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Aufstehen’s Populist Revolt: Local Patriotism and the ‘Left-Behind Left’

by | August 20, 2020

The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #8: Comrades, This is Madness, our latest issue. Issue 8 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue (issue 9). 

I. Aufstehen: A Populist ‘Uprising’?
The political consequences of Germany’s impending social and economic crisis are alarming. Increasing privatisation and slowing economic growth have led to a sharp rise in inequality and precarious employment, pointing to what Oliver Nachtwey calls ‘regressive modernisation’ – the undoing of the promises of social modernity.

The far-right Alternative für Deutschland’s (AfD) blunder in the most recent Hamburg elections was met with celebration among leftists – the SPD got a whopping 39.2 per cent of votes and the Greens 24.2 per cent, making the AfD, the Christian democratic CDU and the FDP (Liberal Democrats) irrelevant in the city-state – the fact that the party still made it beyond the 5-per-cent hurdle is a cause for concern. Since its inception in early 2013, AfD has benefited from popular discontent with Germany’s major parties and grown into the de facto opposition, steadily gaining electoral ground and setting the agenda in public debate.

The electoral landscape is bleak. Today’s SPD has little to do with its social-democratic heritage, and has drifted further towards the centre the longer it has been in coalition with the CDU. The Greens have offered no convincing alternative: the baffling transformation of many Greens from anarchist activists to typical bourgeois politicians reflects the party’s overall trajectory. (The current vice-president of the Bundestag, Claudia Roth, once managed the anarchist rock band Ton, Steine, Scherben, whose first album was called Keine Macht für Niemand– ‘No power for nobody’).

Die Linke, the only truly left-of-centre party in the election, again struggled to move beyond 9 per cent, hovering around the same share it received in the 2017 national election. What, then, could remedy this crisis of left imagination and galvanise a movement capable of taking power in the Bundestag?

For Die Linke politicians Sahra Wagenknecht, Oskar Lafontaine, the dramaturge Bernd Stegemann, and Wolfgang Streeck – the sociologist and emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (MPIfG), who has recently made a name for himself as the pre-eminent commentator on capitalist crisis and the failures of the European project in the Anglophone world – the answer was obvious: what Germany needed was not another political party but a cross-party political movement modelled on France’s La France Insoumise and the UK’s Momentum, capable of uniting Die Linke and the left wings of both SPD and the Greens. The plan was to put pressure on the SPD and Greens, and conjure a strong electoral left capable of taking power. When their movement – rather blandly and derivatively named Aufstehen, translating as ‘get up’, ‘stand up’, or ‘rise up’ – launched in September 2018, there was much speculation about its potential as a force on the left. With a slick media campaign, a few political endorsements, a glossy website, and between 140,000 and 170,000 official ‘supporters’, it seemed as though little stood in the way of its dream of popular mobilisation against the inequalities that worsened as Germany grapples with a looming social and economic crisis.

But a year after its official launch, Wagenknecht resigned her role in the movement, announced that she would no longer participate in Die Linke’s leadership contest, and let the movement fade into relative obscurity. Speaking to Die Zeit, Wagenknecht said that there were personal reasons for her retreat. Bouts with illness meant that she was often unable to attend important meetings and public appearances. Of course, however, much more was going on behind the scenes.

Wagenknecht’s departure from Aufstehen was soon followed by its more general collapse. Less than two years after its launch, Aufstehen is no longer a presence on the national stage. It has retreated into local ‘action groups’ that are active on the internet and social-media platforms, but irrelevant to the wider political conversation. In the words of one former member, Marco Bülow (formerly of the SPD), ‘Aufstehen is history’. What went wrong?

Wagenknecht and Streeck have been vocal about their stance on what they see as the new identitarian left. At Die Linke’s conference in 2018, Wagenknecht claimed that a commitment to open borders was ‘weltfremd’ – that is to say that it expresses an ideological naïveté or ivory-tower worldview – and entirely at odds with the principles of a left politics. In an interview with the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung, Wagenknecht blamed the bogeyman ‘new left’ for alienating Die Linke’s voters, arguing that they had distanced themselves from the working class and resorted to ‘identity politics’. Streeck, for his part, has frequently commented on the ‘lifestyle left’s’ obsession with gender, claiming that their only political aim is to spread the use of the Gendersternchen, a symbol that makes it possible to address all genders in the heavily masculine German language. For Wagenknecht, only a ‘real’ left politics positing a ‘realistic anti-capitalism’ might win back voters in the east from the far right, and halt the ongoing reversal of gains made by trade unions and works councils throughout the twentieth century.

Writing in Der Spiegelin August 2018, Bülow and the other early Aufstehen supporters Sevim Dagdelen (of Die Linke) and Antje Vollmer (of the Greens) offered further insight into the movement’s aims. Domestically, they argued, it was about time to return to some form of post-war social democracy: free education, affordable housing, free healthcare and investment in infrastructure. This would better connect the depopulating rural towns with Germany’s rapidly urbanising cities. Aufstehen’s foreign policy would focus on ending the European Union’s ‘regime change’ politics and rich industrial nations’ exploitation of poorer ones, by attacking the root causes of mass migration. For Bülow, Dagdelen and Vollmer, globalisation was nothing but a smokescreen for large-scale deregulation and privatisation – the causes of chaos, wars and mass migration. The failure of the left – the SPD, Greens and Die Linke – to stand up for the ‘losers of globalisation’ had led over 8 million voters to abandon the parties in the last two decades. If the left did not wake up and act now, it would only lose more voters to the far right.

