Berlin’s cultural policy: Unrealistic, over-ambitious, dilettantish?

Helmut K. Anheier explains how the principle of the hiding hand could offer some answers.

The Royal Palace of Berlin is about to be topped out in a special ceremony. But the purpose of the giant project, called the “Humboldt Forum,” still remains somewhat unclear. Why does Berlin time and again dive into cultural endeavours without a clear end in mind? A theory by Albert O. Hirschman might offer the key.

Economist Albert O. Hirschman, who was born in Berlin and died in December 2012, would have gotten a real kick out of Berlin’s cultural policy. Standing on top of the Humboldt Box, he may have looked with fascination at the Forum’s concrete shell, then glanced over the Berlin State Opera’s never ending reconstruction and eventually took in the Museum Island’s gang of cranes, almost 25 years under construction.  He would be less interested in quarrels between aging theatre directors and a youthful under-secretary of culture or the succession debates at the Volksbühne and the Philharmonie, finding the plans for a Museum of Modernism far more exciting (not to mention the financing of such large projects in a city whose cultural budget leaves little room for investments).

How can such a cash-strapped city with an even tighter cultural budget implement several large projects at the same time? It is not like nobody is taking note of how much is invested in culture in Berlin. The Humboldt Forum, whose concrete, blank walls are now hard to miss, serves as a prime example. Its construction commenced, even though the Forum is neither thought through nor fully financed, and the project is somehow moving forward, albeit with delays and pitfalls – this peculiarity, even oddity, would certainly have caught Hirschman’s eye.  How is it possible that smart and, for the most part, reasonable politicians take on bold projects full of uncertainty and do so repeatedly?

The Principle of the Hiding Hand

The Humboldt Forum and other large cultural project in Berlin have one thing in common: There is optimistic planning, a favourable constellation of decision-making among the elites, with politically accepted underfinancing, that ultimately neither democratically legitimizes the high risks nor reasonably justifies why one project is chosen and another isn’t. Why is the Humboldt Forum implemented, although the purpose of this quite expensive complex remains unclear even at the end of the first construction phase? Why does the Forum, described as the biggest multi-purpose hall of the Republic, still have “more square meters than ideas”, to borrow the Jürgen Kaube from the FAZ’s turn of phrase?

For Hirschman, it is the principle of the Hiding Hand that accounts for such behaviour. Hirschman observed various cases of projects being started that in hindsight looked unrealistic, over-ambitious, and dilettantish.  He argues that if the project planners had known in advance all the difficulties and troubles lying in store, they probably would never have touched it.  But why did they?  Why do some people – especially entrepreneurs, planners, politicians – take on tasks that seem near impossible, that carry high risks and huge costs of failure? That is where the principle of the Hiding Hand comes in. Hirschman writes: “Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

For Hirschman, by necessarily underestimating our creativity or resourcefulness ex ante, we may well underestimate to a roughly similar extent the difficulties of the tasks itself.  In a way, we trick ourselves “by these two offsetting underestimates into undertaking tasks which we can, but otherwise would not dare, tackle.”

Two Offsetting Underestimations

This is a key for understanding Berlin´s approach to cultural policy: let´s kick off a process towards some desired goal without fully knowing how to achieve it or all intermediary steps and the consequences involved. We may know some aspects, be more certain about one facet or another, and we may even believe in the budget plans put forth, but we are engaging in a rather similar double underestimation.

In other words, the political constellation in Berlin makes it possible for decision-makers to let themselves be tricked by two offsetting underestimations: first, that it can be done within our means and in known ways, and, second, that it is not that difficult after all and can be achieved if only we are good at what we do. The dual independence of Berlin´s cultural budget from market considerations and the ballot box (as it is ultimately the federal level that pays!), gives them immense freedom to let themselves be tricked. No dominant stakeholder keeps ambitions in check – and this is the source of their true resourcefulness and innovative potential.

Could it be that some, or perhaps many, of the proud achievements of Berlin culture were of this variety: taking on seemingly impossible tasks but believing they are achievable, while assuming that we have what it takes? Hirschman would argue that the Hiding Hand facilities this approach, which is little less than forcing projects to threaten to fail initially – a potential failure that is precisely what makes them succeed in the end.

However, Hirschman would not have smiled for long: the largely forgiving Hiding Hand principle has an evil twin: the Malfeasant Hand. This refers to when the decision-makers pushing a project know the truth, but let others be tricked at their expense. Could it be that Berlin´s cultural policy, assured of the Federal Government as lender of last resort, is less a matter of genuine creativity and at times also a game of brinkmanship?

More about the author