The national situation in Germany

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The joint conference of the sections of the ICC in Germany and Switzerland, and the nucleus in Sweden, held in March 2016, adopted, among other documents, a report on the national situation in Germany, which we publish here. This report makes no claim to completeness. Instead it concentrates on points we think it are particularly important to reflect on and discuss now. Since these aspects in general have the dramatic events of the current situation as their point of departure, we add to the report the presentation made at the conference, which is partly devoted to bringing the report more up to date. Critical comments to the report and presentation made in the course of the ensuing debate are added as footnotes to the presentation. In view of the importance of the developments in what is the most central country of European capitalism today, we hope that these texts can be a positive contribution to the necessary reflection, from the point of view of the proletariat, about the present world situation.

The competitiveness of German capital today

Since the German nation state was not constituted until 1870, and was late in joining the imperialist carve-up of the world, it never established itself as a leading financial or colonial power. The main basis of its economic might was and remains its highly efficient industry and work force. Whereas East Germany (the old German Democratic Republic, GDR) fell behind economically through becoming part of the Eastern bloc, post-World War II West Germany was able to build on this foundation and even consolidate it. By 1989, the latter had become the world’s leading export nation, with the lowest state deficit of all the leading powers. Despite comparatively high wage levels its economy was extremely competitive. It also benefited, economically, from the world wide trade possibilities opened up by membership of the Western bloc, and from having a restricted military budget as the main loser of two world wars.

At the political and territorial levels Germany then profited most from the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989, absorbing the former GDR. Economically however, the sudden absorbing of this zone, which had hopelessly fallen behind international standards, also represented a considerable burden, above all financially. A burden which threatened the competitiveness of the new, bigger Germany. During the 1990s it lost ground on the world market, while the state budget deficit levels began to approach those of other leading powers.

Today, a quarter of a century later, Germany has more than regained the lost ground. As an exporter, it is second only to China. Last year, the state budget had a surplus of €26 billion. Its growth of 1.7% was moderate, but for a highly developed country still an achievement. Official unemployment has dropped to its lowest level since re-unification. To date, the policy of maintaining a highly developed industrial production based in Germany itself has been a success.

Of course, as an old industrial country, the bedrock of this success is a high organic composition of capital, the product of at least two centuries of accumulation. But within this context, the high skills and qualifications of its population is decisive for its competitive edge. Before World War I, Germany had become the main centre of scientific development and its application in production. With the catastrophe of National Socialism and World War II it lost this advantage and has shown no signs since of recovering it. What remains however is its know-how in the production process itself. Since the demise of the Hansa,1 Germany has never been a leading, long lasting maritime power. Although long an essentially peasant economy, its soil, on average, is less fertile than that of France, for example. Its natural advantages lay in its geographic location at the heart of Europe, and in precious metals already mined during the Middle Ages. Out of this emerged a high aptitude for artisan and industrial labour and co-operation and a know-how developed and passed on from generation to generation. Although its industrial revolution benefited considerably from large coal resources, the demise of heavy industries from the 1970s on made clear that the heart of Germany’s economic ascendency lay not here, but in its efficiency in the production of the means of production, and more generally in the transformation of living into dead labour. Today Germany is world-wide the main producer of complex machines. More than the car industry, this sector is the backbone of its economy. Behind this strength, there is also the know-how of the bourgeoisie which, already during capitalist ascendency, concentrated essentially on its economic and business activities, since it was more or less excluded from positions of political and military power by the Prussian landowner (Junker) caste. The passion for engineering which this bourgeoisie developed continues to find expression not only in the machine-tool industry, still often based on mid-sized, family-run units, but in the particular capacity of the ruling class as a whole to run the entire German industry as if it were a single machine. The intricate and highly effective inter-connection of all the different units of production and distribution is one of the main advantages of the German national capital.

Confronted with the dead weight of the collapsing GDR economy, the turning point in the recovery of its competitive edge was reached in the first decade of the present century. Two factors were decisive. At the organisational level, all the main companies, including the mid-sized machine-tool manufacturers (Maschinenbau) began to produce and operate on a world scale, creating networks of production all centred around Germany itself. At the political level, under the leadership of the SPD (the Social-Democrats), the attacks against wages and social benefits (the so-called “Agenda 2010”) were so radical that the French government even accused Germany of wage dumping.

This turning point was favoured by three major developments in the global economic context which turned out to be particularly favourable to Germany.

Firstly the transition from the Keynesian to the so-called Neo-Liberal model of state capitalism favoured more export oriented economies. While strongly participating in the post 1945 Keynesian economic order dominating the Western bloc, the West German “model” was from the onset influenced by “Ordo-Liberal”2 ideas (Ludwig Erhard, Freiberger School), never developing the kind of “Statism” which continues to hamper the competitiveness of France today.

Second was the consolidation of European economic cooperation after the fall of the Berlin Wall (creation of the European Union, the Euro currency union). Although partly driven by political, essentially imperialist motives (its neighbours’ desire to keep “control” of Germany), at the economic level Germany, as the strongest competitor, has been the main beneficiary of the EU and of the currency union. The financial crisis and the Euro crisis after 2008, confirmed that the leading capitalist countries still have the capacity to deflect the worst effects of the crisis onto their weaker rivals. The different international and European salvage packages, such as those for Greece, essentially served the propping up of German (and French) banks at the expense of the “rescued” economies.

Thirdly, Germany’s geographical and historical proximity to Eastern Europe helped to make it the main beneficiary of the transformation there, conquering markets previously out of reach, including the extra-capitalist3 leftovers.

