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In New Warsaw: Mortgage credit and the unfolding of space and time


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Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2010 and 2013, this essay explores the everyday life of those with mortgage credit in owner-occupied homes of Warsaw, Poland and its suburbs. Mortgages have become available and popular in postsocialist Poland only recently, giving rise to a historically novel set of sensibilities, aspirations and anxieties. This essay shows how mortgage credit makes a world for mortgagors that is ordered through space and time. The first section, ‘Spaces of aspiration’, connects the history of Warsaw’s housing crunch with contemporary middle-class desires for more spacious homes. The proliferation of mortgages unfolded more space and enabled mortgagors to pursue self-transformation by means of interior design and furnishing. Enacting a break with the past, those deemed creditworthy manipulated sensuous materialities in order to align themselves with emerging forms of middle-class citizenship. The second section, ‘Mortgage time’, proceeds from the observation that alongside brick and mortar, the currency of the mortgage contracts constitutes an inextricable aspect of a mortgaged home. That currency - in many cases the Swiss franc rather than the Polish złoty - exerts a futural pull in the everyday life of young mortgagors as they come to experience their adulthood through notions of predictable, middle-class career embedded in 30-year-long contracts. The unforeseen 2008-2011 appreciation of the franc against the złoty, which plunged many into negative equity, suggests that the good life with mortgage credit emerges from the rare fortuitous confluence between market rhythms and biographical rhythms. Taken together, observations on spatial and temporal orders fostered by the Swiss franc mortgage point to the emergence of ‘the pro-cyclical everyday’, a space-time expanding and constricting with the booms and busts of the markets.
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Mateusz Halawa
Mortgage credit and the unfolding of space
and time
Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2010 and 2013, this essay
explores the everyday life of those with mortgage credit in owner-occupied homes of
Warsaw, Poland and its suburbs. Mortgages have become available and popular in
postsocialist Poland only recently, giving risetoahistoricallynovelsetofsensibilities,
aspirations and anxieties. This essay shows how mortgage credit makes a world
for mortgagors that is ordered throughspaceandtime.Thefirstsection,Spaces of
middle-class desires for more spacious homes. The proliferation of mortgages unfolded
more space and enabled mortgagors to pursue self-transformation by means of interior
design and furnishing. Enacting a break with the past, those deemed creditworthy
manipulated sensuous materialities in order to align themselves with emerging forms
of middle-class citizenship. The second section, Mortgage time,proceedsfromthe
observation that alongside brick and mortar,thecurrencyofthemortgagecontracts
constitutes an inextricable aspect of a mortgaged home. That currency in many cases
the Swiss franc rather than the Polish złoty exerts a futural pull in the everyday life
of young mortgagors as they come to experience their adulthood through notions of
predictable, middle-class career embedded in30-year-longcontracts.Theunforeseen
20082011 appreciation of the franc against the złoty, which plunged many into
negative equity, suggests that the good life with mortgage credit emerges from the rare
fortuitous confluence between market rhythms and biographical rhythms. Taken
together, observations on spatial and temporal orders fostered by the Swiss franc
mortgage point to the emergence of the pro-cyclical everyday,aspace-timeexpanding
and constricting with the booms and busts of the markets.
Keywords mortgage credit; currency; financialization; temporality;
space; Poland
The 2008 Polish short film Na kredyt [On Credit] opens with an idyllic shot of a
young couple. They look like generic happy people lifted from advertising stock
footage. Hair flowing and all smiles, she rides on the frame of his bike in a
Cultural Studies
2015 Taylor & Francis
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summer dress, holding colourful balloons. We follow them into the perfectly
manicured streets of Miasteczko Wilanów, one of Warsaws newly developed
neighbourhoods, and then into their mostly empty apartment where everything
is new. The mattress is still wrapped in plastic; a flat-screen TV shines, freshly
taken out of the box. The first ever coat of white paint renders the place a blank
slate. There is a particular aesthetic to these images, one that Warsaw outposts
of global marketing firms call aspirational, one that cuts across prime time
programming and its commercial interruptions, and one that Michael Schudson
(1986) has called capitalist realism. This aesthetic evokes a comfortable,
middle-class good life, the Western normal. It is premised on a decisive break
with the old, a quality that has a lot of traction in the public culture of post-
socialism. Na kredyt never shows one used object or old space, and the
protagonists, Lucek and Agnieszka, while clearly upwardly mobile, seem at the
same time to have had no parents, and no past. They are the Adam and Eve of
this neighbourhood, and so we see them giving a name to the fish swimming
around in a tank. What are we going to call him?she asks. Nemo?he
replies. No, she says. It will be our fish. What else do we have that is ours?
They decide to call him Credit.
Shot during a boom in mortgage credit and construction fuelled by relative
economic prosperity and a stream of money flowing into Polish banks from
their Western headquarters, Na kredyt proceeds to tell a version of the classic
story of petit-bourgeois suffering(Bourdieu 2005, pp. 185191) in a house
that turns out to be a trap:
By embarking upon projects that are often too large for them, because they
are measured against their aspirations rather than their possibilities, they
[the petite bourgeoisie] lock themselves into impossible constraints, with
no option but to cope with the consequences of their decision, at an
extraordinary cost in tensions, and at the same time, to strive to content
themselves, as the expression goes, with the judgment reality has passed on
their expectations. (Bourdieu 2005, p. 185)
Rewriting a mediaeval legend about two lovers who were cursed never to be
able to be together, the screenwriter and director Przemysław Nowakowski has
Lucek and Agnieszka working different shifts so that they can make the
mortgage payments. He works days at a marketing firm, she works nights at a
hospital; they never see each another any more. Whether in the morning or in
the evening, each one comes back home to the Moloch of a mortgaged
apartment to find it empty, except for some food in the fridge and a video
message from the other. Have you imagined what it will be like when we pay
off this mortgage, 30 years from now?he asks her in one of the recordings.
We will travel to Iceland. There is, however, no happy ending. Na kredyt is a
tale of what Lauren Berlant (2011) has called cruel optimism, a relation of
desiring something that ultimately becomes an obstacle to ones flourishing.
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As they struggle to feed the mortgage, Lucek and Agnieszka drift apart and
ultimately split. In the last scene we see another couple, just like them, walking
into the same apartment, newly repainted.
Since the market in mortgage credit gained momentum in the early 2000s,
more than 2.5 million Poles have signed contracts, often for 30 years or more.
As one of the oldest securitizing devices of capitalism was spreading through a
society newly reformed into a market economy, people attempted to make
sense of the mortgage as a cultural object. Na kredyt is only one example of such
efforts, but one that captures many tropes I have encountered during my
fieldwork among mortgagors in Warsaw.
One such trope is the intimation that
there might be something treacherous about credit. It is a hopeful attachment to
the future, but the hope may be false. People worried that the walls of the
mortgaged home were porous and made their domestic life vulnerable to
incursions of market forces beyond their control. Especially those who took on
debt denominated in or indexed to the Swiss franc, rather than the Polish złoty,
were made acutely aware as we will soon see of the risks of financialized
homeownership (cf. Martin 2002, Langley 2008). When investors in the global
currency market fled to the safe havenof the Swiss franc in the wake of the
financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Eurozone crisis, the franc
appreciated, plunging many into negative equity and raising monthly payments.
In the same media that used to extol its promise, the franc mortgage quickly
became a public symbol of the failed hope of prosperity through financial
engineering. We were building capitalism, which was supposed to be our
insurance for the future, wrote the Polish Newsweek in a manifesto of the
disillusioned generation of young mortgagors. (Note how the phrasing recalls
the old cliché of building socialism.) And now we cannot even predict what
the franc is going to cost next month(Rabij 2011, p. 41).
This essay explores
the everyday life of those with mortgage credit in owner-occupied homes of
Warsaw and its suburbs. It begins with young mortgagors in new housing
developments, facing an uncertain future.
