We haven’t even started yet! On the state of anti-capitalist protest in Germany in the summer of 2012

The following article is a translation of a German text written as an evaluation of the recent M31 and ‘Blockupy’ mobilisations in Germany in spring 2012.

The following article is a translation of a German text written as an evaluation of the recent M31 and ‘Blockupy’ mobilisations in Germany in spring 2012. Its author, the …ums Ganze! alliance, was one of the key organisers of the M31 initiative, which is an attempt – via an initial international day of action on 31st March – at co-ordinating action against capitalism across Europe. The M31 network includes the …ums Ganze! alliance and the anarcho-syndicalist FAU (Free Workers’ Union) from Germany, anti-fascist groups in Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands and groups from the Ukraine and Russia. The day of action was also supported by organisations such as the Spanish CNT and the Solidarity Federation in Britain who picketed businesses profiting from the British governments Workfare scheme on the same day.

Shift decided to translate and publish this article to help continue the discussions which the M31 initiative has begun, further discussions around the opportunities and difficulties of international organising and bring out some of the differences between the M31 day of action and Blockupy. In particular, we wanted to highlight the authors’ vision for the emergence, on a European-wide scale, of an anti-capitalist movement based on a radical ‘international antinational’ perspective of the crisis: that is, a perspective critical of nationalist or social democratic responses to the crisis (for an important theoretical contribution to the development of such a perspective, see Shift’s translation of the text ‘International Antinationalism!’, authored by the ‘Just Do It!’ working group of AntiFa AK Cologne, available at: http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=603). We believe that such an orientation could significantly strengthen the UK anti-austerity movement. With its strong focus on public sector cuts and reforms - and with internationalist gestures largely remaining limited to statements or acts of solidarity with movements elsewhere - the latter’s ‘official’ (TUC-led) face, at the very least, has so far lacked such an outward orientation grounded in a joined up analysis of global crisis.

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Until spring, everything seemed to be just the way it has always been. While thousands of people in Spain and Greece took to the streets to protest the biggest austerity program since World War II, the German Bild Zeitung [a populist, conservative German tabloid - the translator] unabashedly agitated against the ‘bankrupt Greeks’. Moreover, the German chancellor, Merkel, even demanded the right to intervene in matters of fiscal policy of states that receive EU aid, while the foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, implored the Greek government to ‘do their homework’.

This newly instigated German chauvinism has been shored up by the domestic pact between labour and capital, led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who supported authoritarian austerity measures against the ‘southern European good-for-nothings’, along with the unions, whose outreach of solidarity usually ends at the German border. However, the pan-European day of action ‘M31’ in late March and the ‘Blockupy’ protests in May boldly opposed this development with heavy protest. Both M31 and Blockupy strongly criticized the German handling of the crisis in the Eurozone. Further, they emphasized that neither financial crises nor authoritarian austerity measures are inevitable natural phenomena; rather, they have much more to do with the capitalist excess that has historically been a permanent crisis for the largest part of the world population. With this critique, a couple of thousand people went out on M31 and during Blockupy to protest for a better, more solidary society beyond capitalism. Despite the different results of both events, they might mark the beginning of a new, more political and critical perception of the crisis for many people, entailing a challenge to the dominant discourse of Germany being the ‘winner’ of the crisis, and its justification for inaction.

Clearly, we are, as of yet, far from establishing an intelligent anti-capitalist counter hegemony. Much too often, coarse criticism is directed towards the greedy bankers and fat cats and not against structural problems of capitalism. Against this background, M31 and Blockupy offered different answers: that is, for emancipatory perspectives beyond state, nation, and capital. M31 was conceived as a pan-European, locally organised day of action with a clear anti-capitalist agenda. In Frankfurt, M31 peaked in a demonstration [Frankfurt is Germany’s main financial hub and thus a symbolic place for anti-capitalist protest – the translator]. We, as the …ums Ganze! alliance, made up of over 10 groups from across Germany, tried to scandalise both the German doctrine of austerity-based policies and neoliberal concepts of economic order. Our most important goals as organizers were to have …ums Ganze!’s anti-capitalist and anti-national position publicly discussed in the context of the Eurocrisis; and to demonstrate solidarity with the Greek people who have been affected by the austerity measures. It worked. In preparation for the day of action, we agreed on five common goals with the Krisenbuendnis Frankfurt (Crisis Alliance Frankfurt) and the FAU (Free Workers’ Union), both of whom were signatories to the initiative. Firstly, the protests were to have an anti-capitalist, anti-national, anti-statist, self-organised, and inclusive character. Our second demand was to transcend the national limitation of crisis protest. The latter will be a political process in the proper sense. But it is also one that calls for new structures and forms of actions. By establishing a network together with activists from other countries with whom we share strategic goals and a strategic repertoire, the recent protests were a first step in this direction. What these agreed goals meant in practice was a strong rejection of both the German government – in its self-appointed role as European taskmaster – and the European Central Bank (ECB), with its technocratic project to raise the competitiveness of European capitalism at the expense of the working and the unemployed alike.

