Żabka vs Biedronka: a political analysis

I vaguely remember a scene from a few weeks ago: a friend and I, wandering through the freezing Wroclaw night, looking for some intoxicating liquid to spice up our avid throats. It was after six in the morning and not after too much time, like the Promised Land to the Israeli people, a Żabka appeared in front us with the consequent explosion of joy that this entailed. We saw our most primal desires finally able to be satisfied after forty years – maybe it was four minutes but our perception of time was a bit distorted— wandering in the desert. Beside our astonishment, actually, it should not be so surprising to find a Żabka in Poland. As the legend coined by ourselves says: a squirrel could easily cross Poland just jumping from Żabka to Żabka. Whereas, the agonos, identified here as Biedronka – Biedronkinha for friends due to its Portuguese origin—, enjoys a less frequent presence than Żabka, which is neither worse nor better, it is a fact, and as such it is going to be considered in the reflection here below.

The topic we are talking about here is the acquisition of basic necessities, such as food. Nowadays this need is mostly covered by going to supermarkets, since they are concentrating a large number of basic products for the home: avoiding, thus, to the consumer the hassle of going to different stores depending on the type of product they want to buy. However, this phenomenon, while presenting certain advantages for the consumers, hides behind it realities of inequality in the economic relations of the production-transformation-distribution-sale of food products. The translation of this phenomenon to the Polish reality is reflected in these two supermarket chains. And like any social phenomenon, it forms the subjectivities of citizens, producing a cosmology of meaning about the food acquisition process.

Concerning this, we have two different ways of configuring the quotidian existence. On the one hand, we have Biedronka, which without being so common to find as Żabka, is still quite common to find in the Polish cities. However, its presence usually occurs in large buildings since its product offering is much higher than that of the amphibian one (hint: check the meaning of “Żabka” in Polish). Therefore, its presence is more peripheral, seeking to reach its product to the working areas, to be acquired by the workers in their periodic purchase. Likewise, it is striking how this supermarket chain combines the offer of both classic products from the average Polish shopping basket and the possibility of accessing typical products from other European countries such as France, Italy, Spain or Portugal with an austere aesthetic and not very fancy.

On the other hand, we have Żabka, which, as has already been said, can be found practically on every corner. It would not be surprising, – or at least if I were in charge of the military defence of Poland I would try to do so —, to try to configure with each Żabka and his employees a kind of reserve army of the Polish nation, as a guerrilla tool in case of foreign invasion (a circumstance which, by the way, if we follow the simulations made by the Polish army, it wouldn’t be so unusual). It is striking how, especially in large cities, establishments are located on the ground floor of buildings in the historical centre. Which, in fact, shows the economic power that the company has. Alongside with the omnipresence and the most central location (although it can also be found on the periphery), Żabka tries to meet the immediacy that modern times of life demand. Where time has become a luxury and the management of it is increasingly dependent on forces beyond democratic control of societies, it matters nothing, therefore, how the size of these is much smaller than the Portuguese supermarket chain. The smaller size contributes to making it easier for the consumer to search for the product, and consequently to satisfy the desire for immediacy that prevails in the modern times. Desires/needs such as the option of having a freshly brewed coffee or hot dog before going to work or during the established 15-minute break.

With modernity, abstract time is imposed, being the kind of time that measures equally any kind of activity, instead of being the activities that offer the temporal measure (such as the time it takes to pray the Lord’s Prayer). Before modernity there were goods, money and temporary measures which were used as a way to understand what is produced, but only with the birth of the workers’ society they have become the mediation of the whole society. Only in modernity the human social time invested in producing became the social measure of wealth. Something like that can be read at the beginning of Capital: «The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”».

Żabka and Biedronka are two representations of this reality in Poland today, the reality of «I don’t have time». Both are two concrete forms of the precariousness of life, even though in the eyes of the common they are only two simple supermarket chains that bring the product to the doors of the house. Under the shadow of the growing monopoly of the large supermarket and supply chains that make up the flows of goods in the world-system, it hides a sea of ​​unbalanced social relations that give room to a progressive increase in accumulation by dispossession since the 1970s. Meanwhile, we will continue to deal with the times that we have had to live, being aware of our limitations, but also of our possibilities, and without forgetting our contradictions.

Written by Alejandro Pons

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