In recent years, anthropologists have been increasingly interested in
studying the newness, emergence and futurity of everyday practice as rigorously
as they have long studied its legacies and persistence. Jane Guyer (2007) has
called for a comparative analysis of the ways in which people inhabit the near
future. Arjun Appadurai (2013) has urged anthropologists to study the future as
a cultural fact. The future, he wrote, is not just a technical or neutral space,
but it is shot through with affect and with sensation(p. 286). In another
register, Paul Rabinow (2007, p. 4) has championed an anthropology of the
contemporary with an emphasis on emergent phenomena that can only be
partially explained or comprehended by previous modes of analysis or existing
practices. This essay responds to these calls by inquiring into the futural pull
that mortgages exert in the everyday life of mortgagors in Warsaw. In what
follows I show that mortgage credit is capable of making a world for its
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mortgagors by configuring a unique spatial and temporal regime. Na kredyt
evokes this process by emphasizing the newness and potentiality of the
apartment and the neighbourhood, still under construction, and by reprising the
motif of the malleability of time. Lucek and Agnieszka use video to time-shift
their encounters and they use the mortgage to time-shift their capacity to
become homeowners.
The films dual concern with the manipulation of time and the production
of space makes explicit that a mortgaged apartment is both a temporal form and
a spatial form. Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) has proposed to read narratives in terms
of their treatment of the relationship between time and space; his was a
programme for literary analysis after Einstein. A novel, he wrote, is constituted
by a particular chronotope, which expresses the intrinsic connectedness of
temporal and spatial relationships(p. 84). In the chronotope, [t]ime, as it
were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space
becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history
(p. 84). Analysed in those terms, the narratives of young mortgagors made
sense of the mortgage by discussing homes as temporalized spaces and
spatialized times. Early into my fieldwork, I had been visiting the owner-
occupied mortgaged apartments with the intention of discussing time. What is it
like to go into debt further into the future than the memory of market economy
in Poland reaches into the past? But my interlocutors preferred to talk about
space instead where they decided to buy, how they chose to arrange the
interior, what a pleasure it was to be finally on their own. As we talked about
the space of home, however, the questions of its uncertain future would
constantly reappear.
Spaces of aspiration
Is there a way of telling a mortgaged apartment from one that is not, just by
looking at it? I did not think so, but Magda, who took out a mortgage with her
husband in 2007, when she was 26, had an idea. Definitely look at the size,
she said. If people are young and they have a lot of space for themselves, it is
most likely they have a mortgage. This is what the mortgage was for many of
my interlocutors: a device to make some space. According to Eurostat, Poland
is the third most overcrowded country in the European Union, which means
that almost half of the population lives in apartments considered too small for
how many people live in them. An average dwelling offers one person 24
square metres, an area that is on par with other postsocialist countries like
Bulgaria or Lithuania, but in contrast with often twice as airy Western countries
that people increasingly look up to, like Germany. When pollsters ask people
to name key issues for the country, the housing problemalways comes out
towards the top of the list.
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Warsaw has always been cramped. Prewar newspapers describe teeming
tenement houses and efforts of urban renewal, which never quite eased the
scarcity of living space. The city emerged from the Second World War with as
much as four-fifths of housing stock levelled. Since then, neither the early
rebuilding and development efforts, nor the later construction of whole districts
of prefabricated mass housing have been able to comfortably accommodate the
growing population. In socialist Warsaw the housing problemhad a sociality
of its own. Workers migrated in search of apartments offered by employers,
lovers scrambled to find some privacy, families were tactically made and
unmade in order to game the system and cut the wait. Everyone worked his or
her formal and informal connections in order to get access. The apartment
became the central object of desire and a voucher of entitlement was the social
currency of the era (Jarosz 2010). The privatization of housing and the creation
of a liberal real-estate market after 1989 did a lot to change the status of the
apartment. It became less of an unattainable welfare entitlement and more of an
unaffordable market commodity. But despite the initial hopes for the market to
cure the social ill, the housing problemhas persisted also in capitalist Poland.
There are still too many people for too few apartments.
A story in the weekly Polityka sums it up: half of Poles live in constriction
´la 2013, p. 36). No wonder, muses the writer, that Poland itself feels
claustrophobic when its people are asked to crowd in small homes. Constriction
has defined what Poland is like as a society. Narrow rooms make for narrow
minds. As a result of such close living conditions, continues the writer, Polish
social life is poisoned by animosities, misunderstanding, hostility, and the failure
to cooperate(Cies
´la 2013, p. 37). Any unfolding of actual livable space is,
then, also an unfolding of an imaginary social space, in which people can
become their better selves and finally lead lives of civility and conviviality. Such
slippage between home and society recurred in the narratives of young
mortgagors. The squeeze was a vestige of the old system, with its closed
borders and poor standards of living. To create more living space meant to join
the movement towards the middle-class good life and to finally catch up with
the European normal.
In the narratives of mortgagors, pragmatic considerations of square footage
˙) become vehicles of material and embodied engagement with cultural
values and aspirations. Some of my interlocutors talked about feeling suffocated
in the confines of their previous homes, which they had often shared with
parents or roommates. I simply could not get myself to the point of being able
to have a baby when we were living in that old apartment, Magda told me. But
when I inquired, she described the apartment into which she had been born
as much smaller and much less comfortable than the one she and her husband
now considered barely acceptable. True not only to the common meaning
of aspire, but also to its corporeal etymology, Magda was telling a story of
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embarking upon a project of social climbing figured as finally being able to catch
a full breath.
As the mortgage market was booming, advertisements captured and
dramatized the desire for space based on market research, which identified the
key motivations of buyers as moving to a larger flat or moving from a flat to a
house. One ad featured an image of a young woman stretching out her arms
freely as she leaned out from a roof window. Another was an aerial shot of a
young couple on a huge balcony filled with flowers, their own meadow in the
city. Move from Cramped Street to Spacious Street, urged another. Yet
another was styled as a postcard (Greetings from your own place) and likened
buying a house to holiday travel, a movement that brings respite. In his analysis
of the real-estate market, Pierre Bourdieu (2005) has noted that advertising
becomes effective through capturing a historically specific sensibility:
Like poetry, and with quite similar means, it plays on the connotations of the
message, systematically drawing on the power of poetic language to evoke
lived experiences It mobilizes words or images capable of summoning
up the experiences associated with houses, which we may describe,
without contradiction, as both shared and individual, commonplace and
unique. (p. 23)
The poetics of advertisements and the narratives of those looking for a home in
contemporary Poland consistently emphasize the desire for more space. The
sociologist Marta Skowron
´ska recalls similar themes articulated by participants
in her research on dwelling imaginaries: we want a spacious place, with plenty
of room, one in which we can breathe freely(personal communication, cf.
´ska 2011). For those deemed creditworthy, mortgages offered a
materialization of this desire. The mortgage contract transformed dreams of
home into materialities of housing. As the credit action picked up pace,
mortgages intensified the sprawl of the city.
The photographer Je˛drzej Sokołowski set out to document this process. His
photographs from the series Nowa Warszawa, or New Warsaw, depict urban
landscapes in the making. Sokołowski is interested in the emergence of new
livable spaces, rapid development and the suburbanization of Warsaw.
seeks to capture the moment in which land is transformed into a city and a
potentiality becomes actualized (figure 1).
John Berger wrote that sometimes a landscape seems to be less than a
setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles,
achievements and accidents take place(Berger and Mohr 1997, p. 13).
Emphasizing transformation and emergence, these landscapes similarly point to
the presence of a force that eludes representation. I suggest that these images
are concerned with credit, and not merely with the presence of credit in the
world, but with its capacity to actively make a world. Anthropologists have
long been interested in the spatial dynamics of credit and debt (cf. Munn 1986)
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FIGURE 1 Je˛ drzej Sokołowski, from the series Nowa Warszawa [New Warsaw].
