From: Eli Rubin < eli.rubin[at] >

Subject: FORUM: Do we need a new economic history of Germany?

Date: Tue, 5 June 2007



Strategies of Survival: Culture and Economics on the Everyday Level


Geoff Eley, in his recent work The Crooked Line: From the History of Society to Cultural History, ends with a call of sorts to historians to find a way to re-integrate materialist and social-science histories into the literature developed during the last 25 years of the “cultural turn.” The book, a kind of intellectual autobiography, details the often painful ruptures between social history (including especially Marxian analyses) and Foucault-inspired cultural analyses, much like an “angel of historiography” looking back on the wreckage and divisions of historians since the arrival of cultural history, and pining for a way to heal the rift between culture and social—especially economic—modes of historical analysis.[1]


There was a good reason for that rift, of course. Economic histories of Germany, or Britain, or anywhere else, contained no reference to culture, to gender, to everyday life, to concepts of power and hegemony. Economic history deserved to go, at least in the way it had been practiced until graduate students started reading Foucault and Said. It was boring, and worse, it forgot about one very important thing: the subject.


Unfortunately, in the “cultural turn” that impacted German history from the 1980s until the present, the subject became overprivileged. Classic economic history—the history of big systems, long trends, wages, prices, investments, etc.,—receded further and further from graduate reading lists and dissertation bibliographies across North America. Culture, suddenly disembodied from any economic “base,” was given a degree of primacy it did not deserve. History seemed to be made of images, numinous “meanings.” Power was contained in words, in art, in symbols—an overextension of the power of culture unto itself. Historians went from the fallacy of believing that to change culture one had to change economic structures and relations to the fallacy of believing that to change culture one had to change language. What was lost was any coherent sense of connection between the “economic” and the “cultural.”


How then ought we find a happy middle, as Eley seems to want—a return to the “interconnectedness of things” that for him was the original allure of interdisciplinary, non-doctrinaire Marxian historiography?[2] How can we realize the gains of the cultural turn while also recognizing that it is the very material and economic things—prices, mortgages, jobs, status—that most often animate people? Doesn’t money make the world go round? In the field of German history, and outside it, this fusion has already happened. A number of studies that began with explorations of cultural phenomena have “looped back” (to use Eley’s phrase) to economics, whether their authors intended them to or not.[3]


The volume The Sex of Things by Victoria de Grazia and Ellen Furlough—in particular Belinda Davis’ article on food riots among women in WWI Berlin—broke new ground in my view in pointing towards a cultural economic history. De Grazia’s later work, culminating in her recent Irresistible Empire, is testament to how far one can work back to economics from the starting point of gender, ideology and the microphysics of power.[4]


In particular, the developing field of GDR history has witnessed this reading of the cultural back onto the economic. The doctoral dissertations and recently published or forthcoming monographs by Kathy Pence, Judd Stitziel, Jonathan Zatlin, and Mark Landsman, in following the lead of historian/ethnologist and former East German Ina Merkel, all have started with “cultural” topics (gender, fashion, consumption) and found their way back to the “base” of economics (prices, wages, sales, tariffs, etc.).[5] Perhaps it is not a surprise that investigations of culture in the GDR seem to lead back to economic topics—Marxist-Leninist states made the link between culture and economics quite obvious (which, it might be argued, was a part of their downfall).


My feeling is that such linkage is not limited to the GDR or communist states in any way. Rather, any investigation of culture must ultimately lead to some kind of material investigation, and any economic study must pose cultural questions, because culture and economic structures are inherently linked. One cannot be studied in the absence of the other. How are they linked? Herein lies the “new” of a new economic history. I am in no way suggesting a return to a model of the “homo oeconomicus” looking always to maximize his economic value. Nor am I suggesting a return to “big structures and big processes” and impersonal analyses of longue dureé wage fluctuation or market trends or investment patterns. This kind of analysis only works as a means to an end, as a contextualizing tool. As a central pillar of analysis, it belongs in applied economics or marketing departments. No, the days of Thompson, Tilly and Mason are over, as Eley admits.[6]


