Flat White

This weird, nerdy kid from communist Poland’s moment of economic revelation

7 May 2019

5:47 PM

7 May 2019

5:47 PM

Unlike some people, I’ve never had a religious experience, that moment of staggering clarity when one seems to connect with a higher power or become as one with the universe. I wonder what it’s like to find yourself face-to-face with Jesus, Allah, Krishna or an angel, when you suddenly feel it all makes sense, and I envy the unshakable clarity and certainty that can flow from such an encounter.

Likewise, I have never had a supernatural experience of any sort. No ghosts, premonitions, UFO sightings, strange auras, monsters or fairies. My brain is wired too rationally (and boringly as some might say) for that. There are people out there who are more receptive than others – certainly more than me – whether that means their consciousness is, like a radio set, more finally tuned to some unexplained but objective realities or whether they simply have a richer imagination and subjective experience. My condition is so bad that when my mother passed away years ago, she had to appear in a dream to my ex wife to ask her to pass onto me that she is fine.

As unspiritual as I am, a bad case of blocked chakras, I have, however, had an economic experience, which, if anything, makes me both even stranger than the people I spoke about above as well as even more boring than I initially appear.

By way of background, you have to remember that I grew up under declining communism. As someone has once wryly remarked, in a planned economy everything is planned except for the economy. In the Poland of my childhood and early teenage years virtually everyone was employed by the state and so virtually all the income was derived from the state, except, of course, for the rampant black market. Shops were few and generally poorly stocked. Some goods were unobtainable, others required queuing and a lot of luck (or connections) to get, and either way most were of inferior quality to that in the West. Even if you have managed to save enough money, you had to get onto a waiting list to acquire an apartment, car, or household goods. The wait could take decades.

Life’s necessities were more widely available but quite haphazard in their distribution. During the crisis years of the nineteen-eighties, most food items required ration cards. People literally had to scheme and plot to get their hands on toilet paper. Sure, the Eastern European socialism for most part managed to provide everyone with a bare minimum of subsistence so that no one starved anymore, but beyond that the economic system was shambles, never managing to produce the sufficient quantity and quality of what people needed and wanted.

We all knew that the West, by comparison, was a kingdom of plenty, thanks the workings of that scary capitalism, but as a kid I wouldn’t be able to explain to you how, by contracts to our socialism, it somehow managed to produce in abundance all those cars, toys and oranges and bananas. We were told by the authorities that it was all a sham, built on exploitation of workers and resulting in widespread poverty. But we knew enough to know that everything is relative. When the Jaruzelski regime in the early eighties trumpeted in the government-run media (there were no other legal ones) its charity initiative to send sleeping bags to the homeless of New York, an anonymous wag somehow managed to place and ad in one of the papers “Will swap a two bedroom apartment in Warsaw for a sleeping bag in New York”.

I was 15 when I left, unbeknownst to me two years before the fall of the Wall, and spent 16 months in Italy before finally arriving to start a new life in Australia. For a kid from Eastern Europe, Italy was a revelation; I didn’t know enough about anything then to realise that the country we thought was a paradise has always in reality been somewhat of a hot mess. Australia at the end of the decade of wide-ranging economic reforms, which really opened the country to the world and unleashed its creative potential, was even more of contrast to the drabness, shortages and absurdity of the “real socialism” I grew up under.

The story of my economic experience is very brief: one day, not long after settling in Australia, I was in a car, being driven somewhat off the beaten path, through what can be described as a light industrial area. Then, all of a sudden, among all the rather anonymous sheds and buildings I saw a large, freestanding store. I can’t remember its name but I remember it was selling carpets. And that’s all.

I grew up with few shops around, which, no doubt in part because European cities tend to be a lot more condensed, occupied the same space as the living. But here, here was a whole store, a very large store that specialised in one product only – floor coverings – and it was, relatively speaking, sitting in the middle of nowhere. That it was in business, that it somehow managed to operate, indicated to me that people, many people, actually drove over here, from some distances away, for no other purpose than just to buy one thing – a carpet. So strange. So peculiar. This was my revelation, my economic epiphany in a back seat: this whole capitalist system must truly be incredibly complex and magnificent – and superior to all the alternatives – if it means a shop like this can thrive selling one particular type of product to people who don’t live anywhere near it.

The carpet store’s existence struck me almost like a miracle and certainly a wonder. It still does. Back then, in that moment I instantly realised that there must be thousands of shops like that around the world, and I had this vision in my mind of an incredibly dense web of stores and consumers and factories, trucks driving from point to point, of people buying and selling, millions of transactions and activities going on at any given time, all the time, all somehow unplanned, unorganised and uncoordinated by anyone. Today it seems to me like a revelation from St Frederich von Hayek, but you have to remember that at that time I was just an ignorant and unworldly teenager, a fish out of water, awestruck by all this prosperity and energy around me, so different to the sedate and grey world of my childhood.

It was always apparent to me from my “lived experience” that socialism, for all its wonderful promises, sucked and that capitalism, for all its faults, had one advantage: it actually worked, so this was no conversion on the road to Damascus (one that many leftists have experienced over the decades), and it would be years before I became interested enough to learn the mechanics of capitalism, why it is so much better than the alternatives and just how exactly is a carpet store in the middle of nowhere possible, but at that moment, probably close to exactly thirty years ago, this weird nerdy kid from communist Poland suddenly in some strangely transcendental way became as one with the market and knew – really knew – what a magnificent beast capitalism is.

Not quite Mohammed in a cave with angel Gabriel or Buddha-to-be becoming enlightened under a banyan tree, but it had to do for me – and it still does.

Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk, where this piece also appears.

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