Since this article was written on 24 February, the first of this year’s elections in Germany, local elections in the state of Hesse, have confirmed the general trends and polarisation in Germany. While the biggest parties, Merkel’s CDU, its SPD grand coalition partner and also the Greens, suffered losses the new right-wing AfD came third in terms of the state-wide vote. At the same time in a number of cities like Gießen, Kassel and Marburg the vote for the left party DIE LINKE or left alliances involving DIE LINKE significantly increased.
Dresden, Clausnitz, Bautzen – these towns in Saxony have made headlines with racist demonstrations, arson attacks on refugee accommodation and police brutality against migrant children. Augsburg, Siegburg, Münster – these towns have made less prominent headlines, but the protests there against the activities of the right-wing populist “Alternative for Germany” party (AfD) activities are testament to the “other Germany”.
The AfD’s high opinion poll scores and the rightward shift of the government create the impression of a society shifting to the right, but what is happening in reality is a polarisation. Unfortunately, the trade unions and DIE LINKE (The Left Party) are failing to give a sufficient expression to the left side of this polarisation.
2016 began with a dramatic drop in support for Chancellor Merkel and the government and a sharp rise in support for the AfD, which reached 12% in national opinion polls and up to 17% in the eastern states. At the time of writing (two weeks before regional local elections), it seems quite certain that Frauke Petry’s racist outfit will be able to celebrate successes in the state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony-Anhalt on March 13 and in doing so increase the pressure on the establishment parties.
There are four main reasons for this development: Firstly, the racist exploitation of the attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. This caused a further radicalisation of racists and nationalists and influenced the mood towards refugees. Secondly, the fact that Merkel’s strategy has, so far, not led to her being able to keep her promise of decreasing the number of refugees coming to Germany. Thirdly, the open dispute within the ruling national “Grand Coalition” of SPD and CDU/CSU, has increased insecurity by creating the impression that the government has lost control of the situation. And fourthly: the total failure by trade unions and DIE LINKE to counter pose a convincing argument and strategy against the increase in racism and the government’s policies.
The dispute within the coalition allows the Merkel wing of the CDU and the SPD to pass racist restrictions on the right to asylum while at the same time posing as defenders of a humane immigration policy. This is mainly thanks to Horst Seehofer’s Bavarian based CSU, who play the role of racist loudspeakers and try to push government policy to the right with talk of upper limits for immigration and the need for Germany to “go it alone”. In this, they have been successful. Merkel’s motto “We will manage this!” has in the past months been replaced by “We need to limit the number of refugees!” The only thing in dispute is the way to achieve this.
This disunity reflects underlying differences and interests within the German bourgeoisie and represents a continuation of the controversy within the CDU/CSU regarding Merkel’s European policy. Previously, the rejection of the falsely named “rescue packages” for Greece by sections of the CDU and CSU were an indication that some German capitalists whose profits depend less on exports, see the euro and the EU more as a burden than as a source of power and profit. This is a minority, but it is one which has begun to assert its voice. Indeed, the AfD was originally founded as an anti-euro party by economics professor Bernd Lucke and the former head of the BDI industrial employers association, Hans-Olaf Henkel – an expression of this dividing line amongst the rich and super-rich in the country. Merkel, on the other hand, is expressing the interests of the major banks and companies, which have used the euro and the free movement of goods within the EU to make even more money than they had made before.
There is no real controversy over the question whether there should be immigration to Germany. Even if they may not want to admit it, even the CDU/CSU has long since recognised that immigration to Germany is a reality and has adapted its policies accordingly. The refugee situation of the last years was even seen as an opportunity to increase immigration – the necessity of which was accepted – and in particular to attract a layer of well-educated people from Syria. There may be different opinions about how many people should be allowed into the country, but first and foremost all representatives of the established pro-capitalist parties want to see immigration controlled and limited. The question they debate is how?
