Sunday, 11 August 2013

Gadje in Dreamland

The stairs in Margate where I met Jan and Olga, a Roma couple from Slovakia

Having come to Margate to practise Czech I was a bit disappointed to find myself sticking a thumb up and saying “Bonjour!” to a French rapper. “Big star, big star right here,” his mate muttered grumpily at me. Said star was lounging sort of sleepily on a deckchair and miming into a camera. A woman wearing a peach bikini and some truly extravagant navel jewellery waited sulkily out of shot, heels sinking slowly beneath the surface of the sand. Quite what had brought this big star to Margate beach to film a music video I was never to learn. “What’s his name?” I whispered to the grumpy friend who replied only with “Big star from France” and half waved me off. A woman with a clipboard interrupted her hissing of instructions to the rapper and turned angrily upon me. I took this as a sign to leave and called “Good luck with the shoot” as I backed away. This resulted in a round of dismissive waves and swift resumption of miming. Like Muhammad Ali the forehead of the mega star was being (superfluously) mopped by the woman in the peach bikini, who suddenly turned devout and attentive upon stepping into frame.

I walked barefoot over Eliot’s famous sands (“I can connect/Nothing with nothing”) and thought how like sallow baby mice my feet looked. So rare is it for them to see the sun that they actually glow in it. I trod awkwardly over smashed shells and consoled myself that the discomfort might yet bear fruit. I was convinced that I could find Czech and Slovak speakers in Margate. If only because I’d found some before, though had been too scared to speak to them at the time. I’d also read the Czech writer Ilona Ferkova’s account of her four years in Margate (actually translated from Romani, a language hardly used for literary purposes, but a Czech speaker nonetheless). In it she writes about her discovery of the sea and a genuine sense of wonder at seeing “water as far as the horizon.”[1]

Red Sky over a Beach (1845) by Turner

I’ve been getting newly appreciative of Ferkova’s discovery. In an elemental case of Brechtian verfremdung I’ve been seeing the sea with totally new eyes. Growing up in Margate the sea assumed the same constancy as the sky or one’s own hair. It was always just there and hardly worth commenting on at all. Coming back from landlocked Prague changed all that. Nowhere else can you find such extraordinary natural expressions of colour as where the sky touches the water. If there’s one reason to visit Thanet it’s the sunsets. Short of this Turner’s watercolours of Thanet skylines run the real thing a close second. Though almost void of figural representation they are so dense with colour, shape and tone they take on a profound vividness. In this way they verge on sultry abstraction, a sort of uber-sensory, controlled chaos. They are a reminder that the sea and the sky, this endlessly changing encounter of light and mass, is itself an aesthetic production.  

Sunset with Sea Monsters (1845) Turner

Some very bright people had the idea a few years ago of putting some broad concrete stairs between Margate’s promenade and the harbour bay below. This has had the transformative effect of making the sea directly accessible from the road while massively expanding the visitable part of the beach. It was on these giant steps that I came across Jan Horvoth and his wife Olga Horvathova.

A Roma couple from Slovakia, Jan and Olga had come to enjoy the same light as me and Ilona before them. I introduced myself in English and shook both their hands. When Jan told me he didn’t speak English I said I spoke a bit of Czech and we could try with that. What followed was a mixture of Czech, Slovak, English, and a lot of patience on their part.

Margate harbour arm and new stairway
 My range of conversation in Czech is woefully limited, and also – I realized – oddly intimate, especially for a conversation with total strangers. I can ask lots of personal questions about family and hobbies, but find small talk impossible – not really surprising given I’ve only done a very basic beginner’s course. Thus armed I proceeded to stumble gamely over a language only similar to their own. Olga smoked with a look of wry amusement as Jan patiently assisted with my pronunciation.

“Odkud jste?” I asked (Where are you from?)
“Prešov, Slovakia.” He replied.
She nodded assent.
“Ahhh,” I said (I did this a lot during our brief conversation). “Byl jsem v Bratislave.” (I’ve been to Bratislava).
“v Bratislave,” they both said nodding.
As casually as I could I asked: “Mate radi moře?” (Rather inanely: Do you like the sea?)
He craned his ear toward me at this point. She nudged him playfully.
“More,” she said in Slovak.
He nodded and chuckled, shifting his frayed blue cap around on his head. “More. In Slovak more.” (Slovak doesn’t use the famously fiendish Czech letter ř, pronounced by rolling a r sound into a hard z sound, which I’d no doubt said wrong anyway.)
I laughed at this and said: “Ale české a slovenské jsou stejné.” (Rather reductively: Czech and Slovak are the same!)
Thankfully, whilst disagreeing, they both laughed.
I asked how long they had been in Margate.
“Osm roků,” he replied (using Czech). Eight years. I felt it was a shame that they’d been here so long and not been able to learn English. Ferkova mentions the difficulty older Roma people had trying to pick up the language. Though it’s sad I doubt it’s necessarily a new phenomenon, especially among more insular, family-centred immigrant communities. A friend from a big Italian family told me her grandparents hardly spoke a word of English, despite living in Essex for thirty years.

I asked if they had family in Britain (“Máte rodinu ve Velké Británii?”) and they nodded. Their son Kamil was sixteen and went to the Marlow Academy, a school in Broadstairs that was famously ranked worst in England a few years ago. These days it’s clawed its way out of special measures, though cynicism remains about its academy status. I checked how to say goodbye in Slovak (rather like Polish it’s dovidenia) and bade them farewell, moving awkwardly on and remaining unsure if they thought I was the weirdest person in Margate.

Despite the Roma reputation for keeping their distance from what they call gadje (non-Roma) for fear of being made “unclean”, both Jan and Olga were friendly and open. After all, I had showed up wearing no shoes, speaking very little of any language they knew, and had kept writing in poorly spelt Czech in a small notebook. None of this seemed to put them off me. There was no hesitation from either of them, even when it came to talking about family, which is a more private matter than most. Predictably Jan did most of the talking. Patriarchal hangovers still structure Roma communities, making it difficult for people like me to approach Roma women freely. I was initially unsure whether or not the women I met would be happy to talk to me, but Olga seemed relaxed enough. Indeed her reluctance to speak seemed to have less to do with Jan and more to do with me: I think she simply knew we didn’t have enough language in common to get very far.

