Drink and Power. Alcohol and the Making of Illiberal Regimes in the Long 20th Century

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop “Drink and Power. Alcohol and the Making of Illiberal Regimes in the Long 20th Century” that will take place March 15-16th 2019 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. We have been talking to the conveners, Sina Fabian and Botakoz Kassymbekova, about the upcoming workshop.

Why did you decide to explore illiberal regimes through the prism of alcohol practices and policies?

Photo: Tam Connors-Sadek, CC BY-ND 2.0;
Soviet poster by Viktor Govorkov, 1954

Alcohol is a very particular consumer good which is different from most or any other goods. It has been a feature of most societies’ social and cultural life for thousands of years. It is a psychoactive substance which affects the consumer’s body and mind. In contrast to most other psychoactive substances it is a legal and socially accepted intoxicant in most societies. It is embedded in and connected with many aspects of life. Alcohol is consumed in connection both with positive and negative personal events. It therefore offers glimpses into the everyday life.

Alcohol practices and policies are further intertwined with central aspects of modern societies, such as questions of health, of economic wealth, and of social order. Thus, negotiating processes in vital areas of modern societies come into view when looking at alcohol practices.

While all regimes claim the right to govern their people, illiberal regimes attempt to exert more direct or even total control and allow less freedom than liberal regimes. Alcohol consumption challenges these aims to total control and subordination as it might lead to a loss of control and unruly behavior.

We think that illiberal regimes perceived alcohol as a threat, but also actively used it to strengthen their rule. We are interested in the ambivalences and contradictions alcohol created. The prism of alcohol allows interesting insights into ambivalences and contradictions of illiberal regimes themselves as well as their governance tactics.

Why do you focus on illiberal regimes and do not examine alcohol practices and policies in both illiberal and liberal states?

We want to find out whether there was a particular “illiberal” way of dealing with alcohol. We already know quite a lot of how alcohol was perceived and managed in liberal regimes such as the United States and Great Britain. How illiberal regimes handled alcohol has been much less researched so far. By “illiberal” regimes we mean autocratic, authoritarian, dictatorial, and colonial regimes. Liberal political regimes such as the United States could have illiberal alcohol regimes, such as prohibition, for example. We decided to focus on political illiberalness, however.

Liberal regimes will serve as a comparative perspective for which we can rely on valuable existing research. Some workshop participants also analyze how alcohol policy changed during the transition from a liberal to an illiberal regime, or they compare alcohol policies of liberal and illiberal regimes. By focusing on illiberal regimes, we might also gain new perspectives on how liberal regimes handled alcohol.

How is this topic relevant for understanding contemporary illiberal regimes?

By focusing on the “long 20th century” the questions and topics we are interested in are essentially related to “modern regimes”. The question of how illiberal regimes deal with alcohol and the ways they promote or prohibit production and consumption in order to stabilize their rule is still relevant today. One participant looks at recent anti-alcohol policy in China and contextualizes it with a long-term perspective.

By analyzing colonial alcohol regimes, for example, long-lasting effects might also help to explain current alcohol policies and practices in the former colonies.

How is your own research connected to the topic of the workshop?

Sina Fabian and Botakoz Kassymbekova

Sina Fabian: My project deals with alcohol in the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany. I am interested in governance practices which I am analyzing through the prism of alcohol policies and practices. In order to achieve a multifaceted perspective, I focus not just on governmental policy makers, but also on producers, consumers, and the anti-alcohol movement. Differences between liberal and illiberal regimes will play an important role, as well as conflicts between traditional drinking customs and concepts of “modern” ways of life and social orders.

Botakoz Kassymbekova: I am interested in cultural adaptations under illiberal regimes. In my work on Stalinism in Central Asia I, among other things, investigated how discourses on alcohol were used by “ordinary” citizens and officials to exert influence upon each other and express grievances about each other. Alcoholism among Soviet officials was a widely discussed phenomenon in various reports and I am fascinated by its role for Soviet governance. Issues of cultural change and everyday food practices are interesting because they also play an important role in discussing Soviet legacy in Central Asia today, but alcohol is also a prism to discuss contemporary questions of individual choice, social responsibility and nationalism.

About the Conveners

Sina Fabian is has been lecturer in 20th century German History at the Humboldt University of Berlin since October 2016. Prior to joining she was PhD candidate at the Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam (ZZF) and the University of Potsdam from where she received her PhD in 2015. Her first book entitled “Boom in der Krise. Konsum, Tourismus, Autofahren in Westdeutschland und Großbritannien, 1970-1990” was published in 2016. Her current project focuses on alcohol governance in Germany in the first half of the 20th century. It deals with the regulation and promotion of alcohol, and the corresponding negotiation processes between different actors.

Botakoz Kassymbekova received her Ph.D. from the Humboldt University in Berlin. Her first book Despite Cultures: Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2016. She is a Project Development and Initiatives coordinator at the Forum Transregionale Studien Berlin and teaches at the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the Technical University Berlin.

Citation: Sina Fabian, Botakoz Kassymbekova, Drink and Power. Alcohol and the Making of Illiberal Regimes in the Long 20th Century, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.03.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18220.

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