Poland Before Capitalism

Pre-free market chic. Poland, 2006.

Poland is a country in where no one really knows how much the dollar is worth.

The government officially assesses it at 200 zlotys, the black market puts it at three to four times more, and the weekly VETO predicts that the black-market rate of the dollar will reach 1,000 zlotys.

This disparity between the views of the government and the black-marketeers is only ostensible, however, because it is the government which sets the black-market rate (to a certain limit, at least), namely by the price of vodka in PEWEX.

When a half-litre of vodka in PEWEX costs $1 and this same alcohol in an ordinary shop costs 600, 700 or more zlotys, then, we know, as a rule, what the rate is.

On the other hand, which is another example of the singularity of our foreign-exchange market, our dollar does not react at all to the fluctuations of the American and world economy, or to global policy.

One crash after another may occur on Wall Street, the Japanese may go wild, international conferences may succeed or fail, but everything which normally produces convulsions on world markets is accepted here with stoic calm, on the principle that it does not concern us at all. It simply does not affect our game with the “green.”

This occurs because our dollar game is as much economic in character as it is psychological. A cab-driver at Okecie airport may refuse to haul a passenger for a 600- or 700-zlotys fare, but he will willingly take him for a dollar.

The black-market rate of the dollar is absurd when applied to our restaurant prices, for example, because nowhere in the world can 5 people eat a good dinner for $14, yet for 10,000 zlotys this same party can wine and dine at the Forum or Victoria hotel.

But it is commonly believed that $14 is better than 10,000 zlotys. This same conversion produces paralysis in Polish tourists going abroad: Breakfast for 3,500 zlotys! Dinner for 7,000!

Industrial goods brought in from the West and converted into zlotys by the black-market rate, in turn, result in incredible zlotys prices, called “contractual,” but which no one entered into any contract for.

The psychological role of the dollar is attributed not just to the search for stability, because the dollar does not fall, particularly in our country, the way our domestic currency does.

Nor is it based exclusively on the search for more freedom, i.e., the freedom to travel or to make purchases in the domestic currency. The dollar is a status symbol.

Franek Kimono, in one of his songs, wanting to compliment his lady friend, said, “I see that the evening gown you have has been purchased with dollars.”

This does not mean that the lady had travelled abroad and was a woman of the world. Her fashionable look was the result of one trip to PEWEX, but, nevertheless, it put her into another prestige class 00 – the dollar class.

The dollar is a deeply demoralising factor in our everyday life. It is an instrument of division into better and worse, equal and more equal.

It takes enormous ability to teach children that they should be proud of our thousand years of history, Boleslaw the Bold, or Bishop Szczepancwski — whoever you wish – and the Horedelska Union, when they cannot buy Lego doughnuts or Matchbox toys with domestic currency.

Over two years ago, in one of his articles, Artur Sandauer, showed the extent to which the dollar has had a comforting influence on our literate.

It has created two circulations and, at the same time, two groups of criteria by which works are judged. We pay in dollars for some works and in zlotys for others, and we do not pay for a real, honest and impartial description of reality in either of these currencies.

A writer, sitting down to his desk, knows in advance for idiom he is writing, either for the domestic market or for export (and this may also be “domestic export”, in the form of the so-called “second circulation”).

In a completely ludicrous way, literature — as are all areas about which I am writing — monopolised by strict state patronage, nevertheless gave a better opportunity to write something real, because everyone tried to get a gram of truth past the official censors guarding the gates to a sole publisher. Now, this effort is unnecessary.

Any considerations about the dollar, as stated here, are obviously completely abstract and are really more a contribution to the history of customs than a call for any kind of practical action.

I would encourage, however, that the dollar be looked upon as still one more — not unimportant — measure of the evolution of our life. We can learn a great deal about ourselves by taking a more careful look at our “dollar game”.

I know that there is no lack of people whose solution to all of our problems is to shut down, ban or eliminate. That is their solution to trade and private production, to financial inequality, and doubtless to foreign-exchange policy.

It is sometimes said that this expresses justified anger, but I do not understand why this justified anger must also be stupid, as if these angry people do not remember that at one time everything which did not correspond to the doctrinal plan had to be shut down, banned and eliminated and then we had
to face deeper and deeper crises.

All in all, the present “dollar game,” with all of its strangeness and its moral side effects—which should not be ignored—is good for all of those involved. It is in the interest of the state treasury, supplying it with free foreign—exchange for the conduct of payment maneuvres with the haste which our circumstances dictate.

It lies in the interest of civic freedom, which even if bought by dollars are freedoms nevertheless.

The elimination of anything in this regard would strike a blow at welfare (collective, granted) and freedoms (collective, of course).

On the other hand, a real end to the “dollar game” may come about only through universal welfare and the universal
freedoms ensuing from it.

Unfortunately, regardless from which end we begin, the endpoint is always the same.

Adapted from Playing the Dollar Game (Polityka, 1986). Translated by the Defense Technical Information Center. Photograph courtesy of Tulio Bertorini. Published under a Creative Commons license.