Against English language hegemonists (to coin a phrase), I should stress that I don’t think the lack of a unifying language necessarily leads to social disharmony. Indeed many of Margate’s Balkan-descended residents could attest to this. Throughout southeastern Europe not speaking the same language as your neighbour is the norm, whether you are a Hungarian-speaking Romanian, a Serb-speaking Montenegrin, an Albanian-speaking Serbian, and so on. Of course, violence has sporadically erupted, but language has hardly been the catalyst in each case (though it has been manipulated for nationalist reasons). Cliftonville, home to eastern Europeans as well as plenty of black, Asian and Arab groups, pretty much gets along ok despite its obvious poverty. In a very real sense, however, Britain depends on neighbourhoods like Cliftonville. The very flight of wealth from declining towns makes the particular model of immigration we have at the moment possible. Partially ghettoized the inhabitants may be, but that’s no deterrent to the scale of their ambitions. Without the cheap rents implied by urban flight, generations of immigrants would not have been able to make a home in Britain. Without them our economy would surely be in much more dire conditions than it is at the moment.

The entrance to 'Dreamland', now shut

 It was to Cliftonville that I went next. Even as Margate’s Old Town basks in a kind of kooky, modest gentrification (courtesy of the astoundingly successful Turner Centre), the old “rump” of the culturally uninspired has been shoved up the hill. One implicit assumption of “redevelopment” is that wealth should like a place enough to hang around there, thus spreading itself spontaneously to others in the vicinity. Clearly in order to encourage wealth to hang around a bit of the old poverty has to be kicked out. Where those unable to start pop-up boutiques end up is Cliftonville.

Cliftonville runs along the eastern cliff-tops of Margate and encapsulates all that is best (and some of what's worst) about British seaside towns. Its focal point is Northdown Road, once home to furniture stores and a big branch of Woolworth’s. It is lined with fantastic early 20th century townhouses often intended for use as hotels, though most have been turned into bedsits and private flats. They even used to have a large Butlin’s hotel complex. These days, however, it’s home to every kind of immigrant community in Britain. This results in the bustling spectacle of Baltic sklepy (advertising “Italsky salamy”) alongside Halal shops; a Polish owned car wash next to a Turkish kebab house. There are still a lot of shops shuttered, but not perhaps as many as on Margate high street itself.

Another surprise is the tendency of people to hang around on door steps and convalesce on stairwells. Walking through one notices how people are literally everywhere, congregating in any space they can find. Front doors, in much the same way we did in my old neighbourhood, are all left open, kids from all over the world rushing in and out of each other’s houses. Older men sit and grumble at each other between cigarettes. Tall Lithuanian women with huge bundles of bleached hair stride down the road. Their boyfriends, in wraparound shades and sports vests, trail after them, dogs tugging at their leads. Muslim families are identifiable by the brilliant colours of the women's clothes. It is, after all, high summer: Why would anyone want to be shut in?

True, the bins are overflowing. Quite who is to blame for this I don’t know, but one famous gripe of gadje about Roma is that their neighbourhoods are always a mess. Inside the houses are spotless, but no one ever seems invested enough in the local neighbourhood to keep it tidy. I wonder if Cliftonville’s growing Roma population brought their old ways with them. But to my mind Cliftonville has always been messier than Margate centre, and I’m reminded of how many towns suddenly learn to look after themselves where there’s a higher concentration of tax-payers.

Not finding anyone speaking Czech on Northdown Road I wandered down to the sea-front. On the cliff-top a new kids’ playground was busy with all kinds of activity. I noted how the Roma families all sat together inside the railings, while the British parents sat on benches outside. As I approached their bench two white British women were looking over at the Roma with something like discomfort.

“I wonder if that’s how they behave toward each other in their own country,” one was saying, her voice a mixture of genuine shock and polite displeasure.
“What happened?” I asked them.
They pointed over to an older white guy, bleeding from the head.
“The two little ones went over and beat up the big one,” called a third. “We usually drive straight past this one,” she continued, meaning the playground. “I don’t think we’ll be stopping here again.”

I went into the playground and walked over to where a group of young men were gathered around the older guy. Four Roma women sat on benches, apparently nonplussed by the hubbub around them, rocking their buggies back and forth. Kids ran and yelped everywhere. The old white guy with the bleeding head was talking in conciliatory tones, but I couldn’t hear what language he was speaking.

Margate seafront
I asked one man – this time Czech –  what had happened but he just looked at me vaguely suspiciously. I asked again: “Kdo je starý člověk? (Who’s the old guy?) but no answer was forthcoming. I changed tack and introduced myself. “Jmenuju se Adam. Bydlím v Praze. Chcu... ” (My name is Adam. I live in Prague. I want to…) Here I trailed off, not knowing a word for “practise”, so instead said, “…cvičení čeština.” This is basically meaningless because cvičení is a noun meaning “exercise”. So, in a very grammatically incorrect way, I had said “I want exercise my Czech.” The Czech guy grinned at me and darted off to play-fight with his son, who screamed and promptly fell over in the sand-pit as he tried to get away.