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and in the social lives of property (cf. Verdery and Humphrey 2004). They have
studied how social relationships embed the circulation of money, how things
and people mutually constitute one another, and how money congeals locally
so that places are made. As I visited new neighbourhoods and talked to
mortgagors, I explored the materiality of New Warsaw in order to understand
how credit makes space.
Photographing various suburbs in different seasons, Sokołowski manages
to convey the coherent feel of New Warsaw. I asked Grzegorz Pia˛tek, an
architecture critic based in the city, to discuss this emerging aesthetic. He
described a white neomoderniststyle, with horizontal windows, flat roofs and
large balconies or terraces. Designed usually by local architects, these
developments simultaneously seek to disassociate themselves from socialist
housing and to gesture towards the prestige of Warsaws pre-war modernism,
but in contrast to both these programmes, they emphasize private (often gated)
space at the expense of the commons. The development of social infrastructure
with municipal funds does not keep up with the pace of private development;
studies of the new Polish suburbs highlight the lack of clinics, kindergartens and
public transit (Kajdanek 2012). On my way to New Warsaw I would get stuck
in massive traffic jams and my small car would often negotiate ruts left in dirt
roads by construction vehicles.
Once I made it into the homes, however, the contrast between the chaos of
their surroundings and the spotless order of their interiors was stunning. They
were spacious, with plenty of breathing space and room to exhale. Even though
many of them had been lived in for four years or more, they were maintained to
seem freshly occupied. Real or imitation travertine cut into big tiles shone on
kitchen and bathroom floors. Living rooms and bedrooms were lined with
exoticwenge hardwood or dark panelling meant to suggest it. Sparsely
furnished, these surfaces showcased the square footage itself. This was what
Spacious Street felt like. Pia˛tek had advised me to listen closely. Covered in
hard, reflective materials, with few carpets and curtains, the apartments of my
interlocutors rumbled and echoed.
The few things visible inside were usually new. At the peak of the boom,
banks would compete for mortgagors by offering 110% LTVcredit, not only
requiring no down payment, but actually leaving them with cash to spend after
the purchase. (LTV stands for the ratio of loan-to-value.) Some banks would
also cross-sell credit cards with mortgage credit. This additional credit
encouraged my interlocutors to buy all new furniture and appliances and to
leave their mark on the very shape of interiors. They paid workers to form
custom niches and curves in easily malleable plasterboard. If most homeowners
have to negotiate the independent agency of the house itself especially old
houses are haunted with memories and materially obdurate to will (Miller
2010, pp. 9297) the young mortgagors of New Warsaw were moving
into spaces still potential and pliant. Personality, wrote Georg Simmel (2004,
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p. 348) of the capitalist culture mediated by money, expresses, reveals and
expands itself in possession, and so their narratives of shaping ones first own
apartment were often narratives of self-fashioning. They foregrounded future
possibilities over memories and determinations. I often heard: by taking out
the mortgage I became an adult. And: Were starting a life here.
Such themes aligned the narratives of my interlocutors into a coherent
discourse just as certain qualities shiny and new, echoic and spacious aligned
the houses and whole neighbourhoods of New Warsaw into a consistent
material regime, in which self-fashioning and home furbishing were mutually
constitutive. My interlocutors were making an effort to style lives by styling
interiors. Krisztina Fehérvárys(2013) ethnographic study of material
transformations of Hungarian homes illuminates this process by showing
how, in socialist and postsocialist Hungary, materialities of domestic space both
reflected and produced understandings about the value of citizens in society and
the nature of the political and economic regime governing them(p. 3).
Fehérvárys work explores the multitude of meanings and affective powers
embedded in the qualities of lived space(p. 2) in order to show how the very
matter of homes becomes implicated in transformations of value that can
reconfigure sociopolitical cosmologies(p. 9). In New Warsaw, this process
was enabled and energized by mortgage credit. The transformation from
socialism to market economy was not simply visible at homes of mortgagors.
It was, rather, enacted there. It proceeded, among other means, through
non-discursive engagements with properties of space.
Central to this perspective is a Peircean material semiotics of qualities,
qualiaand qualisigns, which anthropologists have mobilized to relate
experiences of sensuous qualities to historically and culturally specific conditions
(Munn 1986, Chumley and Harkness 2013, Fehérváry 2013). Most notably, in
The Fame of Gawa Nancy Munn (1986, p. 3) has proposed to examine how
people are engaged in an effort to construct and control themselves and their
own social world, and do so by transforming materials in order to imbue them
with certain qualities. As they shape and use things, people work with ideas.
Abstract qualities become instantiated in qualiaof objects. Munn argued that
these everyday practices create value, because certain kinds of materials and
forms come to carry desired qualities, while certain other kinds come to
embody the unwanted. New buildings, shiny surfaces, airy rooms and the
sprawling suburbs of New Warsaw themselves are, in this view, qualisigns of
value(Munn 1986, pp. 1617). They embody post-socialist aspirations
towards better living as well as the emerging subject position of a citizen who
relates to the polity by choosing, consuming and possessing, and takes on the
responsibility for making a world for himself or herself (Verdery 2003, p. 16,
Berdahl 2005). The homes of my interlocutors homeowners and consumers
were spaces in which the Western normal was a sensuous event. In those homes
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the good life was apprehended in and through such materialities as travertine
tiles and wenge floors.
Even as cultural meanings were embedded in materials, and interior design
became a medium for life designs, the stuff of credit-enabled domestic spaces
was not limited to brick and mortar. It also included money. Owned homes,
writes the geographer Susan J. Smith (2008, p. 521), are a hybrid of money,
materials, and meanings. In everyday conversations and in the media some of
the housing developments in New Warsaw were dubbed Swiss franc estates
(osiedla im. franka szwajcarskiego, cf. Karpieszuk 2008, pp. 1617), with
reference to the currency of many of the mortgage contracts. Tied to the three-
month Swiss franc LIBOR index, these adjustable-rate mortgages promised a
lower interest rate and a lower monthly payment than their złoty competitors,
a feature that in some cases allowed mortgagors to buy more footage. In Swiss
franc estates lived the self-described franc people(frankowcy), whose livelihood
was intimately tied to the career of the franc in global currency markets.
Pausing at this curious usage, which qualified spaces and persons in relation
to a foreign currency, I wondered about the materiality of money that
congealed into Spacious Street (Keane 2008). Its a really nice apartment you
have, I would offer upon coming in. Well, its not really mine, you know,
some of my hosts would respond, chuckling. They would go on to talk about
the franc as an inextricable part of their housing arrangements. That they
accommodated forms of collateral mattered to my interlocutors a great deal. So
did the fact that those who wanted to understand the fluctuations of equity had
to look beyond the local market in property to the global currency markets.
While suburban developments sprawled along paths dependent to a certain
extent on enduring properties of socialist space, foreign currency credit pulled
their inhabitants into a new geographic constellation, one which had little to do
with post-socialism, and one which troubled the easy distinctions between the
local, the regional and the global. The Swiss franc enrolled homes of New
Warsaw into circuits extending, among other places, through London, where
the LIBOR was set, and Zurich, where the Swiss National Bank tried to rein in
the global rush to its currency. Such new geographies of financialized housing
have been studied by scholars tracking the lengthening of credit networks and
the securitization of mortgages (Langley 2008, Aalbers 2009), but what was
distinctive about New Warsaw was how intimately present these global circuits
were in Swiss franc estates.
The franc was by far the most mysterious of the stuff that made up the
homes of young mortgagors, but contrary to modernist notions of money it was
not abstract, nor was it indeterminate or colourless (Simmel 2004, p. 228). It
was given human names: Franek, or Franciszek, and its name was spoken with a
mixture of affection and exasperation usually reserved for a misbehaving dog.
