Bertolt Brecht: A song about carbon pricing

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[Quotes and Insights #26]

by Dave Riley

Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken or The Decision) was the first of Bertolt Brecht’s “learning” plays. It is a heavily didactic perhaps — even a tres propagandistic (egads!) and shocking — but is nonetheless beautifully conceived and written with music by Hans Eisler. It premièred at the Berlin Schauspielhaus in 1930.

I’ve been long time interested in these learning plays which Brecht called lehrustucke. I am familiar with them in a way that many other humans would not be. I got myself a niche perhaps — a lehrustucke familiarity.

The Lehrstücke (plural form; singular: Lehrstück) are a radical and experimental form of modernist theatre developed by Bertolt Brecht and his collaborators from the 1920s to the late 1930s. The Lehrstücke stem from Brecht’s Epic Theatre techniques but as a core principle explore the possibilities of learning through acting, playing roles, adopting postures and attitudes etc. and hence no longer divide between actors and audience. Brecht himself translated the term as learning-play, emphasizing the aspect of learning through participation, whereas the German term could also be understood as teaching-play.

That said there is a song in The Measures Taken that captures, what I think is, the essence of the Carbon Trading or Carbon Taxing schemata. It could be rewritten as:

Don’t ask me what Carbon is.
Don’t ask me my advice.
I’ve no idea what Carbon is:
All I have learned is its price.

The point being, as Marx noted, that capitalism fetishizes commodities.

Wikipedia: In Marx’s critique of political economy, commodity fetishism denotes the mystification of human relations said to arise out of the growth of market trade, when social relationships between people are expressed as, mediated by and transformed into, objectified relationships between things (commodities and money).

Now as sure as the pope is catholic and a bear shits in the woods (or vice versa), the Carbon trading scheme is capitalist mystification in over drive. It preserves this obscurantism so that the physical properties of the commodities — such as their congealed carbon emissions content — are obscured by their price which is arbitrarily set. It is not the price of a commodity that should be the rule but how, by whom and why it is produced.

“There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.” – Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, chapter 1 section 4

The complication is that we are not allowed to decide how, by whom and why a commodity is produced because our ‘democracy’ doesn’t extend that far. We are sentenced in the face of a major emergency for humanity to passivity before the fickleness of market driven supply and demand.

As Brecht noted in The Measures Taken — to a catchy tune by Eisler (which I cannot share with you online but I can hum it if pressed) — the capitalist doesn’t give a damn about any carbon thing just so long as it is trade-able for a profit.

Song of Commodity / Supply and Demand

Rice can be had down the river.
People in the remoter provinces need their rice.
If we can keep that rice off the market
Rice is bound to get dearer.
Then the men who pull the barges must go short of rice
And I shall get my rice for even less.

By the way, what is rice?

Don’t ask me what rice is.
Don’t ask me my advice.
I’ve no idea what rice is:
All I have learned is its price.

In winter time the coolies need warm clothing.
Then you must buy cotton so that
You can keep cotton off the market.
When a cold spell comes, then clothes get more expensive.
Our cotton spinning mills pay too high wages.
And cotton’s too plentiful in any case.

By the way, what is cotton?

Don’t ask me what cotton is.
Don’t ask me my advice.
I’ve no idea what cotton is:
All I have learned is its price.

Working men need too much feeding
And this makes a man’s work dearer.
To provide for his feeding you need women.
Our cooks can make a meal cheaper but look at
Those eaters making it dearer.
And we could use more men here in any case.

By the way, what is a man?

Don’t ask me what a man is.
Don’t ask me my advice.
I’ve no idea what a man is:
All I have learned is his price.