Political Visions of Consumer Society in Weimar Germany

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Political Visions of Consumer Society in Weimar Germany

Claudius Torp

Knowing Consumers: Actors, Images, Identities in Modern History.

Conference at the Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung in Bielefeld, Germany

February 26-28, 2004

Nothing in this paper may be cited, quoted or summarised or reproduced without permission of the author(s)

Political Visions of Consumer Society in Weimar Germany

Claudius Torp

Two major developments of the 1920s and 1930s coincided to draw the attention of political actors to private consumption. Recurrent economic crises jeopardized the satisfaction of basic needs in large segments of the population while the breakthrough of popular culture fostered desires for material well-being. A wide range of consumer needs was thus perceived to be politically relevant and became an object of public intervention. Different political actors and commentators regarded consumption (whether it was food, housing, entertainment, luxury or the standard of living itself) as essential to societal stability and political legitimacy. But the politics of consumption was more than just another field of growing state interventionism in interwar Germany. I will argue that consumption served as a vanguard point from which to redefine the relation between politics and economics that many contemporaries considered to be the most fundamental problem on the political agenda. In this paper I will trace the way the figure of the consumer was conceptualized in three different discursive settings. To begin with, in Imperial Germany, four major economic thinkers (of different political attitudes) will be examined with regard to the multi-faceted image of the consumer they shaped and left as a discursive legacy to the Weimar republic. The analysis continues to show how the political prominence of the consumer was strongly invoked in the debate that took place in the formative years of the republic about consumer and/or producer representation. Finally and most importantly, three competing conceptions of consumer society (socialist, liberal, national socialist) that were meant to be visions of a future, more cohesive German society will be unravelled. The consumers’ rights and duties were of crucial importance to these approaches, however differently they defined them.
Discursive foundations – affluence, scarcity, and the ambivalent image of the consumer in Imperial Germany

Let me first take a step back and briefly show how consumption was put on the intellectual map in Germany before and during World War I. By doing this, we will come to understand how the deeply ambivalent notions of consumer needs preconditioned the succeeding political discourse in the Weimar republic.

After having long neglected the study of consumption, German economists turned their attention to it in the boom decade before the First World War. In 1908, the influential liberal Lujo Brentano presented his theory of needs to the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften.1 In Brentano’s study, the consumer is not conceptualized as a political subject, either individually or collectively, yet the image of the consumer is significantly shaped through anthropological and historical reflections on needs. Brentano acknowledges the dynamic character of needs and, especially, the beneficial function of the desire for luxuries as a mechanism for the historical “uplift” and refinement of needs. At the same time, he tries to reconcile this consumerist diagnosis with a protestant work ethic. In Brentano’s view, marginal theory that has boredom and ennui putting an end to any particular satisfaction does not apply to ever-changing spiritual and active needs. Not the actual experience of pleasure, but the seeking of pleasure in the sphere of high cultural values and taste is what guarantees the perpetual strife that is at the heart of bourgeois society. The consumer, then, is not someone simply wallowing in the amenities of life, but a person who ventures to develop and educate his needs.2 Although Brentano does not address the political consequences of this in his study, his work as a social reformer teaches the lesson to be learnt quite clearly: in civil society, élites were to help and educate workers as consumers.

The dynamics of consumption were equally emphasized in Werner Sombart’s Love, Luxury, and Capitalism (1913) in which he provided a counter-Weberian account of the rise of capitalism out of the spirit of consumerism. The main argument runs like this: in late medieval and early modern Europe, especially in Renaissance Italy, the emancipation of love and eroticism from monogamy – visible, for example, in the rise of courtesanship – inspired a contest of conspicuous consumption among the élites. Increasingly, luxury was used in order to impress, woo, or bind the partner, and, accordingly, the expansion of luxury industries can be traced to these contexts. “And so, luxury, which itself was […] the legitimate child of illegitimate love, bore capitalism”, as Sombart succinctly remarks at the end of his book. Apart from the trickle-down effect of luxury, the most decisive aspect in this narrative is that the consumers are mainly female. Women are the driving force behind the processes of privatization, commodification, and refinement that determine the history of consumption. If the attention that Sombart’s book continued to receive in the Weimar years is anything to go by, then it may be supposed that, to contemporaries, the gendered identification of the consumer was not merely of historical interest, but seemed to hold true for modern society as well. “Wealth, the free arrangement of love-life, the striving of certain groups to establish their position against others, the life in the metropole”, this account of the historical conditions of “great luxury” was easy to read as a commentary on the modern hurly-burly of consumption.3