It was important for us to present a perspective for a better life beyond state, nation and capital. What we did not expect, however, was the positive reaction across Europe around the day of action. In Germany, many groups, from Flensburg to Munich, followed our lead and called for protest. Further, people in more than 30 cities all over Europe participated in rallies and demonstrations: for example, in Athens, Milan, Kiev, Utrecht, Zagreb, and Vienna, in many Spanish cities and even in New York and Mexico City. Some of these events just had symbolic character, but still, the M31 actions succeeded in establishing a tangible political reference point for the crisis. For us, this response indicates that, after two decades of neoliberal redistribution, there is a widespread desire to express general criticism against capitalism beyond the established forms of representation. For this reason as well, we would evaluate M31 as success that did not need to be assessed by the number of smashed windows, but rather by its role in promoting a rebirth of popular anti-capitalist protest in Germany. Still, the media reports were largely negative, portraying the demonstration as a largely Black Block protest. Given this context, the behaviour of the media and the political establishment towards M31 was, even by their bourgeois standards, dishonest and cynical: while the effects of German-European crisis politics is social devastation in southern Europe, while people in Spain and Greece die because neither they nor the state can afford public healthcare, M31 was depicted as violent rioting just because some symbolic windows were broken – at a Jobcentre, an employment agency, a government immigration unit, a police station, and a bridal shop. Indeed, as the Blockupy days of action approached, the state and the media sensationalised about an unpredictable political threat in Frankfurt.

In contrast to M31, Blockupy was not an overtly anti-capitalist form of protest. The Blockupy alliance, especially the Interventionist Left [a coalition of groups from across Germany, most famous for its efforts to create a pluralistic yet radical mobilising platform as part of the 2007 G8 summit protests in Heiligendamm. For more, read Red Pepper’s excellent feature: www.redpepper.org.uk/moving-against/ – the ed.], was aimed at all those who wanted to protest against the policy of the German federal government and of the Troika. Additionally, Blockupy made use of mass mobilisation and openly cooperated with unions and parties from the left. We, as the …ums Ganze! alliance, again participated in the protest, this time with a designated anti-capitalist space, featuring newspapers, flyers, and workshops about ‘social-chauvinism’ [see Endnotes below for an explanation of this term – the ed.], ‘international anti-nationalism’ [see Shift’s translation of Antifa AK Cologne’s recent text for more on this concept – the ed.] and the wretched hopelessness of left reformism. Due to repressive police action, we were only able to carry out about half of this programme, but we are still quite satisfied with the results.

Blockupy was intended to become a kind of anti-capitalist Wendland – the long-time heartland of Germany’s strong, non-violent direct action anti-nuclear movement – in Frankfurt. However, the German government’s reaction was unprecedented. In May, the city authorities of Frankfurt and the state government of Hesse, the state in which Frankfurt is situated, decided to ban all planned public events that were to be held as part of Blockupy. Several thousand police officers were brought into the city, all protest was criminalised, usually justified in the media by referring to the M31 ‘riots’. Thus, Blockupy revealed the fragility of liberal commitments to civil liberties when faced with meaningful popular protest: several courts legitimated the ban on protest in the city, arguing that protest might infringe upon the basic right of private property, especially for the inner-city bankers and traders who might be affected by the urban blockade.

As the actual blockade approached, the reactions of media and the political establishment towards the perceived threat became more and more ridiculous. Still, they revealed that Blockupy, just like M31 before it, has touched a nerve. The city government of Frankfurt did not hesitate one second to sacrifice its liberal ambition in favour of a police-state like reaction. Though absolutely scandalous, this is not too surprising. Law and order at any price, without regard for basic civil liberties, has always been a part of authoritarian politics. And it has now arrived in Germany too. Given this, describing the political reaction to Blockupy as ‘exaggerated’ falls a bit short of the problem. Liberalism has always had the full force of the state to back up its strategic assets – and Frankfurt this May was no exception. From this perspective, it would seem that the political elites used Blockupy as a preparation for more aggressive crisis protests, as an adaption to the state of emergency. What Blockupy successfully revealed, therefore, is the concrete line of conflict between those who hold on to the current capitalist system and those who desire something better.

From a position of ideological critique, the reactions of the German administration in Frankfurt are very interesting. In a situation that was, compared with Greek or Spanish conditions, a fairly low level threat, the administration responded in what can only be considered a paranoid manner: 500 people were denied access to the city and another 1,500 were detained prior to the days of action and only released afterwards. Furthermore, it is remarkable that the Hessian political elites did not only try to ban the Saturday demonstration, but also that the courts, which in Germany are usually fairly liberal, legitimated this anti-liberal approach, referring to the danger the demonstration posed to private property. The political establishment, the courts, the banks and the retail industry alike feared limitations to the conduct of business in Frankfurt. Anticipating violence, the banks gave some of their employees time off and relocated certain operations to the suburbs. With the media gladly picking up on this fear, anti-capitalist activists were quickly rendered as violent mobsters that would hunt down white-collar professionals if they were let loose in the city.

Consistently, the police turned Frankfurt into a fortress. Although the courts later ruled that all detentions and denials of access to the city were issued illegally, the repressive behaviour of the police remained in force throughout the days of action and they continued to detain activists. Despite this, and thanks to the defiance of hundreds of people, many smaller protests occurred throughout the city. Several days of protest, along with the massive police presence, also polarised the population of Frankfurt. The liberal newspaper the Frankfurter Rundschau, for example, changed its coverage of the event entirely: it began in support of the government reaction but gradually shifted to a more bourgeois criticism of the police strategy. Despite all of this, the critical mass needed for a blockade of the ECB was not reached as too few people turned up. Meanwhile, at least the police themselves shut down Frankfurt’s main financial and commercial area as an effect of their strategy.

With more than 30,000 participants, the Saturday demonstration was one of the largest in some time. Alongside the left reformist reductions of speakers from Attac, the unions and the Left party, much criticism was directed against individuals (greedy bankers etc.). Some anti-Semitic morons even wrote calls to boycott Israel on their bellies. Another problem was the focus on the administrative response to Blockupy. Some organisers and protesters seemed to be content merely that the demonstration was, eventually, allowed to take place. But these problematic positions did not dominate the protest march. Rather, criticism of the German, neoliberal-styled handling of the crisis in the Eurozone stood in the center of the protest and most demonstrators showed solidarity with those affected by the German-imposed austerity programmes.

More than 5,000 people also demonstrated in an explicitly anti-capitalist bloc: organised by the Interventionist Left and …ums Ganze!, this bloc borrowed from the strategic repertoire and outward appearance associated with the black bloc, yet was inclusive, colourful and vibrant. Participants of this bloc countered the police’s aggressive tactics with good humour, which we consider to be a positive sign for future projects together. In sum, both M31 and Blockupy put the political aspect of the crisis back onto the agenda. This is an achievement we must seek to replicate in our future actions.

What is required in the current stage of the crisis is bottom-up, cross-border networking between protest movements. We need to recognise and confront the small-scale and fragmented nature of our movements head on. Here, in the Federal Republic of Germany, we want to embrace the dialogue that has been opened between us and the those groups who supported the M31 and Blockupy protests and with all those interested in a radical criticism of capitalism. M31 has proved that we can forge complex alliances within a short period. In the near future, we want to strengthen interregional networks with a variety of political groups in order to quickly coordinate activities on an international scale. We would be delighted to participate in shared international projects and we are always interested in discussions, no matter where. Our collective goal should be the delegitimisation of the current crisis politics and crisis analysis and the development of a social and intellectual counter-hegemony made up of all those affected by it on an international level. We are not megalomaniac: the scale of our ambition is determined by the almost permanent nature of capitalism itself. Our critique of current conditions, which refuses to be directed at anything less than the whole system […ums Ganze! loosely translates to ‘All of it!’ – the translator], will need to prove itself in the future. Clearly, there are as of yet few tangible alternatives to capitalism. But they do not just pop out of thin air, they are made in the political process.

…ums Ganze!, August 2012

Endnotes:

Social chauvinism is a term used on the German anti-authoritarian left. The definition provided here is a loose translation of the one given in a recent pamphlet on social chauvinism, produced by the ‘Alliance against Racism and Social Chauvinism’ (of which TOP, another of the groups in …ums Ganze!, is part): ‘social chauvinism’ is the ideology of capitalist crisis. It promotes enmity against all those who do not fit the ideal type of an efficient, driven and motivated individual competing in the capitalist rat race. Its proponents stigmatise and exclude others as ‘unproductive’, ‘lazy’ or ‘benefit cheats’ in an attempt to cement their own utility for capital. ‘Social chauvinism’ denies the social origins and structural causes of poverty, presenting instead an image of social exclusion as resulting from a lack of individual aspiration. Its logic forecloses the thinking of alternatives to (national) economic competition and to the cult of business performance. Aggressive forms of ‘social chauvinism’ are (a populist) manifest across party lines.