Franek was a case of special monies(Zelizer 1997), qualified by its capacity
for sustaining or undoing the domestic cosmos, and by its demands on the
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household budget organized around monthly payments. As the Newsweek
manifesto of disillusioned mortgagors suggests, the social meaning of the Swiss
franc extended to a powerful public symbol of the middle-class aspirations
among the first post-socialist generation.
Discussing the material semiotics of money, Webb Keane (2008, p. 38) has
observed that even abstraction can only figure in the social imaginary and take
on practical form by virtue of some material means. How does money matter
in the homes of young mortgagors? What does it mean for domestic space to be
qualified in relation to a currency? In the next section of this essay I will show
that, in the spaces of aspiration unfolded by credit, money matters by exerting a
futural pull in the practice of everyday life. Because they are made with and
lived through money, defined famously by John Maynard Keynes (1964,
p. 293) as a link between the present and the future, domestic spaces of New
Warsaw have a distinct temporality. They are charged with futurity. The value
created with credit extends not only in space, as it spreads people across the
sprawling suburbs and materializes aspirations into airy interiors. It also extends
in time, as it propels the present forward, through the rhythms of monthly
payments and the fluctuations of the currency market, towards the horizon of
the contracts termination.
Mortgage time
Like money, credit and debt are social processes that are fundamentally a
manipulation of time. Mortgages, writes Bill Maurer, are contracts based on
faith in mortgagorsfuture ability to repay and on faith in propertys future
value as collateral. The borrower in effect pledges a house he or she does not
yet own as the security against the loan, which in turn is used to finance the
purchase of the same house(Maurer 2006, p. 21). Domestic spaces made by
the mortgage, like the ones in New Warsaw, appear, as it were, ahead of their
time. Sokołowskis images capture well this moment of surprising arrival.
These houses belong to the future, but by the force of the mortgage contract
materialize in the present. Chris A. Gregory (2012, p. 383) writes, Credit is
something a person must request. Credit exists as a potentiality, as something
belonging to the future. When the requestor is deemed trustworthy and is
granted the loan, the credit becomes history and takes the form of debt. This
aspect of credit is central to the material engagements with the mortgage in the
homes of New Warsaw. Everyday practice in mortgaged domestic spaces is
characterized not only by the movement drawing the past into the present and
the present into the future, but also by a reverse movement in which the future,
no longer indeterminate, but to an extent prescribed by the mortgage contract,
appears in the present and has to be dealt with. One mortgagor I talked to joked
that walking through his living room is like travelling through time. This stretch
will be paid by the year 2020, and that one by the year 2030. (He paid more for
M O R T G A G E S P AC E A N D T I M E 11
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his apartment than the location would suggest, because the price was adjusted
for the proximity of a metro station expected to be completed in about eight
years.) The insistence of others on brand new furnishings, as well as their
investment in shaping all spaces de novo, similarly emphasized that signing the
contract was to be year zero and the history developed in New Warsaw would
be punctuated by monthly payments on the mortgage debt.
The public imagination around mortgages quickly captured the morbid
implication of long-term contracts, the finis in finance. In most cases,
contracts came in with integrated insurance on the life of the mortgagor, with
the bank as a beneficiary. One notary officiating mortgage contract signings
recalled macabre laughter in the room when she would read a contract end date
to mortgagors born in the 1980s: the year 2049, the year 2053. An image
circulated on the Internet juxtaposed a screenshot from the website Death
Clock, which presumes to predict ones time of death, with a scan of a payment
schedule. The dates matched up. Warsaws Teatr Dramatyczny put on a play,
which localized Death of a Salesman, among other texts, in a housing
development not unlike New Warsaw and interpreted the character of Willy
Loman as a Swiss franc mortgagor.
In Arthur Millers(2000) original text
Willy takes his life to support his son with a life insurance death benefit, and the
mortgage on his house outlives him ever so briefly. There is nothing you can
do with life really, says a different character in the Warsaw staging, in an added
line, other than pay back a million as it runs its course. All these ways in
which people made sense of the mortgage point to its futural thrust and the
entanglement of the course of life with the schedule of payments. Excited by
the relative freedom from past determinations afforded by credit, my
interlocutors talked about possibilities. Like the protagonists of Na kredyt, the
Adam and Eve of New Warsaw, they may have believed that they had no past
to weigh them down, but in taking out a mortgage they did incur a future, and
one of a particular kind. As I visited homes of my interlocutors, I wondered: in
spaces constituted by money, materials and meanings, how is this future
Everyday life unfolds in time; it has tempo, rhythm and horizons. Theories
of practice like Pierre Bourdieus(1977) pay special attention to credits and
debts generated in gift and commodity exchange, as well as to the uncertainty,
which proliferates as long as the exchange is going on. This perspective shifts
attention from particular transactions to the time between them, a deferral that
compels a future, in which that what was given is expected to be returned, with
meaningful difference, and that how much was borrowed is expected to be
repaid, with interest (Bourdieu 1977, Derrida 1992, Mauss 2000). It is in these
spans of deferrals that anthropologists have studied the social productivity of
credit and debt (Elyachar 2005, Roitman 2005). While it emerges from a
predictable system regulating exchange, the deferral is a span ripe with
uncertainties and possibilities (Roitman 2005, p. 75). In the case of mortgage
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contracts, as they aim to prescribe time by specifying dates, calculating risks and
framing lifeas a predictable arc, they generate a time that overflows (cf.
Callon 1998, pp. 1519) with ethnographically rich forms of sociality with and
around credit and debt. The everyday life of mortgagors in New Warsaw is,
then, partially constituted by the provisions of contracts, which spread debt
often over multiple decades, and which organize payments into a monthly
rhythm. In the remainder of this essay, I explore this mortgage timeof
inhabited deferrals. I do not claim that this is some separate and unitary time
that only mortgagors inhabit. Rather, thinking with Barbara Adams(2004)
notion of timescapes, which stresses the multiplicity of temporalities, I attend
to the interactions of the rhythms and horizons deployed by the mortgage with
other temporalities of everyday life.
The mortgage makes me more focused, more vigilant, the 35-year-old
Jola told me. It is through the mortgage that I am becoming a responsible
adult, said the 27-year-old Łukasz. Such themes of adulthood and responsibility
recur in the narratives of mortgagors in many homeowner societies (Ronald
2008, Weiss 2014), but in post-socialist Poland they were particularly salient,
because they were largely illegible to older generations. In New Warsaw my
interlocutors often stressed that their parents, who grew up in a different
housing regime, did not understand their predicament. Unable to draw on
social memory, young homeowners weaved together their biographies and
economic actions in relation to fictional expectations, fuelled by the availability
of credit during the boom, rather than to previous experiences (cf. Beckert
2013). Their desire for making space was matched by a powerful attachment to
the imagined future as a locus of ideas about good adult life. In interviews,
rather than discuss what they felt and thought about the mortgage, my
interlocutors used the mortgage as an object of time (Birth 2012), a device with
which to feel and think their biographical future. They understood their
adulthood through the mortgage.
The prominence of narratives about the mortgage as a device for coming of
age suggests that in New Warsaw mortgage credit was a technology of the self
(Foucault 1988), in which mortgagors encountered themselves and undertook
the work of self-transformation towards a new vision of responsible maturity.
You have to attune yourself to the mortgage, one homeowner told me. You
have to make sacrifices, said another. What was owed to the bank became
something one also owed to oneself. Gustav Peebles (2010, p. 227) writes that
credit and debt can be seen as a method devised for a debtor to borrow
speculative resources from his/her own future and transform them into
concrete resources to be used in the present. As young mortgagors worked the
calculated temporality of the mortgage contract together with the uncertain
temporalities of everyday life, they repeatedly conjured visions of their future
selves, solvent and successful, which in turn made claims on their present
selves. Among the mortgagors of New Warsaw the futural pull of credit had a
M O R T G A G E S P AC E A N D T I M E 13
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powerful subjectifying effect of calling up responsible individuals-investors, who
narrated their reliance on the bank for credit and leverage as self-reliance (cf.
