INTERVIEW: Boris Gehlen

Dr. Boris Gehlen

Born in 1973. Studied constitutional, social, and economic history; political science; and modern history in Bonn. Currently a research fellow at the University of Vienna.


Criteria for legitimacy / Ideal circumstances vs. political feasibility / Relationship between the economy and the state / Continual necessity of making fine adjustments

Focal points of the interview

Actors and players on the sides of the state and the corporations

Economic history perspective on the Rhineland and entire river basin

Spatial effects and bases of various economic-spatial identities, for example, Rhine capitalism

- "We would like to begin with an observation from the last National Urban Development Congress in Mannheim on the theme of "Trade in the City – The Role of Industry." It was evident that the representatives of industry that were present have withdrawn from any discussion and public position on the relevant themes, such as local politics and conditions for competition. Do you have an explanation for that?

I believe that such questions are addressed on an entirely different level; they are not aired publicly. The discussion presumably takes place hidden in the local spaces, that is to say, in the form of informal conversations between companies and the department heads at the local level. Representatives of industry usually only involve themselves in public or political discourse in the form of generally synthesised statements."

- Is that not somewhat paradoxical in view of the fact that there is an intense debate regarding participation and the involvement of citizens? Is it not the case that the desired transparency is difficult to achieve given such a process?

That appears to me to be normal in the case of political processes. The earlier a project is made publicly known, the more likely it is that there will be critics; there are critics in the case of any project. For those people who are largely in agreement with regard to the justifiability of a project, it can be correspondingly more valuable to stake one's claims from the outset and identify resistance.

Basically, the search for and demand for transparency in political planning processes lead to a greater lack of transparency in the beginning of these processes. But in the final analysis these are in particular informal planning spaces that to a very great extent are inaccessible to historians.

- Does this mean that such projects are therewith inaccessible to a comparative economic perspective?

That is difficult to judge. Normally the local usefulness on the demand side is evident. Whether this will lead to an economically efficient solution is a question that only becomes particularly relevant in the case of large projects such as airports or exhibition halls. This is a consequence of the lack of congruency between economic spaces and organisational spaces. This can automatically create other kinds of logic.

Thus one could argue that the new Berlin airport, as an international connection point for Berlin industry, has positive effects (and is therefore desired by the municipality), but from the point of view of national economic policy a third or fourth international hub does not appear to be necessary.

- If one considers the playing field for organisational spaces and economic spaces historically, have there historically been clear lines and demarcations between industry and politics?

If we think of the development of the industrial cities of the Ruhr region, then development there was very clearly driven by the companies. The companies settled there at a point in time at which cities as organisational spaces did not yet exist. They have only come into existence through the massive industrialisation of the space since 1850. In industrial cities such as Leverkusen, Ludwigshafen, or Wolfsburg, the city administrations were, if one sees it maliciously, an extension of the companies. On the other hand, the state has also attempted to harness private companies for its purposes. A good example are the railroad networks or communication networks, for the construction of which private financing was used to a certain extent. These private investments, however, were regulated by the state – particularly with regard to secured profit guarantees. The motivating factor at that time was already, as it is today, a tight budget situation that more or less excluded the possibility of complete state financing.

This raises a central question: What incentives does the state offer to private investors, and how can the state guarantee that on the one hand processes of spatial concentration are not intensified to such an extent that they produce social costs, and on the other hand ensure that all areas are supplied with infrastructure? That is the classical problem of infrastructure networks: There are always areas and lines that are highly lucrative, while for the most part it is not possible to recover the costs of investment in the medium or indeed in the long term in rural regions.For this reason it is necessary to find instruments so that private-sector parties can contribute in the interests of the state. As an example one can take the discussion regarding the availability of broadband connections in rural areas. There are cases in which local companies and communities have wanted to participate in the expansion of telecommunications networks in rural areas. This is comparable to the approach in earlier processes for the construction of telegraph networks in the nineteenth century. However, this is today blocked by EU procurement guidelines (impermissible subsidising of individual companies).[...]'



Conducted by Helmut Thoele and Matthias Rottmann on 12 July 2013 in Cologne.


Full version of the interview you can download below (PDF)

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