But what Aufstehen offered was a nationalist solution to Germany’s economic and political malaise. Economic migration, Wagenkecht argued, could only lead to increased competition in Germany’s stretched labour markets, particularly in the low-wage sector. Capitalism could only be restrained or subdued within the bounds of the nation state. And nation states, by definition, have boundaries, which ultimately meant that states must protect their borders if they were to curb the worst excesses of financialised capitalism. While asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their home countries were perfectly welcome, economic migrants were not. Increased economic migration, Wagenknecht claimed, would lead to a brain-drain of qualified workers, luring them from their homelands in the Global South to the more prosperous North. Instead, she argued, it would be more sensible to invest in the German education system, addressing deficits in infrastructure, education and transport, while paying close attention to global disparities between the economically developed centre and the underdeveloped periphery.

For Quinn Slobodian and William Callison, it is Aufstehen’s failure to recognise the subject of its ‘populist’ politics that is to blame for its demise. This failure was the somewhat predictable result of Aufstehen’s narrow social-democratic focus on the state. Streeck’s disregard for contemporary political struggles, for instance, has been well documented. In recent interviews Streeck has dismissed such struggles as ‘local’, ‘dispersed’ or ‘uncoordinated’ without, as Jerome Roos notes, having much of a clue about their composition, aims or methods. Further, in an article for Neues Deutschland, Peter Grottian contends that Aufstehen did close to nothing to build a counter-hegemonic bloc by communicating with social movements and other civil-society actors. The leadership seemed to have no interest in the messy day-to-day organising work of radical politics; its socialism was a conforming nonconformism, suited, arguably, to the politics of the late 1960s, but of little use today.

Factionalism within Die Linke is more complicated than is frequently portrayed in the German media. Since its inception, the party has struggled with infighting. Tensions within it can be traced to the formation of its predecessor, the Linkspartei.PDS (discussed below), and attempts at reuniting the East and West German left. There are now not two but nine official Strömungen (tendencies or factions) within the party. These range from the explicitly Marxist Kommunistische Plattform (KPF – Communist Platform) to the radical democratic Emanzipatorische Linke (Ema.Li – Emancipatory Left). Wagenknecht, formerly of the KPF, was a founding member of another faction, the Antikapitalistische Linke (AKL – Anticapitalist Left), a tendency that has continually rejected coalition with the SPD and the Greens. Some AKL members also voiced their concerns about Aufstehen’s cross-party approach, insisting that Die Linke was the only forum capable of uniting a variety of left-wing factions and movements.

Wagenknecht believed that there could be no Red-Red-Green coalition – SPD, Die Linke and Greens – in the Bundestag unless the Greens and the SPD dropped their ambitions to be part of a grand-coalition government and made a significant shift towards the left. The exclusive focus on immigrants and the urban middle class of the party’s twin leadership, Katja Kipping of the Emanzipatorische Linke and Bernd Riexinger of the Sozialistische Linke (Socialist Left) factions, she argued, had also made it impossible to win back the eight million voters that abandoned the parties since 1998. Despite Wagenknecht’s high popularity ratings, however, she continually failed to secure the party leadership. (Die Zeitinterpreting her frequent TV appearances as a sign of her increasing irrelevance within the party). Aufstehen was her last real chance at capturing power; had it succeeded in its project, Wagenknecht could have become the de facto leader of the left, leaving her free to bypass opposition within her party and define the political programme of a united German left.

The reasons for her retreat were then, of course, not only personal. Clashes with Kipping and Riexinger led to her increasing marginalisation within the party. When she showed early signs of an anti-immigration position, many in Die Linke, including in the reformist Forum Demokratischer Sozialismus (fds – Forum for Democratic Socialism), distanced themselves, writing an open letter voicing concern about the party’s direction, and stating  that they did not want to be associated with Die Linke members whose politics were fundamentally opposed to the founding principles of the party, further arguing that anti-racism should be central to any left political platform, and that attempts at creating left-wing versions of right-wing policies were entirely futile. Anti-immigration views could not pass as a realpolitikof the contemporary German left. In such a context, Aufstehen’s attempt to ‘[roll] out a social movement like the latest iPhone’, as Slobodian and Callison succinctly put it, was destined to fail.

There are surely lessons to be learned from Aufstehen’s brief time on the political stage. What led its leadership to adopt an outdated anti-immigration, left-nationalist and mild social democratic platform as the basis for a movement that was to reinvigorate the German Left? And why were Wagenknecht, Streeck, Lafontaine and Stegemann so convinced that their success relied on winning back economically and politically marginalised voters in the East, who were supposedly drifting right towards the AfD?

II. The Demise of Social Democracy
The answer to these questions lie in the complex history of post-war social democracy and tensions between East and West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Streeck’s own work offers some insight into the dynamics that drove Aufstehen’s welfare-state nostalgia. His analysis of the demise of social democracy in Germany and the breakdown of the post-war compromise between capital and labour is particularly relevant.

Under the leadership of Gerhard Schröder – appropriately nicknamed ‘der Genosse der Bosse’ (comrade of the bosses) – the SPD implemented the controversial Agenda 2010, along with its flagship programme, the Hartz IV labour market reforms. The euphemisms of ‘innovation’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘inclusion’ were employed to justify the shift to a dehumanising means-tested benefits system that bundled up unemployment and social-welfare benefits into one, leaving the unemployed significantly worse off. The reforms also led to the rise of what Germans refer to as minijobs – precarious part-time work that pays no more than €450 a month – which inflated employment figures and lent further credibility to the Agenda. But as Oliver Nachtwey argues in Germany’s Hidden Crisis:

The idea of the Agenda 2010, according to its champions, was to simplify participation in the labour market for everyone, to facilitate access and allow people to take responsibility for their own lives. The result was that more people could join the labour market more rapidly and directly, yet with fewer rights, less security and lower incomes.

In short, the SPD was willing to accept a stark rise in inequality in order to open up the labour market and increase employment. While neither the Greens nor the SPD could realistically be described as ‘left’ during the Schröder years (that the labour market reforms were named after former Volkswagen executive Peter Hartz is telling), the transformation of the SPD into a slick neoliberal ‘Third Way’ party marked a crucial turning point in German politics. With its reversal of the gains made by workers’ struggles and trade unions throughout the twentieth century, the SPD had shown its true colours: the post-war compromise between capital and labour was finally broken and the working class abandoned in favour of global capital.