Langley 2008, pp. 184207). One banks advertisement for mortgage credit
read: For all those who grew up [enough] to own a home.
Such narratives of maturing into homeownership resonate with the
hegemonic discourse of the post-socialist transformation, which promoted a
new kind of model citizen: active, enterprising and able to fend for him or
herself (Dunn 2004, Buchowski 2006). Since 1989, journalists, public
intellectuals and sociologists have been invested in looking for, or actively
making up, the middle class, seen as a necessary condition for economic and
political success of the new polity, and as a social anchor for liberal democracy
´piewak 2000, p. 632). Rooted in private property, consumer choice and
aspirations towards lifestyles of the West, this new class was expected to
develop individualistic, responsible and proactive attitudes. It was also expected
to distinguish itself from the maligned homo sovieticus, with his or her entitled,
clamouring attitude(postawa roszczeniowa) of demanding things including
housing from the government instead of arranging them on their own. While
scholars in Poland differ on the socioeconomic characteristics and size of the
actual emerging middle class, the folk category of middle class(klasa s´rednia)
quickly gained traction in the public imagination. Many of my interlocutors
identified as middle class in order to place themselves in the mainstream of
normal life in New Warsaw. From left to right, writers in popular newspapers
pointed to new neighbourhoods, like Miasteczko Wilanów, where Na kredyt was
set, as home to a new social category.
One conservative columnist penned an acerbic takedown of middle-class
lemmings(Mazurek 2012, pp. 1417). Written in the form of an alphabet,
the text listed attributes, which added up to a sordid picture of a new lifestyle,
conformist and consumerist, a parody of everything that is wrong with Western
Europe, and ultimately an illusion, which will sooner or later bite back. Among
the attributes were: a Miasteczko Wilanów apartment, a middle management
corporate job with a company-supplied Toyota Auris, aspirational gnocchi
lunches with espressos and Chianti, a gay friend, willful ignorance about the
sorry state of Poland fuelled by manipulative liberal media, and last but not
least, concerned conversations about the current value of the Swiss franc. Other
writers considered the lemming too, and those in the liberal mainstream sought
to reclaim the designation as a badge of honour. Yes, these are new people,
they argued, but they are the future, and the future is bright. In response to the
alphabet, reporters of the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza visited the lemming lair,
Miasteczko Wilanów, in order to give voice to lemmings themselves, who told
tales of a good life in a newly developed space away from the city centre:
We have it good here. We love each other; the kids are healthy. We
have lived here for six years. When we first moved in, it was still a
no-mans-land around. You do not feel the rush of Warsaw here. When
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we go for a run in the evening, the street is empty. We do have two cars,
but neither is a Toyota Auris. We are normal, middle-class. We do know
something about the world we have the Internet, and a mortgaged
apartment. (Nowin
´ska et al. 2013, p. 2)
The mortgage and the Swiss franc occupy a central place in these narratives.
They are Zeitgeist devices, which enable discourse about our time,
synonymous to many with mortgage time. The lemmings were figures on
the frontier of the city sprawl and on the cusp of the uncertain future. If Na
kredyt evoked an exemplary new kind of household in Miasteczko Wilanów, the
lemming chronicles mobilized New Warsaw to imagine the contemporary
sensibility of an entire social category. In both cases the new space developed by
credit from what one lemming calls no-mans landbecame, as Bakhtin (1981,
p. 84) would put it, charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot
and history. Conversely, the diagnoses of the contemporary situation figured
through the mortgage, as well as hopes and anxieties about the future
punctuated by mortgage payments, became spatialized in a middle-class
neighbourhood, emblematic of New Warsaw, if not New Poland, and
reportedly inhabited by self-reliant, future-oriented individuals.
Of course, my interlocutors were neither screenplay characters, nor op-ed
page straw men, nor typesof pop-sociology, but no matter those
simplifications, in our conversations the link between the mortgage and the
emerging middle-class normal did resonate powerfully. Most of us here,I
heard from Aneta, a mortgagor in one of the northern suburbs west of the
river, are in debt for 25 or 30 years. And so we make plans and think about the
future. In similar conversations the young mortgagors of New Warsaw were
choosing to call themselves middle classnot because of certain things or
practices marking distinction, like Chianti or going for a run, but because of the
particularity of the temporal regime they have come to inhabit. They were the
future-oriented, active new citizens, although it was not so much that they were
always looking into the future, as they were constantly being pulled into it
often towards morbid horizons like 2053 by an intimate relationship with the
mortgage contract.
Working the calendar of payments together with biographical time, my
interlocutors always had things forthcoming; they were in the world by the
virtue of having a future. Certainly, it is only those on the margins who live
entirely with no future(Day et al. 1999, Bourdieu 2000, p. 222), but the long
span of the mortgage, its formalization in the form of a contract, and the ever-
present threat of social falling by defaulting on the debt produced among my
interlocutors a form of involvement in the present that was markedly middle
class: if, following Marilyn Strathern (1994, p. ix), we think of it as a class that
makes a project out of life.Because banks consider regular income as
collateral, writes Hadas Weiss (2014, p. 143) who studied mortgage debt in
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Israel, leveraged home purchase necessarily assumes a middle-class career.
Building on Jane Guyers(2001,2007) work on contemporary temporal
regimes, Weiss argues that, as the near future becomes increasingly precarious,
long-term debt, figured as investment in the house, carries a promise of
reinstating a sense of security. Security takes shape in the form of an asset that
anchors a household through time, and assures its material coherence, against
the backdrop of rupture and friction(Weiss 2014, p. 144). A similar process
was happening in New Warsaw. The rational model of life cycle(cf. Guyer
2001) built into long-term mortgages (which in the case of my interlocutors
often were to mature simultaneously with expected retirement) and deployed
into everyday uncertainties offered my interlocutors a sense of ontological
security and middle-class belonging.
These certainties were built not only on numbers sourced from business
news, home-made Excel budgets and software in offices of mortgage brokers,
but also on powerful public feelings. Caitlin Zaloom (2009, p. 246) has argued
that contemporary financial knowledge is organized around the interplay of
reason and affect. The same is true of household finance. Financial activity works
just as much through rational predictions of the future in models, like the idea of
productive life cycle, as it works through expectations, desires and fictions
(Miyazaki 2006, Appadurai 2013, Beckert 2013). Before the global rush to the
franc, household finance in New Warsaw was a medium of hope. Long-term
mortgages are structurally optimistic devices, in that they posit a prosperous
future, for the individual and for the markets, and anchor biographical time in the
monetarist temporality of long-run growth. In Poland, they also connected
mortgagors to the national temporality of the best time in our history, as
political and opinion elites would have it, pointing to rare geopolitical security
guaranteed by NATO, the long-awaited European citizenship, and the
unprecedented, if unequally distributed, economic prosperity.
This sense of national accomplishment was imagined as a sequence of
milestones and deadlines, of which one of the final ones was joining the
Eurozone. In 2008, Prime Minister Donald Tusk had talked about adopting the
Euro as soon as 2011, but given what ensued in the USA, in Greece, and
beyond, these plans were abandoned. Before that, many young mortgagors saw
their personal aspirations align with national aspirations and used credit to reap
rewards from the future immediately. Katherine Verdery (1996, p. 37) wrote
that the fall of socialism lay in the collision of two differently constituted
temporal orders, together with the notions of person and activity proper to
them. Two decades after 1989, what used to be the temporal order of an
extended present marked by provisionality and waiting not least for an
apartment and by a striking contrast to the capitalist time-compressing
dynamic, gave way to a temporal order of long-term investments in the future
(Harvey 1989, Tarkowska 1992, Verdery 1996).
