Bauman – End of the Orgy

Author: interview by Tomasz Kwasniewski

The repayment of debt is the pressing issue of the day, momentarily, but after all the concern is how to live tomorrow. One way of life is ending and it’s not obvious what the new one is. Interview with Professor Zygmunt Bauman, sociologist and philosopher.

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Published in Polish in Gazeta Wyborcza on 9th February 2009 

Professor Zygmunt Bauman, born in 1925 in Poznań, is a sociologist, philosopher and essayist. One of the founders of the concept of postmodernism, he is the author of many books on the modern world and modern man. In March 1968 he was expelled from the University of Warsaw and emigrated from Poland. He lectured at the universities of Tel Aviv and Haifa before being made Professor Emeritus of the University of Leeds. He lives in Leeds and is married with three daughters and six grandchildren.

Do you have debts?

- I’m a terrible customer for banks, probably thanks to a solid pre-war upbringing in Poznan. This is because I regularly pay back what I have on my credit card and the only debt I’ve incurred in my life, 40 years ago, was a mortgage. I paid this off within 20 years. In those days they gave you a loan only until your retirement; only later everything turned upside down!

Are they still tempting you?

- It stopped recently, but before they used to send a fair amount of junk mail. Day in, day out.

Does your wife have debts?

- We manage our household finances jointly.

Has this crisis affected you personally?

- I’ve never bought stocks, but Jasia, my wife, did - and when the stock market crashed she lost half of her life savings.

Did this affect you badly?

- I told our children long ago: don’t count on inheritance! Your parents won’t burden you with debts, but will leave you nothing except the house and copyrights. And for us - how much longer do we have?

I meant personal consequences for you, since thankfully I don’t feel this crisis at the moment.

- Because it’s won’t happen until it gathers momentum. The consequences of the 1929 stock-market crash which caused the depression lingering throughout the 1930s only became clear three or four years later. Then the mass unemployment and bankruptcies started.

The crisis is spreading like a wave. Shops will close, which will bankrupt small companies, people will lose their jobs, their earnings, stop spending money and stop being the consumers who drive the economy…

Do you have any recollection of the crisis in the 1930s?

- My father attempted suicide. He threw himself off a bridge into the Warta but they fished him out.

This is my first childhood memory. The first and only, because you generally don’t remember things that happened before you were six or seven. But I won’t forget that: rushing to the door, my father on a stretcher covered in river weeds, dripping with water.

Why did he jump?

- Because he’d lost everything.

Despite the fact that he was about as good at it as I would be, he was at that time a shopkeeper. He went bankrupt and his creditors took everything. I remember them taking the furniture from our flat. The bailiff was a frequent visitor.

But when word got around Poznań that my father had attempted suicide he was given work as a bookkeeper out of mercy. The money was lousy, he was treated pretty poorly and humiliated, but somehow he managed to support us.

Did he ever explain his attempted suicide?

- Can you not understand suicidal people?

Perhaps, but I would like to know how your father explained it to his children.

- It was never spoken about, but I attempt to reconstruct it for myself. Back then there was the concept of the “man of the house”, which is considered old fashioned these days. He had a wife and two children, he had to earn enough for their food, shoes, schooling. If he couldn’t, he was a nobody, a good-for-nothing creature, and his life would have been worthless. If he was not in a position to protect his wife and children from hunger and humiliation, he was contemptible.

Do your children have debts?

- One daughter adheres to her father’s principles and doesn’t get into debt “for a better life”. However her architectural company, until now awash with orders, is in debt, but these are investment debts and she can certainly repay them.

My second daughter is an artist, and like all artists she lives from hand to mouth. I can say with some certainty that she doesn’t live beyond her means.

My third daughter is a normal academic, works at two universities and has just about enough money to get by from one monthly cheque to another.

Did you ever ask your children whether they were in debt?

- They’ve never been inclined towards getting into debt. It’s different with my grandchildren – they’re up to their ears in debt. This is because they’re quick learners. Some time ago in England an obligatory subject was introduced into universities: living with debts. Who knows if it will be like this in Poland.

You’re joking surely?

- I hope so. When I arrived, the state supported students. There were no tuition fees but there were study grants and student accommodation instead, you could even afford the books recommended by your teachers. Then all this was replaced by “cheap” student credit: study now and pay later. This is what I call the introduction of “living with debts” training into the obligatory curriculum.