A question that appears throughout Streeck’s writing is that of why the Agenda 2010, considering its blatant attack on the working class, did not lead to more social conflict: the early 2000s had the lowest number of strikes in post-war German history. What makes Streeck’s analysis of the collapse of social democracy particularly intriguing is his own professional and intellectual investment in the ideas of German social democracy. Alongside his tenure at the MPIfG, as part of the Bündnis für Arbeit (Alliance for Employment), in the late 1990s Streeck advised the Schröder government – the very same government he attacks for breaking the post-war compromise – advocating unmistakably ‘Third Way’ policies. But what led to his (at the very least intellectual) retreat from traditional social democracy?

In an essay for the London Review of Books, Streeck argues that the post-war compromise led to the formation of an export-oriented industrial sector. Investments in infrastructure and education in the post-war years – especially the vocational programmes of the 1960s and 1970s – along with powerful trade unions and works councils, resulted in an ‘industrial upgrade’ of the German economy with increasing wages and low wage differentials. Therefore, Germany could position itself as an exporter for high value-added goods, the exports of which were defined by quality rather than by price. This economic transformation was largely enabled by the first post-war SPD government of Willy Brandt. The Brandt government benefited significantly from the economic miracle of post-war Germany, and was free to spend what it needed to deliver the historic promise of the social-democratic welfare state, thus ensuring popular support for the party from German workers.

The Wirtschaftwunder, a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity, was made possible by the Marshall Plan-funded reconstruction of post-war West Germany. The first three post-war chancellors were staunch conservatives, and the successive governments of Konrad Adenauer, Ludwig Erhard and Kurt Georg Kiesinger featured a motley crew of politicians with shadowy Third Reich pasts. Despite its deeply traditional and Christian outlook, however, the CDU’s Ahlener Programm of February 1947 argued that the capitalist system had failed to secure the welfare of the German people. The programme foreclosed a return to the Marktwirtschaftand instead proposed a form of ‘Christian socialism’ that would bring key industries under state control while promoting conservative Christian social values. It was only with the emergence of Ludwig Erhard as finance minister that the CDU turned to ordoliberalism, the economic system founded on the promotion of free markets and an obsession with balanced budgets which German economics has since become known for.

While some economists claim that Erhard’s ordoliberalism was responsible for the Wirtschsftswunder, this was not the case. As Streeck contends, the influence of ordoliberalism in Germany has been vastly overstated. Yes, Erhard’s proposal did have a significant impact on West German economic policy. But it is equally true, he argues, that ‘Adenauer, Rheinish Catholic that he was, understood the pacifying capacity of social policy and skilfully used the Ministry of Labour to ensure that ordoliberalism never became the only game in town’. Moreover, Nachtwey convincingly shows that ‘the roots of the German welfare state stretch back [as far as] the Bismarck era, with the first legislation on sickness and accident insurance, followed by contributory pensions in 1889’. With this embryonic welfare system, Bismarck sought to pacify the emerging workers’ movement while at the same time modernising early capitalism. The post-war CDU governments were only carrying on in the tradition of Bismarck.

Neither ordoliberalism nor Adenauer’s political skill, however, suffice to fully explain the Wirtschaftswunder. As Brigitte Schulz and William Hansen already noted in a 1984 article ‘Aid or Imperialism?’, the continuities between the new West German government and Bismarck weren’t limited to the domestic politics. In a budgetary debate in the Reichstag in June 1884, Bismarck claimed that ‘if the German people as a whole find that its clothes are too tight-fitting at home, we are forced to grant protection to German initiatives abroad’. With this statement, Bismarck was making a forceful case for the need of the state to intervene to protect ‘the foreign ventures of its nascent industries’.

Political constraints – Germany lost most of its colonial possessions after World War One – meant the West German state could not rely on military force to assert political control and facilitate the exploitation of labour and resources overseas. Instead, the Federal Republic (BRD) aggressively used political and economic influence to open up new markets abroad; guarantee a good investment climate for its national capital; and enforce changes in the international division of labour. And, of course, to ensure the steady supply of raw materials West Germany required for its rapid economic growth in the Wirtschaftswunderyears.

Streeck briefly mentions that ‘German industry has always been dependent on foreign markets for the sale of its manufactured goods and for the raw materials it needed’. But in his narrative, he quickly (and rather conveniently) glosses over the issue of West Germany’s neocolonial and imperialist endeavours. The import of cheap raw materials and the sale of manufactured products to the periphery helped German business achieve super-profits that could then be used to ‘bribe’, as Lenin put it, certain sections of the domestic working class. The compromise between capital and labour under the welfare state thus relied on the exploitation of labour and resources in the Global South, as it does today. But this is an aspect of imperialism that Streeck and Aufstehen are reluctant to address.

The structure of the post-war economy allowed the BRD to position itself as the main political power within the European Economic Community and the emerging European Union. An internationalising economy meant that ‘keeping inflation and unit labour costs low’ was a priority for German unions who, by this point, had become the close allies of employers and government, due to a fear of the relocation of production to states with low-wage regimes. Unions were therefore increasingly reluctant to organise mass strikes, only making use of them as a last resort. Rising unit labour costs abroad coupled with decreasing unit labour costs at home eventually led to a second Wirtschaftswunder, and a fixed exchange rate kept the price of German exports artificially low. Consequently, there was ‘no intention on the part of the unions to demand higher wages and raise unit labour costs’, as this would only hurt Germany’s ability to compete in global markets. German prosperity, according to Streeck, ‘has depended historically on the export of manufactured goods, and later, the non-export of manufacturing jobs’. It is precisely this compromise between German capitalists and the working class that allowed German capitalism to grow and remain profitable.