Relationship between German imperialism’s economic and military power

To illustrate the importance of the consequences of this competitive strength at other levels, we now want to examine the link to the imperialist dimension. After 1989, Germany could put forward its imperialist interests with greater determination and independence. Examples of this were its initiative, under Helmut Kohl, in encouraging the break-up of Yugoslavia (beginning with the diplomatic recognition of the state independence of Croatia and Slovenia), or the refusal, under Gerhard Schröder, to support the second Iraq War. In the past 25 years there have certainly been advances at the imperialist level. Above all, both the “international community” and the population “at home” have become accustomed to German military interventions abroad. The transition from a conscript to a professional army has been made. The German armaments industry has increased its share of the world market. Nevertheless, at the imperialist level it has been unable to regain ground anything like to the same extent as economically. The problem of finding enough volunteers for the army remains unresolved. Above all, the goal of the technical modernisation of the armed forces and the significant increase of its mobility and firepower has not at all been achieved.

In fact, during this whole period after 1989, it was never the goal of the German bourgeoisie to try, either in the short or medium term, to “pose its candidature” as a potential bloc leader against the USA. At the military level, this would have been impossible, given the overwhelming military might of the United States, and Germany’s present status as “economic giant but military dwarf”. Any attempt to do so would also have led to its main European rivals ganging up against it. At the economic level, supporting the weight of what would have had to be an enormous re-armament programme would have ruined the competitiveness of an economy already struggling with the financial burden of re-unification - as well as risking confrontations with the working class.

But none of this means that Berlin has renounced its ambitions to regain its status at least as the leading European military power. On the contrary, ever since the 1990s it has pursued a long term strategy aimed at augmenting its economic power as a basis for a later military renaissance. Whereas the former USSR offered a reminder of how military power cannot be maintained in the long run without an equivalent economic basis, more recently China has revealed the other side of the same coin: how economic ascent can prepare a later military one.

One of the keys to such a long term strategy is Russia, but also the Ukraine. At the military level, it is the USA, not Germany, which gained most from the eastward extension of the NATO (in fact Germany tried to prevent some of the steps of this roll-back of Russia). Germany, by contrast, hopes to profit from this whole zone above all economically. Unlike China, Russia for historical reasons is unable to organise its own economic modernisation. Before the Ukraine conflict began, the Kremlin had already decided to attempt this modernisation in cooperation with German industry. In fact, one of the main advantages of this conflict for the USA is that it blocks (via the embargo against Russia) this economic cooperation. Here also lies one of the main motivations for the German chancellor Merkel (and the French president Hollande as her junior partner in this affair) to mediate between Moscow and Kiev. Despite the present desolate state of the Russian economy, the German bourgeoisie is still convinced that Russia would be able to finance such a modernisation itself. The oil price will not remain forever as low as it is today, and Russia also has a host of precious metals to sell. In addition, Russian agriculture has still to be put on a modern capitalist basis (this is even more true for the Ukraine, which – despite the Chernobyl disaster – still has some of the most fertile soil on the planet). In the middle term perspective of food shortages and rising prices for agricultural products, such agricultural areas can gain a considerable economic and even strategic importance. The fear of the USA is thus not unfounded that Germany could profit from Eastern Europe to increase further its relative economic and political weight in the world, and somewhat reduce that of America in Europe.

An example of how Germany already successfully uses its economic strength to imperialist ends is that of the Syrian refugees. Even if it wanted to, it would be very difficult for Germany to participate directly in the present bombing of Syria, on account of its military weakness. But since, on account of its relatively low unemployment, it can absorb part of the Syrian population in the form of the present refugee influx, it gains an alternative means of influencing above all the post-war situation there.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the USA, in particular, is presently trying to use juridical means to curb the economic power of its German competitor, for instance by bringing Volkswagen or the Deutsche Bank to court, threatening them with punitive fines of billions of dollars.

The difficulties of the working class

The year 2015 witnessed a series of strikes above all in transport (DB-German Railways, Lufthansa) and of kindergarten employees. There were also more local but significant movements such as that at the Charité hospital in Berlin, where there was a movement of solidarity between nurses and patients. All of these movements were very sectoral and isolated, sometimes partly focusing on the false alternative of big against small corporatist trade unions, blurring the necessity for autonomous self-organisation by workers. Although all the unions organised strikes so as to cause a maximum of annoyance to the public, the attempt to erode solidarity, at least in the form of public sympathy with those on strike, only partly succeeded. The argument accompanying the demands in the kindergarten sector, for instance, that the regime of particularly low wages in traditionally female professions has to come to an end, while contributing to the isolation of this strike, was popular within the class as a whole, which seemed to recognise that this “discrimination” is above all a means of dividing the workers.

It is certainly an unusual phenomenon that, in contemporary Germany of all places, strikes played such a prominent role in the media in the course of 2015. These strikes, while giving proof of a still-existing militancy and solidarity, are not however evidence of a continuing wave or phase of proletarian struggle. They should at least partly be understood as a manifestation of the particular economic situation of Germany as described above. In this context of relatively low unemployment and shortage of qualified labour, the bourgeoisie itself put forward the idea that, after years of sinking wages inaugurated under Schröder (they sank more radically than almost anywhere in Western Europe), the employees should at last be “rewarded” for their “sense of realism”. The new Grand Coalition government of Christian and Social Democrats itself set the trend by finally (as one of the last countries in Europe to do so) introducing a basic minimum wage law, and raising some social benefits. In the car industry, for instance, the big companies in 2015 paid bonuses (which they called “profit sharing”) of up to €9000 per worker. This was all the more possible because the modernisation of the production apparatus has been so successful that – at least for the moment – the German competitive edge depends much less on low wages than a decade before.

