good.

Thatcherism also slowly shifted the balance of power from labour to capital through tax and monetary policy, privatization and deregulation. She managed to destroy more than 2 million jobs in two years, an astonishing figure considering unemployment only breached 1 million in 1978 before reaching 3.5 million by 1983. Her monetarism lowered everyone's taxes a bit and 'simplified' the fiscal system by regressively shifting taxes away from wealth onto consumers via sales taxes, excise taxes and the value-added tax. With public institutions being starved by austerity, privatization was the only way to modernize. "Popular capitalism", spreading ownership as widely as possible, would serve the double purpose of making it difficult to re-nationalize in the future plus giving the public skin in the game, giving workers a stake in preserving the value of the shares they held in these enterprises. The discipline of the market would make British industry more competitive but its effect along with deregulation of the financial industry, the 'Right to Buy' scheme of 1980 and the 'Big Bang' of 1986 simply handed over complete control of the British economy to the square mile in the heart of London, the City.

Privatization, which started tentatively in her first term with British Aerospace and Cable & Wireless, had reached fever pitch by her second reelection: Jaguar, British Telecom, Britoil, British Gas, British Steel, British Petroleum, Rolls Royce, British Airways. Her fourth term (well, John Major's first) saw British Rail hit the auction block. By the time the Conservatives were voted out of office in 1997 by one of the largest margins in history it had become clear to the public that there were some side-effects to the medicine they were being forced to take. Prices hadn't declined along with productivity gains in some areas while they had jumped for essential services like water whose systems were breaking down or shifted against residential consumers in favor of large industrial users in the case of electricity. Services had been cut back, privatized companies were engaging in monopoly practices and to add insult to injury economic inequality had widened with the shrinkage in the industrial labor force and stagnating real wages while profits soared for the privatized companies and the City fleeced the government for underwriting fees and began gambling in earnest thanks to the newfound market freedom. Thatchers reply? "Let us glory in our inequality."

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."
- H.L. Mencken, A Little Book in C Major

Pity the Poles for having gained their freedom at the height of Thatcherism, imagine how different the future would look had it been in, say, 1968? As it was, having been tried and tested by Thatcher's buddy Pinochet in Chile, the Chicago Boys idea of "Shock Therapy" came to Poland in the person of Leszek Balcerowicz in 1989 under the guidance of Harvard's Jeffery Sachs backed by the muscle of the IMF. Doubtless, drastic measures were called for to make the huge transition that was complicated by the fact Poland was an economic basket case, with debt of $40 billion and inflation running at 600%. Also doubtless, the Balcerowicz plan was a success when compared to the results achieved in some other Eastern bloc nations. Forgotten though is the doublethink trick achieved of forcing a now 'free' democratic nation to trade off part of the debts incurred by a totalitarian regime it had never voted for in return for selling off state assets at discount prices for the benefit of foreigners and those highly place communists who were quick enough to convert to the new religion. Who cares if it was completely undemocratic, Balcerowicz termed it "extraordinary politics" while Michnik warned that the common people or "rank and file...irrational hotheads [were] incapable of recognizing the limits and realities of the real world". Those in position to do so stripped all the assets they could, a $1 billion stabilization loan (aren't numbers from the olden days quaint?) was arranged, large blocks of shares of privatized assets were placed in the hands of banks and Poland was absorbed into the global slavery debt trap.

The only goal of the IMF/Sachs/Balcerowicz policies was to ensure payments continued to flow west on the $40 billion in illegitimate foreign hard currency debt (what would be called odious debt today). Much of that debt had been incurred in 1979 when rates in London and New York increased 300% under the policies of, you guessed it, Margaret Thatcher and US Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. By the end of '91, Polish unemployment had reached 2 million, industrial production was 66% of the '89 level at the end of '92 and as 1993 closed 2.8 million were unemployed and 50% of families with 3 or more children were living below the poverty line. Little wonder that elections held in September of 1993 saw the the pro-IMF government of Hanna Suchocka replaced by a raft of coalition parties with direct ties to the communist regime. Predictably, as inequality elsewhere surpasses levels unseen since the roaring '20s, the new grand bourgeoisie that has emerged here has combined old bureaucrats, new managers and a burgeoning entrepreneurial class; a situation reminiscent of Poland in the 1920s. Perhaps the best symbols of what Poland got in return for the misery, organized crime, and debt-based slavery brought by the 'reforms' are Galeria Mokotów (Mokotów Mall) in Warsaw and Stary Browar (Old Brewery). The former, a shopping center built in place of a demolished semiconductor factory, cuz, you know, who needs those in a modern economy when you can create another black hole to suck wealth out of the local economy, and the latter a mall built on bribery (Polish link) and murder involving the richest man in Poland.

"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
- Anatole France, Le Lys Rouge (The Red Lilly)

Ah yes, the riches and glory promised to Poland are coming but as in the rest of the world more and more disproportionately to those at the top of the income scale. It would take a figure  stronger than Thatcher to convince Poles they are on the wrong course though as they are pumped through the indoctrination centers that are the education system. They emerge believing they have free will and as unquestioning of the free-market god as their forefathers were in the Catholic one unaware that one believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them; soma is simply Christianity without tears. The trains are slow, late and chaotic not because they're being sold off piecemeal on EU orders which is creating the disarray, but because it's not fully privatized like the UK's, who cares about their disastrous experience. The long waits at NFZ have nothing to do with it being underfunded, the public health care system isn't a blessing but a curse as promoting preventative medicine instead of the Americanized version of health for profit resulting in worse health outcomes and higher costs must be better as it's the path the Cameron government is choosing as they privatize the NHS by stealth. Oh, and don't worry Polish kids, it's only a matter of time until the course laid in leads to a completely privatized American-style college system of trillion dollar debt slavery before you've even entered the workforce. Just ask any 20-year-old Brit what it's like

Would the UK and Poland be much different if Thatcher had never been? Maybe not seeing as even the EU, the institution that most separates Maggie and Poland, has become nothing more than a glorified debt collector/pusher a fact not lost on most Poles as they become more disenchanted with the concept as their democracy ages just as Thatcher did. Even the Iron Lady, as she mentions in her autobiography, was caught off guard at how much she came to rely on the financial manipulators, how little she was able to control them and the scale of those bankers' greed; she convinced us to sell the family silver for the benefit of the rentiers who perceived the Thatchers and Friedmans as pawns, well-meaning promoters wrapping austerity economics in populist garb. Unfortunately, the deleterious social effects of the inequality caused by growing GDP through financialization of the economy, empowering those banks and other corporations to pursue profit without paying the price for wrongdoing and turning people into consumer zombies takes years to measure and decades to be felt. Trillions in wealth will continue to by siphoned out of the productive economy while we are forced to run faster and faster just to keep up and are convinced that our phone has somehow made us smarter. Yet while there is always time to get off the tracks before the train hits there's not much chance of heeding the warning the more we come to rely on those who profit from us being run over.