SOFT ZLOTYS AND QUANGOS - Poland before Solidarity

THE adjectives, soft and hard, have cropped up regularly in strange contexts in my life, like buried milestones, marking off another stage in the journey.

Almost before memory began. my mother leant over me in a cold iron tub, explaining the difference between soft and hard water, one gentle with skin and dirt alike, the other rough on both. Then there was the discovery of soft Italian ice cream, piled up like mountain snow, which, at the first lick, would avalanche down over cone and hand alike; unlike the hard variety, scooped from a trough or compacted between wafers, chilling the teeth as you bit into it.

Then there were soft and hard teachers; then puberty; then soft and hard porn; then soft and hard lines in politics. Paternalism was soft autocracy, while dictatorships were hard. Liberals were generally supposed to be soft socialists or Tories, so that some party friends, eager to dispel imputations of weakness, took 'hard lines’ on this or that.

Then whole societies were thought to be soft or hard. 'Has Britain become flabby?' headlined an article in a right-wing newspaper, flabby being the hard word for soft. A flabby country chooses soft options instead of hard work.

This accumulation of associations sets up odd mental connections. Do soft societies melt like ice cream? Are hardliners trying to prove their virility? Last December in Poland, I experienced directly what was meant by a soft currency, the zloty, although its textbook definition—of a currency which has no international exchange rate—was familiar enough.

To go to Poland, you could not just buy zlotys or travellers' cheques from a bank. You had to obtain vouchers through the embassy or the official tourist agencies—which you exchanged within Poland for zlotys. This process, which can be tedious, was much helped in my case by the assistance of the Polish government, who had invited me to review their Meetings festival in Warsaw and to look at their ways of subsidising the arts.

What were the differences between buying travellers' cheques and paying for vouchers? One was that the Polish authorities could control the flow of money to and from (but especially from) their country. In this case, the soft currency indicated a hard political line on currency exchange. They were also trying to ensure that the foreign currency came to the government and would not fall into the hands of the many entrepreneurs in Poland, from taxi-drivers to shopkeepers, who were quite prepared to share the burden of carrying pound notes with you.

Vouchers encouraged or discouraged kinds of travel, like soft visas. British tourists bought their vouchers at roughly 60 zlotys (zls) to the pound, while mere diplomats had to put up with a rate of about 30. Polish tourists, on the other hand, had to buy their pounds at over 200 zls each, making foreign travel very expensive.

These differences led to a thriving black market, for British tourists, if they wished, could smuggle in pounds and obtain three times the amount for them in zlotys, as they could have done through the voucher system. These currency variations made it hard to gauge the cost of living in Poland, for the same meal at the same price could seem cheap or costly, depending on the stamp in your passport or upon the varying degrees of legality governing the transaction.

The black market in money was so open that it scarcely seemed illegal at all. The penalties were like vague threats, bogeymen, which could be harshly invoked or not, depending upon whether the authorities were being softer or harder that year. I wondered about the much-publicised deal between Britain and Poland for the purchase of British ships. Our shipyards were, in any case, subsidised; but what kind of exchange rate, other than the simple barter of goods, could have produced an agreement at all profitable to Britain?

But did this that matter if our yards had orders and the Poles their ships? Should we worry about the impenetrable means by which two governments arrived at their desirable ends? Profit, in any case, is a word with regional variations. like soft and hard.

To my ears, it has a positive or, at worst, a neutral ring. For some Polish friends, however, it sounded slightly subversive and unethical. The justification for the exchange controls was to prevent the capitalistic exploitation of a poor country in the name of profit; although for a degraded representative of capitalism like me, the relaxation of exchange controls seemed the obvious first step towards a material enrichment of Poland, attracting tourists and foreign investment, the swopping of ideas and goods, and leading to a general relaxation in tension between East and West. I came to feel that the control of currency represented a soft Iron Curtain, a papier-mâché Berlin Wall, through which it was a positive duty, in the name of freedom, to break.

As a guest of the Polish government, however. I was prepared to be officially polite and dutiful. In any case, there was a softness to the currency not reflected in the exchange rate. The average wage for Polish workers was 4,000 zls a month, although the extremes of income could vary almost as much as in Britain. Some private farmers were rich, as were higher civil servants and managers of state industries; but gypsies begged in rugs, in deep winter, outside my hotel.

The average wage could signify a genteel sufficiency or downright poverty, depending on certain non-monetary privileges. A good meal at the Writers Union would cost 15 zIs, although a housewife, after much queuing. would have had to pay 70 or 80 zls to buy the same food in the shops, while a tourist might have paid 150 zIs in a state restaurant.

