Introduction to debate on the new 'under classes' - Wildcat Germany

Workers protest against welfare reform
Workers protest against welfare reform

Having a historical look at labour migration and welfare policies in Germany, Wildcat criticises the current attempt of those in power in Germany to create an image of the dangerous under-classes as opposed to the class of decent working people.

Submitted by Steven. on January 5, 2007

Introduction to debate on the new 'under classes'1
The income disparity in Germany aggravates, the rate of long-term and youth unemployment consolidates, the majority of workers have to face real income losses, particularly in the low wage sector: the number of working poor increases, people who work but cannot make ends meet. Studies undertaken by the federal employment agency, the official report on poverty published by the federal government and other analysis officially state this as fact. The facts are known and undisputed, but the question is how to interpret them.

“Of course there are under-classes in Germany”, says the conservative historian Paul Nolte and he refers to people who are “unwilling to work and integrate”, sometimes he simply refers to 'Neu-kölln'2. There in Neukölln people eat too much fast-food, they watch telly all day (and the wrong programs!), make too many children to whom they cannot serve as role-models. These 'under classes' themselves are responsible for their situation, therefore it is wrong for the welfare state to grant them a livelihood. This is the ideological background music for the enforcement of the Hartz IV reform3 which first of all aims at extending the low wage sector. In order to do that the 'superfluous' and 'delinquent' parts of the working class are captured as caricatures and put on stage for public bashing. This picture of the 'underclass' is an offer to other parts of the working class to draw a clear line between themselves and those 'on the bottom' by showing self-initiative and proper behaviour. In times of social upheavals similar pictures served for the legitimation of 'security' measures and repression. Everyone who lives in these alleged 'underclass' areas knows how little these characteristics relate to reality and how much they are ideological constructions. During the last months we could follow how such constructions are used in the public debate. Be it a murder committed in order to 'secure the family honour' or racist violence against 'coloured people'. Be it an open letter of teachers which aimed at the dissolution of the (Rütli) secondary modern school. Be it 'violent school students' (kids from a poor or, if politically convenient, from a migration background), or daft German racists (underclass, wrong telly programmes), or the Islamic threat (immigrants). They all call for more cops, more social work, more (forced) integration in the German Leitkultur, in any case they are grist to the states mill. Emancipatory developments within the third or fourth generation of Turkish or Kurdish immigrants – to which murder of honour is a brutal answer of a decaying patriarchy – are completely blanked out. The practical element of the 'underclass debate' a la Nolte is the fact that it can be turned into a social or cultural question depending on tactical political convenience. If necessary it can be attached to the culturalism a la Le Pen or Junge Freiheit4, as well.

From 'Gastarbeiter'5 to 'youth with migration background'
Since there is Germany, there is immigration. The working class always had a foreign or an immigrant face ('Ruhrarea Poles', 'East-Jews', 'Refugees', 'Itacker'6, ...). The boom in the 60s was only possible on the backs of the 'Gastarbeiter'. The annual immigration of workers (mainly from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia) increased from 330,000 in 1960, to 1,5 million in1969 to 2,6 million in 1973. Work and the struggle against work was the main integrator of this cycle of migration. In independent struggles at the end of the 60s and at the beginning of the 70s these 'Gastarbeiters' were able to get rid off their low wage categories and to enforce general wage hikes. The scope of the struggles (striking skilled and chemical workers, student- and youth movement) went far beyond the immediate working conditions and wages, they questioned the totality of social relations. The struggles weakened the racism within the working class (e.g. fear of the new workers who would put pressure on wages and dissolve the unity). After the government decided to stop the mass recruitment of workers from abroad in 1973, some of the foreign workers stayed in Germany for good. Which was not, however, the plans of politicians and employers – and often not the immigrants own original life plans.

