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Kombinacja, or the arts of combination in agrarian Poland

Materka, Edyta (2014) Kombinacja, or the arts of combination in agrarian Poland. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Peasants, workers, worker-peasants, nomenklatura and the state in northern Poland’s ‘Recovered Territories’ have employed a strategy they call ‘kombinacja’ to survive economic transitions into and out of socialism from 1945 to the present. Kombinacja is the process of manipulating space and legal, political, or cultural rules in order to appropriate a resource—food, commodities, labour, information, power—and then combine them into an ersatz product to meet an economic, cultural, or political end. No person, class, institution, or economy ‘owns’ kombinacja. The ‘who’ and ‘what’ are relational. The ‘when’ and ‘where’ are contextual. Yet, it is not ubiquitous; every kombinacja is a form of speech that charts a terrain of economic and political trajectories intended to shift the balance of power at a given point in time. This multi-sited historical ethnography tracks how these ‘arts of combination’ have pirouetted across agrarian and industrial, formal and informal, socialist and capitalist boundaries in the agro-industrial commune of Dobra. The arts of combination were forged through the exploitation of workers in Poland’s industrialising cities during the 19th century, across its popularisation as a survival strategy during Nazi-occupation, and towards its reformulation into an economic stabiliser for both villagers and the state during the ‘socialist’ era from 1945 to 1989. Villagers used kombinacja to access or hide resources from the state in the midst of broken supply chains, bureaucratic gridlock, food shortages, and complex regulations. When commune officials turned a blind eye to kombinacja to stay in power, they too drew from the arts of combination to ‘fix’ formal state problems in the commune. Kombinacja was used to subvert and accommodate the state. Reworking the state through kombinacja to ensure that no one went hungry informalised the command economy and contributed to the incremental breakdown of the local state apparatus into a feudal-like order. I then turn to nomenklatura privatisation, potato pilfering, alcohol consumption, mushroom foraging, and other practices to trace how kombinacja is being reformulated (or not) to rework post-socialism. The arts of combination call attention to practices that cut across a series of binaries - capitalist/socialist, formal/informal, state/non-state - to show how those marginalised by power seek to control the conditions of their subjection and how those in position of power seek to control the conditions of others’ subjection. Building upon J.K. Gibson-Graham’s ‘diverse economies’, the case of kombinacja shows us that informality does not always create alternatives that subjugate hegemony; rather, they can alternatively be used to crystallise a hegemonic imaginary. I suggest a much broader understanding of how informality has been a site of ingenuity and nequality, innovation and suffering, across time and space.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2014 Edyta Materka
Library of Congress subject classification: H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology
H Social Sciences > HX Socialism. Communism. Anarchism
J Political Science > JS Local government Municipal government
Sets: Departments > Geography and Environment
Supervisor: Jones, Gareth A. and Chari, Sharad

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