The idea of student loans is based on the same erroneous principle as was the mortgage loan policy. The latter assumed that house prices will constantly go up, and first assumes that anyone with a diploma will get a lucrative job. Now it’s becoming apparent that it doesn’t have to be this way at all. This years British graduates, up to their ears in debt, may find themselves unemployed.

So let’s talk about the crisis.

- In England they don’t talk about a crisis, just about a depression. Do they talk about a crisis in Poland?

Definitely.

- This tends to be avoided here.

What is the difference?

- A depression is something which has its place in normal frame of things. Not that a train has derailed and overturned – it just speeded up at first, then it slowed down, but it still stays on the rails.

And what does crisis mean?

- In a crisis people stand helplessly by and expect the worst. This is how it was in 1929. Each day banks closed, they didn’t pay deposits, people lost their fortunes and their savings in the space of a single day. This isn’t the case today. The government gets hold of billions, I don’t know where from, but it gets it and gives it to banks. So apart from Lehman, no large bank which has raised the alarm over bankruptcy has actually gone bankrupt.

Admittedly there are more and more small bankruptcies, but these aren’t reported in the press. With a few exceptions these are still bankruptcies of small workshops, shops, small factories with a couple of employees. It will take some time until, as the English say, many a pickle makes a mickle…

And do you think about what is happening, is it a crisis or a depression?

- I think that in some ways it’s a bigger crisis than in 1929.

Why?

- Because – to quote Soros – an extraordinarily big bubble has burst and it’s not easy to patch it up. The attempts to “return to normality” adopted by politicians are not of great use. There probably is no way back, whereas it’s not clear what may replace the previous “normality”.

If you look closely at what has happened, there is no historical precedent. “Normality” itself has been struck down and even the fairy-tale trillions in government aid cannot get it back on its feet again.

What does this crisis consist of?

- In thought, just as in dancing, as the Polish proverb says, I know how to start only from the oven… So before I reach the dance floor I’m going to ask you two questions. The first: do you know the word “hypotrichosis”?

No.

- And there’s nothing strange about that. That word appeared in vocabulary some three months ago and denotes a new, recently discovered medical complaint: what happens if your eyelashes become weak, stop growing, and then fall out.

The “discovery” of hypotrichosis is connected with what we’re talking about because news about this terrible disease, which every woman who cares about herself and her social position should declare war on, appeared at the same time as an advertisement for a large pharmaceutical company called Allergan. Does this name mean anything to you?

It seems they make botox.

- Yes, so this company which has earned millions of dollars from botox announced that it has discovered an amazing weapon in the war against hypotrichosis – an ointment to be applied daily. In other words they came across some substance in the laboratory and wondered how to make money from it. Maybe we manage to persuade women to smear it on their eyelids? To do this you need to scare them – with an insidious disease for example.

Something which not too long ago was a ‘part of life’, something to live with – one person has weak eyelashes, someone else full-bodied – suddenly becomes an issue of choice between pathology and health. And if this is a disease and there is a medicine for it, then my duty is to treat myself, because if I don’t treat myself I’m committing a crime against myself, my friends, my family and humanity.

And now my second question. Do you know the old Polish joke about Czech and Polish shoe trade reps who travel to Africa?

No.

- So they’re in Africa and they both send telegrams back to headquarters. The Polish one: no shoes needed, everyone walks around barefoot. The Czech: send 200 million pairs of shoes immediately, everyone walks around barefoot.

Not all that funny.

- Perhaps, but this joke shows two possible approaches to the problem. The alleged Polish rep could be called pre-modern and the alleged Czech modern. From borrowing the strategy of the Czech shoe industry representative, the boom and unprecedented success of the modern capitalist economy followed.

And now to what we’re really talking about.

Rosa Luxemburg – the name has been disowned today in Poland, but not because of her insightful economic theories – she published at the beginning of the 20th century a study of the accumulation of capital. In it she suggested that capitalism by its nature is doomed to commit suicide because it renders barren the fields which feed it. She was writing at the height of imperialist and colonialist tendencies, so naturally she considered this tendency towards suicide in the context of conquering lands with as yet pre-capitalist economies. With enormous simplification we may say that she reasoned as follows: in order to realize the labour-produced surplus value, capitalism needs non-capitalist economies. When the world is already conquered in full and capitalist economy becomes universal, capitalist accumulation will reach its limit.