I left the playground feeling a little dispirited. I hadn’t found out why the scuffle kicked off between the Czechs and the old guy and I was too demoralized to even try to speak to the unimpressed women. Instead I walked through a car park and onto Dalby Square. One reason you might have heard of Dalby Square is that the now-deceased tabloid News of the World ran a story on it titled “Sicko Square”. It cited research which suggested the square had the highest number of sickness benefits claimants in the country. I’ve always felt an attachment to it because it was here that me and two friends got to hang out in a house without parents while we were teenagers. My friend Russell’s parents had moved to York leaving him in the care of his older brother. Adopted into this rather chaotic teenage maelstrom was Jason (from foster care, and yes, mostly at that time on the dole). I insisted on going round most weekends, if only for the novelty of being allowed to smoke weed without being told off. Together we would sit on the roof, drink beer and shout abuse at people walking past. Though it sounds like a recipe for disaster things seemed to work more or less smoothly. The older brother was strict enough to keep things in working order, while Russell and Jason learned to cook (though this was mostly limited to pasta bakes) and clean.

The square has a new children’s play area built into it along with extensive landscaping. Not only this but the abandoned building at the far end – for so long the victim of minor arson attacks – had been torn down and replaced by a row of modern flats. In the park I met Eva from Michalovce, Slovakia. She was hanging out in a typically large group, nearly all female. Indeed this was the central problem with my plan: although I had intended to talk to the men there were very few around. Seeing Eva and co. in the park I decided to ditch the fear and speak directly to the mums themselves.

It turned out Eva had been to school in Broadstairs (“I can’t remember the name – it was in a church”), so the conversation was conducted mostly in English with only occasional interruptions by her less fluent friends. Eva’s sister and all the kids were also pretty good at English, though a few of the other adults claimed to speak none. This proved false when they asked teasingly if I was married, gesturing mock-slyly over at Eva. This game of teasing, cajoling and ignoring (directed mostly at me) went on for the full half an hour I was talking to them. They seemed by turns curious and utterly uninterested in me.

The playground on Dalby Square. Eva is standing on the right.

“Why are you living in Prague?” Eva asked. “How much is the rent? Why do you pay for that?” This volley of questions came too quickly for me to answer. Not that this stopped her from handing out financial advice. “It’s British prices but Czech wages over there. You wanna come back to Margate.”
“So what made you decide to move here?” I asked her eventually.
Her answer was probably the same as that of immigrants the world over: “For a good life.” This was as obvious for her as the number of fingers on her hands. “I don’t want to always share a small flat with all my family. I want to have a house with just my husband and my kids.” This was aspirational of course – at the moment she was single, a fact which I was (perhaps unfairly) surprised by given she was Roma. Czechoslovak Roma are perhaps the most “integrated” in eastern Europe. Though what this amounted to under the Communist regime was anything but peaceful. The old Roma professions were torn away. Travelling was banned. Roma were forced into the heavy industrial economy of the central plan, working badly paid but steady jobs. Yet communism’s collapse had been devastating. A report from 2006 – two years after the accession of the Czech Republic to the EU – stated that up to 85% of the country’s Roma population was unemployed.[2] The corresponding number for Slovakia was 70%. Throughout eastern Europe they have been democracy’s greatest victims.

“For a good life” was intuitively understandable. The economic causes of immigration, as well as its desirability, are also readily graspable. Nevertheless I remained confused by what it was that motivated individuals to risk everything to move to a foreign country. What was the trigger in each case? For me moving to the Czech Republic was a rather simple, pragmatic and quickly reversible decision. What did it mean to leave home without certainty of when you would return or under what conditions? Without the guarantee of a flat or a job in one’s new host country? The motivation “for a good life” (conceived as combining personal autonomy with relative affluence) was compelling for reasons that I still struggle to properly empathise with. The determination of anyone who moves to Britain to create a new and better life for themselves is ipso facto admirable. No further proof of their eligibility should be necessary. I am firmly of the belief that as few restraints on individual movement should exist as reasonably possible.  We are, I think, yet to discover a point where limits really must be imposed.

The lifeboat memorial, Margate seafront

As Eva spoke to me an older friend was eating sunflower seeds, spraying the floor with the shells, the whole time teasing me in Slovak. Eva broke off her monologue to tut and scold the woman. “You see,” she said to me, nodding over at her friend. “This one’s messy and a bit stupid.” I looked around at the hundreds of sunflower husks lying on the floor. This joking awareness of the “mess” created by Roma communities – what Isabel Fonseca describes as a sort of self-deprecating internalisation of Roma stereotypes – ran throughout our conversation. Also, the unique Roma grasp of truth kept leading to gaps in life story and length of time. Eva claimed to have been living in Britain for eight years, but also that she had gone to school in Broadstairs. This from a woman clearly in her thirties. Her claim to not remembering the name of the school was equally peculiar. And although Eva seemed intellectually to grasp that I had in fact been to Slovakia she couldn’t resist patronising me: “Slovakia is a country, like Britain. Michalovce is a town, like Margate.” I had to keep pointing out that I did in fact know all this. “You know, the Czech Republic is sort of near Slovakia.” How, I wondered, did she think I had failed to grasp this when I lived in Prague? I also couldn’t help noticing how those speaking Slovak kept referring to me in the informal register. It will, however, be a long time before I can tell if this is meant to be friendly or just vaguely disrespectful.

As I walked away I called out “Dovidenia!” To which a chorus of voices, old and young, rang back: “Doviiiid!” Whatever else was a mystery about them, this goodbye sounded genuinely enthusiastic. Happy to see another stranger leave? Or gratified by the peculiarity? After all, anyone who travels hundreds of miles to live in a town they can’t even pronounce the name of must have some taste for the peculiar. To them I was certainly that.   

[1] Her account can be found in full here:
[2] See: Tanner,

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

My Own Private Grunwald

The Battle of Grunwald (1878) Jan Matejko

For the average Pole the Battle of Grunwald verges on the status of Arthurian legend. It took place during July 1410 and was perhaps the most significant of all central European medieval battles. As a major continental showdown it was promoted like a heavyweight fight, drawing in religious warriors from all over the world, even being postponed at one point to allow time for late-arrivals to make it. Its famous depiction by the Polish nationalist painter Jan Matejko (1878) is an epic of tumultuous, bloody pageantry. As peacock headdresses and fine bear furs flap in an inferno of falling bodies, St. Stanislaus looks on fondly from a golden perch. Liberty Leading the People this is not: the saints of this battle keep a safe distance while soldiers get the dirty work done. The one-eyed warrior-hero of the Czech Hussites, Jan Zizka, can be seen putting the boot into a hapless Teutonic Knight. The most important attendees were, however, the leader of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen, who can be seen being butchered by wild Lithuanian peasants, and the two great rulers of a soon-to-be-united Poland and Lithuania, Wladislaw Jagiello and Vytautus the Great.