But the welfare state also took on a different meaning under Brandt’s SPD government. Ulrich Beck famously argued that the welfare state inscribed a new ‘social mobility’ in the West German subject. Despite inequalities between classes, so the theory went, a ‘collective rise in income, education, mobility, rights, science and mass consumption’ would lead to a more prosperous society. This ‘elevator effect’ implied that everyone was rising upwards in the same social elevator. Beck also believed that individualisation had led to a capitalism without classes that was marked by inequalities between individuals and not distinct social classes. So, although the SPD had benefited significantly from the solidification of the welfare state, the party had also lost its ‘factory floor’ mass base. After all, can a party really describe itself as traditionally social democratic if its voters are, as Adam Tooze describes them, ‘public sector workers, salaried white collar employees and new social movements’?

For a generation of activists raised under the technocratic rule of Helmut Schmidt, the SPD no longer offered a convincing solution to the ecological and political challenges that the world now faced. (Oskar Lafontaine was a firm opponent of nuclear power and armament and advocate for a West German exit from NATO). Inspired by the ’68 revolutions, these movements took up demands for radical freedom of self-expression, themes that were entirely at odds with the SPD’s family-centric, factory-floor conception of society. The ‘artistic critique’ of capitalism, a term famously coined by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in The New Spirit of Capitalism, emphasised autonomy and individual self-determination as a critique of the bureaucratism of the SPD. While this artistic critique initially included a sustained critique of social inequality, 1970s neoliberalism successfully neutralised the ’68-inspired movements, sidelining the trade-union critique on vertical inequalities. When the ecological movements eventually founded their own party, the Greens, the youth vote shifted away from the SPD, significantly reducing the party’s influence.

Streeck concludes that the identity and environmental politics that emerged out of the ’68 revolutions – alongside mass migration – are to blame for the loss of ‘class and social solidarity’ and the ‘crippling political conflicts over ethnic diversity’ that have ensured there is no longer any political agent capable of successful revolutionary change in Germany. So, the radical industrial proletariat no longer exists in the West.

But what about Die Linke’s former electoral stronghold – the Neue Bundesländer (new federal states) in the East?

III. A Turn to the East
Contrary to popular belief, the German Democratic Republic was anything but an economic failure. The East German economy was, of course, devastated by the splitting of the German economy and national currency in 1948. The supply chains of key industries such as vehicle and machinery manufacturing, as well as chemical industries, were disrupted by the split and currency reform (most of the raw materials that East German industry needed came from the Rhein and the Ruhr over in the BRD). Coal had to be replaced by energy-inefficient brown coal, the mining sector expanded rapidly (despite unfavourable conditions) and the GDR was forced to quickly develop its domestic heavy industry and energy sector. But as Erika Maier – the youngest academic ever appointed to the position of professor in the GDR – has argued, these setbacks did not stop economic growth. Despite the GDR’s economic false start, and its low productive capacity (only around a third of that of the West), the yearly average growth rate between 1950 and 1989 was a whopping 4.5 per cent, one of the highest in Europe, surpassing even that of the Wirtschaftswunderland(with its yearly average growth rate of 4.3 per cent).

Economic growth in the GDR relied in part on economic migrants from other socialist states. Since the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, the GDR was more focused on surveilling its citizens and preventing them from migrating to the West than actively encouraging immigration. But gaps in the labour market for low-skilled work meant that the GDR needed to attract more migrant workers: first from the Soviet Union; and later from Algeria, Cuba, Mozambique, Vietnam and Angola. (There were around 94,000 migrant workers in the GDR by 1989 and over 1000 businesses employed migrant labour.) Such workers were often employed for a limited period and their stay in the GDR depended on the length of their contract. When a contract ended, workers were sent back to their home countries. As one group of migrant workers left, new ones arrived, in a constant rotation. The official narrative of the SED (the governing Socialist Unity Party of Germany) was that migrant workers could come to the GDR to learn valuable skills that they could then use to support industrialisation in their nations. But this was a somewhat convenient excuse to ensure that the workers would not extend their stay.

Migrant workers in the GDR were often deployed to locations they could not choose and packed together in boarding houses. There was no real integration of migrant workers into the country’s social life, and linguistic barriers further complicated such matters. There were significant tensions between migrant workers and locals: in the 1980s there were over 8,600 racially motivated attacks in Saxony – the federal state that today boasts the AfD’s largest voter base. These tensions boiled over in the autumn of 1989, as migrant workers became scapegoats for disillusioned GDR citizens. Pretences of solidarity gave way to outright racism and xenophobia, as calls for German reunification and a break with the Völkerfreundschaft(friendship between peoples) grew louder. At the heart of the idea of unification, was also that of a coherent German Volk that harboured a strong ethnonationalist undertone. And many people voiced the same concern as would Aufstehen decades later: that migrant workers were undercutting domestic wages and taking up scarce resources belonging to native East Germans. So, as the political system of the GDR collapsed and hostility towards migrant workers grew, many of them finally did return to their ‘home countries’.

Such hostility was not the exclusive preserve of the East. In 1990, Oskar Lafontaine, then prime minister of Saarland and the SPD’s lead candidate for chancellor, caused an uproar with his response to 1400 Roma refugees from Romania arriving in the small town of Lebach in his native federal state. While Richard Dewes, the SPD’s refugee liaison in Lebach, tried to calm the small town’s population, his superior Lafontaine did little to quell escalating tensions. Instead, he insisted that asylum law must be ‘acceptable for the people’. Echoing the CDU line that borders should be closed to economic migrants and ‘Scheinasylanten’ (asylum swindlers), Lafontaine’s ‘reasonable left-wing’ concern for domestic workers sounded a lot like right-wing propaganda. By categorising migrant workers as ‘Fremdarbeiter’ (foreign or alien workers), he effectively excluded them from his conception of the working class, further aggravating tensions between refugees and migrant workers on the one hand, and, on the other, ‘Germans’. Over the years, Lafontaine continued to push this narrative, claiming racism to be the domestic working class’s natural response to increased immigration. In 2017, he argued that anyone who has crossed the German border illegally must be deported: a recurring demand of nationalist left of both East and West in the post-reunification period.

