My hypothesis is as follows: in order to sum up the past 25 years of Polish history, we must take into account the sense of frustration which comes with being offered endless possibilities. The map of Polish frustrations is thus sewn from many misshapen scraps of individual disappointment.
Why do people think the things they think? This is down to their immediate circumstances. Why do they keep changing their minds? Because their circumstances have also changed. There is no need to elaborate on the weakness of such naïve sociology of knowledge. It is accompanied by a mistrust of ideas and a reluctance to assign to them any sort of influence. Perpetration in the spiritual sphere is for us today an unnecessary aspect, for we can manage with the causative impact on structures, configurations and systems, out of which, unheeding of the vicious circle tightening around us, we wish to make sense.
Considerations of collective self-understanding, expressed in the debate about the most recent 25 years of Polish history, clearly belong to the school of thought described above. The many changes which have taken place in society can easily be observed with the naked eye. Yet the naked eye is a totally unreliable instrument when it comes to studying social contexts, though it has its uses where one must, for the sake of ease and time, simplify things to the absolute maximum – by which we of course mean in the spheres of media and politics. The naked eye can also observe that society is beginning to reconsider this change. Such reconsideration is also the self-questioning of a society which is both the subject and the object of said changes.
We would like to see the state of the discourse around this 25th anniversary as a sign of the times among a religious society, seeking causes due to which, from the perspective of this quarter-century, our view of the Transformation is in itself undergoing a change. No social phenomenon is caused by a single factor, nor can any ever be explained fully and without further additions: this would be a sociological banality. And yet, further partial explanations can be put forward. My hypothesis is as follows: in order to sum up the past 25 years of Polish history, we must take into account the sense of frustration which comes with being offered endless possibilities.
I am not concerned with the possibility of something defined, as the excess of possibility is omnipresent. We can stay put or emigrate, and having emigrated, we can choose to remain away or return. We can work for less or for more money, we can lose jobs, we can get them back, we can start up our own businesses, we can shut them down and we can choose bankruptcy. We can vote or not vote. We can study for free or for a fee. We can gather resources and come up short. We can then take out loans in Swiss Francs and we can fail to pay them off. We can struggle, we can win, we can lose.
This excess of choice is not by any means unique to Poland, or even to societies which have experienced systematic transformation. In Poland, the comparison between now and pre-1989 times (known to an increasing number of Poles from second-hand tales alone) can only increase perceptions of negative outcomes of these changes, the most notable of which is a sense of frustration.
This frustration is quite different to the one caused by the widespread lack of choice imposed upon people by the previous regime. This powerlessness is characterised by the fact that when the vast majority of people share a common poverty, the sense of disappointment cannot be fed by comparisons with those same neighbours. Of course, because lack of choice was egalitarian in pre-1989 Poland, frustrations arising from comparisons with how others perceived us did happen. What didn’t happen, however, was the pain which comes with switching to a period of existential conditions of unreality.
Poles had to learn that the majority of the choices open to them did not bring fulfilment, for these can turn out badly or not turn out at all. This is when opportunities pass, remaining in the realm of “if only”. What’s worse, because there is a myriad of possibilities, those around us seem to make better use of theirs, seem more efficient, more innovative and creative. We see social spheres arising out of nowhere, spheres we are not invited into, because we are that little bit too old, too young, too slow, too poor at English, or at Cantonese, our family is too numerous, our holidays are too short or the websites we visit are not of the right kind. If only we could… But no. This isn’t even a case of something being our fault or being down to those who make it instead of us. It is simply the way possibilities are always distributed.
The pattern of this distribution is very uneven and changeable. As a result, even those who in certain respects find themselves socially aligned will have completely different sets of options open to them, and furthermore completely different reasons to feel frustrated. Their contexts for assessing their own standing will also be different. Even if the starting point for all is the same – a boom in options following 1989 – the eventual outcome is different for everybody. After all, “choices” can be awkward and refuse to arrange themselves in easily predictable combinations of criteria relating to class, origin, profession, education or even age.
Our map of Polish frustrations shows a collection of many scraps of personal disillusionment. It is difficult to grasp its influence on thought, and even harder to make generalisations about this understanding, in order to speak about society as a subject of self-reflection regarding the most recent two-and-a-half decades. Perhaps some kind of summary of individual desires and disappointments is being drafted in our nation today, but even if so, this is taking place beyond the limits of generalisations and simplifications, which tend to be the feature of most media and political conflicts.
This article is a part of Kultura Liberalna’s book “To place Poland in the centre”. See the table of contents here.