In 2003 the ICC analysed the international class struggle, beginning with the protests against attacks against the pensions in France and Austria, as a turning point (unspectacular, almost imperceptible) for the better in class struggle, essentially because of the beginning of a recognition by the present working generation (for the first time since the last world war) that its children will have not better but worse conditions than themselves. This led to first significant expressions of solidarity between the generations in workers’ struggles. However, because of the intimidation of strike movements by growing unemployment and precarious working conditions this evolution expressed itself, at the “point of production” more at the level of consciousness than of militancy – it became increasingly difficult and daunting to go on strike. In Germany itself the initial response of the unemployed to Agenda 2010 (the “Monday demonstrations”) also soon ran out of steam. But on the other hand, a new generation began to take to the streets, benefiting from not yet being under the direct yoke of wage labour, to express not only their own anger and concern about the future, but also (more or less consciously) that of the class as a whole. In this, they were often joined by the precariously employed. These protests, extending to countries like Turkey, Israel and Brazil, but reaching their culmination in the anti-CPE and Indignados movements in France and Spain respectively, even found a small, weak but still significant echo in the movement of students and pupils in Germany. And they were accompanied, not yet by the crystallisation of a new generation of revolutionaries, but by its potential precursor.

In Germany this was expressed by a small but combative “Occupy” movement, more open than before to internationalist ideas. The slogan of the first Occupy demonstrations was “Down with capital, the state and the nation”. For the first time in decades in Germany, therefore, a politicisation was beginning which did not seem to be dominated by anti-fascist and national liberation ideology. This was taking place in response to the financial crisis of 2008, followed by the Euro crisis. Some of these small minorities were beginning to think that capitalism was on the brink of collapse. The idea began to develop that if Marx was being proven right about the crisis of capitalism, he might also be right about the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. The expectation grew that the massive international attacks would soon be met with similarly massive international class struggle. “Athens today – Berlin tomorrow – international solidarity against capital” became the new slogan.

What followed was not an historic defeat, but the story of how the bourgeoisie smashed, for the moment, the political opening up begun in 2003, bringing this phase of the class struggle to a close. What began as the US sub-primes crisis posed a very real menace to the stability of the international financial architecture. The danger was acute. There was no time for long drawn out negotiations between governments about how to handle it. The bankruptcy of Lehmann Brothers had the advantage of obliging governments in all the industrial countries to take immediate and radical measures to salvage the situation (as the Herald Tribune later wrote: “if it had not happened, the Lehman collapse would have had to be invented”). But it also had advantages at another level: against the working class. Perhaps for the first time, the world bourgeoisie responded to a major, acute crisis of its system, not by downplaying but by exaggerating its importance. The workers of the world were told that unless they immediately accepted the massive attacks, states and with them pension and insurance funds would go bankrupt, private savings melt away. This ideological terror offensive resembled the “shock and awe” military strategy employed by the US in the second Iraq war, aimed at paralysing, traumatising and disarming its adversary. And it worked. At the same time, the objective basis was there for not attacking all the central sectors of the world proletariat at the same time, since large sectors of the class in the US, Britain, Ireland and southern Europe suffered much more than in Germany, France and elsewhere in north-west Europe.

The second chapter of this offensive of terror and division was the Euro-crisis, where the European proletariat was successfully divided between north and south, between “lazy Greeks” and “arrogant Nazi Germans”. In this context, the bourgeoisie has another trump card up its sleeve: the economic success of Germany. Even the strikes of 2015, and more generally the recent increases in wages and social benefits there, were all used to hammer home the message, to the whole European proletariat, that making sacrifices in face of the crisis pays off in the end.

This message, that struggle does not pay, was further underscored by the fact that, in those countries where political and economic stability are particularly fragile, and the working class weaker, the protest movements of the young generation (the “Arab spring”) only succeeded in triggering off internecine civil and imperialist wars and/or new waves of repression. All of this reinforced the feeling of powerlessness and lack of perspective in the class as a whole.

The non-collapse of capitalism and the failure of the European proletariat to oppose the massive attacks also took its toll on the precursors of a new generation of revolutionary minorities. The increase in public meetings and demonstrations which characterised this phase in Germany gave way to a real phase of demoralisation. Since then, other demonstrations have taken place – against “Pegida”, TTIP,4 gene technology or the surveillance of the Internet – but devoid of any more fundamental criticism of capitalism as such.

And now, since the summer of 2015, the blows of the financial and Euro-crisis offensives were followed by another: the present refugee crisis. This is also being used to the maximum by the ruling class against any developing reflection within the proletariat. But more than the bourgeois propaganda, the refugee wave itself strikes a further blow against the first seeds of a recovery of class consciousness from the blow of 1989 (the “death of communism”). The fact that millions from the “periphery” of capitalism are risking their lives to gain access to Europe, North America and other “fortresses” can only, for the moment, reinforce the impression that it is a privilege to live in the developed parts of the world, and that the working class at the centre of the system, in the absence of any alternative to capitalism, might have something to defend within capitalism after all. Moreover, the class as a whole, stripped for the moment of its own political, theoretical and cultural heritage, tends to see the causes of this desperate migration, lying not within capitalism, not being linked to contradictions centred in the democratic countries, but in an absence or lack of capitalism and democracy in the conflict zones.

All of this has led to a renewed retreat of both militancy and consciousness within the class.