The Teutonic Order was a kind of crusading, Christianising Mujahedeen of its day which, with Papal endorsement, had recently massacred the pagan Prussians. Then, just to drive the point home, the Order banned the survivors from having children. Its architects had also recently finished building the world's largest castle (then and now) in Malbork. This on land the Knights had previously been invited on to by a Polish duke. Never ones to miss an opportunity, and having dispensed with the Prussians, they moved on to the nearby Lithuanians, the skirmishes against whom became a kind of sport of European "Christendom". Vytautus of Lithuania, however, was re-baptised Catholic and a powerful political union between Lithuania and Catholic Poland began to form.

The Battle of Grunwald achieved it's now-mythic reputation because of the depth of the Teutonic defeat. For a long tradition of east-looking Catholics the Polish Republic (and later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) came to symbolize the last bulwark of religious tolerance, and by extension Catholic civilization. This was, of course, a fantasy. According to Norman Davies:

If the Catholic Republic were truly the Haven of Toleration, it could only have been so by virtue of the presence of numerous dissenters; but if the dissenting community was really so numerous that it had to be tolerated, then the Republic could not have been solidly Catholic.[1]

Davies notes the buried heterogeneity at the heart of the powerful Catholic republic, one which was only gradually expelled during the 19th and 20th centuries. On the one hand was the unshakeable Catholic church, a constant of political, social and cultural life; on the other, "constant evidence for numerous varieties of religious non-conformity, sectarianism, schism, and heterodoxy."[2] The image of Poland as bleakly homogeneous, Catholic and white is a product of a very modern process of social engineering. In 1772 Poland-Lithuania was 33% Uniate (Slavonic Rite), 10% Russian Orthodox, 9% Jewish and only 43% Roman Catholic. Indeed the destruction of Polish "noble tolerance" went hand-in-hand with the slow destruction of its unique model of "noble governance".

The mythic equities of the Polish kingdom - a benign, well checked-and-balanced monarch answerable to and elected by the nobility (the so called złota wolność or 'Golden Freedom') - had their principal historical use as a weapon of Polish nationalists. Ironically enough, this peculiarly chivalric anachronism, a world of benevolent paternalism and eccentric tolerance, was adopted as the source of national pride by those who believed most staunchly in the romantic myth of a Catholic Poland. The legacy of a deeply heterogeneous amalgam of social groups was transformed into an image of ethnic and culture purity during the long years of partition. While Davies observes the continuities between the Polish republic and more modern conceptions of limited government, private property, and the rule of law, thus inserting it into a European enlightenment lineage, it is actually the discontinuities that fascinate.

The uniqueness of local Jewish culture is evidence of how the country cultivated its religious minorities. The Jewish museum in Kraków is a painful catalogue of surviving relics of Galician Jewry, the "traces of memory" of a unique culture now entirely wiped out. Some of the most moving photographs reveal the carved animal inscriptions left on what are now ruins by former Jewish inhabitants. This unique practice exists today only where its imprint has not faded from still standing ruins in the quiet Polish countryside.

As with the republic, so with its bloody, mythologized birth: Grunwald held equal fascination for Polish nationalists, Nazis and communists. The Nazis used the Teutonic Order as an example of the great export of civilization to the east, while for Russia the victory was used to promote the unity of Slavic peoples against the Germanic foe. Its legacy for Poles is literally written all over the country: there are streets named Grunwaldzka from Poznan toWrocław

Grunwaldzka, Bydgoszcz, after a "heavy one"

My own Grunwaldzka was a dual carriageway down which traffic to Torun and Szczecin hurtled at vicious speeds. It cut between the old Bydgoszcz canal and the snaking river Brda in a dull, flat monotone. In this way it mimicked the gaping vastness of rural Poland, through which it eventually cut. (The name Polska is even said to derive from the Slavic pole, meaning field). For drivers this seemingly barren landscape of decaying apartment buildings blended into the rushing background.

But for those of us who lived there, flitting hurriedly across its surface, or scurrying down its smashed and jumbled pavements, it was something we were forced to confront. We got to encounter its weathered, cracking frontages in detail, the remains of an attempt at 19th century grandeur. It had its own cast of unique characters. One scraggly gang would rush up and down its length talking hurriedly, the stale odour of piss and sweat trailing after them. I would wonder about what strange internal hierarchy brought them together - an old woman and two younger men - and what rules governed their loudly debated unity. It seemed as if the very lack of external motive - be it work or travel; family or friendships - glued them to the place. This gaping sore of a place had become an entire world to them. It was a universe of barricaded shop fronts and tattered, forgotten roadworks with its own, unique internal pressures. Simply getting to the chemist's once a week had become an act of extraordinary deliberation.

By contrast, a slathering, muggy spring had brought a perennially topless guardian to the foot of Granicna, a supposedly rough street that branched off Grunwaldska and on which my girlfriend lived. Quite what earned Granicna its reputation as a bad spot, apart from its lack of pavements and creepy dearth of street lighting, I don't know, but perhaps it was this leathery guardian that kept its demons at bay. He leant, one arm in a crutch, against the wall of my girlfriend's 1920s apartment building, cigarette fixed to his lower lip. Devoid of Gunwaldzka's urgent thrum, he would lean against that wall all day, slowly baking himself. He had, I felt, accepted a purposelessness that the pissy gang up on Grunwaldzka refused, though he was just as constrained by its borders. His face, stuck in repose, was like a slowly melting shoe. Those consigned, in their own way, to four wheels would never be aware of, and certainly never predict, his slow, watchful existence.

