Weak Images of the Middle Class

In a Gazeta Wyborcza article from December 1990 – suggestively entitled “New Class” – we find a description of the “typical” career path of would-be representatives of the Polish middle class:

Your average candidate for the job of Polish Capitalist stands up to their ankles in mud, freezing in the winter, taking a pee when needed in the stairway of the nearest building. At night they buy; during the day they sell. They have a tourist’s foldaway table, a collapsible bed, a “suitcase,” plus a tent and then a wooden stall to sell from. Later on, perhaps they get a mini-shop or a makeshift warehouse at Auntie’s. […] At most every tenth candidate, and perhaps as few as every hundredth, makes it up the social ladder to open a real shop, to set up a company. All the others will stay forever at the bazaars, or will return to being hired workers, or worse still will join society’s vagabonds. Not everyone can become a businessman; you need a little luck, determination, hard-work and talent. It seems that these qualities have not been distributed evenly across the population.1

In other articles from the same year the pursuit of class-status is presented in a similar fashion. To the question “How and why does the middle class arise?” the author answers: “Above all, because it wants to,”2 emphasizing the role of determination and aspiration in raising one’s social status. Of course, sheer will does not suffice; so the journalist describes the biographies of small businessmen (they are all indeed men) all of whom must overcome a series of trials, failures, random investments as well as purely physical tribulations. The initial conditions which need to be fulfilled to commence a career path (e.g. minimal financial capital, knowledge) are not given. The effort put into climbing up the social ladder is naturalised in the narrations proposed by the Gazeta Wyborcza journalist: “If you want to join the middle class, there is no other way.”3

Thus it was that in this debate at the beginning of the 90’s there appeared the figure of the self-made man, a figure new to Poland and yet already anachronistic in the West – a figure more related to the (western) capitalism of the beginning of the 20th century than the “corporate capitalism” of the 90’s.4 As Jadwiga Staniszkis points out, using the concept of neo-traditionalism, invoking the borrowed yet familiar narration of the free capitalist market was the strategy for post-communist modernisation, “randomly reaching for various old components (of one’s own or foreign heritage) and building out of them the core of the new system.”5 Staniszkis convincingly establishes that the vision of economic mechanisms was not based even on an idealised image of the global economy or the western middle class of the time - which was mostly made up of white-collar corporate employees rather than entrepreneurs. Instead, at the heart of the Polish middle class – or the concept of that class – was a rather “over-ideological (too aware of itself and posturing) tradition of the liberal market, drawn from a historical free-competition stage of western capitalism.”6 Though Staniszkis is concerned with the institutional sphere rather than narratives and images, she draws attention to the significance of the latter and their performative character. “The free-market tradition” which we can view as a set of practices and convictions issuing from the thought of classical liberalism, ultimately models itself on an image of itself reflected in a mirror of the past, “on its imagined self.” Stylised images are governed by the rules of pastiche, hyper-reality and (literally) non-sequitur. All three develop the original image – in this case the image of a free-market system and its main actor, the Capitalist, the representative of the bourgeois – and they turn on abstracting from the original context and then compressing, unifying, simplifying and highlighting selected features. Images which circulate around the public sphere become “more real than the original ‘reality’ of tradition,” because selected elements of images have been “sharpened and made ideological.”7 That is why images and texts about the new Polish middle class contain surprisingly radical simplifications, constructions based on popular snapshots, based on surface impressions.

Ad from Sukces magazine

To a great extent, the process of building a new class was based on the visual sphere with images of the new representatives of the middle class: self-made men, intelligentsia-come-businessmen. As the transition proceeded negative references were included: the nouveau-riche, hustlers and ‘suckers’. Images of the new middle class fill pages of magazines, show how perfect the middle class is in commercial breaks on TV, on cinema ads. The following may serve as illustrations of the new middle-class as depicted in visual culture: Karol Karol in Kieślowski’s Three Colours: White (1993), Piotr Nowosad in Feliks Falk’s Kapitał, czyli jak zrobić pieniądze w Polsce [Capital, or: How to make money in Poland] (1989), Dorota Waltz in Filip Bajon’s Lepiej być piękną i bogatą [Better off Rich and Beautiful] (1993); or the heroes of the somewhat later Billboard by Łukasz Zadrzyński (1998), Krzysztof Krauze’s Dług [Debt] (1999) and Waldemar Dziki’s Pierwszy million [The first million] (2000). In the visual culture of the transition period, images also play the role of codes by means of which the aspiring middle-class were able to communicate their existence and status, as well as recognise each other in public. The emphasis on the ability to recognise representatives of the new middle-class and the ability to look like someone on the rise – this all becomes one of the main plotlines of the narrative about the development of the new class. At the same time, however, these images were being used to separate off the middle class from the rest of society. The paradigm of the middle class, together with its promise of the availability of upward mobility for all, had the effect that besides the middle class, the only people who were visible were those who had failed (after trying) and those who – in line with the principle of mimicry which demands discrimination – imitate but in the wrong way (the nouveau-riche).

We should stress that images say more about the perceptions of the middle-class and their lifestyle than about the reality of their living conditions. Though images certainly impacted the real-life behaviour of the Polish people watching and consuming those same images, the reality was the product of a negotiation between imagination and available opportunities – both economic and cultural. I will leave research into the complex of behaviour and practice of individual social classes to the sociologists and ethnographers, and will instead focus on the analysis of images of styles of life as propagated by the media, popular culture, film – remembering all the time that even when specific groups absorb images as models to be imitated, it does not mean that image corresponds to reality. Imitation – if it does indeed take place as is assumed by countless ‘advice’ publications – is not a straightforward process and the copy never sticks to the original. Research into the images interpreted as being the ‘originals’ may turn out ot be of particular interest in connection with periods of radical change in social structure, such as the period after 1989. In moments like that, as Staniszkis suggests, the images which circulate sometimes have little or no connection with social reality, but serve instead to mobilise: they spread because of their promise – out of faith in the impact they will have together with the assumption that their reception will start trends of imitation.

