Free markets

In my previous post I argued that the European Union can only convincingly promote values of freedom, of liberal democracy and the respect for human rights beyond its borders if it makes “clear that it values democracy and human rights in the rest of the world (not just at home) more than it values low prices of the goods it imports.” However, before turning to the question how it can do that, in today’s blog I attempt to work out the values of democracy and human rights and of the “free market” and “competitiveness” can best be connected.

Competitiveness is commonly understood as the ability to sell a product at a lower price than the competitors (for example as a result of lower production costs) or the ability to sell higher quality products at a higher price (for example as a result of innovative technology). The “free market” is often reduced to prices not being set by the state, most products being produced and sold by private businesses, and at least two companies competing to sell similar products. However, even according to such minimal definitions, many markets are not free at all. For example, a very large portion of fossil fuels is mined and sold by state enterprises, and in many sectors there are monopolies or quasi-monopolies that impose their conditions on all participants in a market (for example, in large-scale trade of many agricultural commodities, agrochemicals and seeds).

However, there are also more demanding definitions of the “freedom” of a market, according to which there are not many truly free markets. Is the book trade free if Amazon establishes its European headquarters in Ireland and thereby pays substantially lower taxes than smaller bookstores all over Europe? Can workers freely negotiate over the price of their labor if they have to suffer hunger if they lose their job, but their employer can easily find someone else to do the job – perhaps in other countries or continents? Can farmers freely decide to carefully tend to their land and soil, to treat their animals reasonably well, if they end up producing at somewhat higher cost than their competitors? The so-called free market is full of constraints from which only few market participants can extricate themselves. Nothing shows this more obviously than business literature that prescribes in very authoritarian language what you “must” do in order to survive in the market. In the end, the most ruthless market participants set the prices and thereby the conditions by which everyone else must abide.

Some advocates of “free” markets wish to “free” markets by abolishing virtually all legal restraints. This is called “deregulation.” To the extent that such efforts are successful, this means that everything is sacrificed to the market: clean air and water, soil fertility, the physical and psychic health and old age security of working people, and so much more. After all, in the absence of regulation, anyone who does not care about all these things can sell their products at a lesser price and gain market share. This does not change if people who are both well-off and well-meaning try to shop as socially and ecologically responsibly as tehy can. Such behavior only enables niche markets for the goods produced in this way; the mass market is not at all affected.

In fact, laws and regulations are necessary for competition to motivate businesses not only to use resources effectively, but also to take care of them, not only to use human labor for some useful end, but also to care for the people. Unregulated competition leads to a mentality of taking without ever wanting to give back. Ultimately, this leads to the ruin of everybody involved, because the ecological and social conditions for life are destroyed – without which no market can exist. Rules are essential.

The more is at stake, the more rules are necessary. An analogy to sports can make this clear. A football match on the neighborhood pitch requires only few rules, two backpacks can serve as goalposts, referees are not needed, offside rules are interpreted rather casually, etc. However, the higher up one goes to local and regional leagues, to national amateur and professional leagues and finally to international football, the larger and more detailed the rule book becomes. Four referees, video review, detailed examination of the minutiae of each handball and offside position etc. are only found in the highest leagues, where incredible sums hang in the balance in each match. It is similar in markets. The more world-encompassing markets are, involving a sheer endless number of goods the production of which can hardly be monitored from a distance, the more important is a comprehensive set of rules.

Thus, a market is not free if there are no rules. Instead: a market is free if everyone involved can freely participate in working out the rules. Free negotiation of rules is only possible if everyone has the right of free expression, there is freedom of the press, if all people can freely associate together in unions, parties, associations, non-profits and interest groups in order to collectively defend their rights, if the courts and regulatory agencies actually enforce the agreed-upon rules, if there is protection from political violence. That is, free negotiation of market rules is only possible in the conditions of a democratic polity with a reliable legal order. These conditions nowadays are only fulfilled in democratic states with a stable legal system. From this it follows: in the absence of a democratic state and the rule of law, there is no free market.

I repeat: in the absence of a democratic state and the rule of law, there is no free market.

Or put somewhat differently: democracy is a necessary, but not sufficient precondition for a free market. It is not a sufficient condition because firstly the mere existence of a democratic system does not at all guarantee adequate political and societal participation by all social groups, and secondly negotiation processes of this kind take a long time and can take generations. Thirdly, market conditions have to be renegotiated constantly because of technological change, changes in the availability of all kinds of resources, changing threats to ecosystems etc.

That is, free markets are a utopia from which we are far away. To the extent that we hold on to the concept of free markets, it is worth making the effort to make markets incrementally more free. The same applies to all other social institutions that structure our life together. Any institution can only be free if the rules pertaining to it can be freely negotiated and renegotiated. As a reminder, by far not everything is determined by markets. Transport infrastructure is generally managed by the state, public transit is usually managed by local authorities. Health care in the UK is managed by the NHS and in many other European countries by state-run insurance schemes, retirement benefits are to a large extent provided by public authorities (e.g., the Social Security Administration in the US). In addition, we provide for many of our needs individually or in households. Universal education anywhere in the world has been made possible by means of public schools (which in England and Wales are called state schools). It is thus part of the freedom of a country that the political system allows free negotiation about which aspects of life are governed by which social institutions.

In international trade, goods and services are traded which are produced under extremely diverse circumstances. In many countries, these circumstances have little or nothing in common with “free markets” as I defined them here. In the absence of binding rules to protect the environment and human rights, those products which were produced without regard to the environment and human rights can be offered at a lower price. Their sellers thus enjoy a competitive advantage.

