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Karl Polanyi “‘The Viennese should emigrate to Australia!'”

by Gareth Dale on November 5, 2015
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‘“The Viennese should emigrate to Australia!”’ [A bécsiek vándoroljanak ki Ausztráliába!], Bécsi Magyar Újság, 20 September 1922 (translated by Adam Fabry).

Authored by Karl Polanyi, this piece has been offered to Progress in Political Economy by Gareth Dale and Adam Fabry to deliver an alternative insight into issues of emigration in the twentieth century. It focuses on debates and controversies surrounding emigration in Austria and a proposal circulating in the 1920s as to whether the emigration of members of the bourgeois class from Austria to Australia could be matched by an “additional system”.

For every 100,000 “eminent migrants” proposals of the day asked whether these numbers could be matched by a few thousand craftsmen (or tradies). Polanyi debates the proposal, notes that it is attracting the attention of people such as John Maynard Keynes, and conjectures as to whether it is seen as radical enough. 

That is the appeal issued by Alfred Franz Pribram, distinguished contemporary historian and lecturer at the University of Vienna. He recently shared his proposal with international public opinion. A couple of years ago, this idea would have seen Pribram locked up by the good Viennese in the Steinhof [psychiatric hospital]. Today, whether or not the idea comes to fruition it will probably depend on the Australians.Australia2

In 1910, Pribram writes, the population of Vienna accounted for 4 percent of the total population of the Austro-Hungarian empire; in 1920, Vienna accounted for 30 percent of the population of the Austrian republic! With this, the natural ratio between town and countryside was broken. The relative overpopulation of Vienna is apparent. Although it is true that, since 1914, its population has decreased by around 350,000 souls, this decrease is negligible in comparison to the fact that imperial Vienna was the cultural and economic metropolis of a 50 million-strong Empire, whereas today’s Vienna is the hypercephalous centre of a ruined dwarf-state of 6.3 million.

Thus, to no avail has Vienna’s population decreased in absolute numbers: the figure is still many times higher than would be normal in proportion to Austria’s territory. Similarly, the depressing lack of housing in Vienna is not occasioned by the reproduction of the absolute number of people seeking a home, for, as mentioned earlier, the population of Vienna is significantly lower today than in 1914.

Admittedly, in relation to the impoverishment of the middle class, the wretched housing conditions of the working class have ameliorated.

Today, the broad masses of the population can satisfy their housing needs somewhat better than before. However, this ‘somewhat’ has been enough to significantly increase the demand for housing. The ‘overpopulation’ of Vienna is the outcome of these relative transformations.

However, the relative overpopulation, Pribram argues correctly, can be just as dispiriting as a growth of absolute numbers. This especially so if the town is overpopulated in relation to the countryside. In this case, unproductive strata multiply in the town, to the detriment of the productive strata. The ratio between men and women in Vienna is, as a result of the war, very negative. According to the 1920 census, the city’s population comprises 851,000 men compared to 990,000 women. And out of its total population of 1,841,000, only a little over half were employed outside of the home. Meanwhile, 504,448 people were under the age of 14 or over 60.

The ratio of state bureaucrats to the directly productive strata is even more unfavourable: while only 25 percent of Vienna’s population carry out directly productive work, 10 percent of the population receive state and/or municipal assistance. We emphasise this figure because Pribram derives his ideas for his emigration plan not so much from the overpopulation of Vienna as from the overpopulation of Austrian state bureaucrats.

The fate of to-be-dismissed officials, the so-called Beamtenabbau: this is the point from which Pribram unfolds his argument. ‘We cannot push them out onto the streets by force, for them to die of hunger – as it were –; this type of action would be inconsistent with the social values of our age, and would also upset the equilibrium within the state and society.’ Therefore, another solution has to be found.

The superfluous ranks of ex-officers, current bureaucrats, and those other members of the old world who have not been able to establish their existence in Vienna, ought to emigrate! – thus proclaims Pribram. Hence, for him, the true surplus population is not comprised of the ‘Galicians’ but of those ancient Viennese families that are unable to find themselves work within the new social division of labour.Sydney

Even more interesting are Pribram’s additional arguments. For, according to him, if there is no need for these unproductive bourgeois elements in Austria, then there will not be any demand for them elsewhere either, for example in Australia. Therefore, they seek to emigrate in vain, for no one will be willing to accept them, as their new homeland would, rightly, fear that they, instead of Austria, will be obliged to support them.

Things would, of course, be otherwise if Vienna’s truly productive working strata – the skilled workers of the famous Viennese crafts-, furniture- or other noble industries, the Kunsthandwerker – were prepared to emigrate. These workers would probably be received with open arms by any overseas government. However, they are able to earn a living in ‘overpopulated’ Vienna and are not thinking of emigrating.

Pribram has come up with a peculiar solution to this dilemma. While it is not very attractive for the officers and bureaucrats of the Viennese middle class, at least it is original. This new method of emigration can aptly be named an additional system. Its essence is the following: for every 100 eminent migrants (ex-officers, bureaucrats, and other de-classed members of the bourgeoisie), the Austrian government would add, ‘in addition’, some skilled tradesmen and workers. For this ‘addition’, the recipient state will accept the entire batch, indeed, it would even pay for the travel expenses.

Pribram considers Australia, Canada, British South Africa and the states of South America as final destinations for this new system of emigration.

In practice, the system would function as follows: for approximately 100,000 eminent migrants, a couple of thousand Kunsthandwerker would be required ‘in addition’. When these two groups have been allocated, a committee comprised of representatives from Austria and the possible recipient states, and supervised by Britain, ought to convene and discuss financial matters and the distribution of the Kunsthandwerker within the respective recipient states.

The crux of the matter is – and Pribram realises this as well – that in order to have emigration, you need to have migrants. However, the Viennese are not willing to emigrate. For this reason, he proposes two different procedures. The bureaucrats must be forced to migrate. ‘The state should offer the younger bureaucrats the alternative of either seeking to make a living for themselves abroad with assistance from the state, or of remaining at home but without any assistance or subsistence.’Economist John Maynard Keynes

The workers cannot, of course, be forced to emigrate. However, Pribram does not lose heart. ‘The possibility of gaining wealth abroad, contributing to the fame of the Austrian crafts industry, or the knowledge of carrying important services for their compatriots ought to compel them to patriotic deeds’, says Pribram, who clearly believes that, by doing so, he has eliminated the last obstacle from saving Vienna.

For now, this is where things stand. It is still too early to comment upon responses to Pribram’s proposal. The Viennese will probably find the figure of 100,000 emigrants exaggerated and utopian. In contrast, John M. Keynes’ periodical (where the proposal was recently published under the heading ‘The problem of Vienna’s population’), expressed its doubts, arguing that the project is not radical enough.

Gareth Dale

Gareth Dale teaches politics at Brunel University. His publications include books on Karl Polanyi, the GDR and Eastern Europe, and international migration.

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