The problem of political populism

Although the phenomenon of right wing terror against foreigners and refugees is not new in Germany, particular since re-unification and particularly (although not only) in its new, Eastern provinces, until now the rise of a stable political populist movement in Germany has been successfully prevented by the ruling class itself. But in the context of the Euro-crisis, the acute phase of which lasted until the summer of 2015, and the “refugee crisis” which followed it, there has been a new upsurge of political populism. This has manifested itself mainly at three levels: The electoral rise of the “Alternative for Germany” (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), which was originally constituted in opposition to the Greek salvage packages, and on the basis of a vague opposition to the joint European currency; a populist right wing protest movement centred on the “Monday demonstrations” in Dresden (“Pegida”); a new resurgence of right wing terrorism against refugees and foreigners, such as the “National Socialist Underground” (NSA).

Such phenomena are not new on the German political scene. But until now, the bourgeoisie has always succeeded in preventing them leading to any kind of stable and parliamentary presence. By the summer of 2015, it seemed as if the ruling sectors would succeed in this once again. The AfD had been robbed of its theme (the “Greek” crisis) and of some of its financial resources, and had suffered its first split. But then this populism made a comeback – stronger than before – thanks to the new wave of immigration . And since this immigration question risks playing a more or less dominant role in the foreseeable future, the chances have increased of the AfD establishing itself as a new, more lasting component of the party political apparatus.

The ruling class is able to use all of this to make its electoral game more interesting, to boost the ideologies of democracy and anti-fascism, and also to spread division and xenophobia. Nevertheless, this whole process neither corresponds directly to its class interest, nor is it able to control the process completely.

That there is a close connection between the sharpening of the global crisis of capitalism and the advance of populism is illustrated by the Euro-crisis and its effects on the German political scene. The economic crisis not only augments insecurity and fear, intensifying the struggle for survival. It also fans the flames of irrationality. Germany economically would have the most to lose from any weakening of the cohesion of the EU and the Euro. Millions of jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on exports and the role the EU plays for Germany in this context. In such a country it is all the more irrational to put in question the EU, the Euro, the whole world market orientation of the national capital. At this level, it is no coincidence that the recent appearance of such xenophobic movements was triggered by worries about the stability of the new European currency.

Rationality is a vital moment of human reason, though not the only one. Rationality centres around the element of calculation in thinking. Since this includes the capacity to calculate one’s own objective interests, it is an indispensable element, not only of bourgeois society, but also of the proletarian liberation struggle. Historically, it appeared and developed to a large extent under the impetus of equivalent exchange. Since, under capitalism, money fully develops its role as universal equivalent, the currency and the confidence it inspires plays a major role in “formatting” rationality in bourgeois society. Loss of confidence in the universal equivalent is therefore one of the main sources of irrationality in bourgeois society. This is why currency crises and periods of hyperinflation are particularly dangerous for the stability of this society. The inflation of 1923 in Germany was thus one of the most important factors preparing the triumph of National Socialism ten years later.

The present wave of refugees and immigration, on the other hand, accentuates and illustrates another aspect of populism: the sharpening of competition between the victims of capitalism, and the tendency towards exclusion, xenophobia and scapegoating. The misery under capitalist rule gives rise to a triad of destruction: firstly the accumulation of aggression, hatred, maliciousness and a longing for destruction and self-destruction; secondly the projection of these anti-social impulses onto others (moral hypocrisy); thirdly the directing of these impulses, not against the ruling class, which appears too powerful to challenge, but against apparently weaker classes and social strata. This three-pronged “complex” flourishes therefore above all in the absence of the collective struggle of the proletariat, when individual subjects feel powerless in face of capital. The culminating point of this triad at the root of populism is the pogrom. Although the populist aggression also expresses itself against the ruling class, what it demands, so vocally, from it is protection and favours. What it desires is that the bourgeoisie should either eliminate what it sees as its threatening rivals, or tolerate the fact that it starts doing so itself. This “conformist revolt”, a permanent feature of capitalism, becomes acute in face of crisis, war, chaos, instability. In the 1930s the framework of its development was the world-historic defeat of the proletariat. Today this framework is the absence of any perspective: the phase of decomposition.

As already developed in the ICC’s Theses on Decomposition, one of the social and material bases of populism is the process of déclassement, the loss of any class identification. Despite German national capital’s economic robustness and its shortages of qualified labour, there is an important part of the German population today which, although unemployed, is not really an active factor of the industrial reserve army (ready to take the jobs of others and therefore exercising a downward pressure on wages), but which belongs rather to what Marx called the Lazarus layer of the working class. Because of health problems, or being unable to bear the stress of modern capitalist labour and the struggle for existence, or the lack of appropriate qualifications, this sector is “unemployable” from the capitalist point of view. Instead of pressuring wage levels, these layers increase the total wage bill for the national capital through the benefits they live off. It is this sector also which most feels the refugees today as potential rivals.

Within this sector, there are two important groups of proletarian youth, parts of which can be prone to mobilisation as cannon fodder for bourgeois cliques, but also as active protagonists of pogroms. The first is comprised of the children of the first or second generations of Gastarbeiter. The original idea was that these “guest workers” would not stay when they were no longer needed, and above all that they would not bring their families with them or found families in Germany. The opposite took place, and the bourgeoisie made no particular effort to educate the children of such families. The result today is that, because unskilled jobs have to a large extent been “exported” to what used to be termed “third world countries”, part of this segment of proletarian youth is condemned to an existence from state benefits, never being integrated into associated labour. The other group is the children of the traumatic mass sackings in East Germany after re-unification. Part of this segment, Germans rather than immigrants, which were not brought up to match the highly competitive “Western” form of capitalism, and did not dare make the move to West Germany to find a job after 1989, as the more intrepid ones did, has joined this army of people living from benefits. These sectors in particular are vulnerable to lumpenisation, criminalisation and decadent, xenophobic forms of politicisation.

