Moonlighting (1982) – Polish Working Class Comes Full Circle

Moonlighting (the movie not the insipid television show) by Jerzy Skolimowski where Jeremy Irons plays an illegal Polish worker in London is a story that foretold the Polish working class of the 20th century. For better plot analysis and a better marxist reading of class struggle and conflict between capitalists and communists, I’d refer you to this:

Moonlighting is a deceptively simple movie. At the end of 1981, just before General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on December 13, four Polish construction workers, Banaszak, Kudaj, Wolski, and Nowak fly from Warsaw to London on a tourist visa to renovate a town house for a man referred to only as “the boss.” By hiring Poles and paying them in Zloties, Nowak explains, the boss can get his house in London for a quarter of what it would have cost to hire English workers and pay them in pounds. On the surface, it looks like a good deal for the four men. They get a trip to London. They get paid above the rate they would be getting paid back in Poland. They each get a 20 pound bonus. But the devil is in the details. “The Boss” has given Nowak 1250 pounds for expenses. It sounds like a lot of money. Nowak remarks that it’s more than he’d earn in 25 years in Poland. The problem is that the 1250 pounds must cover not only building supplies, but food, clothing, entertainment, and the 80 pounds Nowak will need to pay the four 20 pound bonuses. Technically it should be enough, but there’s no margin for error. The slightest mistake means they come up short.

Jeremy Irons, a quintessential Brit in real life, has transformed himself brilliantly into a Polish migrant worker: anxious, insecure (financially and emotionally) and always having to think three steps ahead so he and his crew don’t go under. He underwent this transformation without resorting to crude stereotypes of Eastern Europeans yet he doesn’t come across as a Brit pretending to be a Pole either, he is thoroughly convincing as a Polish migrant worker. It’s one of his best films yet so few people have heard about this movie.

The movie was set in 1981 which was 23 years before Poland joined the European Union. Poland was given a special waiver so Polish workers did not have to wait the obligatory 7 years before they are allowed to travel to another EU country for work. The difference between the migration of the Polish worker in 2004 and 1981 is in 2004 they could do so legally. Any Pole can book a flight to Germany, France, the UK or any place in the EU they like for the sole purpose of work and they need not have a job lined up in advance to be allowed to make that move. They will immediately have legal residency and can access nearly all of the services of the citizens of that country. One of the premises of the establishment of the EU is free movement of labor to create a more competitive market. By 2015, over 831,000 people living in the UK are born in Poland, they’ve surpassed India as the largest group of foreign born residents in the UK. Many Poles have also resettled in the UK permanently and a second generation of Polish-British children are being born to these emigrants.

Particularly in the case of the UK and Poland, this exchange of labor and capital was welcomed. Many Poles were desperate to get out of Poland and go to UK to earn a living, most importantly, they earn their wages in Sterling, which when converted back to Zlotys is quite a lot. For the British, Polish workers, especially in the technical trades such as plumbing, electrical work and building have similar skill proficiency as British workers, but without the high wages and possible hassle of dealing with British trade unions and British builders. Polish workers will work overtime and on weekends without much complaint.

The EU referendum for Brexit on June 23, 2016, the UK decided to leave the European Union. There reasons were many but on the part of the Leave campaign, emigration was a huge part of the reason for leaving the EU. Many British people feel that the open borders and free movement of labor had gone too far, and with the major economies in the single currency and single market collapsing, many Europeans migrants chose to go to the UK for work. Though not explicitly stated, the large number of Polish emigrants to the UK had become too much of a good thing. They were undercutting the wages of Britons and while the Polish working class are getting ahead in Britain, the conditions of the British working class have gotten more desperate. There were also huge debates about emigrants using the NHS and claiming benefits and contributing to the budget deficit (which upon closer examination and research, EU migrants claim lesser benefits than Britons).

