The Economic Hemicycles of the Nibelung
A Macroeconomic Sketch of Wagner's 'Ring'
Analyses of Wagner's 'Ring' on the basis of one or another branch of political economy are two a penny. But little attention appears to be have been displayed so far to the macroeconomic implications of this mighty work. This is in fact rather surprising, as the possible relationship between economic and artistic cycles might have been thought fit to spark the imagination of someone, somewhere, desperate for the subject for a thesis. The present essay is freely offered for consideration by any such scholars, or anyone else who has the requisite time to waste in perusing it.
My argument is straightforward. Wagner's 'Ring' presents displays to us the bare bones of two 'boom-and-bust' economic cycles. Both of these are initiated by Nibelungs, who have the motivation and imagination to seek change; both of them are extinguished by Gods, to whom change is anathema. In both 'Rhinegold' and 'Siegfried' the release of capital into the world (an increase in M3 if you like) stimulates, or offers the chance of stimulation to, moribund societies with stagnant economies. In 'The Valkyrie' and 'Twilight of the Gods' we see aspects of the second hemicycles, in the former case after the collapse of the boom, in the second at the point of collapse itself.
The symbolic equation of Alberich's initial theft of the Rhinegold with the birth of modern capitalism has become a commonplace. But let us examine a bit more closely, by reading between the lines, what exactly takes place here.
We start with a world which is essentially static. Gods are Gods, giants giants, dwarves dwarves, Rhinemaidens are Rhinemaidens and gold is locked in the bed of the river. None of these things is ever meant to change. There is no evolution or progress in this world - it is, in fact, literally 'the Golden Age' of ancient lore. Time has no meaning here. (compare Stephen J. Gould, 'Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle', London, 1988, passim).
But the Nibelung dwarf Alberich is motivated, by the sexual taunting of the Rhinemaidens, to do something new and unforeseen. Not only does he steal the gold. He has the intelligence to use it. As we see by the reactions of others in Wagner's libretto, to the Rhinemaidens it is just a pretty toy - and the godess Fricka, cunningly led by Loge, places no higher value on it. To Loge indeed it is simply the occasion for some virtuoso spin-doctoring - he 'sells' it, in different ways, to every inhabitant of Valhalla and to the giants. To the giants Fafner and Fasolt it is a means of stymieing an old enemy, and to Wotan, leader of the Gods, it offers the opportunity of preserving his power for eternity, an antidote to the entropy which Alberich's enterprise threatens.
Alberich alone seems to have realised immediately that the gold can be a medium of exchange, and hence as the basis for a mercantile economy. It is difficult to imagine what this can have meant to a world to which the concept was new. There cannot have been a precedent in the 'early world' of 'The Rhinegold' to this dramatic departure from direct barter of goods and labour. Yet clearly Alberich must have been an effective preacher of this new concept. It is unclear how long is the time between Alberich's theft and Loge bringing the news of it to Valhalla - not more I would have thought than a few months at the most. Yet already in that time, (according to Wagner's orchestral score), no less than twenty-four anvils were hard at work for him in Nibelheim, demonstrating what pent-up levels of demand must have existed for manufactured goods. Clearly, Alberich was already trading on a large scale with the wider world (whoever was inhabiting it) and the multiplier effect was putting pressure on productive resources. Fortunately for the Nibelung, he was able to mine his own capital to keep his slave-state thriving.
Not only that, but Alberich clearly realised the need, in a growing economy, for the allocation of resources to investment and research. Hence his direction of his most expert craftsman, Mime, on to the Tarnhelm project. This in itself demonstrates his exceptional foresight.
It is clear that none the other characters realize the full implications of the transformation of Nibelheim. Only Wotan begins to have some inkling of it, and by then it is too late for him. Wotan's great fault, here as elsewhere, is inability to embrace change. Rather than robbing Alberich, Wotan would indeed have preserved his power for longer by going into partnership with him and developing Alberich's mercantilism under Valhalla's rule of law, but speculation on this possibility is beyond the scope of the present sketch.
