by Gregory Barrett, September 25, 2017
Following Sunday’s nationwide parliamentary election here in Germany I can hear the mocking laughter of 1989’s ghost, echoing throughout Europe and around the world. The great victory march of the “Free Market” Religion, which featured pompous, self-righteous politicians, pundits, and other worshippers at the altar of Big Finance strutting and crowing in the years following the fall of the Wall about the final demise and alleged failure of the supposedly evil and misguided socialist idea, has come to a grinding halt.
The rapid growth of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany – which received almost 13% of the vote and will now be the third biggest party in the new Bundestag or parliament — has been driven, above all, by widespread rage and frustration in Germany’s Eastern states, the former communist German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, DDR), over the broken promises made at the time of German reunification regarding “blooming landscapes” (former Chancellor Helmut Kohl) and the associated affluence that was to be expected there within a few years, if the people there would only discard the socialist ideal and rush to the protective bosom of the West. They rushed — delirious with dreams of trading their funny little two-cylinder Trabant cars for big powerful Mercedes, and being able to buy the scarce luxury good, bananas, every day of the week. They were promised that raising their standard of living to that of their fellow Germans in the West would be the country’s top priority.
Almost 30 years later, that has not happened. There is widespread nostalgia in the Eastern states for the DDR and the modest but stable and generally stress-free life that most citizens there led, free from the threat of losing their dwellings or their jobs. And the same is true in the other Eastern European nations which joined the European Union and NATO after 1989.
As Stephen Gowans writes in his recent essay “We Lived Better Then”:
‘Of course, none of the great promises of the counter-revolution were kept. While at the time the demise of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was proclaimed as a great victory for humanity, not least by leftist intellectuals in the United States, two decades later there’s little to celebrate. The dismantling of socialism has, in a word, been a catastrophe, a great swindle that has not only delivered none of what it promised, but has wreaked irreparable harm, not only in the former socialist countries, but throughout the Western world, as well. Countless millions have been plunged deep into poverty, imperialism has been given a free hand, and wages and benefits in the West have bowed under the pressure of intensified competition for jobs and industry unleashed by a flood of jobless from the former socialist countries, where joblessness once, rightly, was considered an obscenity. Numberless voices in Russia, Romania, East Germany and elsewhere lament what has been stolen from them — and from humanity as a whole: “We lived better under communism. We had jobs. We had security.” And with the threat of jobs migrating to low-wage, high unemployment countries of Eastern Europe, workers in Western Europe have been forced to accept a longer working day, lower pay, and degraded benefits. Today, they fight a desperate rearguard action, where the victories are few, the defeats many. They too lived better — once.’
While the often racist and xenophobic manner in which East Germans and Eastern Europeans express their anger at what they see as an influx of foreigners who go to the front of the line for Western largesse — while the 30-year betrayal of the promises and misleading propaganda directed at themselves from 1989 to 1991 continues, although unacknowledged — is ugly and despicable, it is not hard to understand in its historical context. Somehow the assurances of the good life for all, thanks to the benevolent “invisible hand of the free market”, and the forecasts of blooming landscapes of prosperity across Eastern Europe, have failed to materialize. After more than a quarter of a century, prosperous areas exist but are exceedingly rare. In East Germany many small towns and villages are dying, and the population is shrinking as many follow the jobs westward, since few major employers have chosen to come eastward to them. Unemployment is much higher than in West Germany, and the cultural divisions between the citizens of the old DDR and West Germans have proven very stubborn and difficult to overcome. But the damage has not been confined to those in the formerly socialist countries. As Stephen Gowans points out:
‘But that’s only part of the story. For others, for investors and corporations, who’ve found new markets and opportunities for profitable investment, and can reap the benefits of the lower labor costs that attend intensified competition for jobs, the overthrow of socialism has, indeed, been something to celebrate. Equally, it has been welcomed by the landowning and industrial elite of the pre-socialist regimes whose estates and industrial concerns have been recovered and privatized. But they’re a minority. Why should the rest of us celebrate our own mugging?
‘Prior to the dismantling of socialism, most people in the world were protected from the vicissitudes of the global capitalist market by central planning and high tariff barriers. But once socialism fell in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and with China having marched resolutely down the capitalist road, the pool of unprotected labor available to transnational corporations expanded many times over. Today, a world labor force many times larger than the domestic pool of US workers — and willing to work dirt cheap — awaits the world’s corporations. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out what the implications are for North American workers and their counterparts in Western Europe and Japan: an intense competition of all against all for jobs and industry. Inevitably, incomes fall, benefits are eroded, and working hours extended. Predictably, with labor costs tumbling, profits grow fat, capital surpluses accumulate and create bubbles, financial crises erupt and predatory wars to secure investment opportunities break out. Growing competition for jobs and industry has forced workers in Western Europe to accept less. They work longer hours, and in some cases, for less pay and without increases in benefits, to keep jobs from moving to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other former socialist countries — which, under the rule of the Reds, once provided jobs for all. More work for less money is a pleasing outcome for the corporate class, and turns out to be exactly the outcome fascists engineered for their countries’ capitalists in the 1930s. The methods, to be sure, were different, but the anti-Communism of Mussolini and Hitler, in other hands, has proved just as useful in securing the same retrograde ends. Nobody who is subject to the vagaries of the labor market – almost all of us — should be glad Communism was abolished.’
