The German bourgeoisie’s instinct for power

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Germany - once again exception, once again world champion?

The whole world is threatened by a new kind of pandemic: the new giant China initially tried to hide it, and then mobilised the power of its dictatorial, state capitalist machine; then it hit countries at the historic heart of capitalism: Italy, Spain, France and Great Britain. The pandemic knows no borders and surprises completely unprepared countries; almost 200,000 people have died (at the time of writing this article); the health apparatus is collapsing in several regions. Currently, the crumbling world power of the defunct era of the Cold War, the USA, is being shaken[1]. And Germany? After the authorities were similarly unprepared and hesitant in the first phase, they then proceeded more forcefully and left the international impression that they were more effective in combating and managing the pandemic, and, apart from South Korea, appear almost as a successful exception.[2] The availability and utilisation of intensive care beds and the rate of deaths (which had topped the 5,000 mark at the time of writing this article) are cited in particular as indicators.

Why is Germany just barely scraping by in the face of a potentially catastrophic situation for all countries?

The creeping capitalisation of the health and care sector

As in Italy, Spain, France or Great Britain, the health and care sector in Germany has been restructured in recent years in a determined manner, partly privatised, with costs being ruthlessly kept down.[3] Hospitals, for example, became pure "investment opportunities" for hedge funds, from which the highest possible return was expected. In fact, Germany was a pioneer in this kind of restructuring. The simultaneous restructuring - and thus the cuts - in the social sector (Agenda 2010, Hartz IV) but also the restructuring of former state enterprises (Deutsche Post, Telekom, Deutsche Bahn etc.) laid the foundations for Germany, backed by its industrial strength and export capacity, to make substantial profits by international standards over the past 15 years, bucking the trend of the worsening crisis.

If we now take a closer look at the health and care sector, we find that 37% of hospitals have already been privatised. But what is more important is that the management of the hospitals has been very heavily submitted to the laws of the capitalist economy for all the funding bodies (including the public and church authorities). This applies, for example, to the rationalisation of work processes, the settlement of accounts with health insurance companies and the closure of hospitals. Whereas there were 2263 hospitals in Germany in 1998, these have been reduced from 2007 to 2087 and in 2017 to 1942 hospitals. Accordingly, the number of hospital beds was reduced by around 10,000 within ten years, from 506,954 (2007) to 497,200 (2017). Despite increased labour intensity, nursing staff has been reduced since 1993.[4]

A similar trend can be seen in nursing homes, with a simultaneous ageing of the population. The exploitation of nursing and health care personnel has increased massively. Already in 2016 it was predicted that in 2025 there would be a shortage of between 100,000 and 200,000 trained nursing staff, and at the same time the attractiveness of the nursing profession has declined due to the unbearable working conditions[5] . The length of time people stay in the profession of nursing for the elderly is just 8 years. The various international recruitment attempts are unable to entice staff to go and work in the country where milk and honey flows.[6] In other words, people leave and change professions as soon as possible, since, among other things, shift work, changed work schedules at short notice and, in particular, the confrontation with inhumane working conditions are things that nobody can stand for long.

The capitalist reality in the health factories was structurally inhuman even before the pandemic in Germany. The hospitals are supposed to patch up the sick workers for further use and disgorge them as quickly as possible. The poorly paid personnel, who were subject to a strict work regime, had to be recruited from the low-wage areas.

As in the economy as a whole, where an ever higher proportion of machines is used (an ever higher organic composition of capital), the proportion of "apparatus medicine" has also steadily increased in the field of medicine. Medical technology produces increasingly expensive and technically complicated medical equipment, which is used in health factories and has to generate profit, but can only be operated by highly trained specialists. These new apparatuses and new technologies can offer a huge advance in the field of diagnosis and treatment, but because of the enormous costs of acquisition, maintenance and operation involved, they accentuate the need to "channel" more and more patients in order to have the highest return on the equipment, pay the staff and finally make a profit.