I would argue that there is a way to link economic history to race, to gender, to ideology and to culture without privileging one over the other, without needing a “base.” I would argue that the central concept of a “new economic history” is survival. What, after all, is the “economic” but a system of positioning in relation to material resources to ensure the continuity of the subject over time? Can we not read racism as operating according to its own internal logic based on a system of economic security and trust, with the threat of different bloodlines, different inheritances, and different economic securities impinging on that system? Can we not read gender identities as strategies for positioning of maximum economic security, in order to ensure the survival of the subject not only qua subject but also the subject as projected onto future generations, the accumulation of wealth or at least economic security as a gateway to immortality and thus the ultimate form of survival? Can we not read the dissolving of the individual into the “collective”either the vague Volksgemeinschaft or the very real Volkswirtschaftas another gateway to ultimate survival?


This concept may not satisfy some as the “the master narrative” posed in the editors’ initial queries. It may not even satisfy some as a legitimate bridge between the cultural and the economic. In a sense, it is an attempt to produce a dialectic of economics and culture, without positing any telos. Nonetheless, let us consider the framework of “survival” or “positioning” and ask, taking this as a starting point: what might a research agenda and a graduate curriculum then look like?


It would call forth dissertations, articles, and conferences based on specific kinds of fusions between the economic and the cultural that are guided by “positioning/survival.” For example, histories of insurance, inheritance, savings, credit, and consumption; or economic aspects of religious discourse concerning salvation and damnation and interment. Memory, the reverse structure of immortality, would certainly qualify (consider the connection between the different uses of accumulated capital to produce posthumous memory of the subject). Race, gender, and the family can all be read economically using a number of tools. So too the relation of the individual subject to the collective can be read using economic categories. The cultural salience of common attitudes towards taxes, for example, coupled with a statistically “hard” look at tax structures, is ultimately about the cohesion of the subject’s identification with the collective. It’s very much in the same vein as any project detailing meanings of martyrdom, battle, and sacrifice; and it could conceivably blend cultural-religious, cultural-military, and cultural-economic history. Practices of donation, tithing, and charity could form a complementary study at any point from the establishment of Christianity among Germanic tribes until the present day, if looked at with the right blend of discursive and cultural analysis and hard economic data.


What might a graduate reading seminar consist of, in order to “loop” the cultural back to the economic, whether in the “survival/positioning” framework or in other, as yet unrealized, ways? Certainly, graduate students should be reading less Foucault and less Said, and more classic economic theory. Smith, Ricardo, Marx, and Engels must at least be introduced to graduate students. Especially important, however, are those thinkers—mostly from the 20th century—who have found important ways in which to conceptualize the essential connectedness of the economic and the cultural. Here I am envisioning specifically a graduate syllabus that focuses on the core work by Werner Sombart, Thorsten Veblen, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin (especially his Arcades project), Friedrich von Hayek’s work on economics and psychology and memory, Pierre Bourdieu, Jane Jacobs, Jean Baudrillard, and Daniel Miller.


