Political Knowledge, Secrets, and the Livelihood of States: A View from and on the Late GDR

Thursday Lecture Series, Hide and Seek

April 19, 2012 Thursday, 12:15pm EDT The Heyman Center, Columbia University

Based on his historical ethnography of the efforts of the secret police of former East Germany to control civil rights movements in the country, Professor Glaeser provided an overall interpretation of GDR political project as a revolutionary, self-fulfilling prophecy. By emphasizing the party state’s modalities of producing knowledge about its own situation, he also offered a novel way of understanding the failure of its socialism. These modalities were marred by the perceived need for constant mobilization in order to realize socialism—even at the expense of critique, which was seen as a hindrance to the mobilization effort. At the core, then, of the demise of GDR socialism is the profound irony that the measures devised by the party to secure the state were actually undermining it. Concluding, Professor Glaeser pointed out that socialism is a form of hyper-modernity and, as such, shares features with advanced capitalist democracies. Most notable among these features is an understanding of politics as intentional effort to form institutions: in both socialism and capitalism, trade-offs between mobilization and critique have historically led to institutional failures— even if, so far, such failures have occurred on a smaller scale in capitalist societies.