Of 14 million Gastarbeiters who came to Germany before 1973 about 11 million went back to their countries of origin. A lot of those who stayed sent for their families or partners and settled down in Germany together with them. The 80s were characterised by these family reunions and a new wave of migration. After the military coup in Turkey a lot of young and politically aware Turkish from urban backgrounds came to Germany and its factories. The lifestyle from southern Europe changed the culture of daily life. Bit by bit the immigrants workers' clubs focused their politics on the new 'home country' and thousands of immigrant workers were integrated in the union structures. 'Gastarbeiter' became 'foreigners in Germany' or 'immigrated Germans'. The current debate on 'integration' and 'migrant background' seems surprised to acknowledge that the numbers of the 'migrant population' is much higher than supposed'7. But today migration and the debates around it take place in a changed social context. While the first generation Gastarbeiters (workers who often were not able to read or write) was socially integrated through the work process and the class struggle, today a lot of young kids with a 'migration background' are excluded from regular jobs. And the share of 'migrants' increases the younger people are. Since 2001 youth unemployment increased by 50 percent and kids with a 'migration background' are particularly effected: in some bigger towns half of the youth of a certain age group are unemployed. The school system is aggravating this tendency. According to the PISA8 study 40 per cent of migrant youth do not have a 'basic knowledge' of maths, German and science.

Generational Ruptures
Again and again state and employers try hard to undermine the cohesion which exists between the following aspects: on one hand the high productivity of an industrial production process, on the other hand high wages of core workers, minor wage disparities, high welfare costs and the unwillingness of parts of the class to subject themselves to the production process. Hartz IV and increasing repression are meant to put pressure on the welfare-fed 'over-population'. The share of un-skilled or semi-skilled workers of the total employment9 has decreased from 25 percent (1985) to 20.5 percent (1995) and is likely to shrink to 16 percent by 2010. The classical jobs for un-skilled workers in the textile industry, the steel and machine-operating sector, the mining sector, in warehouses and in agriculture have been cut. At DaimlerCrysler people who have 'only' finished secondary modern school (nine years of school education) hardly have a chance to get an apprenticeship. The unemployment amongst low-qualified (job qualification or A-level school education) is double as high as the average – an indication for the fact that the low-wage sector is (still) underdeveloped. A lot of the future low-wage jobs are supposed to be created in the service sector, but is there any former industrial worker who wants to lick the boots of bosses and clients for 25 percent less money, who wants to 'serve'?

The artisan and handy-craft worker of the early twentieth century, proud of his or her position as a skilled worker, wanted and expected that their children would follow in their footsteps. About 70 years later the kids of the factory workers did not want to go to work in the factories and their parents worked hard for their chance to become 'something better'. During the expansive phase of capital a considerable part of the working class had the chance to climb up the social ladder by achieving better educational qualifications, further training or even by going to university. The expansion of mass production which was based on an intensified division of labour had to be secured by further migration. The worldwide wave of class struggle lead to an explosion of the reproduction costs of the commodity labour power in Germany (welfare system, public swimming pools, universities, ...) and the wage differences within the labour force diminished, taking the wages in the core industries as a fixed point. Along with increased qualification and career opportunities the birth rate shrunk and in the context of the '68 movement a part of the new generation refused a workers life from cradle to pension. The highly productive working class does not reproduce itself any more.

At the same time the distribution of the total labour volume is changing. About two decades ago over 80 percent of the workers were employed full-time and in regular jobs, today only 68 percent are. The labour volume has decreased generally, more male are unemployed and more women have entered jobs, but they work less hours for less money. The temp-work sector is growing (in 2005 by ten percent), though only 30 percent of the temps are “un-skilled” or “helpers”. The male factory work force has been diminished constantly.

The current social ruptures also result in 'moral decline'. First of all this shows in increasing violence within the class. And even in times when violence generalises itself and becomes an upheaval, like during the riots in the French suburbs (see prol-position no.5), most often the small cars of the proletarian neighbours are set on fire. But the 'excluded' take part in movements of students and workers to a massive extent, e.g. in the movement against the CPE in France (see article in this issue) or the 'Si se puede' migrants movement in the US (see link in prol-position no.5). Therefore the powers are increasingly afraid of the possibility that the violence and frustration could leap over into the town centres and better-off areas. Therefore the sociologists intensify their research of (migrant) kids (in urban secondary modern schools), of hooligans during the world cup and of right-wing thugs, therefore the repression is fortified.

