André Thiemann, Leading Researcher at RSU: How Can We Survive Capitalism Using Sea Buckthorn?
André Thiemann is a Postdoctoral Lead Researcher in the project Comparing Vital Capitals: An anthropological analysis of the global value chains of sea buckthorn and raspberries. Through the study, he hopes to get a better understanding of the economies, the history and the people of Eastern Europe, and by extension of his home region, Eastern Germany.
Can you outline your path of how you settled on economic and political anthropology and berries in particular?
I started studying a lot of subjects in Berlin - history, sociology, linguistics, Slavic languages, and anthropology with a focus on Western Africa and Eastern Europe. I was interested in what you can call a holistic understanding of social transformations. My first empirical studies were on gentrification in East Berlin and on rural markets in Nigeria. These were primarily economic questions, but they were also trying to get at the political background of other cultural effects and how they play out in society.
Anna Tsing has used the term "friction", which means looking at how things entwine, intermingle, come together, produce heat and energy and change.
After this I started my PhD in Halle at the Max Planck Institute, and there I turned from these economic to more overtly political questions. I started focusing on local state and social security in Serbia. I did field research for 18 months in Serbia at the time of the de-industrialisation of post-socialist transformation, and also the financial crisis. I lived in a village and all the people I interviewed were wondering what they should start producing. Prices were going down, tariffs were being slashed and prices oscillated widely. Almost everyone told me they wanted to grow raspberries, but almost nobody did. I started asking why raspberries were a plant that people desire to have, and to produce, but at the same time why it was so elusive that almost nobody did it.
Why did you choose to look closer at Serbia and Latvia?
It was partly chance, and partly strategic. When I finished my PhD, I was, like everybody, struggling to find a position. In my first post-doc in Bielefeld, I was doing research on kinship and politics, applying for all kinds of jobs, and teaching as much as possible to beef up my portfolio. Klāvs Sedlenieks from RSU put out a call for applications to find a specialist on the Western Balkans who was working on the state who could apply for European Research Development funding at RSU. We tried, but weren't successful. He invited me to teach, however, and I came and spent a fantastic 2 weeks at RSU in 2017. We were both highly motivated to give it a second try. To be more competitive, we also wanted to find something similar to the Serbian raspberries in Latvia. We asked around and a colleague, Guntra Aistara, who is an environmental anthropologist, suggested the niche economy of sea buckthorn. This berry also produces desires and aspirations for development. I was very happy about that, because I come from East Germany, and in East Germany we have sea buckthorn along the Baltic Sea border as well. I proposed that we study Serbia, Latvia and also have a little project to bring in Eastern Germany too. The strategic aspect is that I speak Russian, Serbian and German, which helps a lot.
It's always difficult to do anthropology “at home” for a number of reasons. First, you always think you know the answers already, and secondly the people you are talking to think you know the answers, so it's much more difficult to come up with something that can surprise yourself or others. Now, after this round-about through Western Africa, Serbia and Latvia, I am approaching the questions I am interested in in East Germany. I am surprised at how much I don't know.
What did you hope to get out of this study and has anything surprised you?
There are two stories that I want to complicate. One is the hegemonic story that socialism was unproductive and destroyed both the environment and the psyche of its citizens, that it was totalitarian and so on. Socialism of course contains these aspects, but it was much more than this. The other story that I want to complicate is that everything was great during socialism, and that everything was better in the nostalgic past. I try to situate myself in the middle.
Looking at raspberries, a story emerges: the infrastructure was laid in the 1970s by socialist engineers and agronomists. This infrastructure survived capitalism, grew, was serially copied as a module and thus multiplied. What was fascinating for me was to learn that Serbia has been producing a seventh of the world's raspberries since the 1980s! The second thing that was interesting to me was the science and technology. The Serbs looked to the West. They spoke to West German buyers and sent their agronomists to Scotland, England, Switzerland and France, and in the end they found a tried and tested American variety of raspberry. They could have used a novel Hungarian variety that looked and tasted better. They just didn't really consider the Hungarian variety for some reason. Even though you get more money for the Hungarian raspberry in Serbia, the Serbian growers have out-competed the Hungarians. This was surprising and I'm still working on how to explain why it is so.
When you come to Latvia, the picture changes a bit. In Latvia, the export of sea buckthorn really started in 2018, when private capitalist entrepreneurs came together and formed a cooperative.
The cooperative that had been dead as an idea since socialism, now became the prerequisite to export in a capitalist market.
The second thing that surprised me was that the science and technology here looks to the East. The first breeders in Latvia, Andris Brūvelis and Kārlis Blūms, got their first plants from the Moscow botanical garden in the 1980s. The biggest research centre in the world since the 1930s is in Barnaul in Siberia and the biggest producers are in China, around the Gobi Desert.
The East Germans, although there's all this Eastern European history, didn't get any support from the Soviets. They selected their own varieties from the Baltic Sea region, and then they started their own product. The East Germans did this because they wanted to find a substitute for citrus. These are the kind of things that I find fascinating and that complicate certain stories. There is still not enough research on science and technology from the global East and how it's entwined with other dimensions.
What are the broader implications of your work?
I think I would situate my research within environmental anthropology. The question is: "how can we live on a planet that has been damaged by capitalist and socialist modernity, and imperialism, for the last couple of hundred years?" Capitalism and imperialism are perhaps more to blame than socialism, although it has its own capitalist and imperialist dimensions. So, “how do we live in the ruins of capitalism?” as Anna Tsing asks? Tsing researches these mushrooms that pop up in forests spontaneously, but I look more at human design. These people really want to plant these raspberries, and sea buckthorn. They are not completely profit-driven or just competitive; the element of solidarity and collaboration between these different farmers is higher. There is friction, but it points to solutions and perhaps also to the idea that we might have to scale down some elements of production. Even if this is a monoculture, these are small monocultures and perhaps these and more diversified monocultures can not only produce more high value goods, but also employ more people, and even have a positive effect on the environment acting as anti-desertification measures, for example, and so on. This might be a way forward, so we can learn from these East European experiments to think about environmental questions today.
In a way the larger question is "how do we survive capitalist production?” and “how do we survive capitalism?" That's the conundrum.