At the same time, medicine in the 21st century has not been able to shake off the old scourge of illness (and death) in hospitals due to lack of hygiene, from which most hospital patients died in the 19th century before the introduction of modern hygiene techniques. According to the Robert Koch Institute, it is estimated that up to 20,000 people die each year from hospital germs caused by an estimated 600,000 hospital infections each year.[7]

Ultimately, this means, on the one hand, that the patients only appear as "customers" in the health care business, to whom one tries to sell as much "service" as possible, and the employees are squeezed like lemons to push the accumulation of value in the health care industry to the highest possible level. The patient faces the carer for whom he becomes a commodity, the social relationship becomes a service, the work process is subject to enormous time pressure and compulsion. This perversion describes very well what Marx analysed as objectification, dehumanisation and exploitation. The actual purpose of the activity (the use value), the healing and/or care of people almost completely disappears. The fixation of under-cared-for people in nursing homes, the general neglect caused, among other things, by understaffing, blatant abuses that go unrecognized for a long time[8] , the questioning or refusal of certain operations for the elderly are expressions of this structural inhumanity, which is only broken up by the proletarian solidarity and sacrifice of individual care workers in the face of this daily and structural dehumanisation and objectification. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, the social contradictions of a rotting system in health factories had already appeared very starkly.

Political ignorance and lack of preparation for pandemics

Medical historians and epidemiologists have long warned that the danger of worldwide pandemics is increasing. In addition, the living conditions under capitalism reinforce the negative and destructive forces of such pandemics: the destruction of natural habitats for wild animals, their sale and consumption without proper veterinary controls, the industrialisation of agriculture and in particular of animal husbandry[9] , urbanisation, which mainly takes the form of "slumisation" etc. reinforce the tendency of viruses to cross species boundaries[10] .

In anticipation of such pandemics, investigations, business simulations and emergency drills were carried out worldwide, including Germany 2012, where an "extraordinary epidemic event" was played out: "Anti-epidemic measures, phase-oriented recommendations for action, crisis communication, official measures, assessment of the effects on the forementioned objects of protection, monitoring the development of the spread and the number of new cases of the disease, etc.". etc. etc. "[11] If we observe the first weeks of the response to the crisis, and if we take all the indications of a severe lack of available protective equipment, emergency capacities, personnel etc. together, we can only see this as an irresponsible reaction by the political class. Hospital beds, personnel, infrastructure, equipment have been cut in many areas instead of being built up preventively. A male nurse from Berlin reports about the use of self-made protective clothing[12], several Berlin hospitals write a joint appeal, the Berlin hospital association asked volunteers to sew masks, nursing workers who complain are confronted with repression ... [13]

In Germany, too, we see the destructive nature of capitalism, which already kills under normal circumstances and now, in the face of a worldwide pandemic, refuses to do what is scientifically possible. This is causing outrage among the workers in the front line: many reject the false praise of politicians and the symbolic applause. In Mittelbaden, the first nurses are said to have quit their jobs due to the lack of protective equipment[14], in Brandenburg, protective clothing was demanded in an open letter at the beginning of April and the situation was clearly analysed: "Our hospitals became factories and health became a commodity "[15]. It may be surprising that the mortality rate in Germany is still much lower than in Italy, Spain and France[16].

The mobilisation of the German bourgeoisie

There are many factors that must be taken into account in the particular course of the pandemic in Germany. For example, one can even speak of some fortunate circumstances, to a certain extent, because the first cases could still be localised immediately and thus quickly isolated. Secondly, a large wave initially affected mainly young and sporty skiers; thirdly, the family structure in Germany is different from that in Italy and Spain, where many grandparents live close to their children and grandchildren; and fourthly, despite all the savings and restructuring, the health system is still much better equipped than in other European countries[17] and even worldwide.