Merkel understood that the large number of refugees, the tense situation in Greece and on the Balkan route threatened the existence of the Schengen agreement and the European Union itself if there was no “European solution”. This was particularly in light of the danger of right-wing populist and nationalist forces coming to power in an increasing number of EU countries and steering an anti-EU course. A loss of control over governments by the main sectors of the ruling classes would be much more dangerous for European capitalists than the loss of control over immigration. But there is a strong connection between both. This explains their willingness to shower the war monger Erdogan with money and allow him a free hand against the Kurds, it also explains the desperate attempts to scrape together more aid money for Syria, the attempts to achieve a cease-fire there and is also the reason for Merkel’s push for a European agreement on quotas for refugees per country.
Can Merkel’s plan succeed?
Until now, this strategy seems to have had little success. In late February, fighting even intensified in Syria and Turkey engaged militarily in the conflict with artillery fire against Kurdish positions. The flow of refugees from Syria to Turkey is not slowing and in addition, newspapers report that there are an additional 200,000 refugees in Libya intent on trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean. Austria, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are opting for unilateral measures like setting upper limits on asylum numbers and erecting a border fence on Greece’s borders with Macedonia and Bulgaria. Even France is saying that it is not willing to take more than the 30,000 it has already agreed to. Therefore it is no wonder that Merkel’s future and that of the grand coalition is being openly debated in German political talk shows. However, it is noticeable that hardly any journalist is actually speaking of a “crisis of government”. And a closer look reveals that the events of the next few months are far from clear.
The situation for Merkel is serious. Her previously very high approval ratings have come down significantly, but are still at a level that many other heads of government would be envious of and have recently shown tentative signs of recovery. In addition to this, the government is only in crisis as regards asylum and immigration policy. On all other issues, the grand coalition is in plain sailing – whether as regards military interventions abroad, or the fulfilling of employers’ wishes in regard to changing labour contracts or the increase in licences granted for arms exports.
Paradoxically, the government is under pressure on an issue where – according to all opinion polls – the majority of the population agrees with it. These surveys show that most agree with the central tenet of Merkel’s policy that “People who come to Germany fleeing war and persecution must be offered protection. But the number of refugees coming to Germany must be limited”. Politically much depends on whether Merkel can make the second part of the statement happen. And that can still not be ruled out.
In saying this, it has to be clear that such “success” will come at the expense of refugees. The combination of defeats of 2011 Middle East revolutions, the poisonous legacies of different imperialist interventions, dictatorships, continued neoliberal exploitation and record levels of German-made weapons being exported, all mean that the numbers of refugees will not be reduced because the root causes are not tackled and people will not be able to remain where they are or return home. As long as the wars continue the only way less people will come to Germany would be if more have to stay in the overflowing refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey or are turned away at the borders of Turkey and Greece.
However, this is all far away, and if the number of refugees arriving goes down to somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 per month, Merkel will be able to sell this as a success of her policies, the situation may calm down temporarily and the AfD may at least be checked. The latter has morphed from a single-issue protest party against the euro, which allowed it to reach double figures in opinion polls at the end of 2014, into a single-issue protest party against immigration. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, the Green Party temporarily rose to 24% in the polls. The Pirate Party were at 12% in April 2012 and have now almost faded from memory. Even if a lot points towards the AfD establishing itself as the sixth party in the party system, it is not a stable phenomenon, certainly not at the size it currently is. However, it can build on a basic nationalist consensus and a racist residue in society, for which the capitalist establishment – parties, governments, media and institutions – are responsible.
As of now, the economic situation is still playing into the hands of the government. Growth is not particularly high, but 2015 was a new record year for exports – and for budget surpluses for national and state governments. The number of people in employment increased by a further 700,000, though many of these are insecure, low-paid jobs. But still, the economic situation is currently putting a little less pressure on the government and on capital. However: this will not stay this way, and the change has already begun with crises developing in the world economy. The decrease in sales of German cars to China seen at the end of 2015 can be seen as a sign of things to come in this respect.