The first federal election in reunified Germany saw Lafontaine go up against the CDU’s Helmut Kohl. While Lafontaine’s campaign was overshadowed by an assassination attempt (he was stabbed in the neck but recovered quickly), there were other reasons why he delivered the SPD’s worst electoral results since 1957, with only 33.5 per cent of the votes. Lafontaine was a firm opponent of reunification, and warned that monetary reform in the East, which replaced the Ostmark with the West Germany Deutschmark at an exchange rate of 1:1, would lead to price inflation that could not be bolstered by currency appreciation. Karl-Otto Pöhl, then head of the Bundesbank, had made a similar argument, but was shut down by the Kohl government, and eventually resigned from his post. (Pöhl would once again be at the centre of currency reform years later as one of the main architects of the Euro).

Efforts to introduce the Deutschmark resulted in a surge in the CDU’s popularity among voters in the East, signalling hope for economic prosperity to come. Thus Kohl’s sixteen-year run as chancellor from 1982 to 1998 can partly be attributed to his role in the historic but hasty reunification of the BRD and the GDR. In 1990, he loudly proclaimed that a historic collaborative effort between East and West Germany could transform the states in the East into ‘blooming landscapes’. Of course, this was far from the truth. Just as Lafontaine and Pöhl had predicted there was a sharp rise in prices, and as the demand for goods produced in the East declined, both within the former German Democratic Republic and in Eastern Europe, the industrial sector struggled to adjust. Many businesses went bankrupt, and as contracts for imports and exports declined, work in the docks dried up. An emerging service sector could not bolster a sharp decline in industry – over 70 per cent of industrial jobs had vanished by the mid-1990s. A stark rise in unemployment followed.

This led to a mass exodus of East Germans to the more affluent West: between 1989 and 1990 alone, 800,000 people left the former GDR, and as many as 2,000 a day left the East in the January of 1990. An extensive study of German migration by Die Zeitshows that almost a quarter of the GDR population migrated to the West after reunification. Even increasing migration from the West could not halt the depopulation of many towns in the East. The sociologist Paul Windolf estimates that almost 80 per cent of all gainfully employed East Germans lost their jobs at the time, leading to widespread poverty, precarity and discontentment. Social infrastructure collapsed: schools, hospitals and leisure facilities were forced to close. According to another study conducted by the Emnid Institute, one of Germany’s first research institutes, more than a third of the polled adult population felt that ‘they were no longer needed in society’ after reunification.

The dire economic situation in the former GDR eventually led to the introduction of the Solidaritätszuschlag– a surcharge on income tax initially designed to recover some of the funds Germany had spent on the Second Gulf War, but which developed into a tax used to finance the economic reconstruction of the East. Yet this was not nearly enough to balance inequalities between West Germany and the Neue Bundesländerin the East.

The reunification of Germany also introduced into the Federal Republic the post-communist PDS, the Party of Democratic Socialism, to successor of the SED’s Socialist Unity Party of Germany. With Lothar Bisky and the brilliant rhetorician Gregor Gysi at the party’s helm, the PDS was determined to generate enthusiasm for socialist politics among the West German public. But West Germans, including those on the left, were unimpressed. Many had expected the PDS to undergo a complete transformation after unification; instead, it merely changed its name, while continuing to push its predecessors’ political line, alienating many West Germans. When the PDS was rejected by voters in the west, it chose instead to focus on building its base in the economically neglected east. One powerful advocate for a ‘return to the East’ was a young Sahra Wagenknecht, then a rising star in the Kommunistische Plattform, that faction within the PDS committed to revolutionary Marxism and the rethinking of communist ideas. It was in the east that the PDS found the support it had been looking for: the historic subject of the ‘left-behind left’, the mainly white working class in the
declining industrial towns.

It would take several more years for the West German left to finally warm to the idea of uniting with the PDS. When the coalition government of the SPD and the Greens introduced Agenda 2010, many finally had enough. In 2005, disappointed members of the left wing of the SPD and the radical sections of the unions split from the SPD to form the WASG, the Arbeit und Soziale Gerechtigkeit – Die Wahlalternative (Labour and Social Justice – The Electoral Alternative) and made an electoral pact with the PDS. This set the stage for the emergence of Die Linke – formerly Linkspartei.PDS – that heterogeneous, faction-ridden left-wing party. For all the heterogeneity within it, however, Die Linke is often still seen as a PDS-successor, and one that continues to push the politics of the PDS’ own predecessor, the SED. Though Die Linke is part of coalition governments in many federal states, including Thuringia, Hamburg and Berlin, the party has failed to firmly establish itself on the national level. And, more recently, it has struggled to hold on to voters in its traditional strongholds in the east, that are increasingly drifting rightwards. Or so the story goes.

IV. Local Patriotism and the Left-Behind Left
In fact, things are more complicated than they might seem. A Tagesspiegelanalysis of the 2019 elections in Thuringia shows that both Die Linke and the AfD took voters from the CDU. While both parties benefited significantly from an increase in voter turnout (from 52 to 65 per cent), the AfD secured 81,000 of the new votes and Die Linke only around 60,000. In the poll, voters were asked whether immigration – the central theme of the AfD campaign – played a significant role in their decisions. For many it did not: 82 per cent of the polled voters even claimed that the AfD had not done enough to distance itself from right-wing positions. However, 70 per cent of polled voters (and 86 per cent of AfD voters) felt that East Germans were still ‘second-class citizens’. In the end, the AfD did take 18,000 votes from Die Linke. But 40 per cent thought that their interests were still best represented by Die Linke; only 16 per cent thought this of the AfD. 