This is the big picture, which is missing utterly from the political analysis in the “Extreme Center” which governs the West at the behest of the Finance Markets through neoliberal economic policy, and controls its corporate and government media. Pointing out the reality of this massive failure which has followed the much-lauded so-called historic victory of the capitalist model is taboo, as is the admission that the United States bears a huge share of the responsibility for the rapid expansion of the influx into Europe by refugees and economic migrants, a great many of whom are fleeing US-NATO war zones or their aftermath (see my recent article “Taboo Subject in NATO Media: Refugees, America’s Gift to Europe”) in nations including Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia. It is far easier to blame the rise of right-wing nationalism on ignorant racists who are so impatient as not to understand that blooming landscapes don’t spring up overnight, or that equality is an antiquated socialist concept which these “losers” will simply have to outgrow. In the USA, it’s a bit more complicated to deflect responsibility for the outbreak of unrepentant racism since, by and large, the malcontents have always been there, and are simply the economic rejects in a system returning rapidly to the Social Darwinism which held sway in the “land of the free” before World War II.
One of the main subjects among the few issues that dominated the relentlessly self-obsessed and sleep-inducing campaign which preceded the German election was INNERE SICHERHEIT (“Internal Safety” or “Security”). For conservatives and those who swallow racist propaganda – either the openly racist hysterical stuff spread by neo-Nazis and the AfD, or the more subtly suggestive xenophobic variety used by Angela Merkel’s Christian conservatives to try to appeal to their own substantial number of anti-immigration and racist voters – this is understood to mean safety from crimes committed by dangerous foreigners, refugees and other criminals, whether real or imagined. There has been a small but increasing number of crimes committed by refugees here, and nearly every one of them receives extensive media coverage, while the far greater number of attacks on foreigners by neo-Nazis, skinheads and other racist thugs is rarely mentioned in the official media. However, the big-picture problems with the Orwellian linguistic and political fog conjured up by any deeper focus on this approach to the idea of “security” are, predictably, myriad. The Extreme Center promoted this fear of crime during the German election campaign while simultaneously refusing to address or even mention the true sources of growing danger and instability in Europe and elsewhere: the US-NATO destabilization of the Middle East through wars of “regime change” and the upward spiral of terrorism and refugee displacement that decades of intervention have produced, largely with the EU’s support or obedient subservience; the reduced economic security of many even in economically booming Germany, thanks to reforms and cuts to the social system begun several years ago, similar to those now being undertaken in France by Macron, in the name of “economic competitiveness”, and resembling on a smaller scale austerity government in the UK under the Tories which has produced increasing political chaos there too — reforms and social cutbacks which are now producing growing old-age poverty and other forms of economic hardship; the drain on Western economies produced by growing military expenditures, largely associated with the New Cold War being pushed by US neocons and put in high gear by Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s support for the coup in Ukraine, which has provoked major tensions with Russia, and sanctions which the EU has pathetically felt compelled to support against its own self-interest; the growing societal fears and unease stemming from the knowledge (or in some sectors of society a less conscious osmotic absorption of the associated psychic stress) that major environmental disaster looms as an ever more likely reality, which beneath the happy-face of reassuring public pronouncements and the ridiculous fig leaf of the Paris Accords is not being addressed in any meaningful way. The response of many Germans and other citizens of the European Union to the faux threats, which they are encouraged to think of as coming from somewhere outside of Europe, is to try to wall off their still comparatively comfortable and affluent part of the world. For many, this goes hand in hand with nationalism, since support for the transnational EU has never been enthusiastic among large segments of the European population, and recent EU infighting around issues of refugees and austerity have reinforced or inflamed anti-EU sentiment.
Merkel’s election posters featured a close-up (years old) of her smiling face with a caption about voting for a country “in which we live well and gladly”. In essence, that was her campaign message: the economy is doing very well (no mention of those who are not sharing in the bounty), and after 12 years in office much of the credit must go to her – although in fact the reforms which lowered the unemployment rate and pumped up the profit margin were initiated by the previous Chancellor’s government of Social Democrats and Greens. After a total of eight years as her junior coalition partner, during which she has characteristically claimed and received credit for many Social Democratic policies both positive and (from the standpoint of those of us on the Left) negative, the Social Democrats have now been slaughtered at the polls, retaining only 20% of the vote, and have declared that they are no longer available as coalition partners. But it is probably too late to save Europe’s Social Democratic heritage, which is now crumbling in every European country except the UK, where Jeremy Corbyn has had the courage to return to truly socialist policies. Germany now faces a more fractured landscape of political parties, more like those in countries including The Netherlands and Belgium, which have been unable to form new governments for many months following elections. And, as in many other European countries, it will now attempt to fight a far-right party fed by racism and xenophobia, sounding the alarm that this party is a “Danger to Democracy” – although that party was founded, organized and became successful through the democratic process – while refusing to acknowledge the fact that the ruling conservatives are trying to win back those racists and xenophobes by moving closer to them politically. Although Merkel continues to verbally defend her refugee policies of 2015, in fact she has altered those policies in a 180-degree reversal over two years, to maintain the support of her own party and prevent further defections.
The changes were successful enough to keep her in the Chancellor’s office, but her support has fallen lower than ever, and 13% of the voters refused to forgive and forget what they see as her betrayal. Heralded by the increasingly clueless New York Times and other desperate Trumped-out presstitutes as the “New Leader of the Free World” – wherever that might be! – she will now enter extremely challenging coalition negotiations with the Green Party and others feeling herself to be, at least here in Germany, on much shakier ground.
Gregory Barrett is a translator and musician living in Germany.