Although populism is the product of its system, the bourgeoisie can neither produce this phenomenon at will, nor make it disappear at will. But it can manipulate it to its own ends, and encourage or discourage its development to a greater or lesser degree. In general it does both. But this is also not easy to dominate. Even in the context of totalitarian state capitalism it is difficult for the ruling class to achieve and maintain a coherence in such a situation. Populism itself is deeply rooted in the contradictions of capitalism. The reception of refugees today, for instance, lies in the objective interest of important sectors of German capitalism. The economic advantages are even more apparent than the imperialist ones. This is why the leaders of industry and the business world are the most enthusiastic supporters of the “welcoming culture” at the moment. They reckon that Germany would need an influx of about one million each year in the coming period in view of the predicted shortage of qualified labour and above all the demographic crisis caused by the country’s persistently low birth rate. Moreover, refugees from wars and other catastrophes often prove to be particularly diligent and disciplined workers, ready not only to work for low wages, but also to take initiative and risks. Moreover, the integration of newcomers from “outside”, and the cultural openness this requires, is itself a productive force (and a potential strength for the proletariat too, of course). An eventual success of Germany at this level could give it an additional advantage over its European competitors.

However, exclusion is, at the same time, the other side of the coin of Merkel’s inclusion policy. The immigration needed today is no longer the unqualified labour of the Gastarbeiter generations, now that the unskilled jobs have been concentrated in the periphery of capitalism. The new migrants should bring high qualifications with them, or at least the willingness to acquire them. The present situation requires a much more organised and ruthless selection than in the past. Because of these contradictory needs of inclusion and exclusion, the bourgeoisie encourages openness and xenophobia at the same time. It responds today to this need with a division of labour between left and right, including within Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party and her coalition government with the SPD. But behind the present dissonance between the different political groupings about the refugee question, there is not only division of labour, but also different concerns and interests. The bourgeoisie is not a homogeneous block. Whereas those parts of the ruling class and the state apparatus closer to the economy push for integration, the whole security apparatus is horrified by Merkel’s opening of the frontiers in summer 2015, and by the numbers coming ever since, because of the loss of control over who enters the state territory which this had temporarily led to. Moreover, within the repressive and legal apparatus there are inevitably those who sympathise with and protect the extreme right out of a shared obsession with law and order, nationalism etc.

As for the political caste itself, there are not only those who (depending on the mood in their constituency) flirt with populism out of opportunism. There are also many who share its mentality. To all of this we can add the contradictions of nationalism itself. Like all modern bourgeois states, Germany was founded on the basis of myths about shared history, culture and even blood. Against this background, even the most powerful bourgeoisie cannot invent and re-invent at will different definitions of the nation to suit its changing interests. Nor would it necessarily have an objective interest in doing so, since the old nationalist myths are still essential, and a powerful lever of “divide and rule” towards the inside, and of mobilising support for imperialist aggression towards the outside. Thus, it is still not self-evident today that you can have something like a black or a Muslim “German”.

The German ruling class faced with the “refugee crisis”

In the context of decomposition and economic crisis, the principle motor of populism in Europe in recent decades has been the problem of immigration. Today this problem has been sharpened by the biggest exodus since World War II. Why is this influx apparently much more of a political problem in Europe than in countries like Turkey, Jordan or even the Lebanon, which receive much bigger contingents? In the older capitalist countries, the pre-capitalist customs of hospitality, and the subsistence economic and social structures which go with them, have withered much more radically. There is also the fact that these migrants come from a different culture. This is of course not a problem in itself, on the contrary. But modern capitalism makes it a problem. In Western Europe in particular, the welfare state is the main organiser of social aid and cohesion. It is this state which is supposed to accommodate the refugees. This already places them in competition with the “indigenous” poor over jobs, housing and benefits.

Until now, because of its relative economic, political and social stability, immigration, and with it populism, has caused less problems in Germany than in much of western Europe. But in the present situation, the German bourgeoisie is increasingly confronted by this problem, not only at home but in the context of the European Union.

Within Germany itself, the rise of right wing populism disturbs its project of integrating part of the immigrants. This is a real problem since, to date, all the attempts to raise the birth rate “at home” have failed. Right wing terror also damages its reputation abroad – a very sensitive point in view of the crimes of the German bourgeoisie during the first half of the 20th century. The establishment of the AfD as a stable parliamentary force could complicate the formation of future governments. At the electoral level, it is at present a problem above all for the CDU/CSU, the leading governmental party, which, until now, under Merkel, has been able to attract both social democratic and conservative voters, thus cementing its leading position towards the SPD.

But it is above all at the level of Europe that populism today threatens German interests. The status of Germany as economically, and to a lesser degree politically, a global player, depends to an important degree on the existence and coherence of the EU. The arrival in government of populist, more or less anti-European parties in Eastern (already the case in Hungary and Poland) and above all in Western Europe, would tend to hamper this cohesion. This in particular is why Merkel has declared the refugee question to be the issue which will “decide the destiny of Germany”. The strategy of the German bourgeoisie towards this question is to attempt to convert, at the European level, the more or less chaotic migration of the post-war Gastarbeiter and de-colonisation period into a meritocratic, highly selective immigration more on the Canadian or Australian model. The more effective sealing of the external borders of the EU is one of the preconditions for the the proposed conversion of illegal into legal immigration. It would also entail the establishment of yearly immigration quotas. Instead of paying horrific sums to get smuggled into the EU, migrants are to be encouraged to “invest” in improving their own qualifications in order to increase chances of legal access. Instead of setting off towards Europe on their own initiative, those refugees accepted would be provided with transport, accommodation and eventual jobs already designated for them. The other side of this coin is that the undesired immigrants would be stopped at the borders, or quickly and brutally expelled if they have already managed to gain access. This conversion of the EU borders into selection ramps (already an ongoing process) is presented as a humanitarian project aimed at reducing the numbers drowning in the Mediterranean, which, despite all media manipulation, has become a source of moral disgrace for the European bourgeoisie. Through its insistence on a European rather than a national solution, Germany is assuming its responsibilities towards capitalist Europe, at the same time underlining its claim to political leadership of the old continent. Its goal is nothing less than to defuse the time bomb of immigration, and with it of political populism, in the EU.