Why are there nonetheless some countries with internally relatively “free” markets? Because these countries enjoy a privileged standing in world trade, usually due among other things to a history of colonialism. These countries can to some extent avoid destructive competition – at least temporarily.

But freedom can not be a luxury – because luxury is a privilege, not freedom.

Therefore, people in countries with relatively free market conditions need to think about how they can organize trade with relatively less free countries in such a way that conditions for greater freedom will tend to spread ever further, rather than contracting.

This will be the starting point for my next blog entry.

European/Western values

On October 10, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy gave a speech at a meeting of the delegates representing the EU to countries around the world. I find this speech remarkable both for what he said and what he omitted.

In today’s blog entry, I use selected statements from the written transcript of this speech (of which there is also a video available) to reflect on the values that the European Union presents to the rest of the world – that is, what are commonly referred to as “European values.” These are more or less the same as what are often referred to as “Western values”.

Near the beginning of the talk, Borrell stated:

Our prosperity has been based on cheap energy coming from Russia. Russian gas – cheap and supposedly affordable, secure, and stable. It has been proved not [to be] the case. And the access to the big China market, for exports and imports, for technological transfers, for investments, for having cheap goods. I think that the Chinese workers with their low salaries have done much better and much more to contain inflation than all the Central Banks together.

It would be more accurate to broaden the statement about China to say that European (and North American) prosperity is to a very large extent based on cheap labor across most of Asia, Africa and Latin America, allowing Europe to cheaply import raw materials as well as relatively low-tech manufactured goods from these countries. China is remarkable in that even high-tech exports from there continue to have a market advantage due to low wages. European prosperity also continues to rely heavily on imports of fossil fuels, from Russia as well as autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia. With respect to all of these countries, the focus of “the markets” (that is, the market participants) is on the price of the goods, not the conditions under which they are produced. This may keep inflation in check, but even more so wages – in the rich countries as well.

Borrell went on to raise questions about Europe’s reliance on the United States for military security. Perhaps I will discuss these questions in a future blog entry, but here I will skip over this part in order to remain on the topic of Europe’s and the West’s relationship with the rest of the world. In this context, Borrell discussed the divide between “democracies vs. authoritarians”, while recognizing that “on our side, there are a lot of authoritarian regimes” (was he thinking about Orban’s government in Hungary for example?). On a self critical note, he said:

We think too much internally and then we try to export our model, but we do not think enough about how the others will perceive this exportation of models. Yes, we have the “Brussels effect” and we continue setting standards, but I believe that, more and more, the rest of the world is not ready to follow our exportation of model. “This is one model, it is the best one, so you have to follow it”. For cultural, historical and economic reasons, this is no longer accepted.

We have to listen more. We have to be much more on “listening mode” to the other side – the other side is the rest of the world. We need to have more empathy. We tend to overestimate the rational arguments. “We are the land of reason”. We think that we know better what is in other people’s interests. We underestimate the role of emotions and the persisting appeal of identity politics.

But what exactly is the “European model”? For centuries, European countries colonized the rest of the world. They gradually, in fits and starts and with plenty of reversals, introduced representative democracy at home. They extended the franchise to working class men and to women only when strong political movements hardly left another choice. But similar rights were only allowed extremely sparingly in the colonized countries. Many colonized countries had to fight bloody wars in order to gain independence. And today, the insistence on low prices of goods in markets with cutthroat competition means that being “competitive” means to push down wages to a level at which a dignified life is impossible. Keeping wages this low depends on drastically limiting union organizing, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and other related freedoms. Political repression all too often is a prerequisite for successfully entering global markets that are still dominated by Europe and North America. Is that what the “European model” signifies?

Toward the end of his speech, Borrell said:

We have to explain what are the links between political freedom and a better life. We, Europeans, we have this extraordinary chance. We live in the world in this part of the world where political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion are the best, the best combination of all of that. But the rest of the world is not like this. Our fight is to try to explain that democracy, freedom, political freedom is not something that can be exchanged by economic prosperity or social cohesion.

Borrell made a questionable comparison of Europe with the rest of the world here, which he reinforced in another speech a few days later, likening Europe to a garden and the rest of the world to a jungle. This led to diplomatic protests, for example by the United Arab Emirates. He has since offered an apology and a clarification of his remarks (see links below).

But has Europe not been a powerful driver converting the “rest” into a “jungle” and to keep it that way? What have the countries of Europe – and of the “West” as a whole – done the last several decades? They have effectively communicated to the rest of the world that political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion are “nice to have” for the “West”, but that these are not important among the “rest”. What is important is that the “rest” provides the “West” with goods at the right (low) prices (at whatever cost) and provides lip service to ideas such as democracy and freedom of speech. And so for example, Chinese leaders have to endure sermons about the Uighurs or about Tibet or about Ai Weiwei, but after or even before the sermons, trade deals are signed based on the really “important” matters, such as the prices of goods.

What the European Union needs to do in order to communicate “European values” to the rest of the world is to make clear that it values democracy and human rights in the rest of the world (not just at home) more than it values low prices of the goods it imports. In addition, it should stop talking about “European” or “Western” values, and instead simply talk about the values of “liberal democracy” or of “human rights.” Quit the pretense that these values are shared by all Europeans or all people of the West, as well as the implication that people in the rest of the world have to become European or Western before they can share these values!

In my next blog entry I plan to discuss how European or more broadly countries of the “West” might do that.