These investments offered
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middle-class certainties and a renewed sense of belonging, but at the cost of
exposing Swiss franc mortgagors to currency risk.
It is against this background that the sudden appreciation of the Swiss franc
unsettled mortgagors in New Warsaw from what they thought they knew about
capitalism, and what they hoped it would do for them. In early 2008 franc
could cost as little as 2.1 złotys, recalled Aneta, but then, out of the blue, its
2.6 2.7 3.0 in 2009 …’ The franc stabilized briefly, but then proceeded
to rise again. 700 thousand mortgagors at the edge of a financial cliff, wrote
the portal in an urgent red headline on 12 July 2011, as the franc hit
3.48. A month later, in a piece quoted at the beginning of this essay, Newsweek
voiced the disillusionment of young mortgagors: We were building capitalism,
which was supposed to be our insurance for the future. And now we cannot
even predict what the franc is going to cost next month(Rabij 2011, p. 41). If
not for the franc, continued Aneta, I would be sitting here with two children,
not one. Many of my interlocutors discussed a sudden decoupling of their
biographical temporality from the temporality of global currency markets.
What used to be synchronized streams of mutually reinforcing times, now
seemed like a friction of times; what used to be successfully domesticated
finance, now seemed like an unwanted incursion of an impersonal regime into
the home.
Such narratives illuminate an important quality of the good life in New
Warsaw: it emerges from a fortuitous confluence of times. Henri Lefebvre
(2013) has proposed to found a new field of knowledge, rhythmanalysis. He
was interested in the interplays of the mechanical and the organic, the
numerical and the corporeal. Anetas stark statement juxtaposing the currency
market with her choice not to have a baby tells of a shift from eurhythmia, a
blissful state in which rhythms unite with one another(p. 25) and the market
associates with the home, to arrhythmia, a discordance of rhythms that brings
on suffering.
What was striking was that the hegemonic ways of making sense
of a situation like Anetas tended to privilege the market rhythm over the
biographical rhythm. Every time the franc would peak, experts on TV would
reassure the franc people that there was no need to worry, because these are
long-term instruments and any such fluctuations will ultimately balance out. If
someone took out a mortgage for 30 years, explained one pundit on a morning
show in March 2009, they should not concern themselves with what happened
last year. Jane Guyer (2007) has argued that the proliferation of such
monetarist temporalities of the long runtends to evacuate the near future as
a space for agency. As people in New Warsaw were making sense of the
mortgage as an object of time, they began to reconsider the relationship
between mortgage and the good life. So what if it is going to be OK in the end,
if we want to have it good now?
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Conclusion: the pro-cyclical everyday
Aiming to demonstrate the capacity of mortgage credit to make a world ordered
through space and time, this essay began and now ends with young homeowners in
new housing developments facing an uncertain future. Drawing on Nancy Munns
space, spreading people across sprawling suburbs and materializing aspirations into
sensuous qualities of interiors. The characteristics of mortgage time resonate with
Munnsrefusaltoseparatespacefromtime.Instead, she proposed to see positive
value, or credit, as something that generates an intersubjective space-time,a
world felt and known that does not exist prior to exchange, but rather emerges
from exchange, in its uncertain deferrals.Madewithmortgagecredit,inmaterial
engagements with space, and by working together the temporality of the market
with the temporality of life, New Warsaw is from this perspective a future
congealed and a space charged with a future.
But space-time, wrote Munn, is dialectical. It expands and constricts with
the interplay of credits and debts. Not surprisingly, then, the airy spaces made
on cheap franc credit, are described after 2011 by journalists and young
mortgagors as traps. The public imagination of New Warsaw has changed.
Newspapers write of prisoners to the franc, who cannot sell and cannot
refinance. The discourse of credit is giving way to its twin, the discourse of debt
(Roitman 2003, Peebles 2010). A sense of freedom of movement upwards, into
the middle class, and outwards, into the suburbs, gives way to a sense of being
stuckin space and time. No longer brand new, Swiss franc districts still do
face the future, but now have a memory as well what else is debt if not a form
of memory charged with public feelings that Na kredyt had anticipated: the
cruel optimism of the desired object coming back to hurt you, and the petit-
bourgeois suffering of overshot aspirations. Made from foreign currency
alongside brick and mortar, New Warsaw is haunted by times of hope and
optimism. It is both still a new development and already a ruin of sorts.
How does mortgage credit reshape the contours of everyday life? This essay
explored the space-time inhabited by financialized homeowners, who were asked
to think and act like investors, but withoutsignificantresourcesotherthanthe
speculative. Their households in the comingfuturewillcontinuetoactnotunlike
large financial institutions and leveraged investors in the currency markets engaging
in carry trade,butwithoutassetstominimizeriskexposure(thestrategyincarry
trade is to borrow in a low-yielding currency, like the franc, while investing in a
higher-yielding one, like the złoty; cf. Beer et al. 2010). As mortgage instruments,
the ideology of homeownership and the financialization of homes spread globally
(Aalbers 2008,Ronald2008,Sassen2009), it becomes important to better
understand how futures made with finance are inhabited. The analysis of the
spatiotemporal regime of New Warsaw suggests an emergence of something that
could be called the pro-cyclical everyday.Iborrowhereaneconomicterm,
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which describes a positive correlation between economic quantities and indicators
on the one hand, and economic growth on the other. It also refers to policies and
instruments that tend to align economic life with fluctuations of finance, often
magnifying them in the process, rather than work to mitigate the booms and busts.
In the context of the housing problem,instrumentsliketheSwissfrancmortgage
are a good example of pro-cyclical solutions. They carry over the instabilities, ups,
and downs of the market to the households,whichdomesticatethecurrencyrisk.
While counter-cyclical measures and devices look to the short term, or the near
future, those pro-cyclical tend to pull attention towards the monetarist far horizon.
I suggest that the emerging pro-cyclical everyday in places like New
Warsaw could be understood as a space-time expanding and constricting with
booms and busts of the market. Made with money, materials and meanings,
such a space-time may offer experiences of future possibilities and free
movement through airy interiors on easily available credit. It may turn
aspirations into sensuous materialities and facilitate self-fashioning into a good
citizen of the new order. In pro-cyclical everyday, when the market is booming,
these processes gain momentum and provide exhilaration; the short term and
the long term are aligned. The pro-cyclical dynamic is one of intensification:
when times are good, it makes the highs higher (cf. Langley 2008, p. 238). But
the obverse effect is also possible in pro-cyclical everyday. Made partly of
money, the walls of financialized homes are porous and make domesticity
vulnerable to incursions of market forces beyond control. Far from being a state
of exception, or crisis(Roitman 2014), it is an inherent feature of mortgage
space-time that it has a capacity to constrict and close in on one, decoupling
biographical rhythms from market rhythms, the short term from the long term.
And so the pro-cyclical everyday may be marked by experiences of entrapment,
imprisonment and impossibility in frontier homes like those in New Warsaw,
developed on credit at the edges of the city, and at the edges of time.
I am deeply indebted to all my anonymous interlocutors in Warsaw and beyond, whose
patience and generosity made this research possible. I am grateful to Ann Stoler, Janet
Roitman, Katherine Verdery and Caitlin Zaloom for their inspiration, guidance and
support as I developed this project, and for offering comments on this essay and its
multiple earlier versions. During my fieldwork, Mikołaj Lewicki was an insightful
collaborator. I am deeply indebted to Paulina Wróbel for research assistance. I was able
to improve this essay thanks to insights, criticisms and suggestions made by Kylie
Benton-Connell, Zosia Boni, Mirek Filiciak, Randi Irwin, Marta Olcon
´-Kubicka, Virág
Molnár, Hugh Raffles, Marcin Serafin, Leilah Vevaina and Łukasz Zaremba.