The view from Siobhan's window. Taken by Siobhan.

Then there were the scrap collectors. You might glimpse them between the rows of parked cars or slipping quietly down some alley. They attained semi-invisibility, slipping from one muddy burrow between houses to another. For some reason alleyways around the world seem to nurture, even cultivate, old scrap, like moss in gutters. A few times whole families of scrap collectors jogged nimbly past me, gripped by the gravitas and seclusion of their task. But usually they worked alone: middle-aged men the colour of a tanning belt. One old woman who never removed her lilac rain mac. As they slipped past loitering kids and gossiping dog walkers, they encapsulated for a moment the sense of a second world concealed in the crust of the first, surfacing only briefly and speaking quietly of its poverty.

Poland has experienced GDP growth rates of 4-6% ever since it joined the EU (excluding the 2008 slowdown), and it has become the EU's fifth-largest economy. It is a vital source of cheap labour for German capital. Yet its per capita GDP remains just 48% of the EU average. Bydgoszcz itself experienced 15% unemployment rates in 2011. The massive transfer of employment from manufacturing to services which has typified "modernising" postsocialist economies has proved inevitably traumatic. In 1988 nearly 50% of Bydgoszcz's labour-force worked in the manufacturing industry; today that number is closer to a third.

Yet Poland has also had to deal with a unique inheritance of its own, based on the highly regional division of its economic development. The Polish economy has never been dominated by a single centre in quite the way London does the UK. A complex web of inter-regional and inter-urban trade networks makes it resemble a federal country like Germany, but of course lacking the famous infrastructure. Its violent partition into Prussian, Russian and Austrian protectorates after 1795 did little to help integrate an already ailing national economy. The destruction of Warsaw by the Nazis in 1944 also hardly helped the re-industrializing, post-war economy to find a focal point. This has accentuated the divisions between a highly mobile but small middle class and an increasingly constrained working class.

Partly as the result of an accelerating process of suburbanisation and urban flight by wealthier denizens, large tracts of the post-industrial urban landscape have remained grossly polluted and unusable. Poland's housing-stock is the second-lowest in the OECD.[5] Combined with terrible transport links (it takes nearly three hours to cover the 100km from Bydgoszcz to Gdansk by train) and "roads worse than Chile", this has served to make both the relatively poor and very poor increasingly immobile and precariously positioned. "Disparities within ULMAs [the OECD's term - urban metropolitan labour market areas] are wider than any other expression of inequality in Poland."[6] This intra-urban inequality, in which small and medium cities are trapped in a downward spiral, trumps even the traditional wealth gap between rural and urban. Poverty is more common in the smaller towns but more severe in larger cities. The Polish economy of the last ten years is stark evidence for the claim that growth does not necessarily equate to decent job creation and generally rising prosperity.

Siobhan and I were once foolhardy enough to look for an ice cream on Grunwaldzka. Elsewhere in the city Polish lody and convincingly decent Italian-style gelato were readily available, but a cloudy beer hangover had deceived us into thinking we might find something similar locally. That Saturday morning, the second-hand clothes outlet, which famously sold tracksuits and diamond-studded faux-leather trousers by weight, was already closing its doors. A sombre monopolovy was selling pickled herring and a few sad looking ham sandwiches. A churned up, violent grey sky sank its teeth into the day; the air was heavy and warm with moisture. A prim looking older lady, her bright purple hair curled immaculately, stood patiently waiting for her dog to finish weeing. We wandered up to our local Biedronka where the late-morning drinkers were gathered with cans of beers labelled simply 'Strong'. Ahead the viaduct was just visible on the road's curve. As we passed the old drinkers, increasingly hopeless, the lights in the distance changed. We heard the traffic belch and lurch forward, the smell of petrol in their wake.



[1]    Davies, God's Playground I, 126
[2]    ibid., 126
[3]    Bideleux & Jeffries, A History of Eastern Europe, 187
[4]    ibid., 189
[5]    OECD: 2011 Policy Review of Poland, 15
[6]    ibid., 12

Sunday, 4 August 2013

"All That is Horrid Melts into Air": Hayek, Schumpeter and a Very Central European 'Crisis of Capitalism'

Yellow City Egon Schiele (1914)

As catastrophic inflation stalked the imploding Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the young Friedrich August von Hayek was on his way back to Vienna. Hayek was of a generation, now returning from the lost war, utterly demoralized by the vast squandering of the Empire's resources. The dismantling of the imperial territories of the Hapsburg dynasty took place in a barrage of national secessions, though collapse had been creeping up on this peculiar, sickly titan for some time. Hayek was born in Vienna to wealthy parents, his father a respected botanist and his mother from a rich, conservative family. Hayek’s cousin, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, is often said to have exercised profound influence over his intellectual development, though they met on only a few occasions. But Hayek had no trouble in linking Wittgenstein with a certain Germanic intellectual tradition which was “proud to be different.” In their own rebellious way, Hayek's generation of Vienna intellectuals reproduced the centuries-old belief in German exceptionalism, though this time by “dissecting convention.”[1] This very ideology of exceptionalism in its straightforward imperial form, however, fueled obsessive Hapsburg claims to Bosnia & Herzegovina, later making the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of the Dual Monarchy’s young men inevitable. The cultural brilliance of Hayek’s generation was ultimately devastated by a war underpinned by brazen arrogance.