 

 

On Borrell’s “garden and jungle” metaphor

Tim Stickings, Oct. 16, 2022, EU’s Josep Borrell under fire for calling outside world a “jungle”, The National (United Arab Emirates).

Josep Borrell, Oct. 18, 2022, On metaphors and geopolitics, HR/VP Blog.

Jorge Liboreiro, Oct. 20, 2022, Josep Borrell apologizes for controversial ‘garden’ vs. ‘jungle’ metaphor but defends speech, Euronews, Lyon.

Growth

Currently, there is an ideological divide concerning “growth”. Some are all for it and want more of it. At most, they talk about “sustainable” growth because at some level they are aware that not all growth is good and so it is necessary to distinguish good growth from growth that is not so good. On the other side, people advocate “post growth” or “degrowth” or “decroissance” in order to finally get away from the growth path.

How do I stand regarding this debate?

I’ll put it like this: the debate has nothing to do with growth. We have to clarify what we are talking about.

What is growth?

Growth in the literal meaning of the term, such as the growth of an organism or of a human being, occurs in cycles that include death. No tree grows to the sky. At some point it falls, gets struck by lightning or gets devoured by fire or beetles. The remains decay and become part of the soil that brings forth new life. We come from the earth and we become dust. Growth is part of this cycle, it issues forth until it passes away and makes place for new life. Growth is something good, without it there would be no life and no development, no evolution. We need growth, and a post growth society is not possible.

The so-called economic growth, that is measured by means of gross national product and similar measures of revenue or output, is not growth. That is because everything is expected to increase for ever, and increase is not seen in the context of life cycles. When in the year 2020, as a result of the Covid epidemic, “only” a little more (!) air travel happened worldwide than during the not particularly crisis-ridden year 2003, that was seen as a catastrophe for air travel.1 All kinds of economic interests depend on everything becoming ever more. This is the reason why more “efficiency” never actually reduces the demand for resources. For example, more efficient motors are installed in ever larger cars, which consume more gasoline than older models.

There is a German word for uncontrolled growth, “wucherung”. There is unfortunately no exact equivalent to this word in English. “Rank growth” gets close. The word is related to another German word, “wucher” which refers to excessive interest rates, or usury. Interest or usury is based on the expectation that an amount of money will continue increasing exponentially without regard to natural and thereby limited growth processes. It is simply expected to proliferate with no rhyme or reason.

“Wucherung” also refers to an overgrown garden, in which everything that spreads is allowed to grow. This can make sense on the way toward a natural ecosystem, but not in a garden that is expected to provide food, relaxation or joy for humans. In a garden it is important to evaluate what should grow and what should not, and when growth should cease. In the economic and political spheres we also need to evaluate what should increase or decrease or come to an end. We cannot avoid such value judgments if we are to avoid the rule of might over right. Conventional definitions of economic “growth” avoid such value judgments and are therefore not truthful.

The term “economic growth” also conceals the fact that what is measured is not actually growth, but rather turnover, that is, how much money is spent. In other words, a measure of effort. How many people are hired at what cost, how many natural resources are mined from the earth with how much technological investment? The more effort is made, the more “growth” there is.

As an example: somebody who travels to work by foot or bicycle only requires minimal resources (the wear and tear on shoes or the bike), promotes their health by moving their body, does not contribute to traffic jams, causes no air pollution, and even saves money (and thus working time) in comparison to somebody who travels by car. If the locality in question is reasonably pleasant, the travel to work is pleasurable and thus adds to quality of life. It costs practically nothing and does not create costs for others. Therefore, this kind of travel does not add to “economic growth”. However, it adds to the quality of life not only of that individual person, but of many people.

Books can be filled with similar examples.

While measures of effort or cost or turnover are useful, they only make sense if placed in relation to the outcome that has been achieved or that is expected. Did you spend a lot or a little money when you went out to eat recently? This question only makes sense if you also think about whether you liked the food and whether you enjoyed the outing.

Another analogy: a measure of effort resembles the revolutions per minute measured by an rpm counter in a car. This should always remain in a middle range, so that you can move at reasonable speed but don’t destroy the motor. However, the rpm counter will never tell us whether we have reached our destination or are even getting close. That we can only tell by looking around us where we are, or by studying a map or a GPS.

We do not need a better measure of the effort that we invest, but rather better maps and GPS systems to help us find our way. These must help us in a highly complex and difficult terrain. Thus, a single number like the GNP is not sufficient.

We need good measures of whether the needs of the people of a country are being satisfied, and relate these measures to measures of the resources that are being consumed.

How well the needs of a person are satisfied – that is, the level of their satisfaction – a person ultimately can only say about her or himself. So, we can not measure satisfaction by reference to statistics about the production of consumption goods, or how many people have earned a degree etc. We simply have to ask people directly how satisfied they are regarding various aspects of their lives. There are highly developed, reliable and representative survey methods for this purpose. These are far more balanced than any quantification of money flows, because the latter resembles a vote where rich people get to vote many more times than the poor.

The effort dedicated to satisfying human needs can best be measured with respect to the natural and human resources that are being used. Resource use can be measured with respect to the annual use (flow) as well as the quantity and quality of resources that are still available (the resource stocks). It is especially important to make sure that renewable resources are used within their regenerative capacity and that nonrenewable resources are preserved for future generations.

So, what is my position regarding growth?

Growth is necessary – but we should seriously talk about what should increase and what should decrease or pass away. We need to talk about where we want to go and how we can get there. For that, we need good maps and GPS-devices, but we should keep the rpm (the effort) in a moderate range and not confuse it with growth!

In future contributions I plan to write about which kinds of growth we need or do not need.

