Movies As Parallel Universities: The Promised Land

The Promised Land is a Polish film masterpiece based on Nobel laureate Reymont’s 1899 novel. The novel describes the industrialization of the Polish city of Łódź in the nineteenth century and reminds one a little of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle of 1906 but with the emphasis not on dangers and miseries for labor but on the “mad dance” of the capitalist industrial free-for-all:

The Promised Land (Polish: Ziemia obiecana) is a 1975 Polish drama film directed by Andrzej Wajda, based on the novel by Władysław Reymont. Set in the industrial city of Łódź, The Promised Land tells the story of a Pole, a German, and a Jew struggling to build a factory in the raw world of 19th century capitalism.”


Wajda presents a shocking image of the city, with its dirty and dangerous factories and ostentatiously opulent residences devoid of taste and culture. The film follows in the tradition of Charles Dickens, Émile Zola and Maxim Gorky, as well as German expressionists such as Dix, Meidner and Grosz, who gave testimony of social protest. Think also of the English poet, William Blake’s metaphor describing industrial England as a world of “dark Satanic mills.”

Reymont, the author of the original novel, was in his heart a ruralist and intensely disliked the modern industrial world, which he saw as maniacal and destructive.

In the 2015 poll conducted by the Polish Museum of Cinematography in Łódź, The Promised Land was ranked first on the list of the greatest Polish films of all time.


“Karol Borowiecki (Daniel Olbrychski), a young Polish nobleman, is the managing engineer at the Bucholz textile factory. He is ruthless in his career pursuits, and unconcerned with the long tradition of his financially declined family. He plans to set up his own factory with the help of his friends Max Baum (Andrzej Seweryn), a German and heir to an old handloom factory, and Moritz Welt (Wojciech Pszoniak), an independent Jewish businessman. Borowiecki’s affair with Lucy Zucker (Kalina Jędrusik), the wife of another textile magnate, gives him advance notice of a change in cotton tariffs and helps Welt to make a killing on the Hamburg futures market. However, more money has to be found so all three characters cast aside their pride to raise the necessary capital.

On the day of the factory opening, Borowiecki has to deny his affair with Zucker’s wife to a jealous husband who, himself a Jew, makes him swear on a sacred Catholic object. Borowiecki then accompanies Lucy on her exile to Berlin. However, Zucker sends an associate to spy on his wife; he confirms the affair and informs Zucker, who takes his revenge on Borowiecki by burning down his brand new, uninsured factory. Borowiecki and his friends lose all that they had worked for.

The film fast forwards a few years. Borowiecki recovered financially by marrying Mada Müller, a rich heiress, and he owns his own factory. His factory is threatened by a workers’ strike. Borowiecki is forced to decide whether or not to open fire on the striking and demonstrating workers, who throw a rock into the room where Borowiecki and others are gathered. He is reminded by an associate that it is never too late to change his ways. Borowiecki, who has never shown human compassion toward his subordinates, authorizes the police to open fire nevertheless.”


Notice the sentence above:

Borowiecki’s affair with Lucy Zucker (Kalina Jędrusik), the wife of another textile magnate, gives him advance notice of a change in cotton tariffs and helps Welt to make a killing on the Hamburg futures market.

Textiles and hence cotton prices and tariffs are, as elsewhere, “the name of the game” in Łódź industry.

There is a concrete basis in reality for this 19th century version of our derivatives trading contributing to 2008 and the Great Recession:

In a discussion of futures markets, we read:

“Already in 1880 merchants were buying an idea rather than a palpable commodity, as we saw happen in the grains futures market. In that year, sixty-one million bags (coffee, in this example) were bought and sold on the Hamburg futures market, when the entire world harvest was less than seven million bags!

It was this sort of speculation that caused the German government to shut down the futures market for a while.”

(Global Markets Transformed: 1870-1945, Steven Topik & Allen Wells, Harvard University Press, 2012, page 234)

The danger with such speculative excesses is that the economy, national or global, becomes a “betting parlor” (bets on bets on bets in an infinite regress, as in the lead-up to 2008) and governments have been paralyzed and passive in the face of such “casino capitalism” (to use Susan Strange’s vocabulary) because laissez-faire neoliberal ideology has a profound hold in the West, especially in Anglo-America.

Professor Milton Friedman (died in 2006) argued in interviews going back to the 1960s and before, that speculators fulfill a valuable economic function since they “keep the system efficient.”

The current semi-dismantling and neutralizing of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and guidelines has to do not only with lobbying but also with the hold of various strands of such “laissez-faireideology and market fundamentalism.

Keynes’s classic essay, “The End of Laissez-Faire” tends to yield to the countervailing force of this market fundamentalism/“laissez-faire religion.”

Essay 19: Going From Processee to Processor in Education: One’s Own Questions as Countervailing Force

A school such as a college or university processes each student in the administrative sense: obviously record-keeping means the students grades, years of attendance, tuition payments, etc. will be recorded and kept on file.

There is another level of processing, namely, school by definition means the student expects to face a gauntlet of questions in quizzes and midterms, in finals and exams, in the very entrance exams to get into the school in the first place.

A school is a “world” of questions, a site of constant “processing.”

To flourish intellectually, which is the theme of this book, the trick is to flip this over and become the processor. One does this by circumnavigation of the campus “carrying” one’s own questions or mega-questions and thinking of the entire campus as the “answer zone” for one’s “homemade” questions.  One’s own questions become a “countervailing force” to their questions in all the tests and exams and quizzes.

Some quick examples:

Jacob Bronowski is a world-famous educator whose TV series The Ascent of Man was  an international success. In one of his books, Bronowski raises the question of cause and effect in history and social sciences and offers the reader a “mega-question” to carry with him or her to organize an overall campus experience, a kind of educational motif for life during and after school. Bronowski asks:

“England then ceased to grow enough corn (i.e., food grains such as wheat) during Blake’s (1757-1827) lifetime. It is one of a web of changes, no single one of them cause and no one of them effect, whose strands cross over these seventy years. It is certainly linked with the growth of population; with thirty-five years of war,  piracy, and blockade; with mounting debts, taxes and poor-rates; with the rise in prices, and with economic let be (laissez-faire). And these in turn are linked with the enlargement of factory industry and of finished exports; with the enclosure of common land; with the decay of small holders and craftsmen, and the use of unskilled workers; with shifts in political power and loyalty, and with a changing social outlook.

“This is the web, bewildering in detail and overwhelming in the large, which goes by the name of the Industrial Revolution

“To the end of the eighteenth century, woolen cloth made up one-third of England’s exports, and of her whole output. But cotton, the new staple of factory industry was gaining fast; and overtook wool…”

(Jacob Bronowski, William Blake and the Age of Revolution, Penguin Books, 1954, page 35-36)

The student could then fortify his or her understanding of this “cotton-based new history” through Prof. Sven Beckert’s masterful book from 2015, Empire of Cotton: A Global History and understand wool-to-cotton and cotton manufacturing as a “deep engine.”  In order to intellectually blossom and thrive and keep one’s autonomy and balance at a school, say, a college or university, the student must arm him or herself with one’s own “mega-questions” such as Bronowski’s “cause and effect” ones and the whole idea of his ‘web of changes.”

Today’s “web” in the internet sense is itself part of “webs of change” as is a spider’s web and all of this “meta-intelligence’ allows the student to “process” the school and not be simply a mindless processee. This book is about this transition to school-processor in a kind of “secret rebellion” against the “blur” of normal education whereby the contents of a course are almost completely forgotten days and weeks after the final.