A poll from the 2020 Brandenburg and Saxony elections conducted by Die Zeitfurther shows that after the Greens, the AfD received the largest share of votes from eighteen- to twenty-nine-year olds. As in Thuringia, Die Linke lost the youth vote. The AfD’s main voter base in Brandenburg were male workers between thirty and fifty-nine. As in Thuringia, the main theme of the elections was not immigration; voters were concerned about Germany’s coal exit – the country plans to phase out coal power by 2038 – in Saxony, a state with a long history of coal production. In short, voters were concerned less with immigration and more with deindustrialisation.

It is too often claimed, as by Adam Tooze in the London Review of Books, that ‘xenophobia in Germany is strongly correlated with low levels of education’ and that the ‘entanglement of racism and social disadvantage is compounded by Germany’s divided history and the incomplete process of unification’. This is only a half-truth. As a study by the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung shows, the AfD voter base is composed primarily of civil servants, the self-employed and industrial workers (these three groups make up three quarters of the AfD vote, although there is little information on how large the percentage of industrial workers is) with average levels of formal education. The unemployed make up around a quarter of the party’s votes. A 2017 YouGov poll also confirmed that most AfD voters had average levels of formal education and were among the group of middle-income earners: 38 per cent of AfD voters earned between 1,500 and 3,000 euros per month and 25 per cent earned over 3,000 euros per month.

Tooze’s narrative – popular among liberal analysts – also fails to mention that racism is endemic in German society, not just among marginalised working-class voters in the east. Far-right terrorism has always been a somewhat tolerated presence in Germany: from the reluctant police response to the racist attacks that shook Rostock-Lichtenhagen in the summer of 1992, to the botched (at best) investigation into the NSU terror cell, the German state has displayed a shocking inability, or rather unwillingness, to prosecute the perpetrators of far-right violence. This should be no surprise. In a country where police officers and members of the Verfassungsschutz, an institution responsible for the protection of the German constitution, maintain close ties with the far-right organisations they are supposedly investigating, there is no doubt what sort of situation we find ourselves in: racism has once again become salonfähig– socially acceptable.

Systemic factors have eased or even encouraged the fostering of right-wing sentiment within the German police force. The disciplinary procedures against right-wing members of the police rarely lead to action; this is unsurprising considering a majority of the police force are male, white and conservative. Moreover, many civil servants, including police, teachers and soldiers, are members of the AfD. The chief police commissioner Martin Hess, for instance, is an AfD MP, and has openly stated that ‘the Greens and the Left are the political enemies of our police’. The German state clearly has a problem with far-right extremism. And this problem has rather little to do with social disadvantage or low levels of education.

In his polemic against cosmopolitanism in Die Zeit, Streeck draws on Theresa May’s slogan that ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’ to argue for ‘local patriotism’ as a strategy for radical politics today. ‘Local can mean many things’, he argues ‘but one thing it cannot mean is borderless, everywhere and everywhere the same’. In his conception of the local, he draws a strict line between inter- and intra-social relations, claiming that they express incompatible logics. Since local ethics, power dynamics and ways of life differ from place to place, a world government or global society could not reasonably be expected to introduce things such as a global tax or mandatory civil service. Moreover, he argues, our moral responsibilities are dependent on what we, as a society or community, can practically accomplish. In a paper titled Between Charity and Justicehe goes on to argue that allocating scarce resources to a goal that cannot be achieved is ‘not just futile but may be morally wrong as it foregoes the most effective alternatives’. If Germany cannot practically accommodate millions of refugees – for whatever reason – then it should not feel a responsibility to do so. For Streeck, at a certain point an ethics of global solidarity is futile; concerning oneself with the suffering of those outside of our own community only further undermines our sense of local solidarity.

For Streeck, a new culture war has taken the place of old class struggle, and the main contradiction is now between what he calls the ‘deregulation left’ and the ‘xenophobic right’ it has conjured up as its antagonist. Traditionally, he notes, ‘the left favoured regulation as a defence against the uncertainties of the free market, whereas deregulation was sought by the Right, especially since “globalisation”’. The deregulation of national borders only allows for open-ended immigration which, according to him, effectively undoes the work that labour movements have done in restricting the supply of labour, and limiting competition in labour markets. The social base of the xenophobic right are the workers and lower middle class who used to be the pro-regulation left’s social base –that is, those calling for stricter controls on immigration and labour mobility. As the terrain has shifted, the left has abandoned its ‘traditional reliance on a democratic state as a political instrument of social justice’. Such ‘anti-statism’, he argues, is then disguised as a moral duty, necessitated by our collective humanitarian values – our new ‘civil religion’. This has had lasting political effects; most notably the political division between a vocal middle-class left and a silent working-class left.

He follows up his argument with several clichés about crime, Parallelgesellschaften(ethnic enclaves), ‘Mafiosi families’ and the recruitment of second- or third-generation immigrants by terrorist groups, which have little do with the number of immigrants, but a lot to do with how immigrants are treated by the host nation. Most perplexing are his statements such as the following:

As immigrant children crowd inner-city public schools, ‘white’ parents, especially of the educated middle class and regardless of how welcoming they may be, will always find ways to send their children to schools where they learn the national language properly. Similar developments are under way in housing markets, with ‘white flight’ from areas where immigrants cluster. The result may be another line of conflict, between ‘nativist’ defenders of what they consider their old rights to material support and cultural comfort, and the advocates, in politics and the liberal public, of new and sometimes, at least for the time being, superior rights for the victims of war and persecution.

Instead of analysing the role that the German state plays in intensifying extremism, war and persecution – Islamophobia among the German public, military deployments in the Middle East or German weapons exports that have destabilised the ‘home’ countries of refugees – Streeck evokes a notion of the capitalist state as a neutral and democratic instrument that can be used to protect the domestic working and middle class from migrants. This is a far cry from any left politics worthy of the name.

Wagenknecht, in her book Reichtum ohne Gier(Wealth without Greed), argues that establishment elites have neglected the middle class, effectively ‘downgrading’ it. This concern with the middle class – who as Thomas Groes has pointed out are the bastion of neoliberalism – is surprising coming from a supposedly left or even socialist political movement.