 

 

1 Data source: International Energy Agency, World air passenger traffic evolution, 1980-2020, last updated 4 Dec. 2020, https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/charts/world-air-passenger-traffic-evolution-1980-2020. Original source: International Civil Aviation Organization.

Woman or man

“Being” woman or man

In my previous post, I mentioned that most of my life I lived as a man, but I now largely live as a woman. I sign with a woman’s name, Wiltrude Höschele.

“Am” I now a man or a woman?

This question is taken very seriously. As soon as we see a human being on the street, we categorize that person as male or female. Most people find it bothersome to talk to a person without knowing their gender. As such it could be irrelevant for you, my readers, whether a man or a woman has written these lines. Why is it so important to know that? Perhaps one reason why ignorance about a person’s gender causes us such discomfort is that European languages make it very difficult to talk about somebody without mentioning their gender by the use of female or male forms. In any case, I am quite happy to oblige by explaining how I want you to refer to me.

A problem about the question whether I am man or woman is the assumption that a person “is” either a woman or a man. I “am” certainly a human being and can do no other than to think and feel like a human. This identity is clear. But regarding all other identities within the category “human”, the boundaries are less clear cut. For example, I can not absolutely say that I am “German”, despite having been born with German citizenship and never having relinquished it. After all, I have lived most of my life in other countries, have been deeply formed by my experiences there and am therefore in many ways a stranger in Germany. Although boundaries between countries and nationalities really exist and are made as distinct as possible, they can be crossed, and there are overlaps and blurred lines.

I propose to see gender identity in a similar way as national identity.

Gender is a multilayered phenomenon. There is the layer of biological reproduction that goes back to the first sexually reproducing organisms. There are several bodily layers of female and male bodies among mammals in general and humans in particular. There are modes of behavior that are found predominantly or exclusively among members of one or the other human gender. There are various sexual preferences and behaviors. There are gender roles which are either fixed or flexible depending on each human society, and which continuously change. There are forms of clothing, accessories, jewelry and bodily adornments which are gender specific, according to culture. There are linguistic forms that indicate gender, different in every language. There is the felt sense of gender identity. Each of these layers can be explored at depth. And there can be discrepancies and contradictions between different layers.

The multilayered nature of gender is recognized in the expression that a “real man” does this or doesn’t do that. What “this” or “that” are is constantly changing. It used to be that a “real man” didn’t do any “women’s work” in the home. This age is hopefully past. But may a “real man” today appear in public wearing lipstick or nail polish? Or may a “real man” out himself as gay? Anybody who uses “fag” as an insult certainly doesn’t regard a gay person as a “real man”. Anybody who talks about “real men” thus recognizes that being a man (and conversely being a woman) does not just depend on a person’s biological sex, but also on a host of usually poorly defined modes of behavior, preferences, thought patterns, emotions, modes of expression etc. The expression “real man” is thus logically and philosophically incompatible with the notion that being a man or a woman depends solely on that person’s biological sex.

Talking about “real men” of course also implies that “unreal” men are of lesser value – because in some way or other they behave like women, they are considered “effeminate”. There is no corresponding term that would indicate that women who act like men are in some way diminished. This means that women are classified as being of lesser value than men. This is incompatible with equal rights for women. As an analogy: is a person from the United States who has spent many years of their life in England and who has adopted many English ways or mannerisms no “real American” any more? Perhaps people who associate being “American” with being insular, avoiding higher education, being fundamentalist Christian and extremely conservative would say so. However, somebody who sees people from both countries as being of equal worth and recognizes that vibrant cultural exchange enriches us all, would most likely regard the question itself as silly.

If we regard women and men as being of equal value, there is no cause to regard a man as inferior if he practices some modes of behavior that he learned from women. He is simply a man who learned some things from women.

The multilayered nature of gender, and thus its contradictions, is especially apparent among transgender people, but in some way or other is recognizable in almost anybody. Any person who doesn’t feel completely at ease in traditional gender roles, or who sometimes wished to belong to the other gender or to do things that are usually forbidden for people of their own gender in their culture, shows evidence of contradictions between various layers of gender. This is just as “natural” as millennia old wishes of people to fly or to visit the moon, to converse with animals, to discover spiritual worlds, to travel to distant parts of the world, to learn foreign languages and so forth. All these and many more examples show that people do not always comply with “natural” orders, but rather question, challenge, overcome or even negate them. Crossing borders belongs to human nature.

Somebody who crosses a border still retains something of both sides within. Such people are not fully classifiable with one or the other side. However, for some purposes an unambiguous classification is necessary. A migrant from Mexico to the US who has obtained US citizenship must be unambiguously classified as a US citizen when it comes to voting rights for example. This does not depend on whether they continue to feel themselves as in some way Mexican, what memories they have, what fluency they have in which languages etc. All these overtones are important if you want to get to know that person. But it must be very clear that this person has all the rights of a US citizen.

As a border crosser, I “am” at some levels a woman, at other levels I “am” a man or perhaps something between man and woman, or neither one or the other but simply a human being. In the last years, I have discovered that I can only truly be happy if I acknowledge that I identify more with women than with men. Therefore, I prefer to be spoken to with a woman’s name and to be referred to in feminine forms. That is why I also ask of you, my readers, to refer to me as a woman. That requires at most a bit of getting used to on your part, and gives me joy. But that does not mean that I “am” a woman in every respect (just as referring to me as a man would not mean the opposite). It only means that in my social interactions and in my activity as a writer, my female identity stands in the foreground.