Photographs of New Warsaw are reproduced courtesy of Je˛drzej Sokołowski. Finally,
many thanks are due to Joe Deville and Greg Seigworth for their excellent comments.
M O R T G A G E S P AC E A N D T I M E 19
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Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
This work was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation under Dissertation
Fieldwork [grant number 8481] and four years of the Wadsworth International
Fellowship (WIF-196); by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation doctoral
fellowship at the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography and Social
Thought of the New School for Social Research; and by the National Science
Centre, Poland [grant number DEC-2013/09/B/HS6/03426].
1 This essay is based on ethnographic fieldwork among mortgagors, financial
advisors, bankers, regulators and economists. Fieldwork was carried out in
Warsaw over 20 months between 2010 and 2013. Some interviews were
conducted in collaboration with Mikołaj Lewicki from the Institute of
Sociology at the University of Warsaw.
2 Out of more than 1.8 million mortgage contracts that are active at the time of
writing, an estimated 566 thousand are Swiss franc mortgages, signed by a total of
953 thousand mortgagors. After the franc appreciated against the złoty, at least a
third of these went underwater, which means that in each such case the
mortgage balance in złotys is higher than the value of the house. While the typical
cause of negative equity is a fall in the market value of the mortgaged house, in the
case of Swiss franc mortgages in Poland it is more often than not the appreciation
of the franc against the złoty that plunges mortgagors underwater.
3Warsaw has been one of the most dynamically developing European cities over the
last few years, write Monika Grubbauer and Joanna Kusiak (2012,
p. 10). The 19,000 housing units constructed in Warsaw in 2008 matched the
corresponding number in London a city four times Warsaws size and the figure
was almost five times higher than that of the housing units built in Berlin or Prague.
4W imi
Jakuba S. [In the name of Jakub S.], written by PawełDemirski and
directed by Monika Strze˛pka, has been playing at Warsaws Teatr
Dramatyczny since December 2011.
5 The following passage from a recent novel by MichałR. Wis
´niewski (2014,
p. 17), set among Polish urban thirtysomethings, illustrates this point
rather well:
He has that particular kind of credit, he tells you. Back in the day, when
he was young, he would watch movies about robots in the year 2019, the
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distant future with skyscrapers in the shape of spaceships and cybernetic
pyramids, complete, of course, with flying cars. Now he reaches even
further into the future with his thoughts, because in the year 2019 he will
not own a flying car, nor will he have paid even a half of the installments
(translation by the author).
6 Verderys arguments about socialist temporality, which stress the colonization
of social time by the demands of the state resulting in a flatteningof time into
the pervasive experience of waiting, have their counterparts in the scholarship
on the production of space in socialism. Commenting on the work of the
Polish geographer Bohdan Jałowiecki (1988), Łukasz Stanek (2011, p. 67)
writes that the socialist state produced spatial disorder instead of a rational
efficiency expected from the planned economy, subjecting everyday life to a
series of spatial constraints rather than liberating it. Taken together, these
observations on space and time suggest that the post-1989 temporality of
acceleration and the much stronger presence of the future in the public
imagination must have their spatial correlates. One of them is surely the
chaotic and to a large extent unplanned suburban sprawl of Warsaw captured
in Sokołowskis photographs of newly produced housing spaces. As this essay
demonstrates, this liberationof space, however, seems to subject everyday
life to a new set of constraints. Thanks to Joe Deville and Greg Seigworth for
pointing out this connection.
7 Hartmut Rosa (2014, cf. 2013) has made a similar point in the broader context
of his critical theory of human relationships to the world. He relates the good
lifeto the experiences of resonance between the past, the present and the
future, and between everyday life routines, biographical time of lifeand
historical time of epochor our times. The contrasting experience is one of
alienation, in which the modern acceleration severs the sense of continuity and
8 On 15 January 2015, after this essay had already been accepted, I was giving a
talk on mortgage credit at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the
Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. When it came to questions, one
member of the audience worried that I focused too much on Swiss franc
mortgages at the expense of those in the local currency. Swiss franc mortgages
are no longer being offered, he argued, they are serviced well, and so they
belong to the past. Upon hearing this, another audience member strongly
disagreed and pulled out her iPhone to announce that, while we were talking,
the Swiss central bank had announced that it was abandoning its efforts to hold
down the value of the franc. In place since 2011, the policy of capping the
value of the currency against the euro provided some unintended relief for the
Polish franc people and it was now gone, to the surprise of most analysts.
Within that one day the franc went from an exchange rate of 3.54 złotys up to
5.19, then down to 4.20, and the headlines the next day read Franc Shock.
M O R T G A G E S P AC E A N D T I M E 21
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Media coverage, Facebook chatter and anxious conversations at the homes of
my interlocutors reprised the spatio-temporal discourse of entrapment and
dashed hopes that this essay discussed, but the sheer abruptness and magnitude
of the appreciation elevated the franc problem to a national issue. As I write
this note, in early February 2015, the government is still debating the virtues
and practicalities of helping the Swiss franc mortgage holders.
Notes on Contributor
Mateusz Halawa is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at
The New School for Social Research in New York and a Researcher at the
Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. His
work focuses on the cultural analyses of economic life. He is currently writing
on the rise of mortgage credit in Poland, looking at the relationship between
social transformations and finance.
Mateusz Halawa
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... The postcommunist transformations of the 1990s entailed a radical transformation of the market and the valuation of housing across the former communist world (Bissenova, 2012;Buchli, [1999Buchli, [ ] 2021Halawa, 2015;Zhang, 2012). With the abolishment of the communist regime in 1990s ...
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Construction booms have dominated Albania's economy and politics since the late 1990s. These booms continued even during times of illiquidity. One of the sources of financing construction in Albania is the practice of klering (in‐kind payments). In this practice, developers pay subcontractors in (future) apartments in exchange for materials and labor. I argue that, in klering transactions, housing serves as an asset and a means of payment. The practice of klering emerged at the interface of postcommunist transformations, neoliberal reforms, and the fetishization of housing as an asset of more durable and multifaceted economic and cultural value. While grounded in the local histories and values of housing, klering is made possible by a fuzzy property regime, systemic corruption, and widespread informality. At the same time, klering echoes other global patterns pertaining to housing, such as the rise of asset economy, financialization, and money laundering through real estate purchases. The klering economy echoes speculative logics and practices that are prevalent across and that link centers and peripheries, formal and informal markets. These economic logics generate uncertainty and ambiguity; they mobilize social networks and cultural imaginaries; and they thrive on and further reproduce deep social and economic inequalities.
... Wrzesień 2009). Ta sama kłopotliwa złożoność przynajmniej częściowo zwalnia rządzących z odpowiedzialności za efekty rządzenia (Krajewski 2013), w przypadku zaś milionowych rzesz społecznych normalsów pełni rolę wygodnego usprawiedliwienia źle pomyślanych i niekonsekwentnie urzeczywistnianych strategii adaptacyjnych (Drozdowski 2016;Halawa 2015). ...
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Przedmiotem artykułu jest analiza przemian współczesnej formy sprawowania władzy. Autorzy na bazie literatury przedmiotu rekonstruują pokrótce przyczyny upowszechnienia się w socjologii "miękkiego" ujęcia władzy, a więc takiego, które bada przede wszystkim bezpodmiotowe formy jej sprawowania, zwłaszcza poza instytucjami państwa. Następnie interpretują społeczne uwarunkowania rosnącej tęsknoty za tradycyjnie pojętą władzą, a także charakteryzują ważne wymiary, które świadczyć mogą o jej dzisiejszym przywracaniu w obrębie instytucji kształtujących porządek społeczny. W podsumowaniu podejmują próbę określenia możliwych skutków analizowanego zjawiska dekapilaryzacji władzy, zwłaszcza dla modelu władzy, który może się zeń wyłonić. Główne pojęcia: władza; instytucje publiczne; sprawstwo; złożoność; demokracja; zwrot antyliberalny.