If Merkel’s plan fails, a continuation of the policy of the last 6 months can hardly be imagined. She may already be reckoning with impending defeats in state elections in March. Paradoxically, the AfD’s election successes could well bring the CDU back into government in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg regions and prevent a change of government in Saxony-Anhalt. A further effect will probably be a comeback of the FDP (liberal party) in western Germany. This, together with the rightward shift of the Greens in Baden-Württemberg, could further increase the number of coalition options for the establishment parties. Therefore, the possibility of Baden-Württemberg becoming the second state besides Hesse to have a CDU-Green government cannot be ruled out. Bringing the FDP back into government at state level would help to resuscitate the “little party of big capital” and bring it into position to re-enter parliament at national level in the September 2017 general election.
But without a reduction of the number of refugees coming to Germany, the pressure will continue to mount. In that scenario, a “Swedish turn” in refugee policy is conceivable, including a closing of borders, a drastic increase in deportations and some form of upper limits (probably under another name). The result of such a development would, however, not be an automatic end to the weakening of Merkel’s position and to the AfD’s rise. Because this would, in the eyes of many, be a vindication of the AfD’s propaganda, in the same way that the far-right Sweden Democrats were further strengthened by the Swedish government’s change of course.
The increase in racist violence, the success of the AfD and the large number of far-right demonstrations have left many people in fear. A frequently expressed thought on social media is that it is now easy to understand the developments in society in the early 1930s. Without a doubt, the situation is serious if even police spokespeople are warning of the danger of pogrom-like situations in Saxony. Here, the fascists and racists of the NPD and Pegida have been particularly successful in inciting hatred among parts of the population and building a base for themselves. Furthermore, these forces are aided by a state apparatus apparently infested with right-wingers and racists which allows them a freer hand than elsewhere. But racist violence is not just a problem in Saxony, it is simply more clearly expressed there. There were attacks on refugees’ accommodation in every state, in eastern and in western Germany. The AfD is gaining more strongly in the east than in the west, but will in all probability comfortably pass the five percent threshold in the state elections in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. At a superficial glance, the whole country is shifting to the right.
It would be wrong, however, to speak of a general rightward shift in society. In fact, social polarisation is becoming sharper on these questions. The potential for left and class-based resistance was evident during last year on a number of occasions. This was the case in various strikes, in many successful mobilisations and blockades against far-right demonstrations, in the massive wave of aid and solidarity for arriving refugees, in the huge 500,000 strong demonstration against the TTIP last October. DIE LINKE and the trade unions are, however, failing to combine this potential and give it a clear class-based expression. Therefore, DIE LINKE is stagnating in the polls while the AfD makes gains. The end result of the polarisation at the moment is a shift to the right in the policies of the government and a strengthening of right-populist and neo-fascist forces.
Consciousness within the working class and within the population as a whole is, in general, extremely varied, contradictory, and fluid. The feeling that the world is getting more and more out of control and that people in Germany are feeling the effects of this, has certainly increased in the last few months.
This invariably leads to defensive reactions in the thinking of those people who see their livelihoods threatened in some non-specific way by these developments. At this moment this is happening against a backdrop of a relatively stable economic and budgetary situation. Class struggle, and situations in which workers, the unemployed and parts of the middle class feel directly and strongly attacked by measures by the ruling class are currently still relatively rare and mostly not generalised although they are increasing.
This leads a section of these people to focus their thinking and their fears on the refugee issue and the alleged threat of terrorism – under the influence of the bourgeois media, state racism and incitement to hatred by the AfD. At the same time the AfD manages to portray itself as an anti-establishment force, despite its bourgeois policies. It is benefitting from the fact that the governing parties offer no solution and DIE LINKE is being increasingly seen as a party like any other.
DIE LINKE and the trade unions
When Die LINKE uses the slogan “out of love for our homeland” in its election campaign in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, when its lead candidate in Saxony-Anhalt, Wulf Gallert, is praised as “one who understands women”, when party leader Sahra Wagenknecht speaks of immigrants “abusing our hospitality” and advocates deporting asylum seekers who break the law, when former leader Oskar Lafontaine advocates limiting the numbers of refugees and Bodo Ramelow’s LINKE-led government in Thüringen deports people, then it is hardly surprising DIE LINKE is perceived as “the left one among the [establishment] parties”, but still as a party belonging to the system and the establishment. Large sections of the LINKE leadership are looking towards government coalitions with the SPD and the Greens instead of self-confidently standing up for a genuinely different kind of politics – in terms of style and substance.
