Living and Working in East Germany: An Interview with Christian Schlosser
Christina De La Rocha
Those of us of the solarpunk persuasion dream often of the death of capitalism, that economic system whereby people can make money by owning money, land, companies, the labor of other people, or other such “means of production and distribution.” What a race to the bottom is the need and greed of competition in a market woefully unregulated (yet cursed by all for being over-regulated). Capitalism must surely be the root of all our environmental woes and the force that keeps so many people overworked, overstressed, poor, prospectless, powerless, and, to an appalling degree, incarcerated. If we could get rid of capitalism, surely all of these problems would be easier to solve. Income and wealth inequalities would dissipate, people would work for reasons other than money, and we’d suddenly all have the time and space to be kinder to each other and the environment and to passionately pursue our side interests in the arts, crafts, music, and gardening. Or so the feeling goes.
Yet, we also all know that this let’s-ditch-capitalism experiment has been tried multiple times before on the level of the state, to disastrous effect. See, for instance, East Germany, the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea. On the one hand, of course this isn’t entirely fair to “not-capitalism.” These countries are better examples of “deformed” or “degenerated” workers’ states than true socialist or true communist states, much less attempts at radically free libertarian socialism. Yet, at the risk of raising hackles, let me say, it’s enough to make you suspect that it isn’t that capitalism, socialism, or communism are inherently bad, but that there will always be people hell-bent on turning any economic system in their favor at the expense of just about all other living creatures on Earth, human or not.
For this Labor Issue of Solarpunk Magazine, I decided to sit down with Christian Schlosser, who grew up in East Germany (more formally known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), in English, or the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), in German) and is now a small business owner in what used to be known as West Germany. I thought it would be fun to find out where East Germany went wrong with what could have been a socialist economic system that functioned firstly and foremostly on behalf of people, and in particular, of the worker.
Solarpunk Magazine: Hi, Christian. Thanks for agreeing to talk with us today. Could you tell us a little bit about East Germany and what living in East Germany was like?
Christian Schlosser: The GDR was a state that billed itself as an “Arbeiter-und-Bauern-Staat” (a workers and peasants’ state). In principle this meant it was a country that was owned by the people, and where all the power was given to the people. But in reality, the GDR was ruled by a bunch of old men who made decisions for everyone about what was produced, what was consumed, and what life should be like in the country and if you didn’t play along or you stuck your head out too far, you could easily find yourself imprisoned.
With minor exception, no one in the GDR owned companies. There were some very small businesses, yes—very small shops or family-run companies that laid tiles down in houses, that sort of thing—but nothing big. Most of the shops and businesses, all of the factories, and all of the farms were owned by the government.
Because it was a socialist system, any profits that were made by a state-owned business did not go to an owner or shareholders, but to the government, for redistribution to all the other state-owned businesses. Although this saved unsustainable businesses from collapse, it also meant that a business could not reinvest its profits in itself to adapt to consumer needs or interests, modernize its equipment or premises, expand its operations, conduct research and development, or raise wages.
SPM: So, if East Germany was not a hospitable place to be a business owner or investor, was it at least a good place to be a worker?
CS: In many respects, yes. Every adult had a job, whether they wanted one or not—there was no staying home to look after the kids, for instance. The jobs all paid well enough that you could pay rent, buy what you needed—at least if it was available, heat your home in winter, that sort of thing. The government offered free childcare, free medical care, and paid vacations. Via their companies, workers and their families also had access to a week or two in a vacation “resort” every summer, for instance, on the Baltic Sea, where there were generally spartan facilities like cabins or apartments that you could stay in and canteens or cafeterias where you could eat.
But what you didn’t have, living in East Germany, was freedom. So, although you earned enough money to live and buy a few things, you generally couldn’t buy what you wanted because there was never enough of anything in the shops. And you definitely couldn’t have anything special—orange juice or bananas, for instance, or video game consoles or fashionable clothing.
Now I live in the West, in the free world. Here you can say what you want, even negative things about politicians, without ending up in prison. You have a chance to choose to pursue higher education, to select your own career, and you can travel all over the world if you want to. If you can afford it, at least, or if you can get the time off from work.
SPM: Is people hating the lack of freedom part why East Germany ultimately collapsed?
CS: Yes, people hated that, not being able to go where they pleased, not being able to leave East Germany to visit relatives (unless you had special permission and generally left a child or spouse behind to ensure you’d come back) or to go on vacation in the West. My grandmother was not even allowed to travel to West Germany for the funeral of her mother.
But there were also other reasons that it fell apart. Central planning is a large one. Business and agriculture were run according to five-year plans concocted by the government. Basically, the government would publish targets for what and how much would be produced by all the state-owned businesses—which is to say, essentially all of them. There were targets that the politicians came up with for crops, clothes, coal, chemicals, bread—everything that you can imagine—that would be produced, distributed, and sold in the country.
SPM: Did these targets—which I presume ranged from reasonable to ridiculous—incentivize the people who worked for a company? I mean, were people proud of the companies they worked for? Did they believe in what they were doing?
CS: Absolutely not. People weren’t stupid. Most of the people knew that there was something wrong, that the things that were broadcast on the radio or on tv were not true, like, for instance, that the economy was growing, that we were doing a good job as a country, things like that. Because when you went to work in a factory that was run-down, everything was broken, and it was running on the one last bit of equipment that was still functional, and the workplace was literally chemically toxic because everything was old and no longer up to standard and spewing so much pollution, and workplace safety was not a priority, people got injured…
SPM: Did workers have the right to organize and ask for better conditions?
CS: No. I mean, every worker belonged to a union and could ask for changes. But changes were never made because there was never any money to fix anything or pay people more.
SPM: Eventually, people got cynical?
CS: As I said, companies that made profit had to give the money to the government for redistribution. This meant that companies that were profitable couldn’t reinvest in their own businesses to improve them or even keep them running smoothly. There was no reward for running a company efficiently. And you can imagine what some factories began to look like after 40 years without proper maintenance or investment. It was easy to see that the system was bogus and that what you were doing at work was not efficient.
Also, a lot of businesses were not sustainable or even functional because a lot of people stole things from their companies and used the stuff to get other stuff in the underground economy. Because that was the only way you could get things done. You had to wait so long or get so lucky to find what you needed in a shop. After years, you might have managed to get ahold of the bricks you needed to make a wall, but you couldn’t for the life of you get ahold of the cement you needed to stick them together. The underground economy ran on barter, fueled by the goods and equipment people stole from their workplaces. That also accelerated the decay of the businesses that weren’t being properly reinvested in.
SPM: A lot of us like to believe that capitalism is a horrible, heartless system that’s terrible for workers, people, and the environment, and that we ought to switch to something kinder, like socialism. Yet, when forced on people by an authoritarian state like East Germany, workers don’t believe in it, it’s still horrible for the environment and terrible for worker health and safety, and while people had healthcare, childcare, adequate housing, and enough money to live, they couldn’t buy everything they needed because of the cart-before-the-horse of that central planning known as the five-year plan, where you couldn’t necessarily buy what you needed.
Do you think socialism has to be done this way, with a lack of freedom and this top-down control of the economy? Or do you have faith that socialism be done democratically and with a well-regulated marketplace? Is that the lesson we should learn from the disaster of East Germany?
CS: I think before you can have a system like socialism, you have to change people. People need to be honest and they have to believe in the system. But the system also has to be honest to the people who live in it and it has to give them their freedom. But you still need to produce things that are needed, so central planning is definitely out. If you could have a socialist system where businesses could be invested in, at the same time that workers were paid well and treated fairly and the government or some other third party made medical care, education, and childcare freely available to everyone… It’s a tall order and would take a much fairer system of taxation. I’m skeptical that it could be done. But that’s what I would aim for.
SPM: Thanks for talking to us today. That gives us foes of capitalism some food for thought about how we might try a kinder, more successful, more democratic version of socialism next time.
Christina De La Rocha (she/her), formerly a professor of biogeochemistry and marine sciences, is one of Solarpunk Magazine’s nonfiction editors. She loves reading and writing science fiction that explores what people do with the spaces opened up by science and technology and non-fiction related to how stuff works, from the origin of the Universe and then, later, life, to the complexities of the climate system, to whether or not fueling the electricity grid through fusion is an impossible long shot. Her (non-academic) writing has appeared in Analog, Toasted Cheese, and Unsustainable Magazine and in the book Silica Stories. You can find her on Twitter at @xtinadlr.