Das Leben der Anderen

by Chris Bertram on December 31, 2006

I’ve just finished watching Das Leben der Anderen, which I was given on DVD for Christmas. It was a bit of a struggle, linguistically, and I missed a fair bit of dialogue, but it is a very powerful film which I strongly recommend. The setting is East Berlin in 1984 and the plot concerns the Stasi surveillance of a playwright and his lover. I won’t post more in the way of spoilers but I’ll just say that the movie gives a very strong impression of what it must be like to live in a police state and of the corrupting effects of dictatorship on watchers and those they watch. I had a bit of a disagreement with Tyler Cowen recently about the former GDR, when he took issue with me for saying:

the real problem with East Germany was not its comparative level of economic development or the level of health care its citizens could receive (rather good, actually). It was the fact that it was a police state where people were denied the basic liberties.

I have to say that’s an opinion that has been reinforced by the film: a (far) worse choice of fruit and vegetables is as nothing to the corrosive effects on the soul of a political tyranny. The film also constitutes a very concrete rebuttal of Volokh guest blogger Fernando Tesón’s strange polemic against political art . Art can contribute to political understanding by making vivid to people what a state of affairs is like in a way that no mere enumeration of facts can. The level of surveillance that citizens of the GDR were subject to is shocking, but it takes art to depict the effect of such a system on their inner lives.

{ 64 comments }

1

kid bitzer 12.31.06 at 1:45 pm

“Art can contribute to political understanding by making vivid to people what a state of affairs is like in a way that no mere enumeration of facts can.”

yeah, that sounds right to me, and sounds like an adequate justification for political art.

at the same time, that justification works if and only if the artistic representation is scrupulously accurate in representing the state of affairs.

if the representation tries to show us the corrupting influence of police-state repression by showing earthworms crawling out people’s ears whenever they listen to surveillance tapes (just as a random example of inaccurate representation), then it loses its right to appeal to the justification you are using, i.e the justification by vivid representation of states of affairs. because that is *not* a representation of the state of affairs that obtained.

that’s why it seems to me that political art is justified when it is scrupulously factual, but less justified as it moves away from the documentary model (or straight re-enactment model).

when that right-wing crap about clinton-era responses to terror was showing earlier this year, they made up some false and defamatory dialogue and put it into the mouths of clinton officials.

i myself don’t think they should get a pass by saying “but it was political *art*, and it was just our way of making things *vivid*”.

if it’s false, it loses all recourse to justification.

2

Barry Freed 12.31.06 at 2:50 pm

Yeah, I mean “1984”, c’mon, “Newspeak”? “Oceania”? And that other book he wrote, the one with the talking animals, Everyone knows that animals can’t talk so how can it convey any meaningful political truth at all? And don’t even get me started on “Brave New World” (could Orwell have copped some mescaline from AH? Hmm, that would explain a lot) The prol, um, public demands nothing less than stark realism in its artistic depictions of social, political, economic conditions anything else smacks of counterrevolutionary politically correct rootless cosmopolitanism Quick, someone pen a manifesto

(shorter above: kid, I mean, kid, you’re so much smarter than that (or at least a few of you are) I can’t believe what CB says should even have to be defended now and against such a well-educated, otherwise sophisticated (their politics aside) elite

3

KCinDC 12.31.06 at 3:32 pm

Yes, Kid, I don’t understand how the bit about earthworms is at all parallel to the ABC 9/11 propaganda movie. Are you concerned that people might believe earthworms are actually involved in the surveillance?

4

vadim 12.31.06 at 3:48 pm

It’s funny that you draw these conclusions from a movie… I grew up in the USSR, and I can assure you that while the opression was felt and hated, the everyday mysery of not being able to feed and clothe your children properly after spending 3 hours daily in queues was by far the bigger hardship for most people. Though it was probably the reverse for people who made movies.

5

bi 12.31.06 at 4:31 pm

Barry Freed:

I for one do think that all this stuff about Newspeak and Oceania sound too contrived, and detract from the message to some extent.

6

novakant 12.31.06 at 4:50 pm

as a more recent example “The Crying Game” comes to mind, which happens to get several things factually wrong, suffers from a rather unwise casting decision (Forest Whitaker as a British soldier) which hinders the suspension of disbelief and relies on a rather gimmicky twist, but nevertheless conveys a lot of insight into the human dimension of the Northern Ireland conflict, by transcending the bare facts and spinning a gripping yarn

generally, I would tend to agree with the moral point CB is making, especially after having read the comments at Marginal Revolution, which leaves me with the impression that most of the libertarians there simply don’t know a lot about the GDR

I want, however, add two not insignificant countepoints:

a.) the GDR’s economic system didn’t work, it wasn’t sustainable and in the end the GDR was simply broke – Germany is still paying dearly for this economic disaster; so it wasn’t really “up to them” to decide what economic system they preferred

b.) the incessant and brazen economic propaganda by the regime and the constant pressure put on society to achieve economic goals makes it very hard to simply seperate economic policies from the overall totalitarian nature of the “real existierender sozialismus” – indeed, the good marxists of the GDR would have found such a seperation of politics and economic policy preposterous

7

Barry Freed 12.31.06 at 5:07 pm

bi:

OK, but (and particularly coming from you) that leaves me wanting to hear this elaborated on more How is that so and why (any examples would be most desireable here) Are there any counter examples/rare exceptions you’d admit to? And what of the entire dystopian genre? Is it a failure as both art and agitprop? If so I think you’ve got one hellluva steep mountain to climb in making your case.
I find most social realism to be bad art and almost all of it is tedious and boring in the extreme.

Is it possible that a few practitioners of non-realist political art whose work you find particularly objectionable have soured you on the idea?

*cocks an ear/waits for Seth Edenbaum to come in here and drop da Bomb on your ass.

8

Matt 12.31.06 at 5:26 pm

A few points:

First, that post by Tesón at Volokh’s place was truly bizzar, for the reason Chris gives here and also for his claim that there was no “right wing political art.”

Second, I wonder how far the economic deprivation and police state aspects of life under communism can be seperated. I was struck very much by this question while reading Alec Nove’s excellent _The Economics of Feasible Socialism_ many years ago. Nicely, the best bit for summing up the issue comes from a bit quoted from some “political art”, Vasili grossman’s book _Life and Fate_ (if recall the title correctly): “I wanted since childhood to open a shop, so that any folk could come in and buy. Along with it would be a snack-bar, so that the customers could have a bit of roast meat, if they like, or a drink. I would serve them cheap, too. I’d let them have real village food. Baked potato! Bacon-fat with garlic! Sauerkraut! I’d give them bone-marrow as a starter… a Measure of vodka, a marrow bone, and black bread of course, and salt. Leather chairs, so that the lice don’t breed. The Customer could sit and rest and be served. If I were to say this out loud, I’d have been sent straight to Siberia. And yet, say I, what harm would I do to people?” (_What indeed!_, Nove answers. The book is really good and should be read more than it is.)

Third, this same sort of thing does show the danger of art. When I’ve taught classes on free speech on thing I try to bring up is whether it makes sense to exclude from regulation pornographic works (for example) that have artistic merit while allowing regulation of those that lack any artistic merit. (Something like this was the law for some time in the US but now the split has largely been given up on.) Works with artistic merit have, after all, the ability to attract and convince us not only of truths but also of falsehoods and in that way can be more dangerous.

9

David Wright 12.31.06 at 5:32 pm

Your statement that caused all the ruckus is rather slipery.

It could mean “the denial of civil liberties in the GDR was a more evil thing than the denial of economic liberties in the GDR.” That’s a rather innocuous statement of a rather personal moral hierarchy. It basically admits that both were very bad, and just asserts that one is morally worse.

Or it could mean “the denial of economic freedom to which the GDR subjected its citizens wasn’t really a big problem.” Under this intrepretation, you are basically saying that, at least in the light of the wonderful economic leveling it brought, the denial of economic freedom in the GDR wasn’t such a bad thing.

If you consider the opinions of the vast majority of GDR citizens, the second meaning is really unsupportable. Before the wall was built in 1961, thousands of GDR citizens were fleeing the country to the west daily. At the time, Stasi hadn’t been built up to the all-encompassing survilence system that it would later become. Do you really claim that this mass migration was primarily politically, not economicly, driven? Such an assertion is, frankly, incredible.

The migration problem really shows why political and economic freedom are not seperable, and why every communist state (including the ones that weren’t proxies for the Russians, like China, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam) becomes authoritarian.

(By the way, for an excellent cinematic depiction of life in the GDR in the 1960s, see “Sonnenalee.” It concentrates neither on political nor economic, but rather cultural aspects. I don’t think it could be taken as evidence for either your or my perspective on the issue at hand, but it is great cinema.)

10

SusanC 12.31.06 at 5:39 pm

A couple of days ago I went to see Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll. As well as being itself an example of political art, it contains some interesting ideas about how art that does not intend to be political can end up being politically effective. In Stoppard’s version of events, at least, the rock band Plastic People of the Universe don’t start out as dissidents, but still end up influencing politics, as their arrest and trial was one of the events that led up to the formation of the Charter 77 group.

11

Chris Bertram 12.31.06 at 6:05 pm

David Wright: my statement said nothing whatsoever about “economic liberties”, it said that it is more important that citizens of a country have political freedom than that they have a high standard of living. Above a threshold that most European countries crossed a long time ago, I think that statement is true. What’s so hard to understand?

12

kid bitzer 12.31.06 at 6:18 pm

barry–
thanks for your (former) good opinion of (some of) us.

i’m not expressing a preference for realism as an *esthetic* ideal, e.g. die sogenannte “social realism”. if we’re comparing esthetics, then the kind of justification i was discussing is no longer the central issue.

it’s not the esthetic status of art that i was commenting on, but its evidentiary status, its role in giving us good reason to change our beliefs. and i’m not just making up the idea that some people view art this way. see d. wright in #8, saying about a film:
“I don’t think it could be taken as evidence for either your or my perspective on the issue at hand”.

or see bertram in the original post:
“the movie gives a very strong impression of what it must be like to live in a police state”

when people start treating works of art as “evidence” of “what it must be like”, then i want to ask:
*is* it really evidence?
*must* it be like that? (where i take it that the “must” is epistemic).

the trouble is that artistic persuasion is cheap–you can make lots of things look like the truth on the screen. should people leave d.w. griffith’s ‘birth of a nation’ convinced that we need to support the noble Klan to put down the ravening black bucks who are a danger to our white women? lots of people did, anyhow. and lots of them probably thought they had seen *evidence* of why they should be more supportive of the klan, that they had seen what it *must be like* to be a poor persecuted white man in the south.

an anti-orwell could have used talking animals to show the glories of collectivization, with no less ease, and just as much rhetorical effect. but the beliefs so promulgated would have been *false*. the evidentiary status of talking animals is equal in either case, though–i.e. not so much.

those are the questions i’m interested in–when does an artistic representation give me reason to acquire a new belief? lots of people are changing their beliefs based on art–just see the poster, and the commenters–but are they right to do it?

that’s different from the question: when is it politically justified to use art? you might answer that by saying “as long as the propaganda supports my side in preference to theirs, then it’s justified”. but that again is not evidentiary justification.

and remember, it was c. bertram who said:
“The film also constitutes a very concrete rebuttal of Volokh guest blogger Fernando Tesón’s strange polemic against political art . Art can contribute to political understanding by making vivid to people what a state of affairs is like in a way that no mere enumeration of facts can.”

so it was he who claimed that political art can find a justification through its ability to make states of affairs vivid.

and my follow-on thought was: if *that’s* the kind of justification of political art that you want to mount, then you’d better make sure that it really *does* represent the state of affairs.

13

SusanC 12.31.06 at 6:43 pm

Chris Bertram said:

my statement said nothing whatsoever about “economic liberties”, it said that it is more important that citizens of a country have political freedom than that they have a high standard of living.

Maybe there isn’t a real choice between having political freedom OR having a high standard of living. Perhaps, if you don’t have political freedom you don’t get the high standard of living either.

14

abb1 12.31.06 at 6:44 pm

I also had some experience with the USSR, like Vadim upthread. And I too feel that to the average person dealing with all the economic stuff was much, much more frustrating than any of these so-called ‘basic liberties’, whatever it means.

I’ve been to the GDR and East Berlin (around 1984, incidentally), and didn’t notice any observable police state there. Sure, anti-communist political activities were suppressed – goes without saying, but few are interested in politics anyhow. In today’s Germany many peaceful political activities are suppressed as well, so it’s just a matter of the degree.

And like Vadim upthread I too suspect that the perception of someone who writes books or makes films probably is drastically different from that of the average person.

15

radek 12.31.06 at 6:52 pm

I think Vadim got it right. The people who made the movies post-1990 were usually people for whom the economic hardship pre-1990 was relatively small. Plus movie makers are artists so naturally they wll complain more vocally about lack of artistic freedom. I think someone somewhere made that cynical observation with regard to Kundera who was more or less ok with communism until it started censoring his works.

16

Chris Bertram 12.31.06 at 8:03 pm

Nostaligie-ostalgie. I remember being lectured by orthodox communists who told me that a concern with liberty was merely a bourgeois self-indulgence and that what really mattered was the standard of living. Now we get the same crap from people who style themselves as “libertarians”. Those keen to endorse the sentiments of Vadim above should check to see whether the downfall of communism increased the effective command of the average citizen over consumables.

17

radek 12.31.06 at 9:01 pm

Ay, come on Chris, no one here (at least I think) is arguing that a concern with liberty is less important then concern with providing adequate material comforts. Merely pointing out that to the average person adequate material comforts probably due get a higher weight.
And usually if a state is pretty good at providing material comforts then it will have less of a reason to abuse the civil liberties of its citizens (for example Singapore, though I guess SKorea would be a counter example, that’s why there’s a “usually” there). The fact that former USSR and its satellites failed to deliver on both counts does say something.

And wait a minute! Did you just call abb1 a “self styled liberterian”?

Anyway. This is an old issue over which reasonable people may disagree (and Orthodox Marxists are not neccesarily 100% wrong). In fact, in particular case of Poland, this very tension kept coming up over and over again from end of WW2 until 1990. In 1956 “workers” demonstrated against falling incomes and were joined by “intellectuals” protesting for civil rights – this basically worked in so far as it ushered in a period of de-Stalinization and some modest pro-market reforms (squelched all plans to nationalize agriculture for one) and Poland became a “normal country” (not a good one or anything, just not anymore fucked up than the average country in the world at the time).
From then on the Communist party learned that it must play off the “bread and butter” advocates against the “liberties” advocates and until the emergence of Solidarity in 1980 it worked. In 1968 students went to the streets in the name of academic freedom but the “workers” refused to join (and Communist party propaganda played up the “those intellectuals only care about abstractions” theme as well as temporarily raised wages and cut prices). In 1970 the workers struck to protest wage cuts and price rises but this time the students and intellectuals stayed out, having been given some token freedoms in the social sphere (and the result was a massacre of the workers by the government). The situation repeated in 1976 but this time some folks in the “liberties” crowd (many of whom were quite far left on economic issues) organized to support the workers. This bore fruit partly in 1980 and more fully in 1989.

Those keen to endorse the sentiments of Vadim above should check to see whether the downfall of communism increased the effective command of the average citizen over consumables.

Well, first of all, in all places except for perhaps former USSR, it has. Certainly in former GDR. So I don’t know what the hey you’re talking about here. And let’s see, Vadim’s objectionable sentiments:

“I can assure you that while the opression was felt and hated, the everyday mysery of not being able to feed and clothe your children properly after spending 3 hours daily in queues was by far the bigger hardship for most people.”

So let’s see, the oppression of civil liberties was “felt and hated”. That doesn’t quite seem like a statement that a concern with civil liberties is a “bourgeoise self indulgence”. But yeah, for the average person, the constant standing in queues (someone once commented that the perfect symbol of post-Stalin communism was the que), the lack of basic necessities like butter, sugar, coffee, gas, and milk, not to mention the absence of luxuries like, uh, meat, the electrictiy constantly going out and brown rusty water coming out of your tap, the ever increasing inflation and all the other economic problems were probably more real to the average person then whether or not they were allowed to read some book by some dissenter (the exception here being the Bible).

But I guess all those things mentioned above are not important since all those countries had crossed that magic threshold beyond which material improvements don’t matter a long time ago.

18

novakant 12.31.06 at 9:36 pm

if there ever was a police state on this earth it was the GDR, anybody who knows anything about it simply cannot deny this, go read Stasiland or a few volumes of Der Spiegel post 89 or watch said film – the GDR was crap

19

vadim 12.31.06 at 10:33 pm

“Those keen to endorse the sentiments of Vadim above should check to see whether the downfall of communism increased the effective command of the average citizen over consumables.”

Umm… Yes, it did. In Russia and Ukraine (where I’m from) the hardship I described was experienced by 90% of the population in 1984. Today, probably less than half. And many (not all) people who want to build a better material life for themselves, can. Before 1989, *no matter what you did and how hard you worked*, your material life would be miserable – because the state would take the fruits of your labor away. (Which, by the way, is the reason why the state also had to keep you under surveilance and without rights). I really don’t think many people in the West grasp these things, unfortunately.

Of course, the improvement has been much greater in Central Europe and the Baltics.

20

abb1 12.31.06 at 11:06 pm

Certainly in my case – and, sounds like, with Vadim and Radek as well – this is not ideological, but rather an empirical observation. I saw the masses craving for Blue Jeans first with political freedoms far down the list, somewhere between Marlboroughs and Coca-Cola. Sorry.

21

lol 12.31.06 at 11:20 pm

Chris Bertram’s uncharitable response to Vadim is telling. Seemingly he would rather elevate the conclusions he drew from “political art” above the testimony of a former citizen of Soviet Russia.

That the intellectuals would rather take the literal truth of a film to bed, than concede to the contrary experiences of someone who lived the system, is suggestive. For them, reality is subservient to the visions of political art, especially when it reinforces a previously held opinion.

Perhaps Teson is right after all, at least in this instance: political art signals discourse failure when even experiential reality fails to trump fiction. Which is ironic, to say the least.

22

bi 01.01.07 at 12:11 am

Barry Freed asks,

How is that so and why?

I’ll talk about Newspeak. Newspeak’s supposed to be an illustration of how misuse of languages results in fuzziness of thought. Yet Newspeak’s vocabulary is totally and explicitly defined by a dictionary handed down from on high, and no movement does that (especially not in its earlier stages).

Did e.g. Mussolini issue an explicit dictionary from on high? Did Saddam do so? Did McCarthy? No — and this means their supporters can easily brush away Orwell’s point by saying, “hey, we’re not like that!” (There’s an issue of Reader’s Digest — I can’t remember which one — which basically used this form of denial with 1984.) Yet will you deny that language was corrupted in a very real way under these people? The forced nature of this Newspeak business detracts from its central message, which has a lot more relevance to the world than it’s presented to be.

Paradoxically, Animal Farm seems less artificial, even though it has animals — nobody’s going to fool themselves by saying “hey, we’re not like that, we’re not literally pigs or cows or chickens!”

Just my 2 cents.

23

Down and Out in Sài Gòn 01.01.07 at 12:36 am

The migration problem really shows why political and economic freedom are not seperable, and why every communist state (including the ones that weren’t proxies for the Russians, like China, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam) becomes authoritarian.

David,

Many states have tried to separate economic and political freedoms – with various degrees of success. Singapore is actually the best example I can think of. But Việt Nam (where I’m living – although not too much longer) is another. There’s lots of small business around, and big companies as well. The country still has a gigantic state sector, but the government is trying to whittle that back.

The government is still authoritarian, and makes not secret that they want the Communists to be in power forever. (They even put that as a slogan on Hồ Chí Minh’s tomb, for the love of god.) It’s still unwise to talk too much about “Democracy” – althought some people tried to start some sort of dissident’s group last year. However, most people aren’t into bucking the system – healthy growth of 7% to 8% per year in the economy.

Economics and Politics are linked, but there’s no 1-1 relationship between the two. Authoritarianism may be unpleasant, but it’s better than totalitarianism (which is what the country was until 1986).

24

bi 01.01.07 at 1:14 am

OK, are vadim and Bertram talking about the same part of the USSR? Maybe economic conditions were different in East Germany and whichever part of the USSR vadim came from?

25

Teddy 01.01.07 at 2:42 am

Those keen to endorse the sentiments of Vadim above should check to see whether the downfall of communism increased the effective command of the average citizen over consumables.

Chris, this is totally irrelevant. You first say that people in East Germany found political tyranny more difficult to endure than economic deprivation. Then after Vadim disputed this, you respond by suggesting that the economic situation did not improve much after the downfall of communism. But even if you were right about this (which you are not), I don’t see how it would help you defend your original claim.

26

astrongmaybe 01.01.07 at 3:38 am

I didn’t think so much of the film: there’s a lot of borderline-cheesy melodrama in there, and underlying it all is a pretty old fashioned and not very enlightening humanism – nasty machine-man (the Stasi operative, impassive face, smooth skull) gets in touch with inner self through proximity (audio surveillance) to beautiful music, love, sex, food, ickle childwen (the excruciating scene in the elevator). If there’s ever a moment of doubt of what you’re supposed to be thinking or feeling, the soundtrack music gives you a few auditory wallops to set you right.

I saw a comically ignorant blogger somewhere describe it as “like Star Trek landed on some fascist planet” (dude…) but in a sense he was right – the whole design and feel is meant to give you an overwhelming sense of alienness, to set up what is effectively a fairly simplistic parable of totalitarianism and humanism. Not saying the DDR in any way happy or good, but the film’s moral and political sensibilities are about on the level of Spielberg.

27

Chris Bertram 01.01.07 at 3:55 am

My goodness, go to sleep for a few hours and I find more comments from those whose reading skills are challenged or whose historical knowledge is such that they appear to believe that East Germany was “a part of the USSR”!

I didn’t make any statements about what people found “more difficult to endure”, I said that that a police state was a greater evil than a restricted choice of fruit and vegetables. In the GDR you could never be sure that your closest friends and relatives weren’t informing on you to the Stasi, and in the film they plant listening devices in their victims’ bedroom.

Ulrich Mühe, the actor who plays the central Stasi character in the film, was spied on in real life by his own wife. Personally, if I were faced with a choice between worse economic prospects and a condition where the state might be blackmailing my loved ones into reporting on my every move, I’d opt to be poorer but freer.

Oh, whilst I’m about it, let me address the following two sentences from susanc:

Maybe there isn’t a real choice between having political freedom OR having a high standard of living. Perhaps, if you don’t have political freedom you don’t get the high standard of living either.

First, that’s an empirical conjecture, which may or may not hold true, but is, in any case irrelevant to the claim I made which was about the relative moral importance of political liberty and economic standard of living. Second, it really is pertinent to mention, at this point, the many ideologues (usually of the authoritarian right) who have argued precisely that the _denial_ of political liberties is a necessary condition of economic growth and prosperity (at least in their countries). Mr Lee Kuan Yew comes to mind as a proponent of such a view.

28

bi 01.01.07 at 6:58 am

Chris Bertram:

Oh, OK. But that only makes your response to vadim’s point even more puzzling.

Also, what does it mean to say that a police state is “a greater evil than a restricted choice of fruit and vegetables”? I think, if you put it this way, the statement becomes empirically untestable — evil is in the eyes of the beholder.

29

Chris Bertram 01.01.07 at 7:26 am

You think that judgements of the relative importance of competing values are, or should be, empirically testable? By opinion poll perhaps? I fear you are beyond help.

30

bi 01.01.07 at 8:30 am

Chris Bertram: well, they do… or you’ll have no grounds to claim that other people who disagree are wrong.

31

Chris Bertram 01.01.07 at 8:38 am

Whatever dude.

32

Teddy 01.01.07 at 8:49 am

Chris,

if what you really wanted to say is just that “a police state is a greater evil than a restricted choice of fruit and vegetables”, then the obvious question is: why bother to make such an uninteresting claim? I mean, who would disagree with that?

Your decision to speak about economic hardships in East Germany in terms of “restricted choice of fruit and vegetables” is tendentious in the same way as if political oppression in that country were described in terms of “restricted choice of political parties”.

33

Chris Bertram 01.01.07 at 10:07 am

Fine, take my original statement (indented in the post) as a less rhetorical expression of my view, if you like. (btw, those such as vadim who have claimed that living standards in _Russia_ have improved since the end of communism might want to take a look at the UN Human Development indicators).

See

http://tinyurl.com/tuez9

“Since 1990, Tajikistan has fallen 21 places in the HDR rankings, Ukraine 17, and the Russian Federation 15. Declining life expectancy, combined with economic disruption after the fall of the Soviet Union, are the main factors, the Report states. The Index also shows that some of the CIS countries report improvements in their HDI levels since 1995, after the worst of the conflict and economic dislocation that accompanied the Soviet collapse.”

34

Matt 01.01.07 at 10:39 am

Well, I can speak a bit about the consumer products avaliable to average people in Russia over time, since I’ve seen pretty big changes from the time I first went there and also have spoken with many people about it. In many cases things have gotten worse for many people. The health care system, which was never great, is in shambles and barely serves many people. Some people get decent but not great health care, some get very good and some get almost none. The percentage that get very good health care is quite small. For this and for many other reasons the average life expenctancy for men has gone down a lot, illness for kids is up, etc. Many people were hit hard by the ’98 crash and had a hard time climing back up. This was especially the case for the old, who are worse off than ever. Anyone trying to get by on just a pension is in a very bad state, often reduced to (essentially) subsistance farming and small-scale selling of fruits and vegtibles. It’s quite sad to see. But, for most people, there are _vastly_ more consumer products avaliable to people and vastly more people can get them then was the case in the 80’s and probably the 70’s as well. Many, many more people, probably most, just have avaliable so many more foods, clothes, house-hold items and so on than they did even 5 or 6 years ago, let alone 10 or 15, that it is impossible to deny. The fact that you don’t have to spend all day trying to get not enough of quite bad stuff really, really makes a huge difference to people’s lives. So, while many people, especially the old and the children of the poor, suffer greatly in Russia, there is an obvious sense, apparently to anyone who’s seen the changes, that the living standards for a very large percentage of the people have improved massively. This is almost entirely due to the fact that the state no longer forbids capitalist acts between consenting adults, to use a famous phrase, and it’s also obvious that to prevent this takes just the oppressive government and police state we all oppose.

35

anote 01.01.07 at 10:49 am

What is missing from this discussion is a sense of the institutional/sociological setting of the art — how it is experience for the viewers, what place does it have in a society. These seem far more important than quasi-analytical blathering about truth and evidence.

36

josh 01.01.07 at 1:48 pm

The discussion here seems to have become (to me, somewhat mysteriously) heated; and this hasn’t done anything for clarity. Assuming that we’re talking about what is more important in some objective sense, as opposed to what any group of people actually prefer, it seems to me that there’s some confusion about just what is being argued about — whether it’s a matter of political freedoms (which in this case means freedom from state surveilance, mainly) vs. economic freedom (defined as there being a wide range of obtainable goods); or political freedom vs. economic prosperity; or political freedom vs. the absence of acute economic dependency and want.
Now, even if we leave aside a measuring people’s preferences, it seems that everyone who’s made an argument on either side has appealed to human suffering or degradation as standards of comparison — whether one would suffer more, or have one’s character more warped, by the lack of political liberty, or by the lack of economic freedom/lack of economic prosperity/economic dependence and want. I find Chris’s case convincing with regard the first two; but it is not at all clear that having to stand in queu in the cold all day, or being unable, regardless of what one does, to adquately feed and cloth one’s children, causes less suffering or damage than the knowledge of being constantly spied on. Perhaps a certain amount of humility, on the parts of those of us who have been so fortunate as to never experience either condition, is in order?

37

abb1 01.01.07 at 2:04 pm

This is almost entirely due to the fact that the state no longer forbids capitalist acts between consenting adults, to use a famous phrase, and it’s also obvious that to prevent this takes just the oppressive government and police state we all oppose.

They didn’t import any consumer goods and their own economy wasn’t functioning well. I don’t think absence of capitalism maintained by oppressive government is either necessary or sufficient for this to happen. In Yugoslavia, for example, economy was functioning well enough without capitalism and they didn’t have a police state there.

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Chris Bertram 01.01.07 at 2:10 pm

Josh, I agree with you entirely that exposure to the kind of acute poverty that exists in sub-Saharan Africa causes severe damage to people. But it is just _false_ to assert that the level of deprivation experienced by people in the GDR in the mid-1980s was _remotely comparable_ to that. It is also false that East Germans had to stand in queues all day on a regular basis in order adequately to feed or clothe their children. Though they were in a much worse position than Western consumers were, they were not typically poor even in comparison with many Western populations of the recent (post-war) past (e.g the French of the early 1950s say).

What annoys me intensely about some of the commentators in this thread is that they think it morally awful for societies to be somewhat less wealthy than 21st century West European and North American societies are. But the societies in which many of us grew up were much poorer than the ones we live in now and I don’t think they were terrible societies to grow up in. On the other hand, I do think it horrendous to be subjected to a police state at pretty much any level of economic development.

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Matt 01.01.07 at 2:18 pm

“They didn’t import any consumer goods and their own economy wasn’t functioning well.”

Yes, but of course one big reason why the economy wasn’t functioning well was because all sorts of economic activity that would have helped it wasn’t allowed. And, products were imported from other Eastern Block countries. And, the Yugoslav economy was both more free and also to a large degree a house of cards kept up by massive unsustainable borrowing. When that gave out so did the economy.

40

abb1 01.01.07 at 2:19 pm

What was the effect of this GDR police state on the average apolitical Fritz? He couldn’t travel west, of course; what else?

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Chris Bertram 01.01.07 at 2:30 pm

FFS, abb1, go, read “Stasiland” and come back later.

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novakant 01.01.07 at 2:47 pm

abb1, you seem to know almost nothing about the GDR (well, you’re in good company here though), so because it’s new year’s day and in the interest of a constructive discussion I’ll assume your question is not a rhetorical one and recommend a very insightful, well written and even highly entertaining book about life in the police state called GDR:

STASILAND by Anna Funder

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abb1 01.01.07 at 3:00 pm

Matt, yes, obviously in the area of consumer stuff mass-production and distribution less regulated market would’ve functioned better, but that (to me) doesn’t necessarily imply capitalist economy.

Plenty of consensual capitalist acts are forbidden everywhere, like price gauging or organ selling, for example. Most people don’t mind.

Thanks, Novakant, thanks, Chris. Happy new year. I ordered the book – and it’s cheaper on amazon.de than on amazon.com, which is a small miracle.

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ingrid 01.01.07 at 3:04 pm

In 1994/5 I studied in Germany and took a seminar where we read all the documents of the Parliamentary Commission which was investigating the legacy of the GDR (I can’t recall how much I read, but it was thousands of pages of testimonies, documents, and analyses). A number of my fellow students grew up in the GDR. I recall that this parliamentary investigation clearly showed that anyone who was asking any kind of question about anything organised by the state (and the state controled everything), would be sanctioned – things like their kids wouldn’t be able to study. Anyone’s aunt or neighbour could be spying for the Stassi, hence nobody could be trusted. And this was common knowledge. (One of my friends’ father was high up in the Stassi, and he confirmed these things).
I didn’t grow up in the GDR, but studied the Stassi-regime, spent quite a bit of time there in the years after the fall of the wall, and had (and still have) friends who grew up there. It was very oppressive for anyone who was resisting, even in small and subtle ways, to have their lives being determined by the Communist Party. This would include many people which in the presentday American/European context would be called apolitical people.

For what it’s worth, my knowledge and analyses of the GDR, and those of my East-German friends, strongly support Chris’s views in his post.

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radek 01.01.07 at 7:00 pm

It is also false that East Germans had to stand in queues all day on a regular basis in order adequately to feed or clothe their children.

Alright, I really can’t speak with authority on GDR but in the part of the Eastern Bloc I was living in it was most definetly, absolutely true. Based on that I suspect that it was true, perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent, in GDR as well (GDR was supposed to be the richest of the Eastern Bloc countries but if I recall correctly this turned out not to be true once accurate statistics were obtained).

So I’d say that the fact that you’re denying this basically just showcases your ignorance. So you went to visit GDR in the 80’s, saw some Potemkin villages, spend your western currency, were probably treated like a rockstar by people who spent two months worth of paychecks just to buy luxury items like tea and sugar on the balckmarket to make you feel welcome, read a book and watched some movie (weren’t you pushing Goodbye Lenin a while ago too? That was a horribly boring and false movie) and now expound with arrogance and certainty.
It’s not even what you say, which like I admitted earlier, reasonable people can disagree about, it’s the arrogance and blithe dismissal of people like Vadim that actually lived through what you only watched a movie about that is offensive here.

And you really do have an annoying way of falsely restating people’s arguments for them. No one here is arguing that political oppression is unimportant or that having your wife spy on you for the secret police is no big deal. Hell, I remember being woken up by my mom stuffing illegal books underneath my pillow when I was 10yrs old because the SB (Polish version of the Stasi) were searching our apartment. I also remember standing in ques for four or five hours a day because the store happened to have some butter available (and half the time they’d run out before it was your turn). And the ques were really nasty places. People pushed to the end of their patience, frustrated, pissed off, desperate, ready to jump on each other just to get that small brick of butter. Yeah, it wasn’t sub-Saharan Africa level of material deprevity but to argue that it didn’t freakin’ matter is nothing short of ignorant and stupid.

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Chris Bertram 01.01.07 at 7:11 pm

radek: nice to see that your contribution to this thread is up to your usual level. As a matter of fact I didn’t stay in any Potemkin villages but with some medical students in a tenement in Leipzig that lacked basic sanitation. But hey, imagine what you like.

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radek 01.01.07 at 7:26 pm

And bringing Tajikstan into this is just…plain weird, since we’re not talking about Tajikstan but GDR. I mean, there was that little case of a civil war there you know (or do you?).
And you left out a sentence from your link:

“The Index also shows that some of the CIS countries report improvements in their HDI levels since 1995, after the worst of the conflict and economic dislocation that accompanied the Soviet collapse.”

Looking at the HDI for Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic (no seperate index for GDR) all shows an improvement in the index since 1990. Bulgaria and Romania too with some stumbling in the early 90’s. Russia takes a hit in the early 90’s but begins to recover post-crisis. Ukraine goes down from 1990 to 2000 but then starts going up. In the latter two cases this basically means that a transition from one kind of an economic system to another is costly.
http://hdr.undp.org/hdr2006/statistics/countries/#Q

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radek 01.01.07 at 7:28 pm

Yeah, yeah, I see that this is the point where further discussion is pointless. Happy New Year and all that.

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radek 01.01.07 at 7:34 pm

Oh yeah, before I forget, most political art DOES suck. It’s very hard to pull it off without being preachy, over the top and/or arrogant. Not that it can’t be done just that it’s much harder. For every Guernica there’s a thousand paintings of social realist kitsch.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 01.01.07 at 10:06 pm

It seems odd for Chris to appeal to absolute levels of poverty in Africa vs. ‘mere’ relative poverty in East Germany vis-a-vis the West. He doesn’t usually like that kind of talk when speaking about the importance or unimportance of ‘relative’ poverty within a particular nation. Normally I’m portrayed as an uncaring bastard for mentioning the absolute level of wealth attained by the majority of the poor in the United States. Welcome to the dark side Chris. :)

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Sebastian Holsclaw 01.02.07 at 1:22 am

Okay, that was an unnecessary bomb, please ignore it.

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josh 01.02.07 at 2:17 am

Re Chris at (what’s now) 38: yes, another point I should have made in my post(and which Chris made subsequently) is that the disagreement here seems to hinge on a confusion between the GDR and other Eastern Bloc countries, where poverty was perhaps more acute (and where a smaller percentage of the population was actually working for the security services, as powerful as those security services may have been). It does seem odd, _in the context of the GDR_, to deprecate the seriousness of political surveilance relative to economic standards of living. In the case of other countries — certain regions of the USSR, say — matters seem to me a bit less clear-cut.

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Chris Bertram 01.02.07 at 2:56 am

Sebastian, I defended the view that relative poverty matters a lot _within_ countries but not so much between them here:

http://crookedtimber.org/2006/11/13/relativities-local-and-global/

The question of East Germany seems rather complicated in this respect, though, since, obviously there’s a difficulty about what counts as the relevant country.

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vadim 01.02.07 at 11:57 am

Chris,

“Personally, if I were faced with a choice between worse economic prospects and a condition where the state might be blackmailing my loved ones into reporting on my every move, I’d opt to be poorer but freer.”

This is a sentiment with which in our present conditions most of your readers will probably agree. But I hope you understand that most people who were alctually faced with the choice chose the “relatively wealthier and less free” alternative. This included the actor you are describing: I would guess few janitors’ wives reported on them for the Stasi (and yes, some, but few, writers and musicians chose to be janitors). This also included the people who gave the actor’s wife orders – or do you think they were doing it out of faith in the communist ideals? (In this sense I agree with your thesis about relative importance of intranational poverty, though perhaps not quite in the same sense as you mean it: people who did the opressing in the comunist countries did it, mostly, for the intranationally relative prosperity, which was laughable by western standards of the time). Another thing to keep in mind is that for most people it was less about themselves and more about their children…

And do I understand you correctly: when discussing these choices, do you mean that a freer political system could have realistically coexisted with the communist economic system?

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Chris Bertram 01.02.07 at 3:27 pm

Vadim. You make some very good points there, especially about people acting out of concern for their children. iirc that’s a big theme in Simecka’s Restoration of Order re Czechoslovakia post 68.

To answer your final question: no I don’t believe that such an economic system could coexist with political liberty.

56

Jacob Christensen 01.02.07 at 5:43 pm

I haven’t seen the movie yet (theoretically, I could make it tomorrow as it still runs in Copenhagen) but I think that there is one point about the GDR which no-one has mentioned but which needs to be made:

The GDR was a completely artificial political unit from the start and the only reasons the state came into being were the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s wish to impose a Communist economy and political system on the Eastern European states. Before 1961 the citizens of GDR were, effectively, voting with their feet – that is: leaving the place in droves – for political and economic reasons.

Even if the repression in other states of the Soviet Bloc was every bit as hard as in the GDR, the regime lacked any internal support outside of a small core of Communists and some anti-Capitalist idealists (sorry, if I sound like a hard-core neo-con here. I’m not but etc, etc…). The latter suffered a nasty surprise in 1989 when the majority of the population couldn’t wait to join the FRG – partly for political reasons, partly for economic. And no, I don’t think many East Germans in 1989 had a correct idea about how modern capitalism works.

Anyway, the question about political and civil freedom as an intrinsic value has been led ad nauseam here but I would side with CB in this issue.

PS: Here is the DVD on German Amazon

57

Dan Simon 01.02.07 at 6:55 pm

a (far) worse choice of fruit and vegetables is as nothing to the corrosive effects on the soul of a political tyranny.

I know we’ve had our disagreements, Chris–and feel free to delete this comment–but I just couldn’t help piping up in passionate agreement with this statement.

I could now follow up with all sorts of clever or snarky or earnest addenda to this comment, turning it into a criticism of one or another of your previously-expressed opinions with which I disagree. But this assertion is simply too true, and too important, for me to bother with such bickering. So I’ll just say, “thank you”, for standing up and making it. Would that more people were willing to do so, more often.

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Dr. Minorka 01.02.07 at 7:06 pm

Just curious:
“no I don’t believe that such an economic system could coexist with political liberty.”
In this case “communist economic system” means only the Soviet/East German type variant, or all countries in the former Soviet block (say, my country, Hungary)?
(This question is not related to the original post).

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vadim 01.02.07 at 11:24 pm

“a (far) worse choice of fruit and vegetables is as nothing to the corrosive effects on the soul of a political tyranny.”

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist. One of the more ridiculous shortages in the USSR of the “well-developed socialism” stage was that of toilet paper. So how about you guys try to wipe with newspaper for a week, and then we’ll talk.

This is a joke, and please feel free to delete. But on a more serious note, this is a false distinction. You really can’t have your economic tyranny without political one.

60

abb1 01.03.07 at 12:39 am

The way I see it, capitalist economic system can’t coexist with political liberty either, it invariably requires a fascist tyranny of some sort; or at least some political arrangement that would (tyrannically) make it very difficult for workers to organize.

Political liberty tends to coexist with mixed economic systems.

Societies that are more politically liberal (the Scandinavians) have actually developed economic systems that are sorta similar to more liberal communist dictatorships.

61

Chris Bertram 01.03.07 at 12:23 pm

I think I ought to sound a slight note of concession, as I was perhaps unreasonably dismissive towards some commenters above.

Part of what made the Eastern bloc countries intolerable places to live in was indeed the myriad of petty restrictions on economic and material life. Although these restrictions were one of the reasons those countries were poorer than Western ones, the restrictions themselves were a source of misery irrespective of their economic effects. The thesis I intended to endorse was that political liberty is more important than how wealthy a country is (once it has crossed the threshold of being able to feed everyone, provide them with reasonable standards of healthcare etc etc). I still think that’s right, but please don’t take me to be saying that the things that keep or kept people poor(er) than we are are therefore ok. That wasn’t what I meant at all.

Vadim:

You really can’t have your economic tyranny without political one.

Agreed. But a free society is possible at various levels of wealth and poverty.

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radek 01.03.07 at 10:46 pm

I went to far in my comments as well, for which I want to apologize.

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passerby 01.04.07 at 5:09 am

@abb1, post 60:
The worst excess the entire Nordic Social Democratic community has ever been guilty of was the Swedish tax system of the mid-70’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomperipossa_in_Monismania). The absurdly high marginal tax rate was unintentional (no-one had thought to add up the figures), affected very few people and was changed fairly quickly through the democratic process. Not quite the DDR or any other Communist dictatorship I know of.

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abb1 01.04.07 at 9:51 am

#63 – of course it’s not quite the DDR. Still, the point is: a political system uses (has to use) tyranny to enforce unpopular forms of property rights. You limit individual property rights too much – you need tyranny, you protect individual property rights too much – you need tyranny as well. I think overprotection of individual property rights is usually much more problematic and unpopular.

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