The decisive factor, however, is the ability of the German bourgeoisie to mobilise much more strongly and cohesively after the first weeks of disorientation than in other countries. Germany, as the motor of the EU, still has a stable economy. Its political class is not free from the disintegrating tendencies in world capitalism, and from the urge to behave irresponsibly, which is becoming more and more widespread[18] , but populism here, for example, unlike in almost all other European countries (and the USA), has not yet eroded the political apparatus. And, as a further central factor in the ability of the ruling class to mobilise itself, the particularly strong role of the trade unions in Germany must be emphasised. Although difficulties in global supply chains (especially the links with China and then Italy) had made the German automotive industry aware of the effects of the corona virus at an early stage, it took a wake-up call from the Chairman of the Works Council, Bernd Osterloh, to close down VW's plants as early as March 17 (before the official political shutdown by the German government!)[19] . VW, with its historically close amalgamation of State-Länder and capital (the Volkswagen of the National Socialist system), is virtually a leading company, virtually a representative of the avant-garde of German state capitalism.

After the Second World War, this role was strengthened and further developed through the close involvement of the IGM. While on March 17th the assembly lines were still running at BMW, and Porsche and Daimler had only planned a break for a few days (to allow for the care of children), the IGM via VW set the trend. Unlike in other European countries (or even the USA), where national capital, despite medical knowledge, ordered the workers to the assembly line under life-threatening conditions, thus provoking strikes (see our articles on this subject), the German bourgeoisie, with the help of the unions and in agreement with its state apparatus, demonstrated its instinct for power. The sophisticated "social partnership system" between trade unions and capital to control the working class, to strengthen national capital and Germany’s world role appears as a game of give and take. The collective bargaining conflict which would have been on the agenda in the metal and electrical industry on 31 March (including possible warning strikes) was called off in the face of the crisis in the collective bargaining district of North Rhine-Westphalia by an emergency agreement without any wage increase (after years of boom)[20]. This emergency agreement was immediately adopted by other districts.

After a short phase of political negligence and lack of planning[21] , the bourgeoisie has again demonstrated this partly reduced but still economic strength and political power instinct. This allowed political decisions to be made which were by no means marked by concern for the health of the workers per se, but rather by a long-term strategy of maintaining power and continuity of the capitalist production process. For the capitalists, it is a question of calculation: either a workforce contaminated by the pandemic and therefore sick for a long time, with much higher health costs, or a controlled reduction in production and cessation of economic activities as an "economically" more favourable option.

First, the sober natural scientist Angela Merkel gathered a scientific team from the Robert Koch Institute around her and had a strategy[22] for action drawn up, which she announced on 18 March[23] in a television address: lockdown and social distancing. Germany, the world's leading exporter, closed almost all business with the public (excluding grocery stores, pharmacies, drugstores, etc.). In close coordination with the trade unions, the entire automobile industry was shut down[24] , setting the course for other sectors. Schools, universities and kindergartens were closed. This shock measure was flanked by a mobilisation of the state-capitalist money bazooka, at the centre of which was the tried and tested means of short-time work[25] , accompanied by countless municipal and federal variations of emergency money. On 20 March, a supplementary budget of 150 billion euros was adopted, to which several billion euros were added from state and EU funds. It is assumed that a total of 750 billion euros will be spent as  emergency money, and new subsidies for other ailing industries are announced daily.[26] What is now perceived as an immediate "rescue" from redundancy etc. will sooner or later lead to the most violent attacks in various forms, for which the working class in particular will have to pay. It will be left to a later article to analyse the catastrophic consequences of this growing mountain of debt.

The military is involved in all this: for example, a hospital for 1,000 beds was to be built in Berlin within a month with the support of the Bundeswehr; the Minister of Defence AKK reports an increasing number of requests for administrative assistance by the army and brings the mobilisation of reservists into play. This mobilisation of the military cannot be compared quantitatively in any way with that in France. In Germany any war rhetoric was completely missing; nevertheless the creeping strengthening of the military and its medical utilization is [27] remarkable given the background of German history. All in all, the measures should send out the signal: "we'll do anything for you" and at the same time, Germany has renounced draconian curfews and contact restrictions as for example in Spain, Italy, or France, thus rallying the population behind its government[28].