The union card, therefore, brought with it cheap food, and there were similar divergencies in other fields, such as housing—which could be very cheap or expensive. Goods too fluctuated in price, according to non-market factors. In one bookshop, I saw some avant-garde (and very difficult) piano music at a non-reduced price of 8 zls 'a copy; whereas a guidebook to Britain cost 356 zls.

These prices seemed to represent a reversal of our laws of supply and demand. It was as if the authorities were saying to good Poles that ’you ought to play the piano. and forget about going to Britain, which must be a very expensive country, if even its guidebooks cost so much!’

To a bystander ignorant of Polish ways and higher economic theories, money seemed to have lost its links with work on one hand and choice on the other. A small puritanical nerve in my temple started to twitch and throb, as it also does in Britain. This nerve (known as PWE, for protestant work ethic) has been troublesome lately, sometimes hardening into a blinding migraine, reddening the eyes and coarsening the temper; for it tells me flatly, against all the evidence, that hard work should bring more money and that money should extend the range of opportunities in life.

To this day, I feel an adolescent guilt if I receive expenses for some bit of non-work and cheated if my labour, for one reason or another, goes unrewarded. Warsaw, for all its charm, friendliness, and courtesy, inflamed that PWE nerve, for it was as if the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, transactions between people were being twisted out of shape, often for admirable reasons.

The fixing of prices was one expression of state paternalism; and paternalism, whether on a family or public level, can be debilitating and a source of depression, for you are drawn towards seeking the approval of superiors, rather than the agreement of equals. The Poles, however, did not see matters that way, either officially or unofficially.

I found the unofficial approach easier to grasp. The Poles are often said to be the Irish of central Europe. Their popular Catholicism teaches a scepticism of temporal authority, without encouraging open rebellion, and centuries of occupation have left a contempt for officialdom. They laugh at Prussian obedience. ‘Do you know why’ I was told, ‘there can never be a revolution in East Germany? Because it is forbidden to tread on the grass!’

For rules which were dangerous to break, however, the attitude of the Good Soldier Schweik1 prevailed. In other East European countries, bad or silly laws would either be broken defiantly, with all the risks entailed, or slavishly obeyed. The cunning Poles work differently, and they would say. ‘This is a wonderful law, let's have another exactly like it!’ Through a proliferation of laws and regulations, contradicting each other and impossible to implement, the whole system could be safely ignored.

In a provincial Polish city, there was apparently a thriving second-hand car market. Tourists had discovered that they could drive their cars across the frontier and sell them in Poland, thus paying for holidays among the forests and lakes, and eventually, by buying furs illegally and selling them in Western Europe, emerging with a profit.

Good cars are hard to find in Poland. This market began unofficially and illegally but the authorities saw no way of stopping the trade without damaging tourism. They therefore imposed price controls on second-hand cars, trying to drive the entrepreneurs out of business or at least restricting their profits.

Far from protesting, the traders welcomed the scheme. It meant that their market had been officially acknowledged. With car prices kept at an artificially low level, everybody would rush to the city and buy cars. They foresaw a problem. How could they regulate the crowds? They proposed a system whereby they issued vouchers to anyone who wanted to buy a foreign car, which would guarantee them a place in the queue. Currently, the vouchers cost more than the cars themselves. The traders doubled their profits.

I tried to check this story. The official explanation was benign. The authorities argued that the abuse was limited, unlike the similar problems in free market economies. They pointed to their subsidised transport services, which allowed anyone to travel around Warsaw for a zloty or so. My efforts to find the official rationale behind certain kinds of subsidies and price fixings, however, were not very fruitful. The logic always escaped me.

I wanted to find the Polish answer to the question which affects arts subsidies in the UK and elsewhere. How do you determine whether this theatre should receive, say, £100, 000 in funding, while another only receives £50,000? What criteria do they use? How do they determine how much should be spent on the arts as a whole? Who decides?

At the Ministry of Culture, the officers were helpful, but puzzled. Each theatre, they said, gets what it needs. Who decides, I asked, what it needs? The artistic director, the actors, or the management board? They suggested that I should speak to representatives from the appropriate thespian department.

And so, on a cold, grey December morning, my interpreter and I went along again to the Ministry of Culture, where a meeting had been ‹arranged. I had expected an interview, quiet and informal, with a government press officer. Instead, we were shown into a board room, where four finance officials sat on one side of a substantial table, while an officerfrom the Ministry of Culture sat with us on the other side.

I began badly. What proportion of the national budget was spent on the arts? Budget was untranslatable—as was national income and gross domestic product (GDP). Life in Poland was not quite like that. There was a distinction between their Ministry of Finance and our Treasury.

The British Treasury is concerned with the whole economic spectrum, the Olympian view, as well as with details of departmental spending. The Polish Finance officials were purely departmental, shying away from being thought too Olympian.

For the whole spectrum, I was warily advised to read books of national statistics; although that could have been a polite fobbing, for even if I went to these reports, and had them translated, the chances were that they would emerge rather like the equivalent reports from Yugoslavia, which really needed to be pieced together, like a jig-saw puzzle, a clue from one report leading to a clue from another, before the whole picture emerged.

That would require a full-time study from a university research department. I missed the popular and probably misleading economic guides which appear British newspapers, which are filtered through the propaganda of political parties. The whole economic picture would still probably not emerge, even in the broad outlines, for the small print of many trade agreements would have to be examined.

Nevertheless, I was convinced that these Finance officers must have some idea as to the amounts of money available because otherwise they could scarcely have done their jobs. To avoid an impasse, I started again from the other end of the scale. Was there such a thing as an average wage for actors? There was, 8,001 zls a month. What proportion of a theatre’s income was borne by subsidy? About 65 to 75%. The rest of the money was raised through the box office, but such was the enthusiasm for theatre at an official level, they had attempted to do without the box office altogether, offering free seats.

That system had not worked, because, strangely enough, audiences liked to pay. It was their contribution. And actors often felt that a house of free seats was somehow inferior to one where people had actually paid.

Aha, I thought, the PWE nerve still twitches in Poland too. Who decides, I asked, whether there should be a theatre in a town at all?

Poland, curiously, seems to have too many theatres and too few actors. Actors get booked up with companies as soon as they leave one of only three drama schools, which can lead to the snapping up and hoarding of them by companies.

Nevertheless, new theatres were still being built, and subsidised, and one opened while I was in Warsaw. The pressure for new theatres was apparently constant. But where did the pressure come from? From the regional and civic authorities, each of which would put forward their plans, to be approved or turned down by central government, although in practice it was hard to resist pressure from these layers of local government.

Were these local authorities elected, I asked, so that the source of the pressure could held to derive from the people? Or were they appointed? Again, there were translation problems. The election procedure was not quite the same as in Britain. The councils were more of a mixture—of delegates from trade unions, of local councils and various advisers.

They were, in effect, regional quangos. Like the quangos in Britain, they represented either soft democracy or soft autocracy, depending on one's point of view. I could imagine that the kind of wheeling and dealing process would go on, as it does in Britain. You had to have a playwright, an indispensable woman, a local councillor, and a businessman before you could claim to be a democratic committee dealing with the arts.

Directors in Poland submitted their plans to these committees and sub-committees of quangos. If, as in Britain, they had a controversial new play in mind which might get them into trouble with the powers that be, they would try to conceal that fact, by padding it around with concessions to the officialdom

But what about the broad view? Who decided whether they had enough new theatres or whether they should open a couple more drama schools? And, more importantly, who decides the importance of culture within daily lives? Do shopfloor workers really believe that actors are worth twice their pay?

How do you divide, I asked, the national cake?

We were back at the beginning, at the problem which defied translation from the very start of our conversation. It was the crucial question —the one which. if you like, divides East and West, centralist from pluralist, the followers of Popper from the disciples of Marx.

There was a buzz of translation, questions flying across the table, earnest private talk, thoughtful glances into the air, much sucking of pencils; and then, to my relief, enlightenment dawned. Faces cleared. We smiled at each other.

There was a quick conversation on an internal telephone. Within seconds, a plateful of Polish honey cakes appeared, with delicious lemon tea. Before I could explain that this was not what I meant, we were all sitting around, munching the national cakes and congratulating each other on our remarkable grasps of our subjects.

My translator, with her quick Polish eye for symbolism, pointed out to me quietly that there were fifteen cakes on the plate, two for each of us and one left over for the unexpected guest.

‘That’, she said, ‘is the custom in Poland’.

National politeness influences what was considered appropriate in the division of wealth. As we walked back to the hotel, to sample the difference between soft and hard liquor, it was as if the leaden clouds were lifting.

Poland might have acquired a dome of hard official order; but beneath that carapace, as cold and grey and arbitrary as the sky, the soft concessions to humanity - immaturity, age, and differences of opinion - still found its presence on the ground, carpeting it with the powdery snow, calming the contours and muffling the sound of army boots.

March 1979