Protests against welfare-reform in Germany, 2004

Submitted by Steven. on November 17, 2006

Account an analysis of struggles against the abolition of unemployment benefits in Germany, which would immediately affect 600,000 people.

We were the people!
(Banner on a Monday demonstration in Leipzig - “We are the people” was the main slogan during the demonstrations in 1989)

While the initiatives of the unemployed, the social forums and other alliances were preparing for a hot autumn for months, the Monday demonstrations against the welfare reform disrupted the silence of the midsummer break in east-German cities. Several thousand people took the streets week after week. What had begun as a small protest in Magdeburg grew as rapidly as it shrank again, after it became clear that the government would only carry out cosmetic adjustments to the so-called Hartz IV reform. Up to now, it is not yet clear if the Monday demonstrations were the prelude of a general movement against the attack on the level of reproduction of the proletariat, or if they will end up in an impasse of a new East German self-identification.

The attack
Hartz IV marks a paradigm shift. The abolishment of the unemployment benefit affects a root of the specific organization of capitalism in Germany, more than any other measure of the government. It wasn’t tactically clever that in autumn 2004, Hartz, as a personnel manager at VW, was also seen as the force behind the attacks on the standard working conditions in the industry.

With the disappearance of the unemployment benefit, all claimants will be forced on to the same level of income after one year of unemployment. The application of the ‘principal of need’ or ‘means testing’ will result in the administration nosing around the living conditions of the unemployed and their relatives. At the same time, the controls by armed customs officials are intensified, in order to punish people doing cash in hand jobs. This is meant to drain the “undeclared resources” which still help a lot of unemployed to make ends meet in a bearable way. The abolishment of the unemployment benefit is supposed to build up sufficient pressure on the unemployed and to save money: they estimate that about 600,000 people will be immediately excluded from drawing benefits. The former minister of social affaires, Blüm, an opponent of Hartz IV, is warning that the reform would damage “ancient understandings of justice”. Up to now, after working twenty years or more in the factory an income was guaranteed in the case of unemployment or after reaching a certain age. This income was calculated on the basis of the last wage and was even adjusted to the wage increases of the industry. With the cessation of this guarantee, a pillar of legitimism of the ‘Rheinish Capitalism’1 is destroyed; the social peace in this country was also based on the permanent separation of the core working class from the claimants of social aid.

Hartz IV takes people’s dignity. Their income is cut down to basic needs and for some it is cut entirely, meaning that they become permanently financially dependent on their partners. Secondly, using the threat of cutting their income, the personal adviser in the dole office can force any recipient of unemployment money to dress up in cute uniforms to collect rubbish in the park. The recipient will get a pittance of one Euro per hour extra in addition to the dole money. This indignity is cutting deeper than political apathy.

For East-Germany, where fifteen years after the fall of the Wall only a few islands of high productivity are peaking out of a sea of stagnation and unemployment, the reform Hartz IV is a synonym for the end of development: the re-construction is finished, there is not more to expect. Migrate or be unemployed at the lowest level of reproduction.

Who is taking to the streets?
The Monday demonstrations were organized by neither the SPD2 nor the unions – in order to support the Social Democratic take over of the government as in 1998 – nor were they financed by the DGB3 – like the demonstrations on 3rd of April 2004. Neither the copyright-claim of some of the former East German civil rights fighters for the brand ‘Monday-Demonstration’ nor the insults of the DGB-Boss, who said that the organizer of the demonstrations was a united front of PDS and NPD4, could prevent the people from verbally expressing their anger on Mondays. And they expressed themselves rather rudely: “Shoot the bastard [Hartz]!”, “Send Clement [Minister of Economy] down the mine, put Schröder at the line – for no more than just a dime!” After 14 years of being put off, the people are fed up: they simply don’t believe anything anymore and the demonstrations were a possibility to say it out loud. One angry woman speaking in Leipzig: “We won’t vote for the pigs anymore. We are enough ourselves. Next time we gonna vote ourselves!” These are no reps talking. It is not the apparatus of the DGB or the PDS who is the driving force behind the demonstrations in Leipzig, Magdeburg, Senftenberg, or Stralsund but small local social forums, rank-and-file members, groups which have already organized anti-war protests, local union activists or PDS members and people who didn’t appear previously at all. Accordingly, the demonstrations were not homogeneous. In the East it was mainly ‘normal people’ who formed the demonstrations, i.e. They were ‘proletarian demonstrations’.

Those who come too late...
In every western-European country during the last few years, the pension system was reformed and the income of the unemployed was cut. One consequence of the Re-unification is the very high and regionally concentrated unemployment in East Germany that prevented these adjustments from being tackled in the 90s. The attacks today are socially imbalanced and economically short-circuited – and they cannot be justified by the promise of creating new jobs. Even conservative theoreticians of economics notice these shortcomings of Hartz IV.

In order to legitimate such drastic cuts, a credible promise of creating full-employment is necessary. Shortly before the national election in 2002, Hartz and Schröder actually announced to the public that their program will halve the unemployment figures! The developments in East Germany refute the assumption that flexibility and low wages would create employment. In the meantime, it became clear that whole generations will find themselves as working poor in so called mini-jobs and compulsory work schemes or will be unemployed until they reach pension age. Even the government retreated from their assumption that Hartz IV would create jobs.

...have to face Monday demonstrations
The erosion of the base of social democracy is in full swing. The ‘Election Alternative’ mobilizes many people and could become, according to its composition, the first ‘workers party’ of the Federal Republic of Germany. In August we could see how worn out the political class in Germany is.

Politicians quarreled within their own political organizations about the right approach towards the demonstrations, the president of Saxony, who voted in favor of the new reform, would have liked nothing more than to join the demonstrations himself while the leadership of the DGB was afraid of calling for everyone to participate in the protest. The nerve ends were exposed and Schröder nearly lost it over some thrown eggs...

The simplest form of critical dialogue – namely the very attempt to make oneself heard – and the democratic formation of opinion were equated with the threat of collapse of order and were defamed as “violence”. This shock reaction within the whole ‘political class’ has encouraged the demonstrations and made them grow. When Schröder met DGB-Boss, Sommer, in September to talk about how to carry out Hartz IV the situation had something grotesque about it. Because Schröder’s speech about the Agenda 2010 in spring 2003 has been the conscious rupture with the co-operative model which prevailed up to then: unions and the lower hierarchy of the SPD were excluded from the decision making process with the aim of making sure that they wouldn’t water down the attack as usual. The DGB was anxiously concerned about not calling for the Monday demonstrations right until the end could they now channel and control the protest?

In August, people took to the streets en masse to express their anger and did not seem to be too impressed by the media’s counter-propaganda. The demonstrations were a spontaneous eruption and as such were unpredictable for the politicians. The main weakness of the movement was that not enough self-organized structures were developed by September. This is when the organizers let themselves be pushed into the role of having to make alternative proposals to the reform. Of course Lafontaine didn’t mention in his speech in Leipzig that he had wanted to merge unemployment and social aid immediately after he had become minister of finance (in 1998, with the coming to power of the SPD). Instead, he presented an economic critique of Hartz IV: that economically it made no sense to place all the weight onto the shoulders of the workers and unemployed as long as there are no new jobs.

Lafontaine wants the economic boom first and then the compulsory work schemes. And he can link this view to the dominant voice of the protest: “Work instead of Hartz IV” - no critique of capitalism, but the wish that it would function.

One reason for why an unemployed movement in the west of Germany has never existed is that not everyone wants or at least wanted ‘work’ and that especially the politically active minority of the ‘unemployed’ treat the ‘state benefits’ as a legitimate form of income. In the east however, work is mainly seen as participation in society and unemployment as exclusion from it. What has made possible the big demonstrations in the east is at the same time (still?) their limit. Maybe 600,000 ‘one-Euro-jobs’, created as a reward for the “We want work”-chants, will put an end to these stupid slogans. The protesters will damn the ‘one-Euro-job’, as not what they wanted after all.

This is the point where the supposed partners of the protesters, the charities, go behind the back of the Hartz IV opponents. After months of criticizing the cuts as far as they concern their clientele (and therefore their income) they discovered the flipside of the reform in the summer: they themselves would be able to employ thousands of people with one- or two-euro-jobs. With the words of the media spokesperson of the Arbeiterwohlfahrt5: we have to give Hartz IV a chance, given that it is about creating employment. In the meantime, and in hope of new cheap labour, the Arbeiterwohlfahrt has left the collective wage agreement...

...can be overcome?
The majority of the Monday protesters haven’t questioned the need ‘to save money’ in principle – they just don’t agree that the money should be saved from the income of the pensioners and unemployed etc.. With the discussion about fair and unfair ways of saving money the movement against the Hartz reform is running the risk to turn itself into its very opposite. The government program, in its destructive approach lacks a positive proposal, some sort of new social contract, which would be able to give a new legitimacy to the capitalist mode of production and the state.

The critical voices would like to get into a dialogue about such a positive proposal. Within this dialogue, the demands for a guaranteed income of 1,000 Euro or more won’t be more than an embellishment of the re-construction of a new model of capitalist valorization. Some cruel and unfair elements of the law will be corrected and with some cosmetic changes, like the unemployment protection clause [Vertrauensschutz] for people over 58, Hartz IV will be carried out...

The slogan stating that there is enough money and that we only have to distribute it differently also only appears radical at first glance, but in effect it uses the protest in order to justify capitalism in alignment with Lafontaine and others. They conceal the essential scandal of capitalist valorization: things are supposed to deteriorate for the working class because its work becomes more productive. This has not much to do with rationality, but with economy. Because we produce ever more with ever less work, we are supposed to tighten our belts and work even more. All protests demanding “Yes to saving money, but not on our costs”, all assumptions of ‘fair distribution’ are playing into the hands of this mechanism, are declaring it as a law of nature and are helping to set workers in competition with each other on a worldwide scale. If productivity is rising in China, what is supposed to be bad about that? Nice for everyone: less work, more time, better life. This only constitutes a problem in a world where having a share of the social wealth is tied to the disposal of ones own labor force (or the command over the labor force of others). When we are unemployed, it is not work that we are lacking, but the possibilities to do all the things we like to do. To move (public transport), to travel (railway tickets), to go to concerts or the cinema, to use the machines that we would need to “create the world as we would like it to be”... all these things are still tied to money.

And the radical left?
Everyone says; “In August they were queuing up everywhere to get our leaflets, in the demonstrations, in front of the job centers. We could have distributed even more; the people wanted to know stuff”.

The fact that tens of thousands of people in the streets can’t change anything was perceived by the participants as one of the main limitations of the demonstrations. In other countries, during the 90’s we saw that even bigger and more radical mobilizations couldn’t fight back the attacks on the welfare system.

This obvious powerlessness de-motivates. It might instigate the hope for the ‘strong arm’ or awake the wish for political representation, but it could also lead to asking the right questions.

We think that the neo-Nazis are the smaller danger. They can act openly in some cities and they have simple and often more radical answers to the “social question” than those of the left parties. But apart from their symbolic success in Magdeburg, where they were able at one occasion to lead the demonstration, their influence was marginal. In Leipzig, as in other towns, neo-Nazis were verbally kicked out of the demonstrations – without being physically attacked. In a lot of towns the organizers were rather awkward, they didn’t know how to handle the situation, they stressed that they themselves are not “political” and that they don’t want to “exclude anyone”.

Where the neo-Nazis organized Anti-Hartz-Demonstrations themselves (e.g. in Wolgast under the name ‘Schöner Wohnen Wolgast’, in Herne/Ruhrarea...), the protest was disastrous with very few people taking part and subjected to the mockery of the public. The political journal AK (‘Analyse und Kritik’ - former ‘Arbeiterkampf’) hopes that the PDS will be able to get control over the demonstrations because otherwise ‘we’ (?) would have to face up to long lasting social protests from the right. Such a position is not of the radical left – it is also a false position, given that the bigger problem were the people and organizations of the left, which tried to monopolize the protest.

Well-meaning unionists or the ‘Election Alternative for Work and Social Justice’ accompanied the protests with all sorts of proposals about taxation of the super-rich and companies and an alternative program for a new economical upturn. The MLPD (Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany) first gained influence with their open mics – and then drove the demonstrations into an open division. Also within the social forums there were internal quarrels and power games for which the mass of protesters only existed as an uninformed or unconscious rank and file.

Instead, we should extend the struggles on a local level, encourage and politicize the daily conflicts in the job centers and dole offices, support the process of self-organization from below. The protest will have to find different forms of expression, which go beyond the given framework, it will have to become more imaginative and more direct. We don’t have the time to spend three months preparing for the ‘Agenturschluss’ (introduction of the new unemployment regime). We don’t have to wait, we can occupy the job centers here and now, or organize actions of appropriation in posh shops, organize free public transports or proletarian shopping tours. First of all, we have to put an end to the megalomania, thinking we could topple Hartz IV by organizing some demonstrations. The mobilization for big events like the demonstrations on the 2nd or 3rd of October only play into the hands of those who want to get a seat at the negotiating table. Why don’t we demonstrate in front of the big companies, going to visit the workers at the end of their shifts? There is something like a general social unease; there is anger and hate at work. But up to now everyone plays their roles, as striking students, angry unemployed or workers who fight against wage cuts and extension of the work time. Every now and then, we could see small delegations from different companies at the Monday demonstrations. Permanent workers are interested in the situation of the unemployed, because they might be the next in the queue.

And the general outrage about Hartz IV also contributed to the mobilization of the Daimler workers in July. This is where we should proceed, supporting the process of self-organization and politicization from below. The possibilities haven’t been so vast and so promising for years.

Unfinished and Incomplete Chronology

26th of July
Magdeburg (East): About 200 people demonstrate, the media and the police say 600. Although there was hardly any advertising, apart from a short note in the local newspaper, and the Monday was rather rainy, a lot of people joined the demonstration spontaneously.

2nd of August
Magdeburg: 6,000 people. The mobilization for the demonstration was accomplished by word-of-mouth rather than by posters or leaflets. The demonstration started fine but then about 60 Neo-Nazis took over the head of the demonstration with two banners (“taking the peoples’ anger to the streets”). The organizers announced that everyone who is against Hartz IV is welcome on the demonstration. The appearance of the demonstration was very different from the lefty and unionist demonstrations: no stewards, a lot of self-made banners, no loudspeakers, no rally with speeches. Instead, normal people with bikes, push chairs and working clothes.

9th of August
Germany-wide: Minimum 40,000 people in East German towns – for the first time demonstrations in Hamburg and Cologne as well.

Magdeburg: About 15,000 people. This time with banners against benefit cuts and against the far right. No banners from the right this time. Most banners for employment, some of them rather angry: “Jobs for everyone – if not, we gonna riot”. Chants like “We don’t have time for low wages and work schemes” (this rhymes in German!) were sometimes confronted with disapproval. Nevertheless, there was a lot of frustration and anger around, some discussed the storming of the town hall.

Leipzig (East): 10,000 people take part, unions, religious groups, communist groups, neo-Nazis, anarchists and others. “Down with Hartz IV” is the dominant voice, but everyone seems to go into a different direction after that. More radical leaflets are appreciated with interest, but the general atmosphere is one of a blunt “anti”.

16th of August
Duisburg (West): The first real Monday demonstration in Duisburg. 200 people listened for one and a half hours to a dozen speeches at the ‘open mic’ (which was turned up for the MLPD-members and down for the others). After that, a 10 minute demonstration accompanied by the singing group of the MLPD.

Düsseldorf (West): About 650 to 700 people. MLPD with an open mic, the PDS with their social forum, ISL5, unemployed groups, the anti-fascist group with their own leaflet, and surprisingly many people who haven’t been seen on a demonstration for years (apart from the anti Iraