Comparison, differences and how do we find out where we want to go together

What comes first to your mind when you compare Berlin with Moscow?

This had been the question asked by a Dutch colleague – and my prompt reply had been something like:

How can I and why should I compare apples and a piece of furniture?

These two places are really so hugely different that any comparison must end up in misunderstandings, wrong formulations and misleading prompts.

Sure, it is about two settlements and they are located in two different nation states. But in actual fact, even these general placeholders are somewhat misleading.

From the Grundrisse we know that

[t]he concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought.

It is worthwhile to think another time about this statement in the context of comparing different cities, places as diverse as Amsterdam, Berlin and Moscow.

And it is worthwhile too to briefly mention that the colleague also said during the short time we could talk about the misleading perception: not individual people make history, but complex settings and arrangements are constitutive – providing, sharing spaces within which individuals act, but even then they do not act as mere individuals, even if they are outstanding figures of history”.

Travelling to and through different cities has frequently a bit of the déjà-vu experience: one thinks one knows and is still not entirely sure. In such a case of returning to in any case large cities – even if the figures are quite different:[1]


Population (municipality, May 2014; urban and metro, May 2014; Randstad, 2011)

Municipality 813.562

Density 4,908/km2 (12,710/sq mi)


Population (December 2014)[1]

City 3,562,166

Density 4,000/km2 (10,000/sq mi)


Population (2010 Census)

Total 11,503,501

Rank 1st

Density 4,581.24/km2 (11,865.4/sq mi)

Urban 100%

Rural 0

– the likelihood of coming to different areas is quite high. And also the likelihood of perceiving the areas, one visited before, in different ways is remarkable: with the time one can go deeper into things, can explore the details one overlooked on earlier occasions.

Leaving aside that these are so different cities, the one point springing to my mind is that these are not only spaces, settlements but histories – and as much as history does not repeat itself, histories cannot be compared. The concrete is still entailed in the generalisation.

Berlin – a city which had been the platform for an black-haired Austrian gnome to start his March to secure global rule of the “Arian race”, starting racing with tanks towards east, after conquering the submissive west.

Amsterdam, giving in and accepting the new ruler more or less like several other European countries.

Moscow, the at that time blossoming metropolis, developing its own identity, to some extent against the former zarist complement – and with this the new identity of an entirely new state.

The one still refusing the responsibility of the predecessors, refusing to pay their debts, still not completely accepting the fact that many knew about the human dramas their “government” caused in the concentration camps, while the other is still thinking about the loss of most likely nearly 30,000,000 people in the Great Patriotic War.

The one morning, while leaving the hotel to a short walk I see the wires, spanning between the large buildings, offering accommodation for so many: they remind of the efforts of the electrification and industrialisation of a country that – at the time – only recently got rid of the joke of the zarist regime, standing against the old metropolis: in the one case the administrative centre of a “hegemone of the past and the future”: the old Prussian power, aiming on gaining superiority in and over Europe, and the claimant of the thousand year long empire. In the other case the old trade metropolis, which surely lost its glamour of the colonial times (sure, Auke know well about some strange places that still do exist as witnesses of those times…., though it managed well to rescue part of it and translate it into some kind of sedated modernity in the most amiable way.

This kind of light and likely drowsiness (I know, a pardox)  is surely difficult to find in a city with a population of over ten million, though the walk along the river, or large lake in the middle of the still dormant city is most pleasant, and the large alleys offer some compensation for the otherwise densely populated “sleep-cities”.

Marks of orientation – it is always catching my consideration how we actually find the ways – something that surely changed fundamentally, first with the common use of street maps, then again with the common use of the GPS. But it changed also in another way: the marks are something that is remarkable.

Looking at Berlin, it is surely relevant that it is (as nearly all larger conglomerations) a merger of different villages but also a place that still carries its marks from having been a city of two countries.

And Amsterdam is still characterised by the way it integrated socio-natural conditions (the channels) and the social hierarchy (going from the central “Single” over the “Herengracht”, positioning the Keizer to the margin, and the Princes even further out – the latter surely a specific form of translating the words:

give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God

– the nobility left in some memorable places of history, and god outside …

Moscow then, somewhat torn between the two dimensions: height and width: the height needed for the permanently increasing population and the width not least accepted to maintain some spaces.

These spaces consist of some of the old areas, and of the parks and park-like areas as for instance the one I mentioned a bit earlier or the area around the Moscow State University Lomonosov , reaching to sparrows hill – I remember well the time of an earlier stay when I lived in the old Lomonosov building and enjoyed the area every morning while I had been jogging.

There is something special when it comes to Moscow though it may be special just for me as some years ago, when I had been collected from the university building, from where we walked to the All Russian Centre, the driver said:

Things changed so much. Several years ago we could find our orientation by holding on to enterprises, chimneys, industrial sites – today these orientation marks are shopping centres, usually all with the same names of international chain stores …

And there is something else I am getting aware every day now, when leaving the metro on the way home at the Домодедовская – it has its name from Domodedovo International Airport. And there is a metal relief pointing this out … – and there are huge posters, telling us what to buy, which shops are close …, hardly allowing us to remain attentive for the reliefs …

We do not recognise many of these areas on the first occasion – not least after a long drive from the airport which directs our thinking towards seize, i.e. quantity, but time allows switching to quality: the small details we usually miss while dashing across airports, over the highways and along the alleys, the quantity that occurs with “pure reproduction”, which seems to be more a matter of being reproduced, pushing aside considerations about where we want to move and how we actively produce, even if this is, when seen relationally, also very much a matter of reproduction.

The Auchan, media market, Electrolux and bmercuditoydas – BMW, MERCEDES, AUDI, TOYOTA, SCODA, MERCEDES, AUDI, TOYOTA, SCODA – gained already dominance.


TV in the background, a song, or better to say a singers-competition. May be it is politically incorrect saying children instead of young women: girls singing about love and longing, though it is more about sexual lust and seduction, staring in the spotlight – though thoroughly enjoying it, incited by members of the jury and parents to compete – who is the best … . At least many of the songs are in English language – does it matter? Or in which way does it matter – indicating to be part of … well …

… another world. It is not least a bit about redefining participation: the socialisation of hyper-individualism: staring, competing, so different to singing in a choir, something many cannot do as it conflicts with the schedules of work, with the requirements of competitive thinking that harshly stands against just the joyfulness of both, the “aimless” singing of people gathering to express themselves with others, and the obliviousness of enjoying oneself as somebody who is content, content while feeling being part of the universe, not in a metaphysical sense, but in the understanding of appropriateness of the old fisherman who resisted accepting the Irony of the Rat as unavoidable rule of life.

The TV had been silent since some time – we had been sitting around the fire, looking up to the stars. Three people, academics, usually talking about development economics, globalisation and labour market policies – and frequently forgetting that all this is so much about such details as the joy of singing in a choir and gaining for oneself and for others – even if it is possibly “only” the gain of not burning out, not being tempted by drugs, not feeling alone when it comes to the point of needing somebody …, and not being open to fundamentalisms that comes along under so many different headscarves and varieties of temptations, replacing apples by Easter eggs and playing other tricks …


– Surely, all this is something that, being stated with the full awareness of the ambiguity, especially on such a day where we celebrate here orthodox Easter and Gagarin-day ….


Part of the points are elaborated in notes written in preparation of presentations here in Moscow at the Plekhanov university in cooperation with the All Russian Center for the analysis of Living Standards

  • Employment Crisis or Crisis of Employment
  • Eurasia – Potentials for taking a strategic role for sustainable sociability


[1]            In the following taken from Wikipedia – 12/04/15

Lost Generation – Finding Future? Challenges for Youth Policy

After just having finished drafting a document under the title

Crisis and a/n/o [and/no] end?

I am now preparing the conference in Moscow later, in a way the application of the topic. It is titled

Lost Generation – Finding Future? Challenges for Youth Policy.

The thesis which I will present is very much reflecting the fact that the current structural crisis means especially for young people total exclusion, establishing a lost generation. However, it may well have another meaning, namely offering a door to overcome the deep structural weakness of capitalism: investment programmes etc may help to reinstall to some extent the status quo ex ante, however such programmes will not be able to make use of the huge productive potential that today’s societies waste: inequality needs to be addressed by fundamental redistribution, redistribution has to be oriented on changing the process of production and opening doors to its real creative potentials overcoming the limited understanding of production, reducing it on a narrow economic understanding of commodity (and profit) production – we have to look the at the processes of producing and reproducing social relationships.

Indeed, another world is possible ….


See in this context the still interesting publication:

Burgess, Paul/Herrmann, Peter (eds.): Highways, Crossroads and Cul de sacs. Journeys into Irish Youth & Community Work. A Reader; Bremen: Europäische Hochschulschriften, 2009


Talking about Precarity …

Precarity: It is surely in important issue, even if nobody is really sure what it is. There are so many definitions: different in the orientation, different in the reasoning, different in the emphasis and weighing of some aspects and not least different in the exact “mapping” of a complex field, as there are people and groups talking about it.

This is not the most important, though the most secure conclusion from the two meetings over the last week: the one in Berlin, the other in Moscow.


And in some way a side event seemed to mark the corner stone for the debate: a white swan and a black swan, fighting against each other, each of them flaunting and maintaining its own beauty and each of them hardly acknowledging the other – the question is the old one: to be or not to be. The answer is the old one too: there is only space for one or the other. In Swan Lake finally indeed the one only, and it is “the good” in the sense of the white swan, importantly overcoming deception.


Talking about moral is then pointing into the direction that may explain to some extent the underlying problemtique hindering some more radical take on the issue: moral, at least in the post-enlightenment thinking, is “structurally individualist”. After humankind took responsibility from the shoulders of gods, accepting humans’ own responsibility, the problem of definition remained in the vein of a reductionist understanding: not the one god but the one person had to decide. Being seemingly general, social,in fact moral had been welded to the idea of individuals’ ratio, decisively expressed in Kant’s definition of the categorical imperative, and formulated much further in the exploration of law. In his Metaphysics we read in the Introduction into the Doctrine of Right:

Inbegriff der Bedingungen, unter denen die Willkür des einen mit der Willkür des anderen bei einem allgemeinen Gesetz der Freiheit vereinigt werden kann.[1]

And we also read:

Man nennt die bloße Übereinstimmung oder Nichtübereinstimmung einer Handlung mit dem Gesetze ohne Rücksicht auf die Triebfeder derselben die Legalität (Gesetzmäßigkeit), diejenige aber, in welcher die Idee der Pflicht aus dem Gesetze zugleich die Triebfeder der Handlung ist, die Moralität (Sittlichkeit) derselben.[2]

All these systems are in actual fact “just” and “legitimate” at least in their own terms, not least as they defined themselves the criteria on the basis of which they allow to be assessed. Here is in my view as well the source for both, the fundamental difficulty of social science to detect the mechanisms behind the processes of valuation and the lack of piety when it comes to “living” certain values. I explored this in a different context, writing

Usual approaches to social policy are characterised by taking some kind of problem as given – so the original idea had been to talk about precarity and poverty. Of course, we can well take at least poverty as a problem and social policy challenge – with precarity it looks a little bit different as it is seemingly a new issue and as such actually not yet defined as policy issue. In any case, there is the danger that we simply replicate structures without considering the underlying societal structures and patterns – this means not least replication without understanding what the actual problem is. In other words, in many cases “looking at the seemingly obvious” means looking for policies of system maintenance.[3]

And one neglected, though hugely important fact is the fundamental continuity and change of the role of the individual – here in particular of interest in the more recent history, namely the two last stages confronted with the question of rightfulness and legitimacy. We can follow Franz Borkenau who highlights the important role played by the individual during the Renaissance and also later in capitalism. It is not that the one era had been more individualist than the other. Important is that

[e]goism of the isolated individual is fundamental for Renaissance AND Reformation. The first sees it in the context of harmonious beauty; not because the life of the time and social stratum had been filled by such beauty – on the contrary –, but because it strives towards a life as landowning money-lenders, following the ideal a balanced aestheticism, standing against the life of ordinary people. Calvinists are nothing else than egoistic individuals, but THEY are, consciously against the ideal or the Renaissance, a life of irrational effort. The financial bourgeoisie profits from this degradation of feudalism; therefore it has to idealise this world.[4]


Coming back to the question of precarity, we can say that a more fundamental and radical understanding can be elaborated if we forget for a moment precarity as point of departure, at least precarity as matter of changing patterns of employment and subsequent patterns of life and living, social structuration and etc.

Let us first ask in what society we are living in. And in order to do that, let us now continue by going another detour, and look at the previous large-scale transformation of society: the overcoming feudalism, and the emergence of capitalism.[5] By and large we can say that feudalism had been characterised by

  • oppression and
  • personal dependence (patronage, clientelism …).

On the other hand, capitalism – or we may better speak of the bourgeois-citizens formation – had been characterised by the claims of

  • freedom of citizens (citoyen & bourgeois) and
  • regulation (the contractual systems determining the relations between rational individuals).

Both, feudalism and capitalism had been “systems”, i.e. complex relational entities. And they had been social entities,

understood as interaction between people and their constructed and natural environment. Its subject matter refers to people’s interrelated productive and reproductive relationships.[6]

More in terms of political economy as social science this is not least concerned with defining the relationship between production, consumption, distribution and exchange.[7]

Looking now at capitalism – fundamentally defined by wage labour as norm(ality) – we can see up to recently, i.e. when looking at “developed capitalism”, the following characteristics:

  • mass production
  • mass consumption
  • nation state
  • colonialism and imperialism as two complementing “external relationships”
  • system competition
  • formal democracy
  • family

All these, in there interplay, merge to the overall alienation – the famous expression, that

the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home[8]

gains a meaning that goes much beyond the sphere of the process of work, also characterising the political sphere, underlying consumerism, coining parts of private life etc.

However, looking at the current era, the 7 factors mentioned as characterising the capitalist system changed in one way or another – and in some more or less fundamental way – only short remarks have to do suffice.[9]

1) Mass Production

At least we have to see that mass production changed its face by continuing on a level that changed in two respects: one point in question is the degree of rationalisation and automatisation that characterises many areas (notwithstanding the fact that simple repetitive work is still undertaken as manual labour); another point is about the “variability of products” – though being produced as mass products, we find in many areas possibilities that within this framework the production can answer “individual wants” of customers.

2) Mass Consumption

Here we face the manifest contradiction between consumerism on the one hand and the increasing individualised consumer emerging from here. Though being manifest, the individualisation undermines the conscious tackling of the contradiction. – Looking at mass production and mass consumption together, one of the paradoxes is the fact that the chain between consumer/customer and product is lengthened to an extent that it  escapes completely control (evidenced for instance by the length of transport; the virtualisation of ordering, production, and even consumption …) but with this the direct control is also increasing (evidenced for instance by the access of customers being able to individually “assemble” their products by defining the specification when buying a computer).

3) Nation State

The nation state, without loosing it’s meaning, is at least torn between two forms of “regionalisation”. Taking the EU as example, we see on the one hand the aggregation of national powers and on the other hand movements of reclaiming power of sub-national regions (Scotland, Basque Country etc.). It is an ongoing question where this leaves the nation state. Equally important is the question which role the state actually has in the overall political processes and in the tensional field between the firm constitutional settings of the “state of law” (with its meaning for citizen’s rights but also with the right of the state as sovereign over citizens, territory and the social processes[10]) and private instances taking over sovereign functions. Not least, the systems of ”social support” and welfare provisions are hugely undermined in their traditional functioning.

4) Colonialism and Imperialism as two Complementing “External Relationships”

Though imperialism does in many respects regain force, it takes at the same time new forms, not least as the “one empire” does not exist anymore – and it does not yet exist.[11]

5) System Competition

The “blocks” – be it as contest of socialism and capitalism, be it as “developing” and “developed” countries – do not exist anymore as matters of a simple confrontation.

6) Formal Democracy

Though there is no clear line, moreover as little as concepts are clearly defined, we find from different angles claims into directions that are increasingly contesting the monopoly of formal democracy: catchwords as governance, direct democracy, area-related democracy (be it local, be it concerned with specific fields or issues: in the workplace, environmental democracy …) etc. . Important is also that the acceptance of such claims is more and more general, the alternative emerging as mainstream.

7) Family

Notwithstanding the ongoing meaning of “family” there are different moments pointing into the direction of dissolutions: this may be indicated by the increasing number of singles, lone parents, different forms of cohabitation; and this can also be indicated by “family” as stable relationship of a couple (with or without children) taking different forms (in the extreme the commuting marriage, i.e. partners living in different continents and seeing in regular intervals in different places). Again, this has huge implications for the systems of welfare and social support.

Taking all this together, means that we find a different relationing of production, consumption, distribution and exchange. The emphasis of financialisation as major characteristic of current capitalism falls short of capturing the change in a holistic way: we have to consider both, the mode of production and the increasing meaning of consumption and exchange, developing some dominance over production and distribution; and in addition we have to develop an understanding of the interplay between them.

Also alienation takes a new form: the known pattern of the worker feeling

at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home,[12]

is now replaced by the market citizen who feels at home when he left the dwelling and being settled in the dwelling, does not feel at home.


One of the decisive overall results of the process has to be seen in the fact of a ne accumulation regime that is surely still based in production; however, it is at the very same time increasingly “annexed” as profitability is further detached from the production of use value. As much as it had been always the case that capitalism prioritised exchange value, use value only being a necessary though not sufficient condition as much we face now a shift characterised by use value itself now being changed: many commodities are themselves increasingly “intermediaries”.

Another decisive moment can be seen in the fact of an increasing meaning of consumption as mechanism of socialisation (thought the opposite is equally true). For allowing an understanding we may first refer to the fact that classically the realisation of “value” is only happening ex ante, on the market: a product (commodity) has to be sold and only then the invested labour is acknowledged. It requires the sale of the result of labour that acknowledges the value, i.e. the socially defined useful labour.[13] But here exchange of commodities, the determination of “value” (i.e. the value of the invested work) and use value (as matter of consumption) are immediately interwoven. Looking at the current era we find a shift where this chain cannot be taken for granted as hegemonic pattern. The (surely questionable) supply-demand relationship as mechanism of “determining value” is now in some way turned around: demand is defining and determining in some way demand;[14] and production is also increasingly defining and determining production.[15]

This will not be further explored. Still one important issue has to be raised – at least as outline for further questioning the society in which we are (going to) live. As a general outline of historical development we may refer to the following stages

  • equality and subordination under nature
  • power and exclusion in slave societies
  • privilege
  • property
  • sovereignty[16]

By and large this is at this stage an open field, allowing development into different directions. But as much as economic processes are defined by political decisions and struggles between different social interests, the opportunity for a fundamental change, going beyond the borders of an accumulation regime founded in commodity production in the strict sense.


Not yet a week passed by, standing at the Paul’s Cathedral in Frankfurt/M., discussing labour market issues, green growth and regional labour market monitoring the question is of course obvious: Are we facing a new “Westphalian Peace”, different forms of nation states emerging as it happened in Muenster and Osnabrueck in 1648; is the current situation simply about a new structure of political governance of a small elite as the citoyens that gathered in 1849 as first publicly and freely-elected German legislative institution, backing the final breakthrough of capitalism; or is there an opportunity to make people’s sovereignty in a fundamental sense possible, allowing everybody as social being to control the conditions of production and reproduction of everyday’s life?

May be the deliberations during the EUROMEMO-workshop, starting on Thursday in Rome, could shed some more light on relevant issues, overcoming the call for a radical change of economic processes in favour of a radical change of the economy.


[1] Epitome of the conditions, under which one’s arbitrariness can be united in a general law of freedom with the arbitrariness of somebody else.

[2] The pure compliance or non-compliance between an act and the law, without considering its incitement, is called legality (Legalitaet [Gesetzmaessigkeit]); but that, where the idea of the obligation of the law is also the incitement of the act, is called its morality (Sittlichkeit).

[3] Herrmann, Peter, 2014: Social Policy – Production rather than Distribution; Bremen/Oxford: EHV

[4] Borkenau, Franz, 1932: Der Uebergang von Feudalen zum buegerlichen Weltbild. Studien zur Geschichte der Philosophie der Manufakturperiode; Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1971: 160

[5] This implies that we are currently witnessing a fundamental shift, a revolutionary development – if we can and have to speak of overcoming capitalism is difficult to say – perhaps the difficulty is here that the terms capitalism and socialism are somewhat misleading (I am well aware of the fact that this is a statement that can easily be misinterpreted).

[6] van der Maesen, Laurent J.G./Walker, Alan, 2012: Social Quality and Sustainability; in: van der Maesen, Laurent J.G./Walker, Alan [eds.]: Social Quality. From Theory to Indicators: Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 250-274, here: 260

[7] see the elaboration in Marx, Karl, 1857: Outline of the Critique of Political Economy (Grundrisse) There we read (passim)

(1) Immediate identity: Production is consumption, consumption is production. Consumptive production. Productive consumption. …

(2) [In the sense] that one appears as a means for the other, is mediated by the other: this is expressed as their mutual dependence; a movement which relates them to one another, makes them appear indispensable to one another, but still leaves them external to each other. …

(3) … also, each of them, apart from being immediately the other, and apart from mediating the other, in addition to this creates the other in completing itself, and creates itself as the other. Consumption accomplishes the act of production only in completing the product as product by dissolving it, by consuming its independently material form, by raising the inclination developed in the first act of production, through the need for repetition, to its finished form; it is thus not only the concluding act in which the product becomes product, but also that in which the producer becomes producer. On the other side, production produces consumption by creating the specific manner of consumption; and, further, by creating the stimulus of consumption, the ability to consume, as a need.


[8]            Marx, Karl, 1844: Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

[9] This can be contested. However, any contestation should consider two points: (i) looking at the persistence and renaissance of some principles and processes (some trends to very conservative family interpretations among young people, the emphasis of claiming formal democracy, indeed the mass consumption in form of consumerism etc.) is probably not least a confirmation of the thesis of their dissolution, motivating people to look for alleged securities of “known” patterns; (ii) the suggested changes are not least understood as trends of which the coming into practice cannot be anything else than a matter of contradictory processes.

[10] This is about politics and policies of social order and also the control of the national economy as “ideal total capitalist”.

[11]            Further discussion is needed of the proposal by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000): Empire; Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press

[12]            Marx, Karl, 1844: Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

[13]            See Marx’ presentation n the first chapter of the first volume of Capital.

[14] for instance the demand of “cheap services” increases the demand of additional services – low fare flights increasing the transport from and to airports, in general and to airports that are distant from well connected centres

[15] for instance the “interplay” between chip production and software production in the IT-industry

[16] In part with reference to a letter written by Polanyi to Robert Schlesinger, quoted in Polanyi-Levitt, 2006: Tracing Karl Polanyi’s Institutional Political Economy to its Central European Source; in: Polanyi-Levitt, Kari/McRobbie, Kenneth [eds.]: Karl Polanyi in Vienna: The Contemporary Significance of The Great Transformation; Montreal et altera: Black Rose Books: 378-391: here: 381; see also already: Herrmann, Peter, forthcoming: Justice as a Question of Politics – Justice as a Question of Economics; in: Laurinkari, Juhani/Tarvainen, Merja (eds.): N.N.