A.K., “Yuppie”, Sukces 1990, no 6, p. 9

Capitalist Realism

In his 2013 article “O realizm kapitalistyczny [For Capitalist Realism]” Jacek Dobrowolski draws attention to the absence, in Polish cinema, of images critical of the Polish urban middle class (equated by the author with the whole of the middle class). That is to say, there are no images revealing the complicated processes of the creation of class differences, the generation of cultural capital by the middle class or analysing the emotional effects of lifestyle changes after 1989, described by Dobrowolski as “the trauma of the aspiring classes.”8 Using the term “capitalist realism,” Dobrowolski calls on Polish filmmakers to create a new genre which would combine

Something we could call ironical-critical materialism (instead of moralistic idealism), together with […] intelligent work on the form […] “Capitalist Realism” could also fill in another missing element – the theme and problematics of the techniques whereby subjects create themselves, the “technologies of the self,” as Foucault would say, strategies for individual and collective resistance.9

While wondering what it is that is missing in Polish cinema, what would make of it a significant commentary to the reality surrounding us, Dobrowolski draws our attention to the paradoxical lack of criticism of the Polish middle class. As he notes, it is the middle-class (of course western middle-class) that created the myths and epic forms which comment on the struggles for identity of this class. Its is the middle class that became the only class “capable of self-critical reflection.”10 Dobrowolski repeats of course, well-known claims of theoreticians of literature and culture, from Györg Lukács though Jürgen Habermas, to Fredric Jameson.11 But it is worth paying attention to one of the effects of the development of self-narration by western middle-classes – the development of the ability to recognise social types.

In the course of a complex argument which investigates the relationships between 18th century British middle class, the birth of financial speculation and insurance institution and the slave trade, Ian Baucom analyses the early novel as a space in which the identity of the new middle class is worked out, moving away in the process, step by step from traditional structures of inheritance12. According to this study, the shifts in middle-class identity – from an identity closely tied to one’s ancestors and homeland to an individualistic identity, where one take’s one’s responsibility into one’s own hands – are directly related to the birth of “speculative capitalism,” characterised by the introduction of banknotes, the spread of loan and insurance institutions, trade in debts and other financial phenomena. A common narrative device of the early novel was the creation of “types” which served to make the rapidly changing world more familiar through the recognisability of hitherto unknown identities, the readability of “characters,” no longer understood as based on “deep interiority or psychological depth but the external, material surface […] (the flatimpersonal character of a subject viewed and evaluated from without rather than from within).”13 It is hard not to notice the visual-material dimension of the “type” which comes to be preserved in the following century by the invention of photography and “visual research” undertaken by Alphonse Bertillon and Francis Galton, among others14. As Baucom shows, though the “type” at first sight appears to be a down-to-earth character, paradoxically his existence is closely tied to the work of the imagination – the reader of novels, rather like payer settling a transaction by means of banknotes, had to believe in something which only really has existence-by-convention, and had to behave in reality in accordance with that faith (thereby continuing the flow of cash, or by recognising the right types and entering into the appropriate relations with them). According to Baucom, the changes in economic structure were connected with changes in the epistemological order:

[…] the epistemological revolution […] transformed the epistemological by fantasizing it, altered the knowable by indexing it to the imaginable. […] The subject too […] embarked on a new, abstract, anonymous, and speculative career. The genealogical subject, the localized subject, and the subject of courtly, religious, or republican regimes of virtue found themselves competing with the new collateral, mobile, abstract subject of speculative projects and desires.15

In Baucom’s conception, the dominant model of the novel did not provide critical tools, it co-created and even facilitated the functioning of the bourgeois in this period of intense social and economic change. It is hard to positively evaluate the shifts in epistemological and financial structure described in Spectres of the Atlantic: as the author convincingly argues, these changes were directly linked to the lasting social acceptance of the merciless trade in African slaves, whose living bodies were treated as commodities to be priced and risk-assessed by the insurer16. However, it cannot be denied that the development of the novel, based on realistic plot structures, supported the processes of the adaptation of readers to social realities which were undergoing change under the influence of the advancing capitalist system.

So how did the images in the public sphere during the Polish transition help their viewers cope with the radical social changes underway in front of their very eyes, and with their participation in this changing society? The question is pressing. Is Dobrowolski right to contend that these images were bereft of critique of the emerging class? Or is Baucom’s analysis closer to the mark: images supported change by providing points of reference? The overwhelming majority of texts and images in the public eye after 1989 interpret the reality in terms of market concepts. There are images referring to economic transformation and changing class structures. The difference between the bourgeois novel and Polish images post 1989 – and perhaps this is Dobrowolski’s point as well – is that whereas the bourgeois novel remains strongly rooted in the reality surrounding the reader (stabilising that reality, according to Baucom, or proposing new ways of interpreting it, according to Dobrowolski), Polish images from the 90s are for the most part images detached from the reality of that time. Regardless of whether we take a look at feature films, first and foremost Kieślowski’s Three Colours: White, which tend to depict unusual situations, or at the instructional visual narratives from the magazines aimed at new businessmen, in both cases we are faced with a marked departure of the images from the reality of the day, as revealed in the fantastic element, aesthetic idealisation, and/or the declared ambition of becoming a model to be imitated.

In his critique of the images of the new middle class, Dobrowolski perhaps erroneously assumes that the middle class is a truly existing subject in possession of stable identity (however diverse it may be.) If he is wrong, we may nevertheless assume that the images which appear in the 90s correspond to an emerging middle class – one in the “design stage” so to speak. Thus there appear films (here recalling the words of Bożena Janicka about White17) born in the imagination of the director-intellectual imagining a hairdresser who in turn imagines a businessman – images with multiple borrowings, based on beliefs as to the beliefs of others.

