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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: August 2018

6 - Negotiating Bureaucracy in Hermann Kant's Das Impressum, 1972


In oratory it is the worst possible fault to deviate from the ordinary mode of speaking and the generally accepted way of looking at things.


Introduction: The Critical Apologist

THIS CHAPTER CONSIDERS the use of business rhetoric in Hermann Kant's Das Impressum (1972; The Imprint). It might be objected that the word business is out of place here. Can the term be applied to the centrally planned economy of the German Democratic Republic (GDR)? Yes, it can. Even in the planned economy there was room to maneuver. Admittedly, most industrial enterprises were Volkseigene Betriebe (Publicly Owned Operations), or VEBs, under the control of the state. The VEBs were, however, given considerable autonomy in the 1960s as part of Walter Ulbricht's economic reforms aimed at making the economy more competitive. Furthermore, many independent private businesses existed, as historians such as Agnès Arp and Peter Karl Becker have shown. Even in the GDR, there were certain economic freedoms. The historical record shows that lines of questioning that contrast “free” and “unfree” markets risk reducing complex phenomena to ideological oppositions. No market has ever been entirely “free”; every economy is, to a certain extent, planned and regulated by the state. Indeed, UK and US governments have very often championed protectionist policies.

Obviously, the GDR socialist economy was much more tightly controlled than a capitalist economy. Crucially, price mechanisms were determined by the state, not by supply and demand. Decades before, Max Weber warned that workers in a socialist system, far from being emancipated, would be “faced with an all-embracing state bureaucracy, incomparably more powerful than private entrepreneurs.” Weber also predicted that ideology would impede the operation of such an economy, leading to “a decrease in the formal, calculating rationality” characteristic of capitalist economies. Any discussion of economics and business in the GDR needs to acknowledge its complex, multilayered administrative structures. Although the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), or SED, determined state policy, officially the party and the state were separate, and this meant that citizens could deal with state officials without dealing directly with the SED itself. This was a state that Mary Fulbrook describes as a “participatory dictatorship,” in which citizens were, to a certain extent, allowed to participate actively in power structures.

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