This is somewhat like the image of a snake eating its own tail: at the beginning food is plentiful, but the more the snake eats the more difficult it becomes to digest it. In the end there is nothing to eat and no-one to do the eating…

This vision as such is still valid, though the colonialism with which Rosa identified it by and large over. Capitalism learnt since to postpone the type of catastrophe Rosa Luxemburg predicted.

How?

- Well, the fact that instead of seeking out virgin lands, capitalism invented something akin to a secondary virginity. It has learnt to manufacture virgin lands.

Like this company Allergan and this condition, hypotrichosis.

- Yes. The example with the barefoot Africans also aptly demonstrates what we’re talking about.

Ok, but what does this have to do with the current crisis?

- When a new product is invented, something which didn’t exist before, we start thinking: where are potential customers? Without them our discovery doesn’t have any value. There aren’t any customers? Well then, let’s concoct something which will turn people into such customers.

Do you have an example?

- Bottled water.

Until quite recently there were hardly any young persons walking the streets who wouldn’t be carrying bottles of water. A few years before, they managed perfectly well without them. When she could still walk, Jasia and I were keen walkers, but it never entered our heads to take a bottle of water even on a ten kilometre walk – after all, we were not walking through Sahara. Not these days, though! Nowadays going out without a bottle of water, the same as without a mobile phone, is as if you’ve gone out without your trousers. Perhaps now, thanks to the shortage of cash, we are about seeing again young people walking without clutching to a water bottle.

But to go back to today’s crisis, this particular bubble; this time the ‘virgin land’ were people taking no loans.

Credit?

- I remember when I was a child – and that was about 80 years ago – my mother sometimes sent me shopping to Landberger Brothers, a German grocery. There was a wonderfully colourful print hanging there on the wall. It depicted two men. At the top a portly elder gentleman lounged in an armchair, his cheeks ruddy cheeks, attire elegant, the paunch large and the cigar in his mouth huge. The caption read “I never bought on credit”. Underneath him, in front of an open safe with only rats inside, a haggard figure was falling from a broken stool, in unshaven and in rags. The caption read “I lived on credit”.

Max Weber thought that the driving force of the fantastic and bewildering economic growth under capitalism was initially the protestant ethic, warning against the pursuit of pleasure and luxury and insisting on delay of gratification. People saved instead of spending their income and thereby, like it or not, inadvertently accumulated capital, which they could use to build new factories, roads, railways and homes instead of wasting it on, still postponed bodily pleasures.

If you borrow for an investment promising a profit greater than the interest you need to pay on the loan, you were virtuous - and if the promise came true you were also a wise person. But heaven forbid if you get into debt to overindulge yourself!

Hence back then bankrupt people committing suicide?

- Exactly.

But some 20 or 30 years ago neo-liberalism – with borrowing/lending as its new virgin lands – swept away what was left of the protestant ethic. Persistently touted credit cards were introduced with the slogan “take the waiting out of wanting”. And the principle which motivated the birth of capitalism was turned on its head.

Where did this change come from?

- From deregulation.

At one time banks had to keep an amount in the safe which would be enough to cover the loans they had granted. Barriers, prohibitions and protection abounded, and they all restricted the freedom of banks in seeking out and producing new virgin lands, including exploiting the revenue potential of credit and debt. In deregulating, neo-liberal governments did not realise what genie they were letting out of the bottle.

But they let it loose and uncovered a new virgin land which no-one had cultivated before: “Let everyone be a debtor”.

But why exactly then?

- First let me tell you something.

There are two absolutely basic values without which a worthy and reasonable life, human life itself, is inconceivable. One of these is freedom, the other is security.

Security without freedom is enslavement, and freedom without security is constant wandering through the unknown, unrelenting anxiety and fear. One value without the other is a nightmare and only together do they create a decent life.

The snag is, Tomasz, that to reconcile them is extremely difficult. The more security we acquire, the more freedom we have to give up. And the more freedom we gain, the more we feel as juggling high close to the ceiling, but with no safety net underneath.

If we analyse the history of modern times from this point of view, then it would appear that the forms of social coexistence which have been discovered, tested, condemned and praised in history differ in the proposed ways of balancing freedom and security. However it is my conviction that no society has found a golden mean.

This is why at the end of the day we arrive at two conclusions.

The first: that such golden mean does not exist.

The second: we are never going to stop looking for it.

Thankfully.

