The left was caught by surprise by the scale of the crisis, and its initial silence shows that analyses, policies and politics were hardly conceived in such a way that its own concepts could become practicable [=wirklich] (or even germane).
Left critique was strong where it addressed the manifestations of the crisis of the neoliberal model of politics and socialization, and stood on the side of the excluded and the surplus population [der Überflüssigen]. There was a lively and forceful critique of the social costs of neoliberalism. In 2003, a (fragile) anti-neoliberal bloc could be organized, in which left wings of trade-unions, anti-Hartz IV protests, the global-justice movement, critical intellectuals and the party Die LINKE formulated – despite all the differences between them – a critique of neoliberalism with a common direction.
Other struggles were carried out in a rather isolated way, for example the defensive battles against pensions at the age of 67 – and these hardly resulted in broadly shared concepts. Debates on societal alternatives (such as unconditional basic income, global social rights or solidarity economy) had limited public exposure, and they hardly resulted in broadly shared concepts. Added to this is the lack of worked out alternatives for the political regulation of high-tech modes of production. The relative weakness of the alternative concepts was, and is, to an important extent part of the “passive consensus around the hegemony” of neoliberalism, even if this has become more porous.
None of the protagonists and spectrums of the social left can at present credibly represent this project alone; a common grammar of struggles has still to be developed. The challenge of building an alliance and of debates around a project of a plural social left overlap.
In 2009, two parallel alliances, formed out of trade-union lefts, the party Die LINKE, attac, trade-union structures and anti-capitalist groups, organized the March 28 demonstration in Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, in which about 50,000 people took part.
The slogan “we won’t pay for your crisis” is an attempt – in the face of the general call for “common responsibility” for rescuing the banks – to name various interests as well as those who are politically responsible and those who profit economically [from the crisis]. Taxation of large assets, the reining in of financial markets, the drying up of tax oases [tax shelters], the rescinding of Agenda 2010 and of pensions at 67, and that the crisis not be dealt with at the cost of the South, are, among other demands, positions around which people can unite.
In the case of some concrete demands, there are often roadblocks: Some concrete demands – for example, from the spectrum of social protests and of the trade-union left, the demand for an immediate 500 euros ALG 2 standard rate [Unemployment Compensation II (“Hartz IV”)], for a 30-hour work week with full wage and personnel compensation as well as for a 10 euro minimum wage – contradict motions passed by union leadership bodies or don’t reflect the interests and mobilizing issues of the core work teams. Many employees in the automobile part supply sector, for example, know that work-time reduction with full compensatory wage increases would lead, on the level of a single company, to quicker bankruptcies and to unemployment, and they reject this demand. In this sense, it would be necessary to absorb into the demands forms of social or state mediation such as the redistribution of work, state equalization funds and offensively to take up radical work-time reduction as a society-wide concept. The demands “500 – 30 – 10” are the result of struggles and agreements of diverse spectrums in the movement against the Hartz reforms, but these movements in the last analysis remain weak. They express an agreement between jobless and social-protest initiatives and a part of the trade-union left against the division fostered between the jobless and the employed by neoliberalism’s low-wage and workfare policy. In the context of the crisis, this concern is very real; however, the defensive forms coming out of perspectives that cut across the boundaries between groups, recall lost struggles of the past.
Only to a limited extent are the positions connected of different spectrums connected to each other. Seldom are the perspectives of other spectrums recognized as concrete concerns; rather they are understood as reflecting institutional power. The more concretely the demands are formulated the greater seems to be the danger that the spectrums will move away from each other. At the same time, the retraction of concrete positions represents a possible breaking point, if, for example, social protest initiatives see their concrete demands as being tied to the acknowledgement of “their” life realities. Out of the struggles around Agenda 2010 the experience still shows that abstract demands have no prospect of being realized and of bringing about concrete improvements – and that is consciously taken into account by the “bigger” protagonists, like the trade-unions. The mistrust of the party Die LINKE and of the trade-unions is profound. The fact, for example, that the party, even before a demonstration, takes over the demands as their own is hardly seen as a success for the movement. In this, the contradictions of the relations of forces becomes evident. The dynamics of alliance formation are (still) not characterized by strong social struggles with “vital” demands which drive and inspire processes of agreeing upon a common project. As a result of the relative marginality of individual movement forces (such as the movement of the unemployed), the decisive strategic questions, which are posed in the organization of jobless and “poor,” are in danger of disappearing from the field of vision, questions such as: How are the splits between the various groups of the “precariat” (casual and temp workers) to be overcome? How are solidaristic alliances possible between the precariat and the middle strata who are threatened by downward mobility?
