Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor

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Overview

The transition from socialism in Eastern Europe is not an isolated event, but part of a larger shift in world capitalism: the transition from Fordism to flexible (or neoliberal) capitalism. Using a blend of ethnography and economic geography, Elizabeth C. Dunn shows how management technologies like niche marketing, accounting, audit, and standardization make up flexible capitalism's unique form of labor discipline. This new form of management constitutes some workers as self-auditing, self-regulating actors who are disembedded from a social context while defining others as too entwined in social relations and unable to self-manage. Privatizing Poland examines the effects privatization has on workers' self-concepts; how changes in "personhood" relate to economic and political transitions; and how globalization and foreign capital investment affect Eastern Europe's integration into the world economy. Dunn investigates these topics through a study of workers and changing management techniques at the Alima-Gerber factory in Rzeszów, Poland, formerly a state-owned enterprise, which was privatized by the Gerber Products Company of Fremont, Michigan.Alima-Gerber instituted rigid quality control, job evaluation, and training methods, and developed sophisticated distribution techniques. The core principle underlying these goals and strategies, the author finds, is the belief that in order to produce goods for a capitalist market, workers for a capitalist enterprise must also be produced. Working side-by-side with Alima-Gerber employees, Dunn saw firsthand how the new techniques attempted to change not only the organization of production, but also the workers' identities. Her seamless, engaging narrative shows how the employees resisted, redefined, and negotiated work processes for themselves.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"By the mid 1990s, Western as well as Eastern social scientists, businessmen and policy makers seemed to agree that one could not bring capitalism to Eastern Europe without bringing also 'capitalist values'. Elizabeth Dunn's book is a detailed and competent analysis of the engineering of souls and human relations entailed by the need for new values that accompanied the transformation of a Polish state enterprise, Alima, into a joint Polish-American private business, Alima-Gerber. . . . This sincere and realistic statement of her own relations to work and to Polish workers reveals her third underlying concern with power as it relates to the transformation of the company. Indeed the book shows how labor relations, notions of personhood and human relations on the shop floor are negotiated by Alima workers, who arrive at the encounter with the American Gerber company with their own (socialist or Christian) values. This power axis, with its emphasis on the dynamics of empowerment and disempowerment, is finally the strongest argument in Elizabeth Dunn's writing, as it underlines her whole analysis of data."—Monica Heintz, Soyuz: The Research Network for Postsocialist Studies, September 2004

"Privatizing Poland is a study based on participant-observation of the takeover of Alima, a baby-food factory in the medium-sized Polish city of Rzeszów, by the Michigan-based Gerber Corporation. . . . Dunn succeeds admirably in presenting the clash between the frameworks of flexible accumulation and actually existing socialism, inducing me to assign the book in a class on the transformations in Eastern Europe and a more general one on globalization. . . . Privatizing Poland stands out as one of the best case studies of the process of privatization in Eastern Europe."—Hans C. Buechler, American Ethnologist, November 2005

"This is a pathbreaking book. Elizabeth Dunn is the first to allow us to feel what postcommunist transformation is all about. Dunn's detailed account of the concrete ways in which people's lives have changed makes dry social science concepts like 'transition,' 'class formation,' and 'privatization' come alive. How are people working differently? How are they made to think differently? How has 'democratization' been used to create a new, subordinate type of worker, as well as new types of managers? Postcommunism has never been captured like this before."—David Ost, author of The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe

"In this stimulating book, Elizabeth C. Dunn renews an anthropology of capitalism, and will stir debates about postsocialist transition. In the land of Solidarity, management techniques seek to remake labor discipline as well as Polish worker identities in accordance with neoliberal ideals of privatized responsibility. Workers, however, struggle to reclaim values that sustain a moral vision of solidarity. The author's vivid ethnography and engaging style make this book a pleasure to read."—Aihwa Ong, author of Buddha is Hiding: Refugees, Citizenship, the New America

"Well organized and well crafted, Privatizing Poland is an excellent addition to the literature on the postsocialist transition in Eastern Europe. Both participant and observer, Elizabeth C. Dunn worked side-by-side on the shop floor and behind the sales desk with those in the midst of the transition."—Martha Lampland, author of The Object of Labor: Commodification in Socialist Hungary

Foreign Affairs
Dunn, an anthropologist, offers a ground-level appraisal of the new capitalism's impact on the Polish worker. She spent 16 months working alongside women on the shop floor, attending training programs, and talking to middle and senior management in a rural baby-food plant that had been privatized by Gerber, an American company. She wanted to see firsthand how workers and managers who had labored in a state socialist system took to an alternative economic model with different performance criteria, organizational forms, incentive structures, and marketing strategies. She found that the new ways were rapidly taking root, but with meanings and effects heavily shaped by the values and defenses Polish workers developed under the old order, with its chronic shortages, discontinuities, and self-help recourses. She focuses not just on worker behavior, but also on the way identity through labor is being reshaped in contemporary Poland.
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Product Details

Table of Contents

1 The road to capitalism 1
2 Accountability, corruption, and the privatization of Alima 28
3 Niche marketing and the production of flexible bodies 58
4 Quality control, discipline, and the remaking of persons 94
5 Ideas of kin and home on the shop floor 130
6 Power of postsocialism 162
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