Yet another modern element in the construction of the consumer was highlighted in Karl Oldenberg’s authoritative article on consumption in the Grundriss der Sozialökonomik (1914). In line with his abstract definition of consumption as the satisfaction of demand, Oldenberg initially holds that all human beings are consumers which includes those who (like the unemployed, the pensioners, the disabled) receive subsidies or welfare provisioning. Yet, he does not identify the consumer with the public interest because a conflict of interest might arise between consumers and producers from the fact that not every consumer is at the same time a producer. “In particular, the pure consumer is a born free trader”, a notion pointing to the debates over trade policy in Great Britain and in Germany, where the SPD refashioned their interest politics by catering to the interests of urban consumers and their votes. Indeed, the city-dweller figures as the prototypical consumer in Oldenberg’s extensive account of modern trends in consumption. The two major developments that he states are the transition from economies of subsistence to market society, and, bound up with it, the increasing urbanization of all modern societies. Interestingly, the dissociation of the workers from the means of their own subsistence together with the expansion of urban forms of life are discussed exclusively with reference to the effect on food consumption and nutritional subsistence levels. This treatment reflects a clear bias in the sources of knowledge on consumer behaviour; for all the recognition of the dynamics of needs, nutritional experts, who were especially eager to assess the sharp increase in meat consumption among the urban population that had taken place in the previous decades, focussed on what was to be considered as biologically necessary and, therefore, essential to the health of the nation. Cultural factors and needs that were much harder to quantify and explain were relegated to the margins of household statistics.4

Oldenberg’s concluding description of the state’s tasks with regard to consumer regulation testifies to confident expectations in late Imperial Germany of continued growth in affluence driven by free market regulation. “Generally, the modern state gives the consumer a free hand.” Only narrowly defined immoral and unhygienic consumption should be subject to prohibitive state intervention, excessive display of luxury, for example, being exempted from it. The chief regulatory instruments of taxes and tariffs are criticized insofar as they raise the price of necessary consumer goods and thereby unduly burden low-income households. Subsidies are, therefore, given more weight, thereby characterizing the state as the beneficent provider of certain necessary and culturally valuable goods or services. Public expenditure on education, welfare, public transportation, arts and sciences, etc., appears as the third branch of the politics of consumption.5

The catastrophic experiences of scarcity and mismanagement during the First World War pressed for new conceptions of the state’s regulatory functions. The politicization of consumption reverberates throughout Walther Rathenau’s Von kommenden Dingen (1917).6 Rathenau, the entrepreneur, politician, and public intellectual, takes the relation between politics and economics to be out of joint. Although it depicts the nation as a community of producers, the zero-sum notion of the national income that cannot be significantly increased in the short run, but can only be prudently distributed, has the effect of shoving the regulation of consumption into the centre of attention. Ratheau’s criticism rests on perceptions of gross distributional injustice and moral degeneration that are reflected, on the one hand, in many people’s inability to satisfy even their most basic needs because of economic hardship, and on the other hand, in the desire for luxury, entertainment, and other extravagant needs which were no longer the sole domain of the élite, but had infiltrated the masses, which fell for fashion and popular culture. The conjuncture of socialist sensibility and cultural criticism that informed Rathenau’s view made it obvious that the subsistence level could not be guaranteed, and the rising consumer culture did not promote idealistic values. The political conclusion that was to be drawn was that consumption was not a private, but rather a public matter. When, in the future, politics was to precede profit, as Rathenau envisioned, the utility-maximizing individual was to be superseded by rational economic planning executed by the state as the centre of socio-economic organization. The notion of the state as the potent organizer, provider, and educator of the economy, in general, and of consumption, in particular, inspired a full-fledged agenda for consumer politics. Taxes on alcohol and tobacco, tariffs on luxury commodities, the education of consumers’ needs, the rationalization of retail structures and even the reform of the law of inheritance – all these instruments were to coincide for the double purpose of securing the minimum standard of living and transforming shallow mass culture into the pursuit of high cultural values. In this second respect, the consumers to be addressed were, first and foremost, urban and female. They were denounced as the main gluttons wasting German productivity in their craze for fashionable commodities, entertainment and “Sinnenrausch” (sensual ecstasy).7 The “joys” that the “mechanized spirit” supplied in the “frenzy of the metropole” were those of “children, slaves, and lower women”. Ironically, the role that capitalist development assigned to women after the gendered differentiation of the spheres of home and work in the twentieth century came to be interpreted as that of the rational manager of the household. But having become “almost the sole and incessant buyer”, women were constantly tempted by, and frequently succumbed to, the lure of consumer culture.8

In late Imperial Germany, political and economic theorists such as these presented above focussed on consumers’ needs and their development when thinking about the political relevance of consumption. Conceptualizing the historical trajectory as well as the future development of German society in terms of consumers’ needs, they juggled expectations of affluence and scarcity. They had experienced the flourishing of the economy before 1914 and its subsequent collapse. On the one hand, it was considered essential that consumers be able to satisfy their basic needs and to maintain a level of subsistence. On the other hand, it seemed just as important that Germany resume the long-term trend of a rising standard of living, but, without letting consumers’ needs develop unattended. The education and cultivation of needs was to prevent the degeneration of desire. The moral foundations of society were built on the figure of the materially secure and rational consumer. This type of consumer was not the natural offspring of socio-economic development, but had to be nurtured by politics.

Consumers and/or producers? The struggle for political representation in the formative years of the Weimar republic

The question now is how the recognition of the relevance of consumption translated into debates about the political representation of the consumer. In the formative years of the Weimar republic, when democratic institutions were established, such a debate centred upon the proper representation of the “consumer interest”. Very soon it became clear that any advocate of consumer interests would have to accommodate the strong traditions of corporatism and productivism.

A leap in institutionalization was made in 1915 when the Kriegsausschüsse für Konsumenteninteressen (KAKI) (War Committees for Consumer Interests) were founded on all levels – national, provincial, district, and local – in order to guarantee, in coordination with the War Department of Food, the provision of necessary consumer goods. The KAKI served as mediators between state and society, teaching the public a “rational”, i.e. thrifty, consumer behaviour in times of scarcity, and pressing the military and state administration for price controls and a production and distribution policy that would enable people to make ends meet in the ravaged war economy. The status of the KAKI as a semi-official corporate institution re-presenting consumer interests, principally against the rival interests of entrepreneurs and retailers, remained the model for consumer advocacy in the political domain in the post-war period.

Already in 1916, Robert Schloesser, one of the protagonists of the Reichsverband deutscher Konsumvereine (National Association of Consumer Co-operatives) and a member of the KAKI, wrote a memorandum that spurred discussion of the appropriate form of consumer representation.9 Schloesser suggested that consumer chambers be established parallel to the chambers of agriculture, commerce, and industry where producers had long been permitted by public law to pursue their corporate interest politics. The purposes of the consumer chambers were clearly derived from those of the KAKI. The primary task was to represent the interests of the consumers in the public sphere by way of advising and lobbying in legislative and bureaucratic authorities. The chambers would also educate people in terms of a consumer behaviour that avoided wastage and refrained from the wartime survival strategies of hoarding and borrowing in order to re-establish a work-and-spend culture. The statistics and surveys necessary for the intended management of consumer affairs had to be collected under the supervision of the chambers, too. Finally, they had to work towards a rationalization of production and retail methods that would reduce the price of mass consumer goods.

