THE PRIVATE POLAND - Reviews
Osteuropa-Wirtschaft (München), December 1987: p. 351
Janine Wedel: The Private Poland. Facts on File Publications, New York - Oxford, England 1986, 230 p. £12.95
"I sang in a Polish country music group and toured the countryside, performing for and later toasting with country and town folk, who had often come to see their first American." That is the beginning of an unconventional book on the Polish society today. Janine WEDEL is a young American anthropologist who spent several years (between 1977 and 1984) in Poland. In seven chapters she gives a profound analysis of the Polish society. In essence her findings are that there is a lack of institutional and formalized, non-personal exchange of goods, services, and opinions as it exists in developed Western industrial countries. The Polish society is a system of private social arrangements within families, groups of close friends and acquaintances (milieu-środowisko).
The book begins with the keen distinction between private and public worlds in Poland. The big gap between family and nation is not bridged by institutions to whom people could give their trust and loyalty. Therefore the Poles live two lives, a public and a private one: the character of public life is of a ritual, that of private life of a personal nature. "One moral code is reserved for the private world of family and friends, another one for the public."
In the second chapter everyday life in Poland is depicted in detail. The main efforts of people in Poland are spent on making private arrangements (załatwić sprawy), that means using family members, close friends and acquaintances to get hold of scarce goods, services, passports, information etc. Making private arrangements requires knowledge of this etiquette of załatwić. The author minutely observed the elements of the etiquette - the key words, the personal behaviour. The means of these private arrangements is not primarily money: in the third chapter - 'The ties that bind' - the author describes the character of the exchange among individual persons.
To my (an economist's) mind, this chapter is the key section of the book. Here we can grasp the difference between the Polish society - which is not that of a Third World country, and yet in many ways resembles it - and a Western market economy society. Let me cite some key sentences from this chapter: "As Ala expressed it: Five years without znajomości (acquaintance) would be the biggest punishment in Poland." "Exchanges among friends and acquaintances are not simple barter transactions, They entail a system of obligations, often ongoing. People cultivate mutual indebtedness that can be used in the future." "The debts people owe each other are deliberately unspecific." "People are loyal to one another for favors, and it is precisely these loyalities and the implicit trust they entail that perpetuate the system of private arrangements." "Privatization is so firmly rooted in their lives that public interest groups do not create a rallying point for loyalties."
To sum up, it appears that the rural origin of most Poles and the Soviet-type economy have created a specific form of social behaviour. To survive one has to make social arrangements; to make social arrangements one has to accept social commitments and to look for occasions of putting people of one's milieu (środowisko) in a position of indebtedness vis-a-vis oneself. Reforms would destroy this system of private arrangements and replace it by a non-personal system of exchange. But the Polish social consciousness, firmly rooted in private arrangements, counteracts all efforts of reform. It is precisely these roots that make the implementation of economic and political reform so dill: cult. In further chapters the author deals with the question "Who to believe" (censorship-self censorship, grapevines), and personal adjustment processes.
The book is a brilliant account of contemporary Polish society, illustrated by many well chosen examples from the author's own firsthand experience. Probably it is one of the best publications on the topic. It may be especially useful to people who have already visited Poland and who will, read it, recognize and better understand many elements of Polish life. The book's findings are stimulating also in various other aspects of analysis. from an economic, political, historical or sociological point of view.