It was in this context that the Merkel government, in summer 2015, opened the German borders to refugees. At that moment, the Syrian refugees, who until then were ready to remain in eastern Turkey, began to lose hope in returning home, thus setting off, en masse, towards Europe. At the same time, the Turkish government decided, in order to blackmail the EU, which was blocking Ankara’s candidature for European entry, not to prevent their departure. In this situation, the closing of the German borders would have created a pile-up of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the Balkans, a chaotic, almost uncontrollable situation. But by temporarily lifting the control of its borders, Berlin triggered a new flood of migration of desperate people who suddenly (mis)understood that they were being invited to Germany. All of this shows the reality of a moment of potential loss of control of the situation.

Because of the radical manner with which she has identified herself with “her” project, the chances of success for Merkel’s proposed “European solution” would considerably deteriorate were she to fail to be re-elected in 2017. One of the planks of Merkel’s re-election campaign seems to be an economic one. Given the present slowdown in Chinese and American growth, the export-oriented German economy would normally be heading towards recession. An increase of state spending and building activity “for the refugees” could avoid such an eventuality in the run up to the elections.

Unlike the 1970s (when in many leading Western countries left capitalist parties came to government: the “left in power”) or the 1980s (the “left in opposition) the present government strategy and electoral “game” in Germany is determined to a much lesser degree by the more immediate threat of the class struggle, and much more than in the past by the problems of immigration and populism.

The refugees and the working class

The solidarity with the refugees expressed by an important part of the population in Germany, although exploited to the hilt by the state to promote the image of a humane German nationalism, open to the world, was spontaneous and, at the beginning, “self-organised”. And still today, more than half a year after the beginning of the present crisis, the state management of the influx would collapse without the initiatives of the population. There is nothing proletarian about these activities in themselves. On the contrary, these people are partly doing the work which the state is unwilling or unable to do, often still without any payment. For the working class, the central problem is that this solidarity cannot take place presently on a class terrain. For the moment it takes on a very apolitical character, unconnected to any explicit opposition to the imperialist war in Syria for instance. Like the NGOs and all the different “critical” organisations of (in reality non-existent) civil society, these structures have more or less immediately been transformed into appendages of the totalitarian state.

But at the same time it would be a mistake to simply dismiss this solidarity as merely charity. All the more so since this solidarity is being expressed towards an influx of potential rivals on the labour and other markets. In the absence of pre-capitalist traditions of hospitality, in the old capitalist countries the associated labour and solidarity of the proletariat is the main social, material basis of any more generally felt solidarity. Its whole spirit has not been one of “helping the poor and weak”, but of co-operation and collective creativity. In the long term, if the class begins to recover its identity, consciousness and heritage, this present experience of solidarity can be integrated into the experience of the class and its search for a revolutionary perspective. Among the workers in Germany today, at least potentially, the impulses of solidarity express a certain kindling of a class memory and consciousness, recalling that in Europe also, the experience of war and massive population dislocation is not so very far away, and that the failure of solidarity in the face of this experience during the period of counter-revolution (before, during and after World War II) should not be repeated today.

The opposite pole of populism in capitalism is not democracy and humanism but associated labour – the main counter-weight to xenophobia and pogromism. The resistance to exclusion and scapegoating has always been a permanent and essential moment of the daily proletarian class struggle. There can today be the beginnings of a very unclear groping towards a recognition that the wars and other catastrophes which oblige people to flee are part of the violent separations through which, in a permanent process, the proletariat is constituted. And that the refusal of those who have lost everything to obediently stay where the ruling class wants them to, their refusal to renounce the pursuit of a better life, are constituting moments of proletarian combativeness. The struggle for its mobility, against the regime of capitalist discipline, is one of the oldest moments in the life of “free” wage labour.

Globalisation and the need for an international struggle

In the part on the balance sheet of the class struggle, we argued that the 2015 strikes in Germany were more an expression of a temporary, favourable, national economic situation, than an indication of a more widespread European or international militancy. It remains therefore true that it has become increasingly difficult for the working class to defend its immediate interests through strike action and other means of struggle. This does not mean that economic struggles are no longer possible, or have lost their relevance (as the so-called Essen Tendency of the KAPD wrongly concluded in the 1920s). On the contrary, it means that the economic dimension of the class struggle contains a much more direct political dimension than in the past – a dimension which it is extremely difficult to take responsibility for.

Recent ICC congress resolutions have rightly identified the intimidating weight of mass unemployment as one of the objective factors inhibiting the development of struggles in defence of immediate economic interests. But this is not the only, and not even the main economic cause of this inhibition. A more fundamental one lies in what is called globalisation – the present phase of totalitarian state capitalism – and the framework it gives for the world economy.