Maybe it helps to regard the female or male forms of address as being something similar to the title “doctor”. A person who has earned a Ph.D. may be referred to as “doctor” in recognition of this achievement. Transgender people have usually invested a large amount of life energy and will into their transformation, and I think this deserves to be recognized by referring to them by the gender with which they identify. I personally am thankful for such recognition.

Half-strange

From half-strange eyes

Today I am seriously starting a new blog. I intend to write about my views from “half-strange eyes”, on issues of society during the present period of rupture – when it will become clear whether we collectively are able to make the overdue transition from the current frantic age of continuous acceleration to a more relaxed, calmer age that cultivates the art of living.

Why half-strange?

I was born of German parents in Germany. Since birth, I am a German citizen. Yet I do not truly feel German, having grown up in Thailand, Korea and Greece and having lived the greater part of my life in the United States. In the US, I started to feel increasingly strange over time, and so was half-strange there. Since I moved to Germany, I have been half-strange here as well.

I was born as a boy and lived the greater part of my life as a man, but I never felt like a “real” man and was only able to be happy once I stopped identifying as a “man”. Now I live as much as I can as a woman, but I am still to a great extent a man and therefore I am half-strange whether as a “woman” or a “man”.

I have studied several academic disciplines, had an academic career in the US, but I am now no longer in academia. Thus, at universities I am – half-strange.

Since over 30 years I am searching for ways out of the existential crisis of our civilization and ask questions about how a future sustainable society can emerge. However, since birth I live in the society that I am criticizing. So I feel half-strange in this society.

Now I intend to write a blog from this half-strange perspective. I hope to offer helpful insights in a world at the edge of chaos. Perhaps people can draw insights from my blog even if they do not feel strange, or on the contrary they feel totally strange, or they also feel half-strange but in their own unique ways.

Interview August 2021 Part I: Gender Issues

In the last two years I have gone through a transformation, as a result of which I now experience and define myself as a woman. Two women whom I am very fond of interviewed me about this transformation process in August 2021. The first part of this interview is reproduced here. The questions in this part were posed by Jane Goldbach and address gender issues. Jane Goldbach is currently working on her masters study on transformation studies at the University of Flensburg. During her bachelors studies on ethnography in Heidelberg, she worked both as a volunteer and in a paid capacity at the TransitionHaus, a project of Transition Town Heidelberg. It was in this connection that we got to know each other.

 

Jane: Wiltrude, when I got to know you, you were known as Wolfgang, and now you go by Wiltrude. Please tell me about your path from Wolfgang to Wiltrude, what moved you, what accompanied you, what were your impulses?

W: First, I have to go back a bit, some aspects go back to my childhood. As a child, I had long hair and it didn’t bother me if people thought that I look like a girl. I played quite a bit with girls. But I wouldn’t ever had the idea of calling myself a girl. Those were very different times.

Part of Wolfgang Höschele's half page in "Oracle 1983", the Yearbook of the TASIS Hellenic International School in Athens, Greece.

Self-presentation in school yearbook as a 17-year-old

During my university studies, I thought a lot about feminist issues, got to know various people, realized that I often understood women better than I could understand many men. Two women students whom I got to know appeared to me as highly intelligent when I talked with them one on one, but with their boyfriends they suddenly appeared stupid! They pretended to be more stupid than their boyfriends, so that the boyfriends would feel good! So I had some experiences about gender issues, and I found it much easier to identify with women who write about feminist issues than with the common image of manliness.

All the methods that men use to show that they are men appeared to me as proof of their idiocy. I really couldn’t accept such an image of manliness for myself. Also, I was not much interested in technology, but rather in complex relationships, whether those were ecological relationships or human relationships. Those are interests that are usually considered more feminine than masculine.

How I imagined myself as a woman when I was about 27 years old

I lived a long time in the United States, where I met my life partner Ishita, but then we moved to Germany. There I was involved with Transition Town Heidelberg, including a clothing swap, doing organizational work as well as clean up afterwards. After each such event, there is more clothing there than before. And it’s especially women who are involved, because most men aren’t interested. So then I was alone in a house full of women’s clothes, and one day I tried on a few. That was really intoxicating for me, I was overwhelmed! I found men’s clothing totally boring, and still do. Pants and shirt, only a few cuts, few colors. But when I tried on a skirt or a dress and it fit, then I didn’t want to take those pieces of clothing off any more! As a result, soon I wore women’s clothes in more and more different contexts. That was simply the right clothing for me!

This started a process beginning in early 2019, by now about two and a half years. Soon I wore almost exclusively women’s clothing – that is, often men’s shirts, but at least wearing a skirt, and I felt amazingly good doing that.

Then I though of a woman’s name for myself, Wiltrude, which is a combination of my middle names Rudolf and Willi. The name means “the strong willed woman”, a good name! Initially I used the name rather hesitantly. Jane, you were there at the name-giving ceremony, you were so supportive along with the other women there! Later I asked people to call me WoWi, as a combination of Wolfgang and Wiltrude. A few months ago I came to realize that it really is better if people just call me Wiltrude, that feels really good!

Since I have asked the people close to me to call me Wiltrude, and they actually all do that, the depressions from which I had often suffered until then have totally disappeared! My general mood is simply much better! And so there is no going back! So I am now Wiltrude!

J: That’s a really great experience as you describe it, that you were able to heal yourself from your depression, by changing yourself. That is really touching! By now I know from various contexts, that people ask how they want to be called, and what are your pronouns. Is your pronoun “she”, and do you consider yourself to be non-binary, or what are the terms by which you want to be called?