            Hayek came home to find a new Social Democratic government presiding over a shrunken, embattled, war-ravaged domestic economy. “In this most middle class of European cities,” Sylvia Nasar writes, “there was no food or fuel. Virtually from the moment the new republic was announced no more manufactured goods left Vienna and no shipments of beef, milk, potatoes, or coal arrived.”[2] A thousand years of glorious imperial trade centrality were suddenly stubbed out. One biographer (in typical Bildungsroman style) describes Hayek’s discovery in 1920s Vienna of the moral foundations of his thought: finding himself in the venerable milieu of Austrian economics, he gravitated inevitably towards the tradition of enlightened individualism. Hayek felt that Carl Menger, the Austrian economist, had updated Adam Smith by asking how it was that institutions could evolve gradually over time, free of collective administration or of central will, through the spontaneous input of free individuals. Regardless of the content of the queries, Hayek was nevertheless convinced that such institutions – those “which support the common welfare and are most important for its advancement”[3] – were crucial in the structuring of a good social order. It’s also possible, however, to see his lifelong recourse to this Burkean conservative touchstone as the product of the traumatic destruction of the Austrian monarchical institutions which ordered his youth. Those carefully time-pruned social institutions – the bureaucracy, the military, even the Monarchy itself – vanished, leaving instead an interventionist government printing endless cash and pumping it carelessly into an already inflated economy.

Italian flyers over Vienna, 1918

            To stick with the familiar psycho-history of biography for a moment, it may be no great leap to see Hayek developing two gut responses to the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire and the chaos of republican Austria. As the traditional trade routes and information channels which supported and sustained the byzantine, tariff-heavy imperial economy (which had resulted in such decorous European trade crises as the so called Pig War with Serbia in 1907) disintegrated, Hayek must have felt the loss intensely. What resulted was a passion for the apparently “spontaneous ordering” of venerable old institutions, and a firm dislike of meddling “external” forces (usually government but war was akin to it). On the other hand developed the fetish for so called “market prices”, which were held to communicate all the information necessary for robust trade and, again, should not be tampered with. Hayek’s fear of inflation led to an obsession with establishing for good the rules of the economic game such that individual liberty (in matters, at least, of commerce) could be written in stone. The cure for inflation, and the key to economic well-being, was firm legal order and small, transparent government.

The irony, of course, was that Austria-Hungary, with its vast state apparatus and factional gerontocracy, provided one of the great examples of a system where the so called natural evolution of institutions had thoroughly skewed its behaviour as a whole. Hayek was to find no intellectual model of individual liberty in the Empire of his youth. Hence, perhaps, his flirtation with a kind of Fabian socialism. This, however, died out under the tutelage of von Mises in Vienna. Liberty had to be grounded in the steady, unchanging rule of law, while patronised by institutions that arose spontaneously, free from the organising capacities of a central or collective will.


            Hayek marked a certain departure from German romantic traditions. Hegel, as everyone knows, had been no individualist. His notions of Geist (Spirit) and Sittlichkeit (a kind of collective, ethical substance), had tapped into a rich seam of heroic, collective destiny in German thought. Marx took on much of this baggage. As did, in his own way, Max Weber, who saw Protestant ideology as the motive force in the establishment of capitalism (a thought that would have been anathema to Marx, but nevertheless hardly resisted the collectivist urge within Germany sociology). The resulting Weltanschauung – a term that is perhaps too broad in its connotations – is often caricatured as tending towards totalitarianism. German thought’s preoccupation with questions of race and nationality might, however, be connected to the conditions of that country's late emergence as a capitalist power and the extensive state patronage that evolved out of its competition with older powers like Britain. This aside, Hayek was rare in capturing the Germanic sense of exception not in collective or racial terms but in traditionally liberal, individualist ones.

Joseph Schumpeter, the German-speaking world’s other great inter-War economist, shared Hayek’s regard for the high achievements of 19th century bourgeois capitalism. In many ways Schumpeter and Hayek were mirror opposites. Hayek was born at the heart of the Empire; Schumpeter on the periphery, in the small Moravian village of Třešť. The older of the two, Schumpeter was angling for a government position in the Monarchy’s final cabinet. A socialist republic proved no deterrent either: he was briefly made finance minister under the reformist Marxists Bauer and Renner (on the advice of no less than Rudolf Hilferding, luminary of German Social Democracy). The one thing Schumpeter and the Socialists had in common was a desire for anschluss with Germany, conceived (with great historical irony) as a peaceful solution to centuries of conflict within Mitteleuropa. Both Hayek and Schumpeter were highly ambitious but failed repeatedly to fit in with the intellectual ferment of their times. Both would find their most convincing public voices as dissenting liberals during the next European conflagration: Hayek with his Road to Serfdom (1944); Schumpeter with Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942). For both, popular recognition would prove elusive until the latter part of the 20th century, so at odds were they with the Keynesian settlement of the post-War years.

The reasons for their shared estrangement from the world’s chattering classes post-1945 were, however, quite as separate as their respective ways of understanding capitalism. In Hayek’s reckoning the market was a supremely elegant expression of the rational self-interest of its participants. In all of Hayek’s best writings the market embodies elegance and simplicity, while the embattled liberal order a timeless political achievement beyond the comprehension and control of any single individual: “A complex civilization like ours is necessarily based on the individual adjusting himself to changes whose cause and nature he cannot understand.”[4] There is a growing opacity of social relations that goes on in relatively free societies, in which decisions have unforeseeable effects. Central economic planning – whereby the state organizes the economy for specific ends, always associated for Hayek with socialism – is an attempt to rationalize a system of decentred interactions. Thus Hayek makes the apparently pragmatic argument that increasing specialization within markets themselves is best served by preserved specialization of individual actors. Decentralized markets elude coercion, which itself “leaves the separate [individual economic] agencies free to adjust their activities to the facts which only they can know.”[5] The individual knows best within the narrow field to which their actions pertain. All big institutions like government can do is get in the way.

While pragmatically stated this view develops out of some truly idealist presuppositions about the nature of market interactions, principal among them the belief that all economic decisions are made with appropriate knowledge and that markets themselves can effectively incorporate the unforeseeable effects of those decisions. That markets are rational and spontaneously self-organizing is, of course, a pernicious myth. One need only look at history to see that the first “markets” (in the sense of generalized systems of commodity exchange) didn't emerge spontaneously, but were wrought violently into being by rulers who needed to amass commodities and currencies for military purposes.[6] Markets and states have historically gone hand in hand. Even if the famous economic fairy-tale of free exchange arising spontaneously out of “primitive barter” (a myth spun by Adam Smith but also later by Marx in Vol.1 of Capital) is taken as a metaphor, it fails to reflect anything of the underlying social processes which it attempts to describe. The idealized image of rational actors exchanging commodities freely in relatively free markets in fact effaces an earlier effective of violence, one exerted by the very arbitrary despotism (kings who enserf an unwitting public and so on) which Hayek makes it his mission to decry. The ideology of free markets which Hayek espoused would only attain a modicum of popular acceptance, however, when its value system later became advantageous for elites faced with deep monetary crises.

This profile of Hayek does little to relieve the neoliberal right of its reputation for being both a bit bonkers and very patronizing ("Like young people in any age Hayek worried about society's problems"):


Schumpeter’s description of capitalism, though very different to Hayek’s, attained a more subaltern influence around the same time. Schumpeter’s achievement was to take over from Darwinism – and to a very real extent Marxism – the notion of capitalism as a continuously evolving, historically determined organism. It is in a sense legitimate to say that Hayek concerned himself with a general philosophical idea – “the market” – while Schumpeter, like Marx, looked far more deliberately at the organization of social relations, financial wealth and circulation, innovative and destructive tendencies, and cultural attitudes we call capitalism. It was this different conceptual point of departure that enabled Schumpeter to treat the much trumpeted “crisis of capitalism” as a tendency produced by capitalism itself rather than short term political policies and the influence of a few squabbling intellectuals. Crisis was part of the dynamic process. “There is inherent in the capitalist system,” he wrote, “a tendency to self-destruction.”[7] His reasoning for believing that capitalism would eventually be replaced by socialism was mostly sociological rather than ‘structurally’ economic (in the sense a Marxist would understand it). He saw business classes as being rendered generally obsolete by progressive increases in the standard of life of the mass of developed world populations, pointing toward ever-increasing administrative bureaucracy. Capitalism rationalizes old loyalties, displacing former hierarchical commitments. The intellectual and political classes fostered by the class of big business under capitalism are increasingly hostile to capitalism’s existence, pointing toward a cultural of resentment among the offspring of the capitalist system.[8]

In line with the view of capitalism as by nature innovative, Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction”. “Economic progress in capitalist society,” Schumpeter believed, “means turmoil.”[9] He even echoes the Communist Manifesto – though ineloquently – when he says: “Every situation is being upset before it has had time to work itself out [my italics].”[10] The awkward use of the continuous aspect – ‘every situation is being upset’ – is intended to imply the startling regularity of the process. But instead he just sounds vague. What situations? Upset by what and in what capacity? How much better was the capitalist process encapsulated almost a hundred years earlier by the phrase “All that is solid melts into air”? Still, what is effective in Schumpeter’s description of capitalism is that it erodes the centrality of the organized political subject so precious for Marxism. Whither, in a generalized situation of constant self-transformation, the proletariat? In a system of “creative destruction” all fixed relations are destined to dissolve – even that of proletariat and bourgeoisie.

There is nothing cumulative either in his notion of crisis. While unbinding Marx’s sociology of class from the economics of capitalism, he also attributes a profound redemptive quality to the very crises that were once seen as symptomatic of capitalism’s failings. Capitalism’s crises merely introduce new elements into its creative midst. “These revolutions periodically reshape the existing structure of industry by introducing new methods of production – the mechanized factory, the electrified factory, chemical synthesis and the like; new commodities such as railroad services, motorcars…”[11] and so on. Capitalism initiates, in Schumpeter’s view, an impulse to innovate, which spells crisis for some and opportunity for others. Though in each cycle, displacement and unemployment are the norm in initiating phases, the result is always positive: “an avalanche of consumer goods that permanently deepens and widens the stream of real income.”[12]

Simply by its innate attributes the “capitalist mechanism” raises the standard of life of the masses. Thus we reach a conclusion so naively sanguine that even Joseph Stiglitz questions it.[13] Clearly capitalism is incapable of efficiently recycling its own surpluses without some external coercion. What the Greek economist Yannis Varoufakis describes as a Global Surplus Recycling Mechanism – a way to stabilize distributive distortions created by accumulative tendencies within capitalism – is not only necessary, but consciously shaped by public policy.[14] Witness again then the dependence of markets on the state. Thus while his theory tried to describe capitalism’s tendency to undermine itself, Schumpeter in fact elaborated a whole set of beliefs about capitalism wherein every crisis becomes the forerunner of renewed abundance, and capitalism assumes ideological invulnerability. Schumpeter offers this celebratory corrective to Marx and Engels: All that is horrid (in the capitalist system) melts into air.

The organised proletariat was replaced by Schumpeter with the innovative disposition of individual entrepreneurs and men of business as the principal social and political agents of life under capitalism. In this sense both Schumpeter and Hayek attempted to critique and undermine what they saw as collectivist – for which read socialist – tendencies in the ideology of their peers. In Hayek’s case, capitalism and the legal order which supported it formed a sort of static equilibrium; meanwhile, as Schumpeter saw things, a state of competitive “disequilibrium” was the norm under capitalism. Schumpeter had no fear of monopoly within industry as such. Yet what they shared was a horror of bureaucracy within the managerial, intellectual and political elite; and also a deliberate policy of ideological displacement of the possibility of collective political agency, or the idea that it is legitimate for organised groups of people to undertake grand political acts. Their fundamental commonality ultimately lay in the arena of politics, which was fitting because it was in this arena that they would eventually be adopted as expedients by the very political classes they so suspected.

One might even risk the hypothesis that what fed their nightmares about the capitalist bureaucracy turning upon itself was a shared memory of the pre-War German economy: the young buck of Europe, Germany’s economy increasingly tended towards cartelization and pan-industrial trusts (where companies within industrial sectors collaborate over prices, producing inevitable distortions within the markets, labour unrest and currency crises). This heavily cartelized, heavily state-sponsored, heavy industrial economy, would enter into direct conflict with two of the world’s great financial centres: first Britain and later America. Both Rosa Luxemburg and V.I.Lenin conflated, to a certain extent, monopoly capitalism with imperialism. While Rudolf Hilferding, for the Second International, insisted that capitalism tended towards stability. It could be argued that all took the German industrial economy as their model, seeing in it conflicting transformations of capitalism as such. How much Schumpeter owed to both – on the one hand the tendency in capitalism towards rationalized organisation; on the other, its tendency towards self-destruction – is evidenced by his complex engagement with Socialist Party intellectuals, and his productive combination of the two perspectives. Capitalism not only tended towards self-destruction, but did so - paradoxically - with a planner’s methodical exactitude.

Indeed a certain amount of corporatism (compromises between state, industry and labour), though anathema to the ideologists of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, has always played a role in German industrial relations. Wage squeezes and inflation-busting practices still reflect this today. Germany’s peculiar position within the world economy has simultaneously necessitated and rendered untenable its hybrid of neo-mercantilism (state policy encouraging exports through centrally administered incentives) and regional financial preeminence. Time and again, its industrial strength has caused internal crises or benefited from external ones. Yet what both Hayek and Schumpeter failed to notice was that, even as capitalism was threatened by (in Giovanni Arrighi’s terms) the ‘horizontal’ integration going on within the German industrial model, America was pulling out a very different set of innovations: the ‘vertical’ integration (in which firms would be arranged hierarchically from the shop-floor up to the board of directors) of the global corporation.[15]

That neither foresaw the post-War boom is hardly to their discredit: both Schumpeter and Hayek were writing in the darkest days of the Second World War. This was a time of vast state controls, which it seemed would be impossible to relinquish. It was Schumpeter, perhaps more given to the historical view and more open to institutional change, who by 1946 had an inkling. Though he saw no economic deterrent to the emergence of socialism (of the dour, bureaucratic type), he spied an advertisement for the capitalist system in America’s resplendent growth rates during its engagement in the War. Both, however, fundamentally failed to see how the very managerialism they decried didn’t really threaten capitalism at all, but was in fact going to produce its most innovative successes. Without managerialism, the division of labour that gave the world Fordism would be unthinkable. Also, without the new acceptability of state intervention the post-War settlement that gave the world thirty years of growth could not have been conceived, let alone implemented. In a sense, the world proved faithful to Schumpeter’s love of capitalist institutional, technical and technological adaptation even as it proved his historical theory false. Capitalism was more than able to absorb state input and bureaucratisation. Marx had similarly foreseen the death-knell of the capitalist integument in the emergence of so prosaic an institution as the joint stock company (a stage in the transition, he wrote in Vol .III of Capital, of capitalist reproduction into “mere functions of associated producers”[16]). Schumpeter and Marx both failed to be properly felicitous to their own ways of conceiving capitalism, and mistook the emergence of a novel institutional form for the death of capitalism as such. Thus they forgot their own mottos: that capitalism is at its very best precisely when it innovates through adapting to legal, technical, technological and social changes.

What emerged after the Second World War was in many ways startling. It also, yet again, flatly contradicted Hayek’s view of the simple relation between individual actors and the tyrannical state. American policymakers, extraordinarily intelligent and already experienced with matters of economic management following Roosevelt’s New Deal, would implement a Global Plan (in Yannis Varoufakis’s terms) of incredible breadth and versatility. The Gold Standard would curb inflation by regulating currencies, whilst guaranteeing the preeminence of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Post-War reconstruction would create vital space for American trade, demand for America’s goods, and countless investment opportunities – once again making (the Federal Republic of) Germany incredibly important but also awkwardly positioned within the global economy. Japan, and later the Asian Tiger economies, would also be brought into this relationship. The era of the Plan, under American hegemony, would prove to be capitalism’s brightest moment, emerging out of the very conditions Hayek and Schumpeter regarded so gloomily. It should comes as no surprise then that the two economists became publicly accepted only with the collapse of that Plan in the 1970s.

Though arguments between followers of Keynes and Hayek dominate our popular understanding of economics, there is an ever-decreasing amount of daylight between the two. Of course, politically the two use a very different vocabulary – with Keynesians increasingly resorting to technocratic modifications of the more full-throated Hayekians. In reality we remain deeply indebted, in our political-economic vocabulary, to Hayek. It was Hayek “who even before the Second World War had envisaged a constitutional structure raised sufficiently high above the nations composing it to exclude the danger of any popular sovereignty below impinging on it.”[17] So the increasingly distant, trans-national ‘sovereignty’ of the European Union eludes democratic oversight in the name of liberal, international order. Ironically for the world’s Eurosceptic Hayekains, it was their master who first mapped its present institutional contours. Meanwhile, even as we cede our democracy to a supra-national, liberal order, we remain intuitively attached to Schumpeter’s model of capitalism, in which innovation through adaptation is the exclusive preserve of the market, and it is only a matter of time before capitalism digs us out of the same hole it got us in. Capitalist crisis, it seems, can be counted on to provide the world with one thing: apologism for the very thing that creates it.  

[1] Quoted in Ebenstein, Hayek: A Biography, 11
[2] Nasar, Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius,
[3] Quoted in Ebenstein, Hayek: A Biography, 25
[4] Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 209
[5]. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 51
[6] For a full exploration of this relation between rulers, states and markets, see: David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years
[7] Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 144
[8] The summary this view is taken from was originally delivered in a speech in 1949, and is included under the title ‘The March into Socialism’ in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 375-384: Routledge edition
[9] Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 28
[10] Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 28
[11] Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 59
[12] Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 59
[13] See his introduction to Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy
[14] See: Varoufakis, The Global Minotaur
[15] For an extensive account of this see: Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century
[16] Marx, Capital VolIII, Chapter 27
[17] Anderson, ‘Depicting Europe’, London Review of Books, 20.09.07