Still, more fundamental was the question of whether the corporate interest politics envisioned by Schloesser rested on a legitimate understanding of the constituency. Who, in other words, were the consumers entitled to elect and entitled to be elected to the chambers? Schloesser took considerable pains to answer this question. Although he acknowledged the “double nature of man as consumer and producer”, he argued that these abstract modes of being did not create a parallel balance of interests within the individual. When it came to economic pursuits and to political representation, either consumer or producer interests predominated. Only on the level of society was it possible to resolve the inner conflict. “The conflict within every human being can be put to good use by letting the opposite directions of the will become organizationally independent.”10 The real consumers in this sense were the blue- and white-collar workers, the public employees and civil servants, the pensioners and the unemployed. In Schloesser’s view, this otherwise heterogeneous and ill-defined social group united by the fact that they exclusively subsisted on a given nominal income which made them dependent on the price of commodities. By contrast, producers who consisted of all the independent entrepreneurs in agriculture, trade, and industry were in a stronger position to raise their income and pass costs on to prices. Schloesser realized that, with the rising power of the trade and labor unions after the revolution, workers had reached a far better bargaining position with regard to their nominal income and could, therefore, be held to adopt producer interests themselves. Consequently, he downplayed the possibility that wage earners might effectively raise their real income in the long run and argued that they would never be able to divest themselves of consumer interests. Even though, the major conceptual contributions on the consumer in reconstruction Germany came from socialist thinkers, it was not unproblematic to establish this social category within the theoretical framework of Marxism. Schloesser is typical in his attempt to capitalize on this tradition half-heartedly by identifying the consumers with the proletariat – only to admit that they did not exactly fit in this category. As there was no theoretical equivalent to Marx’s concept of class consciousness it was difficult to demonstrate the unity of the “consumers”. Only the growing talk about mass society provided a common, if vague, denominator for identifying the diverse social groups as the “consumer masses” (Verbrauchermassen) as was most frequently done.11

The consumer alliance of workers, employees, civil servants, and pensioners which, according to Schloesser and his followers, had been forged by wartime deprivation and now strove for organization and political representation, was fiercely opposed by the advocates of the so-called production policy (Produktionspolitik) which was championed as the only viable strategy for reconstructing the economy and society after the war. The Sozialistische Monatshefte was the principle vehicle of a producer-oriented position; Max Schippel its chief spokesman.12 They argued that prolonged state control of the provision of necessary consumer goods and of prices would not help to make up for the loss and destruction of productivity inflicted by the war and the Treaty of Versailles. Workers and entrepreneurs had to be convinced that their producer interests actually coincided because they would both benefit from a flourishing economy, now that they had become equally powerful players in the contest of collective interests. The unions, especially, were constantly reminded that restraint was necessary in industrial dispute, lest exorbitant wage demands or reduction in working hours strangle investment. In this view, the short-sighted consumer interest in the provision and cheapness of commodities did not contribute to the increase in productivity that was invoked as the raison d’état of the early republic.

In his articles, Schippel tried to discredit the “pure consumer point of view” further by arguing, first, that it could not possibly serve as a guideline to trade policy, and, second, that it would prove detrimental to workers’ rights. Trade policy had been the major issue among consumer advocates in Imperial Germany because tariff walls seemed to impede the cheap supply of necessary consumer goods.13 Harking back to this controversy, Schippel showed that, in fact, of the 946 items of the German customs tariff, only a tiny fraction was consumed by, what he called, the “last”, the “personal”, or the “urban pure consumer”.14 It turned out that the true consumer of raw iron, textiles, coal, and even potatoes was a producer (in the finishing industry, for example). Schippel’s strategy was to demonstrate the inchoate nature of the category “consumers” in order to undermine the claim for political representation. Similarly, he argued that workers were, by no means, “pure” consumers; they could never be exclusively interested in the cheapness of commodities because dumping prices ran against their producer interests in good working conditions, wage and working time agreements.

The controversy about the political representation of consumers was, therefore, a struggle for discursive hegemony over the social categories in which German society was to be described. The question was not just an academic one, of whether society was made up of consumers and producers, or alternatively, of labor and capital. In the formative years of the republic, it sparked discussion over the right forms in which to institutionalize a balance of interests. The proponents of strong consumer representation in corporations like the consumer chambers ventured to protect consumers against exploitation by the producers’ profit interest and promised to integrate large sections of German society transcending social barriers, between blue- and white-collar workers, for example. The opposite model of a society of producers held that a coalition of interests could be forged between workers and entrepreneurs, for example, in the Zentralarbeitsgemeinschaft. In 1918/19, before it had turned out to be an illusion, the worker-entrepreneur stance was more powerful.