W: I do prefer it if people talk about me in the female form, but not everybody has to do that. For example, where I work, people still refer to me as a man. Everybody knows, that I constantly wear women’s clothes, but there I am still Mr. Höschele or Wolfgang. That’s okay with me. I don’t feel the need to explain to people to whom I am not close that I am really a woman. It’s easier to tell them that I am a man who likes to wear women’s clothes. Everybody accepts that. In that sense, non-binary is really very fitting for me. I can also say that in my inner being, psychologically, in my soul I am a woman, but bodily I am a man. That is simply the case, and there is no necessity to change that. I don’t have to change my body because of that. I am not trying to totally become a woman.

J: Exactly, you feel or see both in yourself, and want to live both.

W: Yes.

J: How is it when you move around in public, when you sit in the tram or go on a walk, do you experience unusual situations or get into conversations?

W: Rather rarely actually. Some people look at me a bit longer, maybe just to figure out whether I am a man or a woman. Of course, I can’t read their minds, I don’t know what they think. But altogether I must say I raise very little attention, and I am very satisfied with that.

Sometimes, especially in the beginning when I still had a mustache, there were more frequent comments, but mostly positive. One woman called to me on the pedestrian crossing, saying that she thought it was great that a man has the courage to wear a skirt! Once a mother came running after me with her three or four-year-old son. The son didn’t dare talk to me, but his mother spoke for him. She said that he thinks it is great that I wear a skirt in public, because he wears skirts at home but doesn’t dare do that in public! These kinds of reactions I have experienced, which was really gratifying! Very rarely there has also been a reaction that was negative in some way, but in two years that happened maybe three times.

J: That’s a really beautiful story, how you can appear as a positive model and you get feedback about that on the streets!

When you talked about your feminist times and your studies, you said that there was a lack of positive male role models and that you found the female role models much more positive. Have you found new role models now because you can identify with them more easily, because you see yourself as a woman and call yourself a woman?

W: I can’t really think of specific individuals. The authors whom I have read and that I liked, I still like, regardless whether they are women or men.

But I just feel more relaxed and free to orient myself according to women as role models, or according to ideas of what is appropriate behavior or interests for women. I don’t need to think at all about whether it is considered appropriate if I do something as a man, because I’m not a man!

In general, I think that men are not challenged enough concerning working on relationships. Men are expected to be concerned with technology, or with control, with earning money, but they are not really expected to concern themselves with complex issues concerning relationships. Women often blame them that they don’t do this, but they are not really prepared from childhood to address such issues.

But I find relationship issues to be the really important issues for society. We have more than enough technology but far too little engagement with questions how we can live together better. How can we support each other so that we all can live well? How can we give space for other living things, other species, so that they also can live? All this is complex work on relationships, both concerning ecosystems and human relationships. We have to put enormous work into this. This involves skills that so far women have been educated to acquire more than men.

J: I find that really interesting. You have talked about your becoming a woman as liberation. Is that what you mean, that you feel freer to address issues that you find interesting and that move you?

W: Yes, I find this image of maleness restricting. It is quite simple, one can create a simple world for oneself, in which one let’s say works in a technically oriented job to earn money. If one earns more money, then one is successful. Particularly technically oriented jobs are often paid better than those focusing more on human relationships. But for a person for whom all this is not enough, then this established picture of maleness is restrictive. I actually always told myself, I want to be the best person I can be, and for that maleness or femaleness is really totally irrelevant. But, in some way this image of masculinity is still restrictive. So it’s a liberation for me to say, I am a woman, and I don’t need to waste a single thought on masculinity!

J: Now we have heard a lot about what motivated you personally on your path. Do you understand this as a private matter, your particular path of becoming woman as liberation, or do you also want to use your clothing style, which is always also a message to others, as a conscious message to the world?

W: Yes, with one’s choice of clothing every person communicates something to other people in their environment, that is inescapable. Of course, I don’t know what exactly people read, but they can certainly read that I am not a normal man, let’s say! That perhaps I identify more with being a woman, and that I certainly have no fear to present myself in a way that will be seen as feminine. That I certainly do not consider womanliness to be anything inferior to manliness. It is inescapable that I communicate a lot, and I want to do that. I certainly want to look different from a conventional man!

J: Now I would like to address your social vision. In your work on systems change and systemic consulting, in your proposals for an economy of abundance of life, I have experienced you as a person who thinks very systemically and is oriented to solutions. How would you describe the discourses about gender, transgender, non-binariness from a systemic perspective? What moves you about this and what are you wishes for a future society?

W: Gender is often described as a performance, that one performs as a woman or a man or something else, and that one has to learn how to do this. This means that kids have to learn how to present themselves as boys or girls or something else. How they finally do that, for that every person finds their own solution, in interaction with other people. That is a systemic interaction with many different people. What emerges from this can never be predicted exactly, and that is what creates societal change. There has been quite a lot of change in the last several decades, but there is a lot that has yet to change if we are to successfully address the social and ecological challenges of our time. What I do specifically is not meant to be a model for other people, but just my specific solution, my particular gender bricolage. Every person needs to find their own solution. I think in any case it is important to be open to a variety of solutions, and that there is not a single solution, but many. It is important to be able to experiment, so that we can freely find good solutions that contribute to the abundance of life of all people.

J: Thank you so much for this fascinating perspective and the valuable vision that you stand for. I find it very touching and moving. My heartfelt thanks for this wonderful interview, Wiltrude!

W: Many thanks to you!

