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20/11/2006

A perfect place for a revolution

Edwin Bendyk searches for perfect idleness in post-communist Poland.

This summer, as usual, Polish newspapers and magazines were full of suggestions on how to spend the holidays in an efficient and useful way. But this year I was also struck by almost unanimous appearance of articles arguing that one of the best strategies is not to do anything on your holidays. It's good to be lazy after a whole year of hard work, they wrote. Psychologists, doctors and other experts explained to reporters: laziness is not a sin. It's good to be lazy and recover your mental and physical strength.

Why was I was so struck by this? Every year in the summer experts explain that having a good rest is important to improve work quality after the holidays. But by "good rest" they generally mean useful activities like sports, sightseeing or reading. But doing nothing? A dreadful waste of time even during a holiday. So what changed this summer? My thesis was: our society has successfully completed the transformation from socialism to Weberian capitalism. We have fully embraced Benjamin Franklin's credo "time is money," along with the "Protestant" work ethic, and have become unable to accept a life without useful activities, even while on holidays. Anyone who can afford it spends well planned and arranged holidays. Anyone who cannot goes abroad, like the famous Polish plumber, seeking an additional job to earn more money. Life without an occupation is a sin. As a result we have become a nation of workaholics who need experts to justify laziness as remedy for working too hard.

A good thesis needs an even better proof. So I began reading statistics and piecing the puzzle together. Back in the early 90s, just after the collapse of communism, our values were still inherited from the former era. Asked: "If you had plenty of money, would you still consider having a job?", 48% of respondents answered yes, but for no more than 2 hours a day. Only 11% said it was good to have a full-time job. Other studies revealed that only 26% of young people aged between 20 and 22 assumed "work is important for their development," while 60% declared "I don't like being in a hurry, competition is not for me, I don't like to work too much, I don't have ambitions." Is this not the perfect picture of a lazy society that values free time as a measure of the quality of life?

But then, within 10 years, something has changed. Let's look at data provided by the European Values Study. Now 74% of Poles say "Work is extremely important," the highest ratio of all 32 countries present in the survey. "Work should come first even if it means less spare time" believe 64.4 % of Poles (for the sake of comparison: 65,9% of Dutch disagree). "To develop talents you need to have a job": 91.4% of Poles agree, 47.1% of Dutch disagree. "People who don't work become lazy": 77.4% of Poles agree, 47.6% of Dutch disagree. And finally: "It's humiliating to receive money without having to work for it": 65.2% of Poles agree, 65.9% of Dutch disagree.

Words are now followed by deeds. According to recent OECD data, employed Poles spend an average of 1,983 hours every year at work (almost the same as the Czechs). Only South Koreans figure better with 2,423 hours. The Dutch work the least, only 1,357 hours a year. So now we are a perfectly workaholic nation with no time to lose. When I read these findings during my work at the European Summer University in Duisburg last September, everybody was struck by the rapid change in work ethic. Time has become a commodity we can sell in the form of work to get money we do not have time to spend.

Fortunately our experts have intervened, showing us we need some free time, even for sinful laziness. We need it not only to recover before more hard work, but for consumption as well. Following this enlightened advice, I asked my employer for a couple of weeks of holiday after three years of almost uninterrupted work. I went to a small village in my beloved eastern part of the Carpathian Mountains, close to the border with Slovakia. I settled down with a farmer's family who had been discovering the new understanding of time which is demanded of farmers in the European Union.

In the communist era we were used to the scarcity of all goods, especially food. After the collapse of communism we rediscovered the state of plenty, according to the capitalist rule: the more you work, the more you have. And then, after joining the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy, our farmers discovered that working more is not a good thing, because in this way more milk is produced. But postmodern European arithmetics says: if you produce more milk than the established quota, you get less money. Or in other words: you get more for working less. But you remember that for Poles it is humiliating to get money for nothing or being lazy.

I couldn't help my hosts deal with their cognitive dissonance, so I decided to take a short walk and see the village. Remembering the experts' advice, I walked no more than a couple of hundreds of meters to the local shop. It was surrounded by 5 or 6 men whose age was impossible to assess, somewhere between 30 and 60. They sat there on the steps and a small bench, looking straight ahead. Sitting and doing nothing. The shop was small and had the simplest assortment of goods, most of them of the cheapest brands. Following a spirit of discovery and the experts' advice, I bought several bottles of beer and joined my fellow citizens, offering them a drink. With dignity, saying almost nothing, they accepted my offer, and we sat there sipping beer and looking straight ahead together. Perfectly idle time. I did nothing, as the experts advise. However I couldn't stop thinking.

I recalled other, darker parts of my statistics. They say that less than half of people of working age have a job, the lowest ratio in Europe. When communism was collapsing, 18,5 million Poles had a job. Now it's just over 14 million. Millions of empty jobs have disappeared, needed by nobody in a new economic system. Unemployment peaked in 2002 at 20%. And more than 80% of those unemployed were no longer eligible for unemployment benefits.

My acquaintances at the village shop belonged to this nether region of the statistics. There we sat, sipping beer, looking forward and doing nothing. And then some reflections about the nature of time poured into my head. I recalled an Antonio Negri's book "Time for Revolution," and saw that my condition as an overworked urban professional was not so different from that of these men sitting around the village shop. Chronos is our god, this merciless divinity who eats his own children. He eats our past and our future. All we are left with is a void.

Negri claims it is possible to reclaim eternity, switching the internal meaning of time, from Chronos to Kairos. Kairos is the time of the archer who releases an arrow that travels through the space of eternity, creating an event. Event, innovation, an act of creation which is neither perfect idleness, nor full activity. And then once more I recalled statistics, this time those saying that Poland is the least innovative nation in the EU.

So we need to free ourselves from the grips of Chronos and embrace Kairos, we need to reclaim a different meaning of time, time which is part of eternity, not a commodified time of void. If we can achieve that, it will be the biggest revolution. In my pursuits of the sources for this mental change I went out of my village and moved to the special place in the world, my private "axis mundi", which is placed on the border between Poland and Slovakia, on the small road joining Jasliska village in Poland with the city of Medzilaborce in Slovakia.

This almost empty space is full of hidden meanings. Somewhere close to this road is a village, where the parents of Andy Warhol decided to emigrate to the USA. Medzilaborce now is host to a huge Warhol sanctuary – a museum full of artefacts from the artist's life. There are also some of Warhol's artworks – among them "Red Lenin" of 1987, one of Warhol's last pictures. When asked where he came from, Warhol used to answer: nowhere. Nowhere - no space full of creative energy. Perfect utopia.

And then, on the other end of the road – Jasliska, a premodern village with the sanctuary and holy picture of Our Lady of Jasliska. Every year thousands of Poles, Slovaks and Ruthenians crowd into a main square of the village in a special ceremony hailing Our Mother. Much more than mere religious ritual, it's an epiphany of eternity. This small road, lost somewhere in the wild mountains links utopia with eternity, where Chronos has nothing to say. A perfect place for revolution.

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The article originally appeared in German in Die Tageszeitung on November 11, 2006. The English version was provided by the author himself.

Edwin Bendyk
(blog) is a Warsaw-based author and journalist for Polityka weekly magazine.

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