The globalisation of world capitalism is, in itself, not a new phenomenon. We already find it at the basis of the first highly mechanised sector of capitalist production: the textile industry in Britain was the centre of a triangle linked to the robbery of slaves in Africa and their labour in cotton plantations in the United States. In terms of world trade, the level of globalisation attained before World War I was not reached again until the end of the 20th century. Nevertheless, in the last three decades, this globalisation has acquired a new quality, above all at two levels: in production and in finance. The pattern of the periphery of capitalism providing cheap labour, agricultural plantation products and raw materials for the industrial countries of the northern hemisphere has been, if not wholly replaced, certainly substantially modified by global production networks, still centred in the more dominant countries, but where industrial and service activity is taking place all over the world. Inside this “Ordo-Liberal” corset, the tendency is for no national capital, no industry, no sector or business to be able to exempt itself anymore from direct international competition. There is almost nothing being produced in any part of the world which could not be produced somewhere else. Each nation state, each region, each city, each neighbourhood, each sector of the economy is condemned to compete with all the others to attract global investment. The whole world is spellbound, as if condemned to waiting for the salvation through the coming of Capital in the form of investments. This phase of capitalism is by no means a spontaneous product, but a state order introduced and imposed above all by the leading, old bourgeois nation states. One of the goals of this economic policy is to imprison the working class of the whole world in a monstrous disciplinary system.

At this level, we can perhaps divide the history of the objective conditions of the class struggle, very schematically, into three phases. In capitalist ascendency the workers were confronted first and foremost with individual capitalists, and could thus organise themselves more or less effectively in trade unions. With the concentration of capital in the hands of big enterprises and the state, these established means of struggle lost their effectiveness. Each strike was now directly confronted with the whole bourgeoisie, centralised in the state. It took time for the proletariat to find an effective answer to this new situation: the mass strike of the whole proletariat at the level of an entire country (Russia 1905), already containing within itself the potential for the seizure of power and spreading to other countries (the first revolutionary wave begun by Red October). Today, with contemporary globalisation, an objective historical tendency of decadent capitalism achieves its full development: each strike, each act of economic resistance by workers anywhere in the world, finds itself immediately confronted by the whole of world capital, ever ready to withdraw production and investment and produce somewhere else. For the moment, the international proletariat has been quite unable to find an adequate answer, or even to gain a glimpse of what such an answer might look like. We do not know if it will succeed in the end in doing so. But it seems clear that the development in this direction would take much longer than did the transition from trade unionism to mass strike. For one thing, the situation of the proletariat in the old, central countries of capitalism – those, like Germany, at the “top” of the economic hierarchy – would have to become much more dramatic than is today the case. For another, the step required by objective reality – conscious international class struggle, the “international mass strike” – is much more demanding than the one from trade union to mass strike in one country. For it obliges the working class to call into question not only corporatism and sectionalism, but the main, often centuries- or even millennia-old divisions of class society such as nationality, ethnic culture, race, religion, sex etc. This is a much more profound and more political step.

In reflecting on this question, we should take into consideration that the factors preventing the development by the proletariat of its own revolutionary perspective lie not only in the past, but also in the present; that they have not only political causes but also economic (more correctly: economico-political) ones.

Presentation on the national situation in Germany (March 2016)

At the time of the 2008 financial crisis there was a tendency within the ICC towards a kind of economic “catastrophism”, one expression of which was the idea, put forward by some comrades, that the collapse of central capitalist countries such as Germany might now be on the agenda. One of the reasons for making the relative economic strength and competitiveness of Germany an axis of this report is in the hope of contributing to overcoming such weaknesses. But we also want to enforce the spirit of nuance against schematic thinking. Because capitalism itself has an abstract mode of functioning (based on equivalent exchange), there is an understandable but unhealthy tendency to see economic questions too abstractly, for example judging the relative economic strength of national capitals only in very general terms (like the rate of organic composition of capital, labour intensive production, mechanisation, as mentioned in the report), forgetting that capitalism is a social relation between human beings, above all between social classes.

We should clarify one point: when the report says that the US bourgeoisie are using juridical means (fines against Volkswagen and others) to counter German competition, the intention was not to give the impression that the United States has no economic strengths of its own to throw into the scales. For example, the USA is presently ahead of Germany in the development of electric-powered and self-driving cars, and one of the hypotheses doing the rounds in the social media about the so-called Volkswagen scandal (that the information about the manipulation of emission measurements by that company may have been leaked to the American authorities from within the German bourgeoisie to oblige the German car industry to catch up at this level) are not wholly implausible.

On the way the refugee crisis is used for imperialist ends, it is necessary to bring the report up to date. At present, both Turkey and Russia are making massive use of the plight of refugees to blackmail German capital and weaken what remains of European cohesion. The way Ankara has been letting refugees move westwards is already mentioned in the report. The price for Turkish cooperation on this question will not only be many billions of Euros. As for Russia, it has recently been accused by a series of NGOs and refugee aid organisations of deliberately bombing hospitals and residential districts in Syrian cities in order to triggernew trails of refugees. More generally, Russian propaganda has been systematically using the refugee question to fan the flames of political populism in Europe.

As for Turkey, it is demanding not only money but also the acceleration of visa-free access of its citizens to Europe, and of negotiations towards membership in the EU. From Germany it is also demanding cessation of military aid to Kurdish unity in Iraq and Syria.