Interview August 2021 Part II: Clothing and Creativity

In the last two years I have gone through a transformation, as a result of which I now experience and define myself as a woman. Two women whom I am very fond of interviewed me about this transformation process in August 2021. The second part of this interview is reproduced here. The questions (except for the last one) in this part were posed by Franziska Fendesack and address clothing and creativity. Franziska Fendesack has devoted virtually all of her professional life to clothing technology. She is a master tailor, has studied textile management and has worked several years in Hong Kong. Next to her full time work as team leader in technical product development at a fashion brand she also works as a consultant for women who are starting businesses in the textile industry.

 

Franziska: It’s fascinating what we have heard so far from you, Wiltrude, about your change, transformation, becoming yourself, the best version of yourself as you said. I remember when we first met at the Transition House. The entrance door opened, and there you stood, you had a blue skirt with an Indian pattern. You stood there so matter of factly and were clearly a man wearing a skirt! I just thought, this is going to be interesting! And I still think so!

I would like to ask you a few questions explicitly about your clothing style. You experienced a change of identity in the last few years that you express through your style of dress. How did you experience the several phases of becoming a woman, what did that mean for you, what made that possible, and can you remember specific pieces of clothing that accompanied and made visible this transformation?

W: Yes, as I had mentioned, it began with the clothing swap from which I obtained several pieces of clothing. There is for example a maroon colored skirt that I continue to enjoy wearing and that fits me exactly, a lucky chance! I can go cycling with it, and I went on a dyke march with it in 2019, in the middle of that there was a thunderstorm and we all got drenched! It started with things like that, which I found in the clothing swap and that more or less fit me.

Then I began to modify some things, such as a few things from the clothing swap that didn’t really fit me. Out of those I created some different things. Those were not the first things I ever sewed – I have sewed for a long time, sometimes I repaired some pieces of clothing. One time I even sewed a costume for Mardi Gras in New Orleans from some cloth from India, which I wore for that occasion. But then I didn’t have any other occasions to wear it again.

I never wished to sew pants or shirts though. Nowadays, because I can immediately and often can wear the skirts or dresses that I sew, I have much more motivation. Once I had begun, I also wanted to have more items of clothing, especially skirts. At the time being I can’t afford to just go shopping, and it’s much cheaper to buy a piece of cloth and to make a skirt out of it! Also, then I can make exactly what I want to have. Certain shops, like Delta Fabrics in Mannheim, obtain their fabrics from ecologically responsible sources, at least most of them. So there I don’t need to worry as much about how it was produced, what the ecological footprint is. I can select a fabric that I like and then create a skirt or dress that fits me exactly. That carries a whole different energy when I wear it. And I really enjoy sewing, otherwise I wouldn’t do it! Altogether that leads me to making my own pieces of clothing.

With every piece of clothing that I make, I learn something new, other techniques, or how to treat this kind of fabric, and so it evolves onward.

F: I also think that it makes a definite difference whether one buys something ready made in a shop or whether one gives form to one’s own vision with one’s own hands by one’s own agency. I am certain that this is a big difference. Every time that I see you in something you made, I think you are so proud of what you created for yourself, fantastic! Surely this is part of what helped you overcome your depressions, that you stand up and care for yourself!

I would like to turn to another question, which is one of your important topics, that is social, ecological and economic sustainability. You just mentioned it. If you sew your own pieces, when you obtain the materials where you can follow where they come from, then you don’t have to worry so much how this piece was produced. The topic of sustainability is omnipresent for you. In which ways do sustainability, sociology and economic sustainability play a role for you in regards to the clothing that you wear?

W: Yes, I do think a lot about how clothing is produced and consumed. That is closely connected. Thoughtless consumption promotes production methods that are harmful for the environment, for the sewing workers in Bangladesh or elsewhere, and everything that is connected.

Nowadays there are more and more businesses in the textile and garment industries that try to establish commodity chains that are socially and ecologically responsible from beginning to end. An example is Marketplace India. That was started by two Indian women who live in the USA, who design clothing for the American market together with women sewers in Mumbai and surroundings. The garments are then manufactured by cooperatives of women sewers. They make beautiful pieces. I think that we need to support such things, and this is only possible if we really think about what we buy. If one doesn’t buy a new piece every week, but rather buys things a bit less frequently but spends more on each piece. And thinks about what do I buy, what do I really need – so I look good in it, so it’s practical, and so I can wear it a long time. Then one can spend more money on each piece. This is about consuming with awareness.

If one doesn’t have much money, or if one enjoys it, one can also think about producing more oneself. Then if possible one buys the sustainably produced fabric, and puts a lot more thought into what one makes, what one wants to wear, what expresses one’s own personality, and what one wants to wear for a long time.

One can put that succinctly as putting more thought into each garment.

F: Superb! And I really have the impression at each of our meetings that you practice this to perfection, that you devote a lot of thought into what you do, what the story is behind each piece. Some of your pieces you also upcycle after all.

Are there any particular stylistic eras or specific styles that inspire you?

W: Well, for one I just experiment, look around at what is worn around me. Or for example once I bought a used top that I like very much, and that I continue to wear, and then I made another similar one from linen in emulation of that one. I see models all around me.

Regarding eras, I’d rather say that I feel inspired by the clothing that is being worn today in India, or what men in West Africa wear. In India, there are kurtas and all kinds of different garments with interesting cuts. Some of the cuts don’t differ that much between garments for women and men. The colors are often very different, but what the men wear to weddings often doesn’t differ from women’s wear that much even in the colors. That piece that I made for Mardi Gras years ago was based on Indian garment styles. I don’t have that piece any more, at one point I threw it away because I didn’t have any occasions to wear it!