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For more than a decade, the importance of urban social movements has been systematically increasing in the Polish public sphere. However, available theories of social movements cannot account for the variety of forms of urban mobilization or for the ideological differences between organizations. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate the relevance of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social class for research on urban movements. Using the concepts of “capital” and “habitus,” the paper explores the social vision and process of the emergence of two activist organizations in Warsaw, Poland. The study is based on qualitative research conducted from 2016 to 2019, which included an analysis of secondary resources and individual in-depth interviews with members from each organization. Bourdieu’s theory of social class facilitates consideration of different aspects of the functioning of urban social movements, including the role of resources and competences, ideological divisions, and chances of success. The theory also provides an explanation for the importance of class within urban social movements. The article shows that, even though the demands of social movements appear to be values-led, in fact, they are based on the class interests of their members.
... This article examines the relationship between mortgaged home-ownership and the middle class in post-socialist Croatia, part of the Eastern European region that has been less represented in this debate. The few relevant anthropological studies on Poland and Czechia focused on particular groups of mortgagors, especially young couples with children inhabiting new suburbs and (self-) identified as middle class in terms of education, profession, income and social habitus (Halawa, 2015;Olcoń-Kubicka and Halawa, 2018;Samec, 2016). These people were described as pursuing the norm of owneroccupied housing as the appropriate kind of housing, and simultaneously an investment object, for the middle class. ...
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Some recent anthropological accounts of middle classes centred on their indebted home-ownership. They stressed its two contrastive logics fitting a wider binary – exposing ‘squeezed’ middle classes in the global North to increasing risks, and supporting the ascent of their ‘new’ counterparts in the South. The genealogy of middle-class housing debt in Croatia presented in this article reveals another, post-socialist trajectory where mundane and opaque institutional practices regulating access to housing finance, such as bank credit scoring and the allocation of state housing benefits, were key in steering a middle class inherited from socialism towards mortgaged home-ownership. The latter was articulated as a middle-class experience only after the 2000s credit boom had come to an end and the consequences of rampant predatory lending became visible and subject to contestation. The resulting middle-class subjectivities are ambiguous and, as comparisons with other Eastern European cases suggest, accessible for a range of political projects.
Finance and the household are a pair that has not received sufficient attention. As a system, finance joins citizens, states, and global markets through the connections of kinship and residence. Householders use loans, investments, and assets to craft, reproduce, attenuate, and sever social connections and to elevate or maintain their class position. Householders’ social creativity fuels borrowing, making them the target of banks and other lenders. In pursuit of their own agendas, however, householders strategically deploy financial tools and techniques, sometimes mimicking and sometimes challenging their requirements. Writing against the financialization of daily life framework, which implies a one-way, top-down intrusion of the market into intimate relations, we explore how householders use finance within systems of social obligations. Financial and household value are not opposed, we argue. Acts of conversion between them produce care for the self and others and refashion inherited duties. Social aspiration for connection and freedom is an essential force in both financial lives and institutions.
This paper deals with the politics of the boom, crisis and aftermath of foreign currency-denominated (FX) lending in Hungary from the 2000s to the 2010s, focusing on the most problematic CHF loans. Here, the rolling out of FX mortgages was part of the late stage and crisis of Hungary’s neoliberal postsocialist model, and the politicization of the ensuing FX crisis became part of the conservative reorganization of the economy by the post-2010 Fidesz regime. Debtors’ movements formulated their grievances in the vocabulary of popular right wing anti-neoliberal movements of the late neoliberal regime. In the first stage of post-2010 Fidesz governance, they were embraced by conservative political propaganda, yet later repressed politically. Showing how links between debtors’ advocacy and conservative politics changed across time according to the progress of economic reconfiguration, the paper argues for specific attention to the strategic field of localized housing finance politics, beyond the abstract conflict between financial interests and housing needs.
This Special Feature is the first regional and holistic comparative study of Swiss franc (CHF) mortgages in Eastern Europe from the mid-2000s up to now. We examine this form of lending as a critical mechanism of the dependent financialization of housing in the region and look at its political and class-based repercussions in the four most significant national cases: Croatia, Hungary, Poland and Serbia. This introduction reviews and connects the so far largely separate threads of research on CHF lending (on its political economy, partisan and movement politics, and debtors’ experiences), summarizes the case studies, and draws out their key comparative insights. While lending waves originated in the same macrostructural relations and produced similar booms and crises, the management of the crises diverged significantly, depending on macroeconomic conditions, the projects of political elites, and debtors’ class background and modes of contestation. The two main openings for contestation were litigation and political pressure, with varied limitations and results across national contexts. While delivering some important achievements, the politics of debtors’ movements remained limited to a single-issue and legalistic contestation of specific predatory lending practices, which ultimately defended mortgaged homeownership from excessive financial predation. This reflects middle-class debtors’ position in the multi-scalar hierarchies of dependent financialization, and the fact that litigation was the main state infrastructure available for their contestation. We argue that more progressive reactions to housing financialization would require movement infrastructures that are able to address the multiple scales of dependent financialization, and forms of cross-class local organization that are able to pursue agendas beyond available state infrastructures.
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Building on, and going beyond, the state-of-the-art literature, this article aims to advance the analysis and conceptualization of the financialization of households. It argues that there is a need to better conceptualize the household and that the relations between households and other actors in financialized capitalism require further elaboration. Its contribution rests on providing a high-level review of literature and on proposing a relational and activity-orientated approach to the household as a micro-level social institution performing its activities through a web of relationships. Furthermore, it builds on the concept of ‘financial chains’ to draw attention to power relations and transfers of value between households and other economic actors. In doing so, the article also highlights the uneven ways through which households are inserted into such ‘financial chains’ and explores social, spatial and temporal dimensions of household financialization. Finally, it suggests avenues for further research.
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Personal debt is a device increasing one’s agency but embedded within moral and legal frameworks that constructs people as individualised financial subjects. This article aims to enrich research on the state role in (subject) financialisation through a focus on personal debt governance modes as constructed in policymaker discourse on the state role in personal debt regulation. Our argument is contextualised in the Czech Republic, where, in 2021, 10 per cent of the adult population faced legal debt enforcement, significantly disrupting their economic situation. Through an analysis of 84 parliamentary debate transcripts and 32 regulatory impact assessment documents related to consumer credit and debt relief laws, we illustrate the ambivalence and complexity of debt governance and state roles. Although two main state roles were enacted – punitive and protective – the policymaker discourse forms a continuum of sorts, blending various moral logics, ascribing multiple responsibilities (individual, state and private actors) and intensively negotiating the category of debtor deservingness. We argue that by accenting financial education as a tool to solve perceived market failures (predatory lending), the financialised logic and structures are reaffirmed, albeit leaving certain discursive spaces for renegotiation and potential resistance against such state functions.
Outline of a Theory of Practice is recognized as a major theoretical text on the foundations of anthropology and sociology. Pierre Bourdieu, a distinguished French anthropologist, develops a theory of practice which is simultaneously a critique of the methods and postures of social science and a general account of how human action should be understood. With his central concept of the habitus, the principle which negotiates between objective structures and practices, Bourdieu is able to transcend the dichotomies which have shaped theoretical thinking about the social world. The author draws on his fieldwork in Kabylia (Algeria) to illustrate his theoretical propositions. With detailed study of matrimonial strategies and the role of rite and myth, he analyses the dialectical process of the 'incorporation of structures' and the objectification of habitus, whereby social formations tend to reproduce themselves. A rigorous consistent materialist approach lays the foundations for a theory of symbolic capital and, through analysis of the different modes of domination, a theory of symbolic power.