In Germany’s Hidden Crisis, Oliver Nachtwey points to a possible explanation for Aufstehen’s obsession with the downward mobility of the German middle class. According to Nachtwey:

In recent years Germany has seen a lively discussion on the middle class, provoked by the discovery of its shrinkage. In post-war Germany, this middle class was always more than a social datum. It was (and still is) seen in public debate as an anchor of stability, a reference point of social normality, an element of integration and, not least, a sign of social permeability and ascent. It is thus not surprising that German society views itself as a society of the middle.

Nachtwey points out that there are an increasing number of skilled employees and workers among this shrinking middle class, and that it is highly reliant on the institutional protection of the welfare state to secure its social status. Since this middle class ‘cannot rely on the security of property or wealth’, there is a widespread fear of downward mobility owing to a rise of precarious labour conditions due to deregulation and privatisation. But this class has also sought to protect its privileges by shutting itself off from lower classes and ‘abandoning solidarity with the weak’. Prejudices about laziness, lack of education, crime – that Streeck and Aufstehen frequently echo – serve to bolster the status anxiety felt by this middle class, resulting in ‘increased fears of [cultural] contamination and infection’ and a rejection of diversity.

When we consider the makeup of the AfD voters and the emergence of the precarious middle class it is increasingly clear who is part of Aufstehen’s conception of the working class, and who is not. Streeck and Wagenknecht, for instance, refuse to acknowledge hierarchies within the workplace between permanent staff (the precarious middle class) and mostly migrant agency workers. As Nachtwey points out, low-paid migrant agency workers are often ‘employed in the service sector, call centres, the food industry, cleaning and care work, and the retail trade’. Those most affected by privatisation and labour market deregulation then, are women and migrant workers – the working poor who are often paid ‘wages scarcely enough for living expenses’. And, of course, the unemployed. But they seem to have no place in Aufstehen’s
outdated and homogenous conception of the working class.

Aufstehen seems to have a blind spot for the ‘invisible’ migrant workers that effectively keep the German economy going:

hundreds of thousands of workers from Poland, Romania, Bosnia or Bulgaria and other Eastern European states that come to Germany every year. These workers don’t drive down domestic wages; on the contrary, they fill gaps in the labour market in sectors that many ‘Germans’ are unwilling or unable to fill. As German borders closed in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we could once again see who these essential workers from Eastern Europe are, and what they contribute to German society. April and May are usually the main seasons for the asparagus harvest, which relies heavily on such migrant labour to harvest 122,000 tons of asparagus annually, on over 1,600 farms. With borders closed and many self-isolating, 1,800 workers were flown in from Romania to ensure that German farmers wouldn’t lose out on their harvest. German farmers and agribusiness rely on the use of such seasonal migrant labour. But these migrant workers are excluded from Aufstehen’s conception of the working class; portrayed as a nuisance to the effective functioning of the welfare state.

In his essay ‘Notes on Late Fascism’, Alberto Toscano argues that in their current incarnation, the right-wing nationalist projects of the Global North are ‘driven by a nostalgia from synchronicity’, for that elusive post-war moment, of, in the German case, the Wirtschaftswunder, a depoliticised era of unprecedented economic growth and social stability that relies on a ‘racialised and gendered image of the socially-recognised patriotic industrial worker’. Left-nationalist attempts at reviving the image of the left-behind left, the neglected white industrial worker, only intensify racism and nationalism by repeating the myths of right-wing propaganda. One cannot simply posit the existence of a political subject without reference to political-economic realities. To argue that there is a working class (or a left-behind left) as Streeck and Aufstehen do, that needs to be won away from the lures of fascism, is to again assume the false totality (or existence) of a homogenous class agent in Germany. Instead, we should ask ourselves, as Sandro Mezzadra and Mario Neumann do, are such left-nationalist strategies just the result of the Left’s inability to develop transnational alternatives capable of addressing the realities of globalised capitalism?

IV. The Welfare State at Others’ Expense
When the tailings dam of the German iron-ore mine at the Samarco Mariana Mining complex in south-eastern Brazil collapsed on 5 November 2015, it unleashed a wave of waste and sediment into the Rio Doce, contaminating the water supply of over 250,000 people and leading to one of the country’s biggest-ever environmental disasters. Brazil is the third largest iron-ore producer in the world behind China and Australia, to which industry the previously state-owned mining company Vale (the Companhia Vale do Rio Doce was privatised in 1997) contributes significantly. Next to the British-Australian Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, Vale is one of the three largest mining companies in the world, accounting for over 35 per cent of global iron-ore exports. At the time of the dam collapse, the Mariana mine was owned by Vale and BHP Billiton, through the subsidiary Samarco. The media, of course, described the catastrophic events as a ‘natural disaster’. But for those working on or living close to the mine, this was anything but: rather it was symptomatic of a world system that relies on the externalisation of environmental destruction, and the extraction of resources and labour in the Global South by multinational corporations for its own reproduction.

This disaster is the starting point for Stephan Lessenich’s book Living Well at Others’ Expense, a necessary corrective to Aufstehen’s narrow perspective on the current conjuncture. Lessenich argues that we in the Global North are complicit in the misery caused by resource-extraction and resulting environmental disasters in the periphery. A world system of ‘externalisation’ – structured around arms-length production processes (global labour arbitrage) and the externalisation of environmental degradation – enables the reproduction of societies in the North at the expense of those living in the South. Further:

Behind the continued political impulse to ignore what is happening globally is clearly the sheer anxiety that it could sometime affect our untroubled prosperity. This anxiety is understandable – and it is not just a question of ‘German angst’, but a phenomenon that rightly affects all of Europe, and in fact the entire Global North. Throughout the wealthy countries of the Global North, the unacknowledged basis for their traditional prosperity model is beginning to crumble. Questions are being asked about the growth contract that gave them, and only them, the ‘best of all worlds’ in the second half of the twentieth century: a world of material security and widespread social advancement, a protected environment and pacified class relations; a life that is not available equally to every citizen in these societies, but one that, as such, is unimaginable for those in other parts of the world. For the globally better-off, in turn, the unspoken social contract contained the decisive additional clause that the worst ‘collateral growth damage’ should be passed on to others and kept at a distance.