Had Nowak and his men been born a generation later, they could have come to England to renovate the town home of “the boss” legally, with some protections from the law. They could have demanded to be paid in Sterling and Nowak’s crew would have had recourses when Nowak was detaining them against their will inside a London town home. Nowak and his men were the precursor to the legal migration in 2004. Poles also came to the UK for better jobs, better wages to support their families back in Poland. Poland on the other hand, was happy to export their unemployment to richer Western EU countries. Poland is only a short plane ride away, unlike Mexican, Central American or Filipino migrants in the United States – where going home isn’t an option because they can’t safely return, Polish emigrants can visit their families any time they like. They can enter and exit any EU country safely, the set up is perfect for someone to go to the UK to work and send money home every month but not lose the connection with their families.

Moonlighting is about the concept of solidarity (or lack of in this case) amongst the proletariat; but it can be expanded to include solidarity of all the proletariat of the world. In order for the Revolution to succeed, the proletariat must recognize who the class enemy is and find solidarity to fight that enemy together. Nowak certainly showed no solidarity with his fellow proletariats, in the end he was stealing from their wages too. The three men who played Nowak’s working crew had no lines in English (the plot of the story is Nowak is the only one who speaks English), a few lines in Polish, but besides being the muscle in the renovation job, they had no other purpose, they were the average worker looking for work everyday; there are millions like them, not just in Europe but all over the world. Except just when you are about to write them off as just workers who only know how to follow and not lead, they kick the the living daylights out of Nowak when they find out that he kept the very important news of Poland being under marshal law declared by General Wojciech Jaruzelski from them. It was a well deserved thrashing.

Jerzy Skolimowski argues that the biggest oppressor of the workers is not capitalism, but each other. Given a chance to get ahead, any worker will grab the opportunity by the horns and gladly sell his fellow worker with whom he’s worked alongside with many years down the river; and it doesn’t even have to be for a lot of money. This is probably how the British working class view the Polish emigrants who undercut their wages which would then help destroy what’s little left of their unions. If capitalists can hire a lot of workers to do the same job and a fraction of the cost why bother negotiating with trade unions?

But I argue that it is precisely of capitalism that forces workers to treat each other this way. It’s the classic divide and conquer. Capitalists toss a few crumbs to a few workers to get the other workers in line. These ‘crumbs’ are mere pocket change to the capitalist, they won’t miss it but to the proletariat, it’s everything. It is capitalism that destroys solidarity of the people, not the other way around. Confucius said before we lecture people about having good morals, they must first have warm shelter and food in their bellies; hence it is why poverty is the worst kind of violence. It makes good people desperate, forces them to do desperate things to feed themselves and their families, things they normally would not do had they had their basic needs met.

If Nowak had a child, his child would be eligible to legally emigrate to the UK for employment, but with the Brexit referendum of 2016, Nowak’s grandchild could possibly face expulsion from the country that they were born and raised and consider home; modern events have again proven, ‘the workingman has no father land.’ Polish emigrants who’ve settled in the UK for over 20 years may be forced to uproot again and go back to Poland where there are probably no jobs waiting for them and they’ve grown accustomed to British lifestyle. The Polish working class of the 20th century with their relationship to the UK labor market have come full circle.

5 thoughts on “Moonlighting (1982) – Polish Working Class Comes Full Circle

  1. re: “Nowak certainly showed no solidarity with his fellow proletariats, in the end he was stealing from their wages too.”

    He’s stealing from them but it’s important to remember that it’s not for himself, but to get the job done. Nowak is the quintessential low level manager/foreman, calibrating exactly what starvation wages are, and keeping his men just above that level. Everything else goes to the boss.

    It’s a very good dramatization of the Marxist concept of “surplus value.” It’s part of the reason I’m amazed the right wing in the United States claimed this movie in the 1980s. It’s the opposite of a conservative moive (for that see Moscow on the Hudson).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. re: “The three men who played Nowak’s working crew had no lines in English”

    They do speak loudly when they beat the shit out of them at the end, which is actually hilarious. That film is basically a black comedy.

    Lots of funny little details. Nowak is worried the boss is fucking his wife. Then he makes a hilariously inept to cheat on his wife with a shop girl.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. re: “Except just when you are about to write them off as just workers who only know how to follow and not lead, they kick the the living daylights out of Nowak when they find out that he kept the very important news of Poland being under marshal law declared by General Wojciech Jaruzelski from them. It was a well deserved thrashing.”

    I wonder if they ever made their plane.


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