It is of critical importance that the giants do not see the value of the gold except as a 'dog in the manger' counter to Alberich. In particular they do not accept the gold as any sort of 'money equivalent' of Freia. When Fafner slinks off after murdering Fasolt, he merely squats on his treasure.
Indeed, he too would have benefited from appointing Alberich as his manager, rather than sulking in his cave. As a consequence of Fafner's stupidity, Alberich's economy suffers a double blow. Not only is the Nibelung's capital stolen from him, but it is withdrawn from circulation altogether. This removes totally the opportunity for Alberich to act at least as entrepreneur within a growing, or at least active, economy (albeit controlled by others), and instead renders inevitable its total collapse
Thus within the first opera of 'The Ring' we have witnessed a complete boom-and-bust cycle.
The consequences of the calamitous bust are all too evident in the world of 'The Valkyrie'. The society in which the human Hunding, and Wotan's by-blows Siegmund and Sieglinde, live is primitive in the extreme, in its social relations as well as its economy. Huts are stacked up against trees for support, so feeble is the technology - the skills of the Nibelungs are clearly lacking. Hunting is the source of food, rapine is the norm and interfering strangers are generally to be murdered when their blood will not mess up the hearth. Some folklore medicine and herbalism clearly survive (e.g. the sleeping draught Sieglinde prepares for her husband) but other evidence of culture or invention is completely absent. Nor, it is clear, will any move for change spark from the extremely conservative views and dull mental processes of Hunding (or, we may assume, those of his kinsmen). The removal of the Gold from this world has indeed made time stand still once again.
We may note, by the way, that while east of the Rhine the immemorial forests preserve the barbarity of Hunding and his ilk, the enterprising Alberich is presumably roaming the West Bank and realising the opportunities of promoting his cause through the fertile assistance of Grimhilde. Schwarz-Alberich has the foresight to prepare a Schwarz-Siegfried; his son, Hagen, will counter the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde .
The opening of 'Siegfried', a generation after 'The Valkyrie', shows us that very little economic progress has been made in the forests (where, indeed Act II shows us that Alberich is living as a homeless vagrant, so low has he sunk).
Nevertheless, in this spavined post-slump society there are indications of a foundation for future economic growth. Alberich's brother Mime after all, although he is clearly not very prosperous, operates a smithy and may therefore be presumed to have some customers. Perhaps it is from these that he gets the eggs for the broth he prepares, amongst other things. He has clearly obtained sufficient surplus over the years to bring up the orpahend Siegfried. There is no evidence of gold or other means of exchange so it is safe to assume that a low-level barter economy is in existence at this stage. (It is admittedly rather odd, if this is so, that Siegfried has never seen a woman. The only explanation I can offer is that men kept their women closely at home throughout this period in the aftermath of the Hunding episode, so that Mime's customers were exclusively male). Another hint of economic glimmering is the presence of a Wanderer - itinerants are the precursors of trade.
But the key economic question relating to 'Siegfried' is - what happens to Fafner's gold? On the instructions of the wood-bird, Siegfried, afdter slaying the dragon, leaves all of it in the cave guarded by the dead bodies of Mime and the giant. Although it is confirmed (by Hagen) in 'Twilight of the Gods' that Siegfried is master of this treasure and that the Nibelungs acknowledge his sovereignty (a point to which I shall return) he never makes any attempt to get the treasure or use his powers in any way that benefits him.
I suggest that it is important to note that Alberich has witnessed what has transpired at Fafner's lair and is aware that the gold is not truly guarded. He alone has the motive and opportunity to avail himself of the treasure. And indeed I infer that he does so. But to elucidate the full significance of this, it is first necessary to go into the thorny question of the timescale of 'Siegfried' and 'Twilight of the Gods'.
It is of course possible to construe that Siegfried wakes up one morning, captures a bear, forges Nothung, kills Fafner and Mime and by the evening of day one encounters the ex-Valkyrie Brunnhilde. The next morning he sails down the Rhine, nips back again to get Brunnhilde, returns to the court of the Gibichungs, marries Gutrune, and gets killed that afternoon. However, I don't know of anyone who actually 'feels' this time-scale. It certainly 'seems' emotionally and otherwise, that time passes between the two operas, although it is not I think possible to demonstrate this from the text. As Brunnhilde has been out of the picture for eighteen to twenty years, it certainly would seem brusque for Siegfried, callow as he is, to leave her after a one-night stand. I therefore propose that their idyll on Brunnhilde's rock lasts at least a few months before our hero's Rhine journey.
Meanwhile, back at Fafner's lair, once again the irresponsibility of the Gods (or in this case, their representative Siegfried) has left the gold vulnerable to the Nibelung. Clearly, Alberich helps himself to at least some of the gold and transfers it across the Rhine to support the realm of the Gibichungs, or, more specifically, to support the influence there of his son Hagen.
For on the opposite bank to Brunnhilde's rock, a clearly different society and economy are beginning to manifest themselves. Here is a palace, a king, an embryonic social feudal structure with singing vassals. Here hunting is carried out as a recreation as much as a necessity, and gods have completed their descent, from great powers via sword-givers and then lowly wanderers to mere fairy-stories. The feeble Gunther, lord of the Gibichungs, acknowledges that the brains behind all this belong to his half-brother Hagen. But it is not only Hagen's brains that fuel this New Society, it is also the Rhine gold that Alberich is able to supply. Gunther's status on the Rhine, is, we know from his first scene, scarcely that of a political or economic whizz-kid - I suggest that it is gold which is buying the respect of his peers whilst they wait to see, perhaps, whether he can arrange sufficiently powerful dynastic marriages for himself and his sister Gutrune.
As Hagen has fully expected, Siegfried is quite sufficiently foolish to fall in with his plans. The 'heroic youth' has inherited the atavistic complacency of the Gods. He shows no interest or curiosity in his own fate or fortunes, or in the motives of others (unless a third party like the Woodbird spells it out for him in capital letters), and hence neither temporal nor economic power - which have a dangerous tendency to change the world as it is - have any interest for him
Moreover Hagen proves himself to be fully his father's son in ruthlessly supplanting Alberich's claims to be managing things with his own personal ambitions - as he tells the old Nibelung, as the latter literally fades away, of his will to succeed, 'Mich selbst schwör' ich es'- 'I swear it to myself'.. Although we are never made party to the full extent of Hagen's intentions, it seems clear that he will not hesitate to use the Ring to summon the Nibelungs to his personal cause. Their dedication, the Gold and the possession of Gunther's fortress on the Rhine will provide a power-base indeed to a ruthless leader. He intends to profit, as did Alberich, from the essential laziness and lack of imagination of the Gods to forge a future of change, beyond the scope of the Norn's limiting rope. The Nibelung boom, so rudely supressed in opera 1, should really take off in opera 4.
What goes wrong? Hagen doesn't seem particularly perturbed by the building of Siegfried's pyre - it is only when the flooding begins that he realises that things have got completely out of hand. This flooding is not explained anywhere - we are to assume it is an act of the Gods perhaps. However the cause is implicit in the first sentence of Brunnhilde's final oration. The Rhine, until the great engineering works of the early nineteenth century, (which perhaps gave the composer some subconscious inspiration), frequently burst its banks violently. Gunther's palace we can imagine as being a substantial structure designed for permanence, which would therefore have some flood protection incorporated in its design. It can only be the case that the foolish vassals have interpreted Brunnhilde's call for 'starke Schatten' (strong timbers) by uprooting these flood defences, thus inviting the final overwhelming catastrophe.
With Hagen robbed of his prize, the Ring and the Gold complete their own cycle to land where they started. But the world has been given a foretaste of the economic fluctuations which future historians will demonstrate inevitably underlie the rise and fall of Great Powers; it is the ambition and the risk of the Nibelungs which will drive mankind - they will not rest content with the pompous stasis of the Gods. Alberich alone survives the crisis, to start the whole story once again.