A brief account of the early stages of Weimar democracy reveals the very limited success of a consumer-orientated position. In the revolutionary debates on the establishment of councils as self-governing bodies in the economy, consumer representation was ultimately rejected. This may seem somewhat surprising when we see that the cause of consumers was backed by the likes of socialist theoretical bigshot Karl Kautsky and the newcomer Karl Korsch, both of whom had recently discovered the consumer and emphasized the necessity of regulating the consumer/producer relation when socializing the economy. Also, Rudolf Hilferding as well as the ministry of the economy under Rudolf Wissell and Wichard v. Moellendorff slowly began to take consumers into account as the third politically relevant interest group apart from workers and entrepreneurs. Despite of this, most political parties, the unions, and the two council congresses marginalized the consumer in their petitions and decisions dealing with the councils. Julius Kaliski, the socialist agrarian expert, and others effectively discredited the interest in cheap consumer goods as a “relapse into Manchesterite trade policy” and, recapitulated Schippel’s argument that consumer interests were a danger to the workers’ social political claims.15

The Constitutional Convention continued the discussion on the setting-up of economic councils as self-governing bodies. Initially, especially high hopes were placed on the district and national councils’ ability to collectively organize the economy. Again, the consumers had their proponents – one thinks of Hugo Sinzheimer, the famous law professor, advocating their inclusion into the councils – but again the coalition of producers had the upper hand when it came to drafting the Constitution. In the end, the idea of the parity of entrepreneurs and workers dominated the relevant Article 165: “Die Bezirksarbeiterräte und der Reichsarbeiterrat treten zur Erfüllung gesamten wirtschaftlichen Aufgaben und zur Mitwirkung bei der Ausführung der Sozialisierungsgesetze mit den Vertretungen der Unternehmer und der sonst beteiligten Volkskreise zu Bezirkswirtschaftsräten und zu einem Reichswirtschaftsrat zusammen.“ The workers were to convene with the entrepreneurs and with “other sections of the population involved”. This phrase did not address the consumers, but it left a door open for them. A petition, put forward by the KAKI in May 1919, and designed explicitly to include the consumers in this article was unsuccessful.16

As the Constitution had not yet determined the precise composition of the National Economic Council (Reichswirtschaftsrat), the highest representative body of corporate economic interests, another attempt could be made to push for consumer representation. Originally, the National Economic Council was seen by its supporters as the key instrument by means of which economy and politics might be reconciled.17 It was designed as the nucleus of an economic parliament that would, by and by, take over the competence of the regular parliament to decide on all economic policy. The rationale for institutionally differentiating economic from other political issues was that expert knowledge was needed to organize the ever more complex economy. The Constitution, however, so far only granted the Council the right to issue reports on government bills and to draft bills itself. Nevertheless, competition was tough among interest groups when it came to influencing the ratio of seats on the Council that would be laid down by order of the Reichspräsident in May 1920. This time, a broader coalition rallied for the consumer interest. The KAKI jumped at the idea of expert leadership portraying themselves as proven experts in the regulation of consumption;18 the consumer co-operatives claimed to be the well-established voice of the everyday consumer; the housewives associations tried to increase the paltry number of women who were likely to be on the Council by calling for housewives as consumer representatives. In the government ranks, Robert Schmidt and Julius Hirsch, from the ministry of the economy, supported these motions against strong opposition by Gustav Bauer, the minister of work, who defended the pure producer position. The compromise solution delegated 30 consumer representatives to a Council of 326 members. Thus, consumers supplemented the economic sectors, trades, and professions the whole body was composed of. The dominating principle of a parity between employers and employees within the various sectors was not violated, but it was weakened insofar as a coalition of consumers, free professionals, civil servants, and special government delegates, could now tip the scales in the likely case of disagreement between the two “producer” sections.19

In 1918-1920, when the institutional foundations of the Weimar republic were established, the “consumer” figured rather unsuccessfully in the debates on the political representation of economic interests. While the historical and political relevance of the sphere of consumption had been discovered, and the need for the secure provision of necessary goods was widely recognized, the consumer interest was rarely identified with the public weal. Maybe this was because the “consumer” was never imagined as representing the whole of society, but was always identified with a social or economic particular, whether it was the urban masses, women, or, most importantly, non-producers. The political proponents of the “consumer” could only insist on the legitimacy of representing a partial economic interest. When they tried to make themselves heard in high politics, their chances of holding the floor were considerably lower than those of the producers. The well-established pressure groups that the entrepreneurs and the workers could rely on were just the kind of corporate institutions that the consumers longed for – and lacked.

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