The trade-union leaderships kept their distance and mobilized for their own day of demonstrations on May 16, 2009. The demonstrations on the European Trade-Union Day themselves were, as an after-effect of the March 28 demonstrations, clearly characterized at the rank-and-file level by left statements, and they pushed the unions toward a more intensive mobilization. The education strike by students in June attracted broad public attention. Many organizers and participants saw this activity within the context of a critique of the way the crisis is being handled and of neoliberal (educational) policy. In an action known as the “bank hold-up,” large groups visited banks and drew connections between the bail-out of the banks and the financialization of study and education.
Despite the success of the mobilizations, it became apparent that diverse strategic assessments were blocking the development of the further capacity to act together. The fact that the March and May demonstrations were not followed by mass protests, sowed the seeds of resignation among some activists. In part social unrest, protest and movement are expected “if the crisis really reaches people,” that is, if, after the national elections, the cushioning policies reach their limits. The expectation that “then it will explode” is very minimally mediated in terms of the political and cultural relations of forces, and this kind of Adventism leads to abstinence from politics. In the best case, this attitude leads to political engagement for the strengthening of local alliances and for the construction of cooperation that can then be activated “in case of emergency.” Within the alliances (except in regional and local associations, which are closer to the trade-union left), the unions hardly appear as primary protagonists capable of mobilization. In the context of the crisis, they emphasize corporatist solutions. In the mostly plant-level attempts to rescue “what can be rescued” through concessions, no social-political offensive is emerging, and even jobs and work conditions cannot be secured in the middle term through such methods (see Urban 2009, p. 72 f; Riexinger 2009). Renewal efforts, alliances with social movements and an orientation to offensive wage struggles, which could compensate the loss in real wages of recent years, are in danger of being pushed to the background.
In this, the unions are in part strengthening their alignment with the SPD and orienting themselves toward the goal of negotiating concessions in the case of a Grand Coalition – they have little to expect from Die LINKE after the election except for its sharing the same struggle. What works against this is involvement in crisis management: The so-called “car-scrappage scheme,” crisis packages and reduced working hours are parts of a “national competitive-position-based crisis management” with which the government is trying to maintain social stability. Fierce internal confrontations around the demonstrations of March 28 and May 16, 2009 have shown that these orientations are objects of contention within the unions. Through the project of a new public deal, that is, of a reining in of privatization and the market by the enlargement of the public sector and of social infrastructure, common perspectives of Ver.di, social movements and other parts of the social left are thinkable (Riexinger 2009). Another “entry-project” of a plural “mosaic left” within an offensive strategy for dealing with the crisis could be tying discussions of securing jobs with work-time reduction, ecological conversion, cost-free mobility infrastructure, conversion of key sectors into public property and new forms of economic democracy (Urban 2009).
In order for these diverse fragments of the protest movements to find their way to being a “mosaic,” they need a process of communication and agreement over shared goals, or at least a common strategic perspective of how diverse but not antithetical goals can be linked together. In order to present something that can compete in the debate with liberal – and right-wing – populism, it is necessary to connect popular-democratic positions to a critique of capitalism and to egalitarian-solidaristic forms that includes global dimensions.
Focusing on Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of “revolutionary Realpolitik” – which, however, due to the very different social situation of today’s politics can if needed be conceived instead as “radical Realpolitik” – could be a contested area of agreement for linking the diverse initiatives of strategic center – left alliances to socialist “entry projects.”
Riexinger, Bernd, 2009: Perspektiven des Protestes. Wie weiter nach den Demonstrationen in Frankfurt und Berlin?, in: Sozialismus, H. 7/ 2009,
Urban, Hans-Jürgen, 2009: Die Mosaik-Linke. Vom Aufbruch der Gewerkschaften zur Erneuerung der Bewegung, in: Blätter f. dt. u. intern. Politik, H. 5, 2009, 71-8