For Chancellor Merkel, who is the most prominent exponent of a closer collaboration with Ankara in the refugee question, and is a more or less staunch Atlanticist (for her, proximity to the United States is the lesser evil compared to proximity to Moscow), this is less of a problem than it is for other members of her own party. As the report already mentioned, Putin had planned the modernisation of the Russian economy in close collaboration with German industry, in particular its engineering sector which, since the Second World War, has been mainly located in the south of Germany (including Siemens, once based in Berlin and now in Munich, which seems to have been designated to play a central role in this “Russian operation”). It is in this context we can understand the link between the persistent critique of Merkel’s “European” (and “Turkish”) “solution” to the refugee crisis by the CDU’s companion party, the Bavarian CSU, and the spectacular semi-official visit by Bavarian party leaders to Moscow at the high point of this controversy5. This fraction would prefer to collaborate with Moscow rather than with Ankara. Paradoxically, the strongest supporters of the chancellor on this question today are not within in her own party, the CDU, but her coalition partner, the SPD, and the parliamentary opposition. We can explain this partly through a division of labour within the ruling Christian Democracy, the right wing of which is trying (for the moment not very successfully) to keep its conservative voters from defecting to the populists (AfD). But there are also regional tensions (since World War II, although the government was in Bonn and the financial capital in Frankfurt, the cultural life of the German bourgeoisie was mainly concentrated in Munich. It is only recently that this, following the move of the government there, has started to re-gravitate towards Berlin).

In relation to the present waves of immigration, there is not only an antagonism within Europe, of course, but also collaboration and division of labour, for instance between the German and the Austrian bourgeoisie. By initiating the “closing of the Balkan route”, Austria made Berlin less one-sidedly dependent on Turkey in holding up refugees, thus partly bolstering Berlin’s negotiation position towards Ankara6.

While an important part of the business world supported Merkel’s “welcoming policy” towards refugees last summer, this was far from being the case among the security organs of the state, who were absolutely horrified by the more or less uncontrolled and unregistered influx into the country. They have still not forgiven her for this. The French and other European governments were no less sceptical. They are all convinced that imperialist opponents from the Islamic world are using the refugee crisis to smuggle Jihadists into Germany, from where they can move on to France, Belgium etc. In fact, the criminal assaults of New Year’s Eve in Cologne already confirmed that even criminal gangs have been exploiting asylum procedures to position their members in the big European cities. You do not have to be a prophet to foresee that yet another expansion of the scale and importance of the police and secret services in Europe will be one of the principle results of the present developments7.

The report makes a connection between economic crisis, immigration and political populism. If we add the growing role of anti-semitism, the parallels with the 1930s become particularly striking. But it is interesting, in this connection, to examine how the situation in Germany today also illustrates the historical differences. The fact that there is no conclusive evidence, for the moment, that the central sections of the proletariat are defeated, disoriented and demoralised as they were 80 years ago, is the most important, but not the only difference. The economic policy favoured by the big bourgeoisie today is globalisation, not autarky, nor the protectionism advocated by “moderate” populists. This touches on an aspect of contemporary populism still underdeveloped in the report: opposition to the European Union. The latter is, at the economic level, one of the instruments of present day globalisation. In Europe, it has even become its main symbol. Part of the background of the formation of populist governments in central-eastern Europe recently is, for example, the negotiation of the TTIP trade agreement between North America and Europe, through which big industry and agri-business stand to benefit at the expense of small farmers and producers in places like the so-called Visegrad-states (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia).

As far as the situation of the proletariat is concerned, the concern expressed at the end of the report is that we should not only look at causes essentially lying in the past (such as the counter-revolution which followed the defeat of the Russian and world revolution at the end of World War I) to explain the difficulties of the working class to politically develop its struggle in a revolutionary direction after 1968. All these factors from the past, and which are all profoundly true explanations, nonetheless prevented neither May 68 in France nor the 1969 Hot Autumn in Italy. Nor should we assume that the revolutionary potential expressed at that time, in an embryonic manner, was condemned to failure from the onset. Explanations based one-sidedly on the past lead to a kind of determinist fatalism. At the economic level, so-called globalisation was an economic and political, state capitalist instrument which the bourgeoisie found to stabilise its system and to counter the proletarian threat, an instrument which the proletariat, in turn, will have to find an answer to. This is why the difficulties of the working class in the past 30 years to develop a revolutionary alternative are intimately linked to the politico-economic strategy of the bourgeoisie, including its capacity to postpone an economic Kladderadatsch (catastrophe) for the working class – and thus the threat of class war – in the old centres of world capitalism.

1 The Hanseatic League was a trading and industrial alliance in Northern Germany which dominated Baltic trade throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period.

2 “Ordoliberalism” is a German variant of political-economic liberalism which emphasizes the need for the state to intervene in ensuring that the free market produces close to its economic potential.

3 According to Rosa Luxemburg, extra-capitalist zones centre around production not yet directly based on the exploitation of wage labour by capital, whether subsistence economy or production for the market by individual producers. The purchasing power of such producers helps enable capital accumulation to take place. Capitalism also mobilises and exploits labour power and “raw materials” (i.e. natural wealth) coming from these zones.

4 The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the proposed free-trade agreement between Europe and the United States.

5 The discussion at the conference also rightly pointed out that the formulation of the report, according to which the business world in Germany supports, as if as a single block, the refugee policy of Merkel, is very schematic and as such incorrect. Even the need for fresh labour resources by employers is very varied from one sector to another.

6 Although this convergence of interests between Vienna and Berlin, as was pointed out in the discussion, is temporary and fragile.

7 This Jihadist infiltration, and the mounting likelihood of terrorist attacks is a reality. But so is the use of this and other means by the ruling class to create an atmosphere of permanent fear, panic and suspicion, antidotes to critical reflection and solidarity within the working population.


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Conference report 2016