And which works might one look to, whether in a graduate program or beyond, for the purposes of moving forward and “looping back?” Certainly the de Grazia and Furlough edited volume The Sex of Things, discussed above, is an important starting point. Alongside that volume I’d also include Getting and Spending, edited by Susan Strasser, George McGovern and Matthias Judt.[7] Works such as More Work for Mother by Ruth Schwarz Cowan and Taste and Power by Leora Auslander are models of how to combine economics and cultural investigations of technology, gender, and material culture.[8] In terms of German history specifically, the focus of a cultural economic history would not necessarily rehash the old debates about, say, the role of big business in the Third Reich, but rather the role of economic regimes of consumption, accumulation, inheritance and their interconnectivity with race, kinship, gender, technological change, and so on. Such an approach transcends the old debates while also allowing for chronological and geographical transgression—since investigations of economics from the ground level can be done just as reasonably in early modern environments as in modern, or in places where Germany exists as an economic entity more than a geographic entity.  This opens the door for early modern works such as David Sabean’s Neckarhausen masterpiece or Allison Frank’s look at the Galician “oil empire” to be seen as important works of central European economic history.[9] Specifically in modern Germany, works such as Mary Nolan’s Visions of Modernity or Erica Carter’s How German is She? must be consulted.[10] And of course, the history of East Germany—and of the smaller realms controlled by socialist and communist groups, such as co-ops in KPD strongholds in the 1920s—might be studied from the viewpoint that the political is mainly and most efficaciously expressed through the economic, on the everyday level. Something like Eric Weitz’s Creating German Communism might be written with less attention to political leadership and more to the Lüdtkean economic “praxes” within KPD communities and their impact and interaction with categories such as gender, kinship, race, space, nature, technology etc.[11] Such a longue dureé “new economic history” of German communism would complement the achievements of culturally-inflected economic history already well established in GDR historiography.[12]


One final note: the interpretive frame of “survival” ought not to be confused for some version of neo-social Darwinism or any kind of neo-conservative triumphalism, though one might certainly posit an argument that capitalism allowed for the kinds of personal strategizing more effectively than did communism. It is only a means of conceptualizing the bridges that can be built (or uncovered) between economics and culture, and ought not be ascribed any moral judgment or teleology.




[1]. Geoff Eley, The Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).


[2]. Eley, Crooked Line, 191.


[3]. Eley, Crooked Line, 202.


[4]. Victoria de Grazia and Ellen Furlough, eds., The Sex of Things: Gender and Consumption in Historical Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996; de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through 20th-Century Europe. Cambridge, Mass: Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.


[5]. Judd Stitziel, Fashioning Socialism: Clothing, Politics and Consumer Culture in East Germany. (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005); Jonathan Zatlin, The Currency of Socialism: Money and Political Culture in East Germany, (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Mark Landsman, Dictatorship and Demand: The Politics of Consumerism in East Germany (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005); Ina Merkel, ed., Wunderwirtschaft: DDR-Konsumkultur in den 60er Jahren. (Cologne: Böhlau, 1996), and Merkel’s major text, the standard work on GDR consumption, Utopie und Bedürfnis. Die Geschichte der Konsumkultur in der DDR, (Cologne: Böhlau, 1999).


[6]. Eley, Crooked Line, 189.


[7]. Susan Strasser, Charles McGovern and Matthias Judt, eds. Getting and Spending. European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


[8]. Ruth Schwarz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983); Leora Auslander, Taste and Power: Furnishing Modern France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).


[9]. David Warren Sabean, Kinship in Neckarhausen, 1700-1870 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Alison Flieg Frank, Oil Empire: Visions of Prosperity in Austrian Galicia (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2005).


[10]. Mary Nolan, Visions of Modernity: American Business and the Modernization of Germany (New York : Oxford University Press, 1994); Erica Carter, How German is She? Postwar German Reconstruction and the Consuming Woman (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1996).


[11]. Eric Weitz, Creating German Communism, 1890-1990: From Popular Protests to Socialist State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).


[12]. Aside from the authors cited above in note 5, see Kathy Pence and Paul Betts’ forthcoming edited volume Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007); Philipp Heldmann,  Herrschaft, Wirtschaft, Anoraks. Konsumpolitik in der DDR der Sechzigerjahre (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004); Rebecca Menzel, Jeans in der DDR. Vom tieferen Sinn einer Freizeithose (Berlin: Ch. Links, 2004); Patrice Poutrus, Die Erfindung des Goldbroilers. Über den Zusammenhang zwischen Herrschaftssicherung und Konsumentwicklung in der DDR (Cologne: Böhlau, 2002); Adelheid von Saldern, The Challenge of Modernity: German Social and Cultural Studies, 1890-1960, trans. Bruce Little (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), esp. Chapters 4-5;  Annette Kaminsky, Wohlstand, Schönheit, Glück. Kleine Konsumgeschichte der DDR (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2001).



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