- If it is as I say, then progress in the sense of making human life happier, cosier and fuller and at the same time exciting is a lot more reminiscent of a pendulum than a straight line.

The first 30 years after the war were, so to speak, a period of yearning to be drawn close to each other, of people seeking refuge in a common embrace. People wanted to feel safe after the upheaval of the war. This is one factor, not the only, because memories of pre-war times, of unemployment, depression, crisis, humiliation and wasted chances also added to the appeal of security.

One more factor was that which Jürgen Habermas expounded in his work “Legitimation Crisis”. At this time everyone, regardless of whether right- or left-wing, wanted to introduce that which in Poland is called the protective state, in England the welfare state and in France the providence state, but which I prefer to call the social state. In a word almost everyone, regardless of their views, wanted to create a state in which people knew that if they lost their footing and fell then a helping hand would pick them up again.

So I understand that at this time the pendulum had swung towards security?

- Yes, but please don’t forget that at this time it was a society of producers. Above all a person was a producer of goods, not a consumer of them. The importance and power of nations was measured by the number of efficient, healthy, literate and well-clothed workers housed in tolerable conditions and with access to medical care, because a large and fit labour force meant flourishing economy. And (please remember that in those days there were no professional armies) it meant also powerful armed forces.

Ford’s workers were dependent on Ford, without whom they would not have had the means to live. But just the same Ford was dependent on his workers, because without them he wouldn’t have his wealth. He couldn’t pack up his factory like today and unpack it, let’s say, in China. Dependence was mutual and as it was meant to last for ever, it was like most marriages: there was a good deal of arguments and infighting, but also mutual awareness that there was a need to reach agreement, to compromise, to find a passable way to live together. And so Ford had to reach an agreement with his employees and they with him.

It was on these self-same conditions of mutual need that investment in local medical services, in pensions, schools and in cheap housing was seen by the capital owners as good investment. Because every spend penny pays for itself. A workforce treated this way grows in quality, produces better things than elsewhere, and beats the competition.

So what happened?

- The pendulum swung as far as it could. The majority felt secure, and if we feel secure we stop understanding what all those limitations and sacrifices are for. Why those strict regulations controlling health and safety at work? Why can’t I sack workers at will? Why the hell do I have to pay for those nurseries, healthcare services or cheap housing?

The same happened on the side of the workers. They felt so secure that they forgot how at one time when they were taken ill they either recovered on their own or died, because there wasn’t money for a doctor. They began to ask: why do I have to go to the doctor I’m told to go to? Many pricked up their ears when Margaret Thatcher thundered “I want to go to the doctor when I want, and to one I want”.

Why did people not want guarantees of security?

- I was lecturing in Sweden just before the elections in which the Swedes dismissed empty handed the Social Democrats who had been in government for 40 years. I spoke to Swedish intellectuals and tried in every way possible to find out why they were unsympathetic towards the Social Democrat government. I heard in reply that they couldn’t send their child to the school of their choosing, only to the one that had been prescribed, and that this limited them. So I asked: imagine that the regulations change and you can do this. Would you take your child away from the school at which it  studies now? No, not at all, it’s an excellent school. Then what are you talking about? You don’t understand anything! I’m talking about freedom of choice!

And this, Tomasz, is exactly how the pendulum suddenly began to swing the other way. Actually. this change in direction was to a significant extent an effect of the magnificent success of the welfare state. That state cared so well that people began to feel secure enough to kick away the ladder they had climbed up to reach this state of bliss.

Just like children!

- Today we’re reaching the other extreme: the limit of dreams about freedom. People are beginning to think about someone taking a little of this freedom and in exchange giving a more reliable safety-net protecting against the darker effects of the tightrope-walking to which their freedom is condemned. Just as that opposite tendency years ago, today’s tendency stands above the division into left and right. Even vehement followers of neo-conservatism or – as you wish – neo-liberalism, are suddenly becoming advocates of the welfare state.

Do you think they turn to the government for loans?

- These aren’t loans. This is surreptitious nationalisation. For billions of dollars governments are buying the right to intervene and to interfere with issues which at one time were closely guarded by the self-interest of capitalists.

So as I understand it the mood is more or less: we have debts, we can’t manage, do something for us.

- What’s more: on our own, without your, you who govern us, help, we are unable to fix what we’ve broken.

But this expression isn’t a result of the failure of neo-liberal economic or social policy. Completely the opposite, its an effect of its triumph!