This shows that the German bourgeoisie, in comparison with other leading states in world capitalism, is still able to act skilfully and has not lost its political intelligence. This is the only explanation for the fact that a study classifies German crisis management as the world leader.[29] This political intelligence of the German bourgeoisie is based on its historical success in fending off the revolutionary onslaught in Germany of 1918/19, albeit with much blood. The counterrevolutionary elements active at that time, consisting of trade unions, social democracy (majority and Independent), the Free Corps and big capitalists, have 'grown together' in a solid state-capitalist block 100 years down the line. This is the historical background to the German bourgeoisie’s pronounced instinct for power.

Today, this is expressed in an apparently greater consideration for the health of the workers, which is not, however, based on a greater "humanity", but on the one hand on the concern for the best possible, most cost-effective preservation of the workforce, but also on the knowledge of the dangerous consequences of a mobilisation of the working class in Germany. We have already mentioned elsewhere that the centrifugal forces of capitalist disintegration and especially populism have not spared Germany, and yet the political apparatus in Germany is still far more stable than in France, Italy, the UK, and even more so in the USA. It can already be seen that elements of populism have been partially absorbed and applied in the measures taken by the bourgeoisie through the mobilisation of the state apparatus (it remains to be seen whether this means the beginning of a decomposition of the apparatus or whether populism will thus be easier to control) and thus the populist party AfD is weakened for the time being. The crisis management shows that the German bourgeoisie has incorporated a strong state, closed borders, indifference to the misery of the refugees and national egoism into its reservoir of action and that for now the AfD is only an annoying troublemaker.

In view of the worldwide character of the pandemic and completely inadequate preparation for it on a world scale, even the ruling class in Germany has not been able to escape the pull of the each for himself. In the desperate search for masks, the German government's regulation that medical equipment may only be exported if Germany's vital needs are met was also applied in Germany. This applies even if a lack of protective equipment in other countries endangers human lives. Defending the nation‘s interests comes first. And in its attempt not to let the EU fall apart, but to proceed in this ever-increasing chaos in a way that is as nationally coordinated as possible, German capital has turned on the credit tap for the domestic economy almost indefinitely At the same time the German bourgeoisie has remained largely intransigent towards the faltering "partners" in Italy, Spain and the demanded introduction of coronabonds. What consequences this will have for the EU cannot be foreseen at present.

Nor can anything be said today about the prospects of being able to ward off the increasingly aggressive appearance of Chinese imperialism in Europe and elsewhere. The mountain of follow-up costs of the economic rescue[30] measures decided by the world's ruling powers will lead to an increase in debt[31] , where the tendency of the every man for himself will become increasingly devastating. In the midst of this chaos, the German bourgeoisie may have been more successful than its rivals to date, but as one of the countries most dependent on exports and international stability, it cannot, despite certain advantages, escape the shocks of the crisis and the chaos it has brought about in the long run. What challenges this poses to the working class will be discussed in a forthcoming article.

Gerald, 23 April 2020

[1] Whether the currently still exponentially rising infection rate in the former bloc rival Russia will reach a similarly devastating level cannot yet be predicted

[3]This already illustrates very well the concept of "through-capitalization", which refers to the economic logic of valorization and accumulation of capital with the compulsion to grow (capital accumulation) under the ultimate goal of profit  

[4]"at the conference Hospital or Factory, Stuttgart, 20 October 2018), it is reported that there has been a decrease in the actual figure from 1993 to 2016 from 289,000 to 277,000, i.e. 12,000 nursing staff, despite an increase in the number of cases, a shortened length of stay and thus increased work intensity. In the calculated target range according to the Nursing Staff Regulation (PPR), assuming a 20 percent increase in personnel requirements due to increased performance, there is even a difference of 143,000 nursing staff“

[8]In the early 2000s, a nurse in northern Germany killed more than 100 patients without anyone noticing.

[12]They actually bought laminating foil at the hardware store and made a kind of a shield from it that reaches over the eyes and mouth. So now we nurses have to get own equipment because the state didn't have a viable emergency plan for a pandemic!