Fear of 'moral decline'
The social rupture creates feelings of insecurity, the fear of social degradation has its effects on the shop-floor and functions as a way to divide the class. The exclusion from wage labour and the states refusal to grant the necessary means of reproduction, impedes the 'excluded', who are lacking a space of common experience, and the 'enclosured' [those trapped in wage labour]. coming together as working class.

The radical left does not know how to handle social reality. For years the anti-racist left cares for refugees and asylum-seekers but the second and third generation of migrant kids remains alien to them and vice versa. The anti fascist left fights against fascist cadres and structures but leaves the suburbs and whole (east-German) regions to the agitation of the far right. Even on the home turf of squatted houses, like recently in Cologne (see article in this issue), only a few people managed to deal with the contradictory composition of people involved. Even though the anger and the determined action of the mixed composition of squatters was the driving force. While living together and organising daily life, the squatters were able to learn a lot from each other. The kids managed to resist being locked up in young peoples homes and created a meeting point and information structures.

The space widens
Although the fear of those in power concerning an uncontrollable development is mainly justified by experiences outside of Germany and although the Monday demonstrations (see prol-position no.1) are already part of history: all in all the space for struggle movements has widened. Unemployment benefit ALG II brings the material condition of social benefit claimants, unemployed workers, proles and people who cannot or do not want to work to one and the same level. It standardises the material condition of people who, previous to the Hartz IV reform, had been neatly divided into different (benefit) categories. To a large extend the shame of being a social benefit claimant turned into consciousness of being one out of four million unjustly treated people.

During struggles, in strike tents and at assemblies, the atmosphere became more open. People are more active themselves and contribute to organisation and discussion. Unlike in the past, today you can visit any strike and find people who are eager to debate. While the debate on under classes is a debate of exclusion and inclusion (in a double sense: lock-up some, integrate the rest), the experiences within the struggles head towards the opposite direction.

1 A debate taking place in Europe since the late 90s. During recent years politicians, academics and other social managers discovered that mass-unemployment creates a layer in society which allegedly can not be re-integrated in the labour market and which breeds another generation of small criminals and social benefit claimants. The debate was intensified after the riots in the suburbs in France. Within the left the usual attitude towards these new 'sub-proletarians' is hostile: in England they are caricatured as 'chars', who are only interested in cheap thrills, in Germany the entire unemployed youth in the East is declared as right-wing thugs, in Italy the left leaves the suburbs to the 'right-wing Mafiosi' and in France the left sees the suburbs as Arabic no-go-areas.

2 Neukölln is an area o f Berlin with high (migrant) unemployment. It became a synonym for 'under-class area' when teachers of a school wrote an open letter to the mayor in spring 2006 refusing to continue teaching. They claimed that due to the violent and criminal behaviour of the students and their insufficient knowledge of the German language they are unable to do their job. The conservatives used this in order to state the failure of the 'multi-cultural' model of integration.

3 Hartz IV was a major reform of the unemployment benefit system undertake by the social-democratic ex-government in 2003/2004. For more info on the reform and protests against it see prol-position newsletter no.1 and no.2.

4 German right-wing magazine

5 'Guest worker', official term for migrant workers hired by German companies in the 50s and 60s

6 Swear word for Italians in the 50s

7 “The share of the population with migration background is essentially higher than it was thought to be. About a fifth or about 15 million people have migrated themselves or have at least one parent who was not born here. Accordingly, at 18.6 percent, the share of people with migration background is double as high as the share of foreigners in Germany. There are major regional differences. In West-Germany the share of migrants and their off-spring is 21.5 percent which is four times as high as in the new federal states, where the share is 5.2 percent. 27.2 percent of people aged under 25 years have a migration background and already one third of children under six years”. Financial Times Germany, 6th of June 2006

8 European wide governmental study on the education system

9 Total employment is defined by all jobs which pay a contribution to the social security system.

from Wildcat no.77, Summer 2006
[prol-position news #7 | 11/2006]