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CREES Noon Lecture. “Supply-Side Socialism: Conceptualizing Consumption in the Polish People’s Republic.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2015
12:00 AM
1636 International Institute/SSWB, 1080 S. University

Even as recent scholarship has emphasized the role that consumer desire has played in the daily lives of those living in the “People’s Republics,” this has typically been portrayed politically as either an example of systemic inadequacies (with the authorities failing to keep consumerism at bay) or as a product of a tactical concession (with the leadership offering consumerist bread-and-circuses in the hope of maintaining social docility). But we have a surprisingly incomplete—often inaccurate—understanding of what the economists and policy makers of the communist era really thought about consumption, and how they fit it into their plans and forecasts.

In my paper I will try to reconstruct the world of those who worked in the planning offices, university economics departments, and government consulting committees in the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, PRL). My sources include economics textbooks, government reports, transcripts from academic conferences, MA theses and PhD dissertations in economics, and policy debates in the PZPR Central Committee. I study these not to offer an intellectual history of economic ideas under communism, but to understand the goals and assumptions (often implied or assumed) that shaped how the authorities in the PRL made decisions that helped determine the availability (or lack thereof) of consumer goods. The proliferation of consumer goods was in no sense an unintended consequence of socialist modernization, nor did this stem from tactical political concessions; rather, policy-makers saw the provision of such goods as a crucial marker of success. The blind-spot among the PRL economists was instead elsewhere: unlike their capitalist counterparts in the 1950s and 1960s, but very much like those who emerged in the mid- to late-1970s, they had a fundamentally supply-side worldview that could only accommodate rational economic actors. In other words, they could think about and plan for consumption, but not for the “irrationality” (as they saw it) of consumer demand. They were thus poorly equipped to deal with the emerging cultural practices of consumption that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, but very well equipped to see the growing supply-side consensus that emerged globally in the 1980s as a means of resolving their problems.

Brian Porter-Szucs is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where he has taught since 1994. He is the author of Poland and the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom (Wiley Blackwell, 2014), Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (Oxford, 2010), and When Nationalism Began to Hate: Imagining Modern Politics in 19th Century Poland (Oxford, 2000). Porter-Szucs was the 2011 winner of U-M’s John Dewey Award for Outstanding Teaching and the 2006 Excellence in Education Award.

Part of the CREES-sponsored series, Buying and Selling, States and Markets, which focuses on various aspects of economies in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia. How did socialist regimes theorize money, consumption, wages, and pricing? How did markets during state socialism actually work, and what is their legacy in contemporary times? What are the social roles of commodities and economic transactions today?

Sponsors: CREES, CES, CPPS

Brian Porter-Szűcs, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History, U-M