[15]On April 7, doctors, nurses and other employees from more than 20 hospitals in Brandenburg demanded in an open letter to the state government: "The state of Brandenburg must find a way to produce masks, protective gowns, goggles, gloves and disinfectants – immediately! and "Our hospitals became factories and health became a commodity"

[16]"With its current 1400 deaths, Germany has a mortality rate of 1.5 percent. This is very low compared to 12 percent in Italy, around 10 percent in Spain, France and the UK, 4 percent in China and 2.5 percent in the US. Even South Korea, which is repeatedly cited as a role model, has a higher death rate of 1.7 percent". In the meantime the number of deaths has risen to over 5,000 (as of 22.4.2020)

[17]"In January there were about 28,000 such intensive care beds, or 34 per 100,000 people. By comparison, in Italy there are 12 and in the Netherlands seven."

[18]"...expression of the bourgeoisie's increasing loss of control over the functioning of society, which is essentially due to what lies at the heart of its disintegration, the inability of the two fundamental classes of society to provide a response to the insoluble crisis into which the capitalist economy is sinking. In other words, the disintegration is essentially the result of the powerlessness of the ruling class, a powerlessness rooted in its inability to overcome this crisis in the capitalist mode of production, which is increasingly tending to influence its political apparatus“.

[19]"And so the decision was preceded early on Tuesday morning by a heated exchange of words between the Executive Board and the traditionally very influential employee representatives in Wolfsburg around the head of the Works Council, Bernd Osterloh. The fact that the decision was made at short notice is also shown by the fact that it is not yet clear how VW intends to implement the shut-down in terms of labour law“.

[20]"In the metal and electrical industry, the bargaining partners have reached a pilot agreement in North Rhine-Westphalia. Under the impact of the Corona crisis, IG Metall and employers agreed not to raise wages this year."

[21]The DAX plunged from almost 14,000 (mid-February) to below 9,000 points. The state of Bavaria declared a catastrophe as early as March 16,

[22]We must take up this tendency towards the "no alternative" dictatorship of the experts again elsewhere, but it already appeared in the climate movement, and same idea was put forward  by the (economic) experts in response to the EU's Greek crisis. Despite the political cleverness of the majority of the ruling class, this does not hide a certain political "cowardice" on their part, because it is also a way of hiding the class character of the attacks behind an apparently "ideology-free/neutral" science.

[23]Eine kurze Chronologie:

[24]With over 800,000 employees, the automobile industry makes up a large part of German industry

[25]On April 22, it was even decided to increase the short-time work allowance from 60 or 67% to 80 or 87%.

[27]The fact that new fighter jets are being ordered these days to replace the 'obsolete' Tornado jets and that they are not shying away from high expenditure is not contradictory but goes hand in hand.

[28]In opinion polls Merkel achieves the highest approval in this legislative period and the CDU recorded strong gains, so that already rumors about a fifth term in office are being spread:

[29]"Compared to the other countries, Germany currently has the best security and stability ranking in Europe and is also one of the leading nations worldwide in terms of crisis management," says Dimitry Kaminsky, founder of DKG. In addition, Germany has acted "extremely efficiently".

[30]The ICC will investigate this in further analyses. We invite our readers to follow our international press and to participate in the debate on the assessment of the situation, the perspectives and our tasks.

[31]For all readers, we call for a more in-depth examination of the resolution on the international situation adopted by the 23rd International Congress of the ICC: Not only have the causes of the 2007-2011 crisis not been resolved or overcome, but the severity and contradictions of the crisis have moved to a higher level: it is now the states themselves which are faced with the crushing burden of their debt (the “sovereign debt”), which further affects their ability to intervene to revive their respective national economiesDebt has been used as way of supplementing the insufficiency of solvent markets but it can’t grow indefinitely as could be seen from the financial crisis which began in 2007. However, all the measures which can be taken to limit debt once again confront capitalism with its crisis of overproduction, and this in an international context which is in constant deterioration and which more and more limits its margin of manoeuvre (International Situation Resolution, 20th ICC Congress).



Covid-19 crisis