About West Africa I like the robes that men wear there, the cuts and the colorfulness. That I find inspiring.

F: Yes, I also have that impression every time I see you. It’s not just that you are quite clearly a man in women’s clothing, but also you don’t hide yourself by wearing inconspicuous or black or white colors. On the contrary you are somebody who revels in colors and uses them to communicate. Now also, you are wearing a beautiful red silk top – what you wear can explode! I find that wonderful to see, you are like a butterfly that spreads its wings in the most flowering colors.

Apart from that, you once mentioned that because you have a body that is seen as male, your femininity requires special emphasis. How do you achieve this impression to the outside, or do you have a feeling of femininity through your dress, specific cuts or materials?

W: For one thing, if a woman wears pants, she is still a woman and is perceived as a woman. If I wear pants, I am immediately seen as a man.

F: It depends on the cut of the pants!

W: Yes of course. The pants that I wear these days are women’s pants, and I like to wear those a lot. They fit me much better than the jeans I used to wear. I always had problems finding jeans that really fit me. With women’s pants that are a bit loose and are made of soft fabric, that is no problem at all. But I do want to make it a bit more obvious, that I am wearing women’s clothes, for example by wearing skirts or dresses. And also handbags. It took me a while to turn to handbags, but recently I have made my second one.

F: Yay!

W: I think gradually I am going to make more accessories. That’s also a way to make use of remainders of cloth!

F: Absolutely!

W: Those are pieces of clothing that are obviously feminine. Or I wear a pink and black dress that I recently sewed. That is a color that is seen as feminine these days. A hundred years ago, that was a masculine color! That’s totally arbitrary. One communicates in the language that is spoken today in the place where we live. And here and now, pink is feminine! So I like to experiment with colors, see whether it suits me and whether I enjoy it, and so then I do it!

F: And that it definitely appears to do! Do you have any specific sources of inspiration that you use for your expressions in textiles?

W: One important thing is the variety of fabrics. As an example, there is the skirt that I made from a poncho. It’s a handwoven fabric, the yarn is rather thick, the material is heavy. It’s very different to work with this fabric than with much finer machine-woven fabric. It was an experience to see, what can I make with this material? That was a bit more difficult, but I worked out a result that I really like. So, it inspires me to engage with fabrics, what can one do with this or that fabric? What can one do with silk, or with linen, etc.? If I had some thought about a piece of clothing that I wanted to make, but then got a fabric that is not really suited for this design, then the design changed! I find that exciting!

F: Now we have talked a lot about what your clothing means regarding your identity, your expression, your playing field about textiles, but what function does clothing have for you in the end?

W: Of course it has the simple function to protect us from rain or sun etc.! But obviously we wear it for much more than that. Otherwise we would be able to walk outside naked if the weather is nice!

F: Or in a potato bag!

W: Yes!

Clothing is also self expression, an expression of the social role that one plays. If one works in a bank, one has to wear something different than if one works at a theater ticket counter. Clothing is an expression of many different aspects of oneself, and of cultural belonging, such as to which culture or religion one feels part of. And so clothing is a means of communication.

F: Absolutely! And I have the impression that you are now very free in your style. You wear items of clothing of which one strongly notices that they are very individual, and that you won’t be put in a box. Except by reference to obviously feminine or masculine clothing – that it is not masculine. I find that very exciting! In that context, what connection is there for you between creativity and femininity?

W: As I mentioned before, I find masculine clothing boring, and so I was not inspired to sew as long as I wore men’s clothing. I just find the variety of forms and colors and cuts that one can make with women’s clothing much richer, and so I find it much more enjoyable to make women’s clothing. I could imagine though, if there are men who like to wear skirts or dresses, that I would like to sew something for them. If more men are interested in this, to discover something, to try things out, then I would like to help them!

F: I hope the world hears this offer!

Can you describe to me how your creative process flows from the inspiration to the final piece of clothing?

W: I’ll take as an example the green summer dress that I recently made, because I had no real summer dress! What kind of a cut do I make? I had made a top from a book recently, and that seemed fitting to me for the top portion of the dress. With that, I wanted to have a skirt portion that hangs loosely, with interior pockets. For that, I thought I’ll make a square cut that I pull together a bit at the top. I found a beautiful green muslin fabric, which is incredibly soft and feels comfortable on the skin and is very airy! For the pockets I used sleeves which I had once cut off from an Indian shirt. I was able to use additional fabric remainders for the neckline. So now I have this wonderful summer dress!

F: And it suits you very well! Thank you very much for the interview!

Jane: Yes, thank you for this fascinating perspective. In this connection or beyond, what does fashion mean for you generally, in a society or for each person? What role can fashion play in societal change?

W: Well, if one speaks historically, fashion once was what was worn at the French court, and which was then transported to the rest of Europe. Fashion was created at a particular place, and then everybody else followed that. The conception of fashion obviously evolved enormously since that time, there are various fashion centers, fashion for the haute couture, fashion for the more normal people and so on. My vision would be that fashion continues to evolve to something that really develops bottom up. That often happens after all, as when some trends from the Hip Hop scene are picked up for example. But I don’t hope that such trends are picked up by some big fashion labels in order to make huge profits, but that fashion becomes something that continuously arises from the people. That they develop new things for themselves, create new trends and modify them, so that there is no centralized development of fashion, but that it emerges everywhere and creates new modes of expression.

Jane: That is fascinating how you combine all these discourses to create an entire vision of the future! I find it very exciting to hear what all flows together in your presentation!