While the costs of our model of social and economic progress are becoming more difficult to overlook (one need only consider how a looming climate breakdown also affects the rich nations, or the number of refugees entering Germany from states most severely affected by imperialism), closing our eyes to the realities of imperialism can still be a way to win votes. As in different ways both Aufstehen and the AfD show, pitting the victims of imperialism against a mythical white ‘left-behind’ working class is still a go-to political strategy in the Global North, especially in Germany.

Political economist Samir Amin has proposed that nations in the Global South should ‘delink’ (a concept most clearly articulated by Amin and fellow Marxist anti-imperialist Prabhat Patnaik) from the logic of global capitalism, each country submitting ‘external relations [to internal requirements], the opposite of the internal adjustment of the peripheries to the demands of the worldwide expansion of capital’. For Amin, this is the only realistic alternative since the current world system cannot be reformed. But only genuine revolutions and socialist planning on a national or regional scale can lead to successful ‘delinking’. When asked in an interview with Frontlineabout his opinion on such a strategy of ‘delinking’ from neoliberal capitalism, Streeck responds that we must aim to return as much control to local political communities as possible, and that it is crucial to end ‘the dictatorship of international organisations like the World Bank or of multinational corporations over local economic development’. Only then, he argues, will we see the fruits of experiments that can ‘grow an alternative to capitalism’.

This is all well and good. But the strategy of delinking is inseparable from a specific understanding of how neocolonialism maintains the Global North’s political and economic domination over nations in the South. The concept of neocolonialism also pushes back against the idea of an international capitalist class that is not tied to loyalties of the nation state. In the neocolonial context, Andy Higginbottom argues, ‘imperialism works indirectly through an alliance with national elites’ of the oppressed state ‘who have captured their national state and thrown their lot into voluntary self-enriching pact with the global system’. In its essence this global system of neoliberal financialised capitalism is a mechanism of imperialism, and deeply entangled with nation states in the Global North. The point is that nations in the centre have a fundamentally different relationship to capital than do those in the periphery. Streeck and Aufstehen completely ignore this economic and political essence of imperialism and fail to realise how monopoly profits are used to build an alliance between certain sections of the national working class in the centre and imperialist capital.

Streeck, however, is convinced that increased immigration has led to a situation in which ‘sweated labour competes with workers in countries with historically strong labour protections’ causing a surge in unemployment in the developed nations of the Global North. Global mobility thus only leads to an undercutting of local wages, as ‘unwilling local workers’ are replaced with ‘willing immigrant ones’. In the same interview, he expands on this point to argue that unregulated immigration inevitably leads to a ‘huge low-wage labour supply in rich countries with very little social and legal protection for employment in the restaurant industry, at Amazon distribution centres, as delivery men and women’. But since the working class is ‘effectively international without being able to become organised at this level, and capital is so internationalised that it can no longer be forced into national compromises’, we must await capitalism’s impending demise, and resort to policies that curb the worst effects of neoliberal financialised capitalism within the nations at the core of the world system.

This argument about the undercutting of domestic wages seems utterly bizarre when we consider, for example, just how much the German state benefits from super-exploited labour in the periphery. As Tony Norfield’s study of the sale of H&M t-shirts in Germany shows, ‘a large chunk of the revenue from the selling price goes to the state in taxes and to a wide range of workers, executives, landlords, and businesses in Germany. The cheap t-shirts, and a wide range of other imported goods, are both affordable for consumers and an important source of income for the state and for all the people in the richer countries’. Therefore, the ‘oppression of workers in the poorer countries is a direct economic benefit for the mass of the people’ in the Global North. Far from undercutting the wages of the domestic working class, as Streeck argues, super-exploited labour in the periphery makes the possible the reproduction of workers in the centre in the first place.

In an article for Spectre, Justin Akers Chacón outlines the concept of ‘bordered capitalism’, explaining that ‘migration and border controls are features of an imperialist framework, which facilitates the ability of … capital to exploit labour on an international scale’. While capital moves freely, workers do not. ‘Borders exist only for labour’. Aufstehen’s claim that globalisation has reduced the power and privilege of working-class movements in the Global North by putting them in competition with a low-wage global labour force completely ignores the reliance of US, European and Japanese transnational corporations on surplus value from low-wage countries. Or that immigration controls are a prerequisite for the super-exploitation of labour in the Global South by imperialist capital, which in turn enables the reproduction of the welfare state in the Global North. And that consequently, to quote Lessenich again, our ‘civil rights achievements must be seen in light (or shadow) of their exclusiveness, defended if necessary by armed force’; a thesis that finds its ultimate verification in the militarised border controls currently exercised in Greece.

Instead, in true ‘populist’ fashion, Aufstehen attempted to pit ‘the people’ against the Merkel government, financial capitalism, radical Islam and the naïve bourgeois leftists in Germany’s major cities, by positing a zero-sum relationship between economic migration and social welfare; between identity politics (understood as a product of neoliberalism) and an authentically left-wing redistributive politics. Far from providing an alternative to the far right, left nationalist movements of the Global North, such as Aufstehen, ultimately validate their propaganda, tacitly reproducing a racist and imperialist status quo. Fascism has its roots in colonialism. And today’s fascism cannot be understood without reference to imperialism. But this was not Aufstehen’s concern. In the end, they fell back on that exhausted mantra of the German left: social democracy at home and imperialism abroad. No longer a sure way to win an election.

Kevin Ochieng Okoth is an independent writer and researcher living in London. He writes on imperialism and twentieth-century anti-colonial struggles.