What is necessary is an active campaign to combine social questions, solidarity with refugees and the fight against racism. To make clear that the party has nothing in common with all of the parties who have for years and decades been responsible for social cuts, deregulating employment conditions and pushing back workers’ rights. For example, to raise the demand to confiscate residential and office space which is lying empty for social use, to organise and to support occupations in order to fight for affordable accommodation for everyone – whether Germans in need of homes or migrants or refugees.
The behaviour of the trade union leadership is even worse than that of DIE LINKE. With their millions of members, they could launch an information campaign against racism, against the AfD and co in the workplaces, which in itself would serve to change the public debate. But most of all, they could organise a united struggle for the interests of German and non-German workers and unemployed. This would be the best way to combat racism and division. The upcoming wage negotiations for public sector employees at federal and local level, for the metal and electrical industry, in the construction industry, at Telekom, Volkswagen, in the printing sector and in the banks, as well as the ongoing disputes at the Charité and other hospitals, at Amazon and the Real supermarket chain could be combined into a movement across wider society for a redistribution of wealth from top to bottom. This would change the situation in society and push the social question to the fore.
If DIE LINKE and the trade unions also formed alliances with tenants associations, immigrant organisations, anti-racist groups and social movements, combining the struggle against the right with the struggle against spending restrictions, austerity, low wages and housing shortages, it would quickly become clear that the nazis, racists, AfD and Pegida are only a small minority.
Unfortunately, this is not happening. The leadership of the DGB (trade union federation) has instead initiated an “Alliance for cosmopolitanism” together with the employers’ association and other institutions like the Catholic and Protestant Churches. It is a paper tiger, which employers’ association president Ingo Kramer even used as a platform to call for deportations. Some forces within DIE LINKE such as Marx21 (led by co-thinkers of the British SWP) and others, are working on an anti-AfD alliance which declines to raise any social demands or to criticise stricter asylum laws or deportations, so as not to scare away SPD and Green politicians.
However, the right cannot be stopped without presenting political alternatives. A better example of how to go about this was presented by the „Alliance for a social Berlin against racism“ which has just been formed by activists of the GEW (teachers’ union), ver.di youth (public sector and services union), GEW youth, tenants associations, LINKE, SAV and others, which has called a Berlin-wide demonstration on April 16th, which will combine the struggle against racism with the struggle for affordable accommodation, public investment and a redistribution of wealth from top to bottom.
The call to this demonstration says: “Even people who have lived here for a long time have trouble finding affordable homes. There is a shortage of tens of thousands of housing units in Berlin, and every year only half as many as are needed are built, Public services are underfunded and colleagues in local authority offices and hospitals are chronically overworked. School students are often being taught in classes which are far too large, and often in containers. There are already ten schools less than what would be needed in Berlin. If planning doesn’t begin immediately, it will be around 80 by the year 2030.
“It doesn’t matter whether you have been living in Berlin for 70 years or for three months. It doesn’t matter if you are from Wedding, from Dortmund or from Syria: Anyone who can’t afford an expensive apartment or private tuition is dependent on the social infrastructure of the city. Destructive cutbacks have brought the city’s infrastructure to the limits of what it can take – long before the arrival of an increased number of refugees. We urgently need investment in education, homes and the social sector! (…) instead of taking away the rights of refugees, keeping them in camps, banning them from working and threatening to deport them back to where they face war, poverty and discrimination, we need a genuine right to asylum and equal rights for everyone who lives here! (…)
“The right wing claims that refugees are to blame for the housing crises, for the requisition of sports halls and the lack of money for local authorities. They exploit the underfunding of society for their propaganda. We confront them and refuse to let ourselves be divided! The division is not between people of different origin, it is between those above and those below!”