Zbigniew Zamachowski as a businessman in Three Colours: White, dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993

We may note in passing that the way Dobrowolski uses the term “capitalist realism” does not fully accord with the structure of the concept of “socialist realism,” the latter being the most prominent example of a “Polish realism,” like “capitalist realism” closely tied to change in class structure. In contrast to socialist realism, Dobrowolski’s “capitalist realism” would refer critically to the dominant structures of the system, not to build but to deconstruct the prevailing order (though it is hard to say to what stage this deconstruction would proceed).18 But perhaps, pace Dobrowolski, Polish “capitalist realism” could be defined as a unique echo of the socialist realism which ruled Polish visual culture continually from the end of the 40s until the mid-50s. So capitalist realism would be the new visual style dominant after 1989 (though probable in evidence before that) in media, popular culture, in film, literature, architecture and the public sphere by means of which the new, free-market order was (and is) actively shaped, designed and legitimised.19 The scope of capitalist realism understood in this way and the way it has been implemented and executed of course differs markedly from the top-down implementation of the all-consuming socialist realism (though this is also a simplified image of the genre). Without doubt we can speak of a “post-1989 visual style” which dominated the public sphere – I am limiting my observations to this sphere20 – as representing the backdrop for the modernising transition process. One of the features of caprealism, understood in the way suggested, is its categorical nature – which does not preclude an inconsistent narrative. This categorical nature has the effect that – as Mark Fisher writes following Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek – “We are not today capable of even imagining a logical alternative to capitalism.”21 Was that not also the goal of images created during the transition from socialism to capitalism?

Though we may be fairly sure that the images of caprealism were supposed to make sense of the transformation, the movement cannot boast of too many successes in this regard. Even a casual comparison of the images of “caprealism” and “socrealism” reveals a clear difference between the image of (male and female) workers of the 50s and the (usually male) representatives of the Polish middle class of the 90s. Whereas the heroes and heroines of socrealism are coherent and similar to each other (reflecting the egalitarian effect of the system), the images of representatives of the middle class are surprisingly inconsistent (these ‘heroes’ often look like gangsters) and they seem to be put together from a variety of earlier images which in turn had rarely been faithful to their realities. Not only are the heroes weak, but their images are too: recorded on poor quality film, edited quickly or sloppily with improbable plot twists and unconvincing characters drawn on the basis of stock characters from the west, artificially stuck into the layout of the magazine or newspaper. By “weak images” I do not mean the effect they were able to exert on viewers, but the images themselves were weak, for example in terms of the incoherent plots they were embedded in. Not only are these images uncritical and lacking in distance (contrary to Dobrowolski’s wishes), but they do not even order or explain the changing reality they refer to (as in Baucom’s account). Indeed, the images represent further confusion, internal contradictions being as they are, full of lost plotlines and improbable circumstances. Both too simple and too complicated at the same time, they are distinguished by the rare combination of being both too literal and aesthetically excessive or incredible. They do not so much present simplified types as materialise stereotypical viewpoints – from the stereotype of the rich foreigner (who is too well dressed) to the intellectual who is lost in the new reality (and almost literally lost in his stretched out sweater).

The “weak images” of the Polish middle class are also technically weak. In the case of film, it is not only the weakness of the sound or image (which may as much result from budgetary or time constraints as lack of ability), but above all from mistakes in editing which in a weird way match the plot inconsistencies and thereby strengthen them. Polish cinema of the 90s is also a goldmine of errors in detail. In the case of illustrated magazines our attention is drawn by the imperfections in layout or rather the collage which connects and contrasts juxtaposed visual elements. And there is another similar between the weakness of cinematic images (including arthouse cinema) and magazine images: mixing up of genres, uncertainty as to which genre is intended. The most telling case of the latter is the peculiar genre of the illustrated article-guide which was aimed at the burgeoning middle class. We may also tentatively put forward the thesis that the distance these weak images have to Polish reality of the 90s is in fact the result of the role many of them were supposed to play: they were not designed to imitate but to be imitated.

Adrianna Biedrzyńska as a new owner of the weaving factory at Łódź in Lepiej być piękną i bogatą [Better off Rich and Beautiful], dir. Filip Bajon, 1993

The weakness of the images of the 90s, especially those dealing with contemporary life, tells us a lot about the weaknesses of the transition process itself wherein a mixture of languages was used to describe the surrounding reality – with the aim of setting up an image of the desired end rather than using image to describe accurately or critique reality. The suits don’t lie well – the jackets and two-piece dresses crumple when lain on the uncomfortable post-communist armchairs, the lace fantasies of an exciting life itch, dreams of wealth and uninhibited consumption burst at the seams. Nevertheless, it was these images which were to have, I believe, a crucial influence on the processes of the development of key concepts of public life like “modernity” or indeed “middle class.” In this aspect – rhetorical attractiveness and strength of persuasion – they were not weak. They organised the imagination of the viewers and reproduced and circulated attributes which constituted social capital which was crucial for the existence of the “new middle class.”

The particular connection of the “new class” and images has been suggestively described by Agnieszka Osiecka, a well-known poet, in her piece for the weekly Polityka [Politics], published in the column “Galeria potworów [Monster Gallery]” in May 1989. The article is an expression of a reflex emotional rejection of the “new class” – or at least a rather contemptuous and ironic attitude to the rising entrepreneurs. This rejection was shared with some members of the Polish-communist intelligentsia (who Osiecka undoubtedly spoke for). However, I would also read it as a suggestive account of – at least to some extent – ethnographic value22. Though constantly aware of the sense of superiority Osiecka displays towards the group she describes, I cannot deny a feeling of the aptness of her diagnosis, which reveals, as it does, the close connection between the emerging class and the visual sphere which is undergoing radical change in the period of transition. In Osiecka’s presentation, this new class of entrepreneurs is a class being educated by images, imitating images, creating new images and visual messages, as well as consuming images.23 It is also a class for whom language – such an important medium for a poet and member of the intelligentsia like Osiecka – no longer plays such an explicit role in “creating identity.”