So we get back to the slogan: “Let everyone be a debtor”?

- Yes, because this time it was the people who up to now have not got into debt and were not inclined to spend money which they couldn’t earn, who were recycled into a new ‘virgin land’ for capitalist exploitation. Because so many people are not used to take loans, print immediately a couple of million credit cards and ten million flyers offering tempting bank loans.

In centuries gone by, money lenders wanted their money paid back, and on time. Gangs operating in the 30s had armies of hired thugs to beat up those who didn’t pay back debts on time and murder those who didn’t pay at all. However for the last 20 years banks have distanced themselves from debtors rushing to repay the money. What they want instead is that repayment of interest by people who are perpetually in debt be a constant source of rising revenues. A person who quickly and in full repays his loan is useless. Worse, he portends lost revenue chance.

What has happened now is that this successive virgin land has been exhausted and rendered barren.

Which means?

- Do you know what a “sub-mortgage” is?

I’ve heard something or other but I’m sure you will explain it better.

- ‘Sub-mortgage’ is great American invention made 20 years ago. The point is that loans to buy flats and houses can be granted also to poor people without any credit credentials on the assumption that if new crowds of people seeking homes run onto the housing market, demand for houses will shot up, and so will house prices. The interest on loans which sub-mortgage clients are not able to repay will be covered by the increase in the value of housing.

How?

- You say that you can’t repay your mortgage? We will increase then the mortgage loan! Your home is worth now more than it was when you took out the first loan. The increased debt will be even harder to repay? Don’t worry. If the need arises, we’ll give you yet another loan. A variant of the infamous ‘pyramid selling’…

But even a pyramid can also collapse if it’s built on fragile foundations. And that’s exactly what happened. At the beginning credit was pushed on everyone who qualified for it so only those who didn’t qualify were left in the pool, and even they were turned into permanent debtors and the bubble burst with a great big bang.

And with the bang came fear. Fear which constantly accompanies the cultivation of this credit. Fear which until now had been held in check by ever-increasing credit opportunities.

- The problem lies in the fact that today’s fear differs from the fears that beset our ancestors. Our forefathers knew that when children leave home wolves threaten them, that if there’s no cloud in the sky then there will be a drought. They knew what to be afraid of.

Today’s fears are diffuse and scattered. They loom and linger outside the field of our vision – they fly from one place to another in a flash. The most fearsome of fears is the fear of the unknown. When I don’t know where from catastrophe may fall, I feel not only afraid but in addition humiliated: I’m a fool, ignorant, naïve, I am vulnerable on all sides, I can’t fence for myself, I can’t make myself ready for the fray. Which we unconsciously desire the most is to know the reasons for our fear.

I understand that at the moment fear is focussed on unemployment…

- … in the UK it’s being reported that within a year there are supposed to be 3 million jobless. This is also the first time in 40 or 50 years when there will be an army of young unemployed with higher education.

And what will happen then?

- Before the banking crisis there was a murmur around the world that the price of food is increasing. It was written and said that it could lead to hunger riots. What kind of riots are these young intelligent people without jobs going to cause?

Until now our value was, in a large part, based on our possessions. How will it be now?

- I don’t know this yet, because Tomasz, as I’ve repeated may times, I’m not a prophet.

Do you not have an impression that it is already happening today? That something other than what we possess will become valued? People are increasingly beginning to talk about family, about health, about education as about something which has real value.

- There are still wider issues. For example the ecological situation. Very many people are seriously concerned about this, but drive to ecology conventions and conferences in their own cars. In fact the first victim of the credit slump was the demand for ecologically friendly, and therefore more expensive, goods.

But yes, you’re right, perhaps there will by a turning point in this sequence of routine thought and action. It won’t be easy though. My grandson accumulated more than 40 thousand pounds worth of debt during his studies. It was instilled in him that he would repay the debt with high wages, and if needs be with more credit. Although he hasn’t been affected by redundancies yet, both suggestions seem more and more nebulous to him.

To put it another way, he’s now in pretty dire straits.

What do these dire straits consist of?

- Of the fact that, like so many others, he’s in a situation of psychological instability.

You can’t switch from one philosophy of life to another in the space of one night. It’s not easy to give up believing in something that is so deeply instilled in us. And it’s at exactly this moment that two philosophies of life collide.

Which two philosophies have collided?

- One is to attempt to seek further credit, the second is to escape from credit, that is to tighten one’s belt.

To put it another way, the culture of the savings book and the culture of the credit card have met head on. Two opposite cultures.

In my youth you were taught to save for a flat, for a car. If you want a car, get a saving account at PKO[1]! If you want a flat, get another saving account at PKO!

Then came the era of the credit card, when young people were lured and forced into debt. If you love your country, do stimulate the economy! In other words, spend more money. If you don’t have any, then borrow and spend. These days young people are indoctrinated with such ideas. And then suddenly they come up against realities which until this point had only been associated with a long bygone era.

What could the reaction be?

- Psychologists call this condition cognitive dissonance and say that as it occurs it increases the likelihood of irrational reactions. Evolution has created us as logically thinking creatures, so we feel helpless when confronting two injunctions which cannot be reconciled.

The ethologist Konrad Lorenz once conducted experiments with a three-spined stickleback fish, a species in which the male builds a nest then leads a female into it, she lays eggs, he fertilises them, chases the female away and stands guard until the young are hatched. If another male stickleback appears near the nest, the guard assumes an attacking posture and the intruder flees. If a stickleback guarding a nest strays into the territory of another stickleback, they exchange reactions. Out of this game of chasing and fleeing the boundary line between two territories around the nests is drawn.

In Lorenz’s experiment two pairs of sticklebacks were placed in an aquarium whose volume was too small to accommodate territorial needs of two nests.

So what happened?

- The two males went mad. Literally. As they saw each other they buried their heads in the sandy bottom of the aquarium like ostriches, with their tails in the air. Irrational behaviour it was, because in no way could it contribute to the solution of the dilemma.

People are more clever, more inventive than stickleback, so they rather take the solution of Aesop’s fox who could not reach the tasty grapes. Having determined that his legs were too short to climb up, he announced: oh well, never mind, they’re surely sour. And then, contemptuously, strolled off…

The problem is that others must also agree that these grapes really are sour!

- Tendencies to opt out of this or that part of freedom are growing. The state is guaranteeing loans and investments. It demands that creditors do not hurry sending bailiffs with eviction orders. It encounters resistance, but at the moment all agree that without some curbs there’s no way out.

Everybody is supposed to agree and really do everything so that things can be like they were. Governments pump billions into the system because they hope it’s going to reboot, and that people also somehow don’t throw away their credit cards.

- Because it’s not easy to rid yourself of old habits. But that these old habits are also outdated and ineffective, will become more and more obvious and harder to ignore

In your books you say that modern people are so mobile and ready to change their way of life, but at the moment none of this is visible.

- We’re attached to avoiding attachments... To turning backs to the past and starting anew. The snag at the moment is that there are no agencies able to initiate and see through another start, another beginning.

So perhaps it seems that it is worth growing attached to something, to have something constant.

- We’re talking here about something more…

In my opinion the novelty we will have to get accustomed to will be the rediscovery of the value of constancy.

In recent years the imperative was to throw away the old in order to buy something new. Why should I be bound to something or someone when day in, day out better mobile phones, better computers, younger and more smartly dressed women appear? Why take a vow of faithfulness and tie my own hands?

The main principle was: don’t close any option. Keep all your options open, so that going back remains a possibility and nothing done has been done once and for all.

It will be necessary to “disaccustom” ourselves from this - from a life as a sequence of throwaways. It will be necessary to become accustomed, once more, to a life of collecting things and caring for what has been already collected.

Why did people not come to their own conclusions that they should cease with this incessant indebtedness?

- I wouldn’t have asked that question, because it is an affront to the accused. After all the entire world was hammering into their heads that way of living was just fine, it was cool. Don’t worry. When the GDP statistics fell, the Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer went public to call on people to buy more. The formula was that the country can get out of the depression if they manage to mobilise consumers.

Patriotism manifested itself in buying more. And buying more meant borrowing, because after all wages weren’t rising at the same rate as GDP. If all the economics experts, political experts, environmental experts, experts in the art of competition – well-nigh all authorities, were urging you to spend, spend, spend, there was no room for doubts…

But everyone knows at least one person who came a cropper and fell into a spiral of debt.

- You know an old saying that if a thousand people rebel this is a revolution, and if one does then he’s a fool. It’s the same with this. Someone always comes a cropper.

A loser.

- A fool, a bungler, a layabout, an idler, there are a thousand ‘explanations’, but what’s interesting – all those explanations point to the character faults of the victims and the failures. No mentioning of social causes…

In today’s individualistic society we create problems together, but we are supposed to solve them individually, deploying individual ingenuity, perceptiveness, energy, diligence and our own privately held means. In short: if you’re successful it’s because you’re a good person, and if you fail it’s because you are bad. If you take a goof look of yourself then surely you’ll find the fault and negligence which responsible for your defeat.

How has the language of politicians changed in relation to the crisis?

- At the moment they’ve stopped urging people to buy. They are promising help with repayments for the recent retail frenzy. They are promising that they won’t let harm come to the victims of the credit orgy, although at the moment they’re actually helping banks and not victims.

Besides, it’s not enough for Gordon Brown to promise the British that the politicians wouldn’t let them be evicted. The repayment of debt is the pressing issue of the moment, but a matter of real concern is how to live tomorrow.

An Englishman has a wallet full of credit cards and is used to the fact that if he wants something he can have it now. The snag is that in the future he won’t be able to continue that habit. One way of life is now ending and it’s not obvious what the new one night be.

Which means?

- Imagine if suddenly some global virus destroyed all television sets.

A tragedy!

- Well exactly. No one would know what to do in the evenings, a new means for filling free time would need to be worked out. Perhaps it would be necessary to re-learn how the family may stand around a harpsichord, one working hard on the fiddle, a second singing, a third blowing a flute? And perhaps – who knows – even return to the custom of sitting to dinner around the family table to jointly consumed jointly cooked food, instead of each one grabbing a beefburger from a wrapper brought in from a fast food outlet, locking himself in his room and disappearing on the internet.

A very optimistic prediction.

Not a prediction, just musing. All the time you push me in a direction I don’t want to go in. I’m not a prophet, I don’t make predictions.

Have you gone through any crisis?

- You ask me? I do not even mention Jasia, because at first I was shot at by Germans to shoot at them for a change afterwards, while she spent years a mere step away from gas chambers. But already together, we’ve survived two emigrations and each time it was necessary to learn from scratch how to live.

The first ten years in England were terribly difficult for me. When a new head comes to a department there’s always anxiety among the ‘old hands’: they don’t know what to expect from the stranger. I however was not an ordinary stranger, but a stranger multiplied: I hadn’t just come from another university, but from another culture, language, tradition. Many reasons to make my new colleagues suspicious. I had an impression that when I said spade, they suspected that I meant fork. And this suspicion was mutual.

In addition to this I had a break from writing. I did not expect ever again to be published in Poland, where for twenty or so years even mentioning my name in print was prohibited. And I did not see myself as yet fluent enough in English to dare to write.

In many respects this was a crisis situation, and not just at work. At home there were as well matters aplenty to worry about – many reasons for sleepless nights.

For what reason for example did you not sleep?

- The Registrar of the Leeds University’ took it upon himself to introduce me to the bolts and nuts of my new life in England. I asked him where I could rent a flat. He rolled his eyes and told me that firstly one doesn’t rent here, but buys, and secondly not a flat but a house. I almost fainted. I’m supposed to buy a house? I don’t have a penny to my name, a piece of furniture or a bed sheet, but instead I have two daughters with many years’ education before them, I can’t dream to manage without falling in debt… How and when am I supposed to repay it?

We bought the cheapest house on the market.

Why did your crisis last as many as ten years?

- It took that long to adapt to a new way of life. Or rather to dissociate myself from the old one.

What price did you pay?

- I never thought about it.

How did you benefit from it?

- At the end I was able to cobble together a new identity.

Perhaps teaching people how to live in the new conditions is the new virgin land, the new Eldorado which is waiting to be discovered.

- For some time now there’s been talk of a ‘counselling boom’. We’ve never been better educated, but when it comes to the things a normal person used to organise on his own, now we need advisors. From cradle to grave.

And what now?

- Amongst contemporary sociologists there has been until recently an opinion that the current problem is not the dearth, but its opposite – the profusion of possible identities, ways of living and life-enriching goods; the flipside is that whatever you achieve you are not completely satisfied, there’s always something better waiting out there. Hence a constant anguish. We never get to a point when we could say to ourselves: I’ve made it, now I can sit down, have a smoke and rest – there is nothing more that needs to be done.

That anguish might now be over… Excess comes to an end. 


[1] Editors note: PKO Bank Polski SA – a large Polish Bank, related to the national bank existing during communist times

 

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.

 


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