A Tale Of Two Markets
And the many dimensions in which decentralization helps humans flourish
I was a fan of Heidelberg before I had ever laid foot on Heidelberg. Local TV showed Tele Match, a crazy, German Localist game show where participants from two cities would engage in what can be best explained as a Stone Age Ninja Warrior.
You can watch some of the crazy stunts that teams had to endure to win on the video above.
But that wasn’t the most interesting part. The fact that the identity of competing cites held those teams together and winning seemed, for a little boy watching glimpses of the bleachers during the show, like a source of city pride.
Years layer, I traded those fun TV times for boring readings. One of those was Hans Hoppe’s take on the politics of Goethe. In that enlightening article, he takes us through the rivalries, collaborative nature, complementary realities of German states, electorates and free cities during Goethe’s times.
Goethe is perhaps the greatest mind to come out of Germany. A true Renaissance man of the 17th century. But he wasn’t German. He was born in the Free Imperial City of Frankfurt Am Main, which was a city-state directly under the Holy Roman Emperor.
He died a resident of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, a Grand Duchy of the German Confederation. Still technically not German.
These precedents are important to make my point. Bear with me.
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Germany was not unified until later, so each city and region was pretty much autonomous. Sovereign in many regards, even while subjects of the Holy Roman Empire.
They kept that arrangement so, for example, each small region could profess the Catholic or Lutheran religion of their choosing. Incidentally, that reduced many tensions around there, but that’s another story.
The point is that they grew and made it through the “great enrichment” times since the Industrial Revolution to the First World War as mainly local places, with short supply chains.
They developed local dialects, cooked local food and had local customs. One of those was celebrating advent by installing special markets.
The first one on record is Dresden’s, and before the 14th century there are mentions of “Christkindlesmarkt” or “Weihnachtsmarkt” in Frankfurt and Vienna.
To this day, each town tries to outdo the next. Almost like a Medieval Tele Match. I can say a ton of good things about the Cologne Weihnachtsmarkt.
These markets are profoundly local, very crowded, and not only with locals, and become integral parts of their cities during the weeks of advent.
They feature local beer, hot mulled wine and kiddie drinks, greasy German street food, mostly based on potatoes and sausages, and delicious sweets, mostly based on apples and almonds.
If you know a good marzipan provider locally, please hit me up.
Anyway. Nostalgic for those kartoffelpuffers, I started looking for a local German market and found a large one on Sussex county, about one hour away. I should have known the limitations beforehand. Mainly, that there is not a large, discernible German population around.
The main thing is that North Jersey not being deep in the Westphalian lowlands, the definition of local was going to deviate.
Not quite German zeppole, funnel cakes, pierogi and Cuban sandwiches dominated the food scene. There were pony rides, a Santa courtyard with a giant tree and tons of vendors with beautiful crafts. There was weissbier, gluhwein and sausages on sticks.
But something was missing, and it wasn’t just the kartoffelpuffers.
Into the evening, while the cold wind started to limit our ability to hold the cup of gluhwein, I realized what it was.
German Christmas markets are held in the middle of towns. A good square, with good enclosure, with god ground floors that offer a tavern, a restaurant, a chocolate shop, rest from the cold, more upscale food options, a place for a quick drink where one can take his jacket off and relax before going back into the cold.
What was missing was… the community.
It was a remarkable event. Lots to do, lots of people, very safe, lots of vendors and activities for children, great crafts and all that I described before. But no community. It didn’t feel local and as such, was an event where local identity was not the host and everyone, including the vendors, felt like guests.
Very warmly received, very welcoming, but guests nonetheless.
Which brings me back to Hoppe’s descriptions of the decentralized world of Goethe. Local blood ran deep in each of the proud cities, principalities, duchies, electorates and countries in the German lands.
Perhaps that helped them have a systems mentality where they saw themselves as subsets, or subsystems within a larger one, and tried to make the best of the necessity of collaboration to thrive, while developing strong local links, short supply chains, local culture and tons of identity.
While creating a city plan years ago, our Korean mentor grabbed a thick red Sharpie and defaced the map that contained the infrastructure nodes. He then proceeded to draw dozens of little circles on the map.
His rationale was that for the city to grow with the centralized infrastructure and systems we had drafted, it would need a level of astrology not yet seen.
If we, on the other hand, created a system of smaller recycling plants, sewage treatment plants, drinking water plants and electrical distribution substations, for the system to grow we would need new smaller components, and not a complete replacement of the overwhelmed utility.
That would have resulted in cheaper infrastructure, a redundant system that could take over when one of the components failed and a development pattern that would make less impact on the environment.
Putting all this together before I leave, I’ll like to leave you thinking of how the small, local German markets of the old country, full of life, identity and vitality, compares to the large, centralized single market of the new world, that needs lots of planning and lots of parking to draw enough people to make it worthwhile.
I have a clear idea of how that comparison plays out, but I’d love to hear yours.
Hans Hoppe’s The Politics Of J.W. von Goethe