The clash between the language of the intelligentsia and the images of the new class is already apparent in the name Osiecka gives to Polish small-time entrepreneurs, calling them “wydeo,” deliberately misspelling the “Polish” word for video, describing them as a “picturesque group, ubiquitous and new.” “Wydeo” brings to mind a stereotype of plebeian talk, incompetently importing foreign phrases into Polish, thereby implying the anti-intellectual background of the new group. Osiecka devotes her column to the prospering entrepreneurs whose careers began in the 80s after all, with their first dreams of a career in trade spawning in the Gierek period of the 70s. The new ownership class, as representatives of which Osiecka selects the least flattering or the most ridiculous sectors (clothing boutiques in “Katowice, Olsztynek, Łódź”; “curtain ironing”, “agency in sale of Japanese gardens”, pig-sty construction, “artistic products in leather”, “furriery with export samples”); above all Osciecka collects those with the status of “the first owners in Poland of – and at the same time addicted viewers – VHS equipment.” Watching the new images – images of secondary quality (spy films, Australia melodrama, Rambo) – became, in Osiecka’s opinion, a shared identity-forming experience of the new group. The consumption of images is presented by Osiecka as uncritical: the viewer does not analyse the images, but only absorbs them; he or she does not even make of them the subject of everyday conversations (VHS is the “grave of social life.”) So images became a substitute for inner life (video “saves us from death by boredom.”) If it serves any purpose, it is imitation – in modelling the look of the new group, an important role was played by films and glossy magazines, but in all probability the number of images in circulation is limited. According to Osiecka:

At the market in Rembertów [Warsaw suburb – msz] everyone looks the same: seller or buyer; they quite often exchange roles. […] The worst thing is that they […] not only produce things, but later buy from each other, so you can see the products later in homes, in shopping centres and – the horror! - abroad.

Looking good and being seen, interpreted by Osiecka as a manifestation of one’s existence in the public sphere, are very high values in the hierarchy of the new class. The middle class consistently occupies the visual field, populating it with their bodies and their ugly objects, generating a certain kind of aesthetic excess, pungently described by the author.

[…] between the ladies and the gentlemen there is a kid of aesthetic dissonance, as if they had been looking at entirely different films and magazines. The men, regardless of the time of day and social occasion (whether a dance or a new pigsty), wear the following items: a grey sweater with black and white pattern (available in the “Pewex” import store for 32 US dollars), a nylon jacket with a shiny zip, jeans previosuly borrowed from your son, tight elasticated Y-fronts, a man purse in his hand and trainers or snow-boots on his feet. His lady (we do say: “My Lady”) wears a diamond encrusted top, a leather skirt costing 440 thousand (prices in Rembertów in 1989), slip-on shoes straight form Harrods (her girlfriends would mock mercilessly if they had been from the Polish factory in Chełmek), and atop her head a turban, since she is permanently unsatisfied with her hairdo.

According to Osiecka, the style of the new class is all about not matching and exaggeration (in contrast to the chic of the 60s.) Excessive attention to the visual leads to the lessening of the role of language – language being of paramount importance for our scandalised commentator and used by her as an (effective) weapon in the fight against the “video monsters.” According to Osiecka, the new class talks only about money and the section entitled What are suitable topics for dinner table conversation? is packed full of circumstances where one speaks about money (“at the table, in bed, in the car”) as we as ways of naming the subject of our conversations (“about money, dosh, loot”). Faced with such a paucity of topics for conversation, the columnist longs for the petty traders of the communist times whose language had a variety of means of expression: “they remembered country songs, war-time resistance songs or prison songs […], they sang with gusto as they drank home-made liqueurs, they told tales, they were able to banter with anyone, joke with the ladies.” Yet even with language being in its death throes, the most painful thing of all is the state of the experience at the basis of all social interactions – seeing the face of another person. “What is the worst of all?” – asks the paragraph’s title in bold print. “The faces!” – she answers. “Oh, what has happened with our faces – into that potato-oval from Mazowsze has been drawn the cunning, guile and murderous instinct of the yob.”

Osiecka’s text anticipates many rhetorical tropes which were shortly to appear in the public discourse on the nouveau riche – commentary that was to be based, like Osiecka’s arguments, on a sense of aesthetic disgust. The article is a kind of exercise in social distinction where, as Pierre Bourdieu wrote, “Aesthetic sense […] is also a distinctive expression of a privileged position in social space,” whereas tastes are “asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes.”24

The language used in the critique of the images of “wydeo” – images of the new group of entrepreneurs from the beginning of the 90s who were still perceived as a branch of the new middle class and in the course of the coming decade to be discredited as representing the margins of that class – this language with ease unmasks the images of the new middle class with irony, parody, repetition – a repetition which induces ridicule at the sight of the repetitiveness of the middle class. At the same time, this critique remains on the surface – it does not address the underlying mechanisms which generated the new class, but only its appearance and image. Ways of accumulating capital are not criticized, nor is ideological support for the acquisition of wealth by some at the expense of others, but only the way the money is finally spent and – above all – the way wealth is displayed. Indeed, Bourdieu had pointed out the particular irritation of the higher classes at the visibility of classes deemed lower. “Where the petit bourgeois or nouveau riche 'overdoes it,' betraying his own insecurity, bourgeois discretion signals its presence by a sort of ostentatious discretion, sobriety and u understatement, a refusal of everything which is 'showy', 'flashy' and pretentious…”25 In the phrase “ostentatious discretion” it seems there lies the ever clearer goal of the new Polish middle class as it in turn became more educated and came to promote a style of discreet disclosure of wealth – showing-by-not-showing, in contrast to the stigmatised group of those who had not matured to the level of visual discretion.

White Socks – going out of style

By the middle of the 90s, conceptions of the new middle class had begun to change – in terms of its most characteristic representatives, its visual membership codes and the nature of work carried out. Instead of setting up your own business – a shop, an import-export company or a service sector business – that is becoming an entrepreneur (potentially a wealthy one), the dominating paradigms and narratives start to be those related to working in a corporation (especially an international corporation). So the entrepreneur-businessman, suffering more and more from amnesia about his own past, is joined by the corporate manager who realises the model of a career of step-by-step advance and the steady accumulation of privileges. At the same time the public sphere begins to exhibit an aesthetic break of great political and social moment. This break finds its expression in the criticisms levelled against the “style-less” Polish business people. These were criticisms that often appeared in the same media, and often made by the same authors who had been launching the new middle class and had not been so discriminating. As the “new middle class” is replaced by the “modern middle class,” some of the first generation of businessmen come to be stigmatised as immature and showing off their wealth. The critique of the nouveau riche intensifies in the mid-90s and was based on a familiar rhetorical scheme – the criticism of fake products which reveal incompetent mimesis. The impulse to mock the nouveau riche, especially taking the form of ridiculing their excessive, almost “obscene” appearance, was connected with the growing disappointment with the aesthetics of the transition with the prevailing sense in the media that modernisation was not happening as quickly and as extensively as had been expected. The changing character of employment of those aspiring to membership of the modern middle class also had an effect on the perceived need to mark boundaries separating the “European lifestyle” from the lifestyle of the nouveau riche and the “victims of Polish transition.” Though the modern middle class also imitated – drawing on Polish and foreign images of fashionable clothes, interior design, and leisure activities – it was above all the nouveau riche who bore the brunt of criticism for their manifest departure from canons governing the presentation of wealth. Fake products hurt the eyes not only in virtue of their imperfections, but also because of the heterogeneity of the designs being (mis)matched – a melange of western luxury, eastern excess and the hallmarks of Polish peasantry.

Sukces magazine, section Komu się powiodło i dlaczego? [Who did succeed and why], an interview with Marek Profus, Sukces 1991, no 7, p. 5

“It was enough that they were decently dressed, wore white socks and carried a coded briefcase – and the doors to bank managers would open.”26 This is the description of the judge heading the legal team investigating the notorious Gęba brothers who fraudulently acquired bank loans. In their case, white socks and the suitcase were evidence of their material status; they served practically as a disguise by the aid of which they posed as trustworthy businessmen. In the period of the birth of Polish entrepreneurship, the combination of white socks and black moccasins was one of the main distinguishing marks of the newly minted businessman. It was a deliberately ostentatious detail (noted by the court and surely present in the evidence of witnesses and victims in the case referred to), but at the same time it was accepted and considered proper. White socks are worn by Piotr Nowosad, the hero of Falk’s film Kapitał [Capital] and an intellectual aspiring to join the middle class;white socks also appear on the feet of the entrepreneurial heroes of articles in Sukces [Success] magazine. With time – by 1994 when the judge delivered his verdict in the case of the Gęba brothers and the daily Gazeta Wyborcza reported on the scandal with an article entitled “Siła białych skarpetek” [“The Power of White Socks”] – the model of the true businessman changed whereby not only the elements and colours underwent change but also, indeed above all, the evaluation of ostentation.

How did it happen that white socks came to be a symbol of the new middle class, a symbol of the tatty transformational (but recent) past and limited access to the new elite? Why did this particular item of clothing come to codify the “excess and difference” described by Homi K. Bhabha, i.e. an item allowing for the preservation of the distance between the coloniser and the colonised?27 As much as excess is the result of incompetent imitation it represents the failure of the colonised, yet it also sustains mimicry confirming the necessity of continuing the process of colonisation. From this perspective, the nouveau riche with their white socks paradoxically become an essential element in the process of imitating the western class system, bearing witness to the need to continue the lessons of modernity which characterize the transition period.

White socks did not appear in Poland in 1989: already in the 80s they were on sale at the markets, especially from those traders who imported goods from West Germany. They were made from thick cotton or terry material, and were intended as a sports clothes item, for tennis in particular, the kind of sports which was associated in people’s minds with the life style of the western businessman who was to be promoted intensively by magazines like Sukces [Success]. Later produced both in Poland and imported from Asia, they came to be a symbolic commodity in the public debate of the 90s. It is hard to trace the exact route the sock travelled from West-German markets and American tennis courts to the drawers and wardrobes of Polish entrepreneurs – even making their appearance in the catwalk of the “Sexy-Man” contest in 1991, where “most of the candidates took black moccasins, white socks and Thai suits to the pinnacle of elegance.”28

A sock is just a detail, just an element in the composition. However, As Roland Barthes points out in The Fashion System, a detail may be the most important part of an outfit, providing the basis for the message communicated. The detail is “the tiny being from which an entire harvest springs, […] a little nothing that changes everything, those little nothings that can do everything.29 It is worth remembering that in the history of Polish culture, the detail of the socks was an unobvious element (as were shoes), distinctive and historically marking out peasants from burghers. It is in this context that the white thick-cotton socks of the 90s join the proverbial “straw coming out the shoes” betraying one’s rural background – they are symbolic elements, breaking norms.

Of course, as we look for the source of the popularity of white socks, it is worth noting that white itself – as quality and projected value – is a color which can only be sustained within a certain lifestyle. The color excludes membership in many social groups and excludes manual labour as employment. Perhaps that is why around 1989 white socks connoted wealth for many and high social position – they indicated one’s profession and lifestyle. They confirm Barthes’ thesis of the democratising power of the detail – an inexpensive addition which allows one to “participate in the sublimity of the ideas” of fashion, though lacking the corresponding means30. White socks had to be shiny clean and catch the eye. Although known in many cultures as something not matching the rest of the outfit, a mistake revealing lack of sartorial competence, in the case of the culture of Polish transition they gained a particular symbolic strength. Combined with moccasins and a suit they become a status symbol for aspiring businessmen or would-be members of the middle class. They thus represent an example of the strategy of proving oneself and the necessity of displaying symbols of this status proven.

Twój Styl 1993, no 11 (40), November, pp. 86-87

The condemnation of white socks in the 90s – more precisely: wearing white socks together with non-sporty dark shoes – was therefore the rejection of an attempt to demonstrate social position. As per the logic of the modern middle class, by putting on white socks and expensive moccasins, the nouveau riche tried desperately to demonstrate their high social position and their membership of the middle class which remains nevertheless beyond their reach. Were they really part of the middle class, and not merely an expensive forgery, they would have known that “under no circumstances does one put on white socks.”31 In other words, the need to ostentatiously establish one’s class status is itself proof of one’s lack of class status, one’s thinly veiled complexes. White socks are also evidence of lack of understanding of the rules of living in the middle class – avoiding certain contrasts (sport and elegance) which separate various areas of life. The nouveau riche style, on the other hand, combines white socks with leather moccasins or shiny ballroom style shoes and a suit – i.e. three spheres of life: work, leisure time (sport) and socializing.

By the mid-90s white socks became a visual synonym of backwardness and not being modern. The earliest warnings about how unfashionable “white socks” are appeared in Gazeta Wyborcza, mainly in local inserts dedicated to shopping and special offers, becoming visual shorthand for everything that must remain beyond the modern middle class and the elite upper class. The “white sock” became for the moderns an embarrassing hangover from the early 90s, often mentioned in contexts where someone wished to demonstrate their superiority in having absorbed the lessons of modernisation. In a 1995 article, a Gazeta Wyborcza journalist told an anecdote illustrating the process of invoking embarrassment related to the recent phase of immaturity.

A well-known television journalist recently related to me the following story. During a banquet he had made some derogatory remark about businessmen and politicians who wear white socks with their suits. In response his company roared with laughter – so loudly, in fact as to be unnatural. After a moment he noticed that the majority his male company had hidden their legs discreetly under their chairs32.

If we would like to trace the patterns of shifts in the perception of the middle class by means of the figure of white socks, we might say that the beginning of the unlimited domination of the aesthetics of the modern middle class is the need of the 90s. From the middle of the 90s, articles mentioning the problem of white socks are written in a surprisingly serious and alarmist tone, most of all in articles from the newspaper supplements: “Supermarket” (Gazeta Wyborcza), “Weekend” (Gazeta Wyborcza) or “Styl życia” [“Lifestyle”] (Rzeczpospolita [The Republic]). “Sporty Sunday might go as follows: e.g. a T-shirt in a beautiful chocolate colour, with a charcoal eiderdown jacket thrown, tracksuit trousers and (attention!) … only then may one put on white socks”33 – we are thus reminded by the Gazeta Wyborcza journalist. Another journalist abruptly notes that “one should not wear white socks with a suit!”34 Journalists from Rzeczpospolita chime in, “Not allowed – end of discussion!”35, or, in a less hostile, more caring tone, “never (!) put on white tennis (or other sports) socks with a suit.” Journalists used the language of permission or discipline, and when they want to be stinging in their remarks, they choose irony or sarcasm.

If someone were naively to think that one can put on socks without regard for any norms, they are mistaken. Some men consider that white socks […] “go with everything.” And that is a disgrace. They can be worn with trainers, on the way to the beach or at the tennis court. Whereas […] when conducting business only plain socks should be worn, always of a darker shade than one’s suit.36

Invoking the language of class, journalists note that, “we need not be overly concerned about elites, but the average Polish man has difficulty choosing appropriate socks for the corresponding occasion.”37 Advice articles are intended to protected the average Pole from being suspected of membership in a group who still wore white socks well into the 90s – “the nouveau riche and the those unschooled in polite society,”38 “citizens of CIS countries at the international bazars an so-called peasants39, “bisnessmen”40 (again a deliberate, mocking misspelling of the Polish for businessmen).

Sukces magazine

The symbolic route taken by white socks goes from the perhaps accidental role they played in the proper attire of the new businessman – demonstrating their material status – to an extreme visibility, to be interpreted as inappropriate ostentation, revealing that one only seems to belong to the middle class. This social ostracism is based on the aesthetic stigmatisation of excess and the lack of understand of the rules of appropriate appearance. The early 90s showed off, but later times exhibited “ostentatious discretion” – showing by not showing. The obsessive focus on the appearance of a group, which more and more comes to be referred to as those “on the make” or the nouveau riche, may be interpreted as a syndrome of a superficial criticism whose object is not the accumulation of wealth, nor (the frequent effect of the former) growing class inequalities. The object of this critique is merely the manner in which one uses and demonstrates accumulated goods and commodities.

This interpretation matches the theses of Gil Eyal, Iván Szelenyi and Eleanor Townsley, the authors of Making Capitalism without Capitalists, according to whom the basis for the achievement of long-term success in post-socialist countries, defined as the ongoing increase in the standard of living (or at least material stability) as well as influence on social reality – was the possession of the necessary cultural capital. The authors point to the representatives of two groups as the “winners” of the transition process – those who gained the most during the economic and political changes: the intelligentsia of the anti-communist opposition and the “communist technocrats.” Above all, however, the element which conditioned success was above all cultural capital – what connected both the groups mentioned, though they remained hostile to each other at least in the dominant narrative on the transformation of the political system.

Post-communist society can be described as a unique social structure in which cultural capital is the main source of power, prestige, and privilege. Possession of economic capital places actors only in the middle of the social hierarchy, and the conversion of former political capital into private wealth is more the exception than the rule. Indeed the conversion of former communist privilege into a post-communist equivalent happens only when social actors possess the right kids of capital to make the transition. Thus, those who were at the top of the social hierarchy under state socialism can stay there only if they are capable of ‘trajectory adjustment’, which at the current juncture means if they are well endowed with cultural capital41.

The theses advanced by the authors allows us to explain the coexistence in the post-1989 public sphere of two groups, traditionally opposed to one another – members of the opposition and party apparatchiks. These claims contradict the thesis, formulated by Jadwiga Staniszkis among others, which states that the most important factor sustaining high social position post 1989 was political capital before the watershed (membership of party structures). As the authors of Making Capitalism... show, only a part of the political nomenclature of the previous system achieved economic success in the transition period. For it became a condition of sustaining social position to be in possession of cultural capital, understood as the education, savoir faire, flexibility and the ability to familiarise oneself with the new rules. We should note that both competing hypotheses define in advance the indicators of success and power. However, it seems that the study of Eyal, Szelenyi and Townsley takes into consideration rather wide definition of ways of exerting power in neoliberal capitalism, pointing not only to possession of wealth (and therefore representatives of the classically defined bourgeois), but also the new class of managers, who not only possess economic capital but also the opportunities to manage employees as well as symbolic power – granted them by the media dominating the public sphere.

If we follow Bourdieu’s definition of cultural power and include unmeasurable elements like taste and aesthetic sensibility, we will agree that disgust at the nouveau riche invariably becomes one of the strategies for building and sustaining the new class structure. In the narrative of the unquestionable correctness or inevitability of neoliberal changes, the nouveau riche play several functions from the mid-90s on: first of all they provide a negative role-model for the still developing middle class who are to faithfully imitate “Europe,” a more perfect aesthetic object of imitation; secondly, they allow one to sustain the teleological vision of transition wherein the infancy of capitalism comes to be replaced by the “normal” state of maturity. Revising aesthetic paradigms is one of the roads to normalcy, one that is aided by the patient advice columns as well as the structures of the “pedagogy of shame,” based on texts and images intended to provoke a sense of embarrassment in Polish society at one’s immaturity, vulgarity and backwardness. Following the rhetoric of “catching up with Europe,” texts filled with snide remarks about the nouveau riche usual close with upbeat forecasts, predicting the future adaptation of at least part of this group to “European standards.” As predicted by Osiecka, whose “Wydeo” turned out to be an anticipation of the coming indignation at the aesthetic excesses of a part of the middle class:

How will it be? It’ll be alright. Wydeo, like everything that goes around, will not be for all eternity hard-edged. Scratches are smoothed over; hands become paler, and hearts blossom in the sun like small, red peonies. And one day, a young man, ashen with subtlety, shall lead me to the other side of the way, reciting a Norwegian saga.

Project financed by the National Science Centre (Narodowe Centrum Nauki), no. DEC-2012/05/N/HS2/03077

Fragments of the book Norms of Visibility. Identity in times of transition (Fundacja Bęc Zmiana: Warsaw 2016).

1Danuta Zagrodzka, “Nowa klasa” [“New Class”],Gazeta Wyborcza, December 29, 1990, p. 6.

2Andrzej Gzyło, “Jak i dlaczego powstaje klasa średnia?” [“How and Why the Middle Class Arise”], Gazeta Wyborcza, November 7, 1990, 7.


4 In the second half of the 90s there was a shift in the perception of the middle class, both in public debate and in popular culture. In his 1998 article “Kontrowersje wokół klasy średniej w Polsce lat dziewięćdziesiątych” [“Controversies surrounding the middle class in the Poland of the 90s”] Rafał Drozdowski already draws the distinction between the “old” and “new middle class.” The former includes individual entrepreneurs, while the latter covers “highly qualified specialists and experts,” thereby indicating the steady exclusion of the old middle class by the new. See Rafał Drozdowski, “Kontrowersje wokół klasy średniej w Polsce lat dziewięćdziesiątych” [“Controversies surrounding the middle class in the Poland of the nineties”], Kultura i Społeczeństwo [Culture and Society], 1 (1998): 100.

5Jadwiga Staniszkis, Postkomunizm. Próba opisu [Postcommunism. An Attempt at a Description] (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2001), 136.

6Ibid., 140.

7Ibid., 137.

8Jacek Dobrowolski, “O realizm kapitalistyczny” [“For Capitalist Realism”], Dziennik Opinii, May 14, 2013, accessed October 22, 2014,http://www.krytykapolityczna.pl/artykuly/film/20130514/dobrowolski-o-realizm-kapitalistyczny .



11 Compare inter alia: György Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972); Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991); Fredric Jameson, Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982).

12Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic. Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).

13Baucom, Spectres, 69, my emphasis. See also: Deidre Shauna Lynch, The Economy of Character. Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

14Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, ed. R. Bolton (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989).

15 Baucom, Spectres, 71.

16Spectres of the Atlantic centres on the tragic events on the English boat Zong, a carrier of slaves. On its voyage to Jamaica the captain decided, because of a shortage of water, to throw 142 slaves overboard. The ship’s owners subsequently made a claim to their insurer for the loss of their property, the “goods” the slaves were deemed to be. When the insurance company rejected the claim, the Zong’s owners took them to court. Despite the attention drawn to the case by the British abolitionist Granville Sharp, no one was charged with the murder of 142 slaves.

17 Janicka describes the main protagonist of Kieślowski’s Three Colors. White as “looking and behaving like a businessman as imagined by the hairdresser.” Bożena Janicka, “Zwykły facet – tak, to do mnie pasuje. Ze Zbigniewem Zamachowskim rozmawia Bożena Janicka” [“A regular guy – yes that suits me. Bożena Janicka talking to Zbigniew Zamachowski”], Kino [Cinema] 2 (1994): 6.

18 The way Dobrowolski uses the term “capitalist realism” is closer to one of the first appearances of the term in the text of Gerhard Richter, used in the course of describing the newly formed group of young German artists who included Konrad Luege and Sigmar Polke as well as Richter. The idea of “capitalist realism” obviously refers to the concept which had been developed in the socialist bloc, and the author’s intention is to criticise wryly capitalist society and over-consumption. See also: Kapitallistischer Realismus. Von der Kunstaktion zur Gesselschaftskritik, ed. S. Neckel (Frankfurt-New York: Campus, 2010).

19 Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire La Berge, the editors of the volume Reading Capitalist Realism – devoted to American literature and pop-culture of the 80s – draw our attention to the fact that the term “capitalist realism” holds within itself a definitional ambiguity – it is as frequently used to describe projects which are critical of capitalism as the opposite. According to Shonkwiler and La Berge this circumstance to a great extent reflects the contradictions and diversity of the social and economic system itself. Leigh Claire La Berge, Alison Shonkwiler, “A Theory of Capitalist Realism,” in: Reading Capitalist Realism, ed. L. C. La Berge, A. Shonkwiler (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004).

20 Capitalist newspeak was subjected to critique in the Polish literature of the late 90s and the early 2000s. Compare, inter alia: Dawid Bieńkowski, Nic [Nothing] (Warszawa: W.A.B., 2005); Sławomir Shuty, Zwał [Heap] Sławomira Shutego (Warszawa: W.A.B., 2004); Mariusz Sieniewicz, Czwarte niebo [The Fourth Heaven] (Warszawa: W.A.B., 2003).

21 Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero Books, 2009): 2.

22 Agnieszka Osiecka, “Wydeo,” Polityka [Politics] 22 (1989): 8.

23 It is worth making a marginal remark at this point: Polish intelligentsia has also been criticised for the imitation of images. Andrzej Mencwel, in his articles of the turn of 70s and 80s, describes the flats of the “new intelligentsia” who shape the space of their homes following the pattern of TV representations of the nobility of the past. “The insincerity of the decorated interior, copied furniture, the tastelessness of imitation coverings, the pretentiousness of stylised lighting, the predictability of “accidentally” placed knickknacks – always the same. […] The new intelligentsia changes its outfits, with their dreams prompted by the television.” Andrzej Mencwel, “Mała historia wnętrz mieszkalnych” [“A Small History of Flat Interiors”], in: Andrzej Mencwel, Widziane z dołu [Seen from Below] (Warsaw: PIW, 1980): 116.

24 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard, 1984): 56.

25 Bourdieu, Distinction, 249.

26 Jacek Brzuszkiewicz, “Siła białych skarpetek” [“The Power of White Socks”], Gazeta Wyborcza, December 8, 1994.

27 Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: the Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” in: Homi K. Bhabha The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994): 85.

28 Baw, “Polski sexy-man” [“Polish Sexy-Man”], Gazeta Wyborcza, December 13, 1991, 3.

29 Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 1990): 243. Barthes’ emphasis.

30 Barthes, The Fashion System.

31 Wojciech Mittelstaedt, “Wyższa szkoła biznesu. Odc. 4. Strój” [“The Higher School of Business. Part 4. Dress”], Sukces [Success] (10), 1994.

32Kamil Niemira, “Moda przemija, zasady pozostaje” [“Fashions change, rules remain”], supplement “Na zakupy” [“For Shopping”] in Gazeta Wyborcza, February 3, 1995.

33 Dorota Maj, “Porzucić stado” [“Leaving the Herd”], in the “Weekend” supplement to Gazeta Wyborcza, June 26, 1992, 3. This was the earliest critical mention I was able to find concerning white socks.

34 Niemira, “Moda przemija, zasady pozostaje”

35 Magda Ignar, “Nie wolno i już!” [“Not allowed and there’s no discussion”], in the “Magazyn” supplement to Rzeczpospolita, March 26, 1998.

36 Andrzej Kostyra, “Jak zostać prawdziwym elegantem?” [“How to Achieve Genuine Elegance?”],Sukces [Success] (4), 1994, 99.

37 Grzegorz Sieczkowski, “Sztuka dodatków” [“The Art of Accessories”], Rzeczpospolita, June 29, 1996.

38 Grzegorz Sieczkowski, “Sześć najważniejszych wzorów” [“The Six Most Important Designs”], Rzeczpospolita, June 15, 1996, 4.

39 Małgorzata Matuszewska, Monika Zakrzewska, “Życie w dresie” [“Life in a Tracksuit”], Gazeta Wyborcza, April 22, 1998, 24.

40 In describing the culture of “businessmen” the Sukces columnist also invoked visual rhetoric: “They already have their organisational uniform, allowing one to separate the “bisnessman” from a wannabe at a glance. Black moccasins, white socks, a bracelet from 14 carat gold, a signet and necklace, a baseball cap and mobile in hand – these are the things that inspire respect and facilitate interaction.” Marek Przybylik, “Język giętki” [“Flexible Language”], Sukces (2), 1995, 84.

41 Gil Eyal, Iván Szelenyi, Eleanor R. Townsley, Making Capitalism without Capitalists. The New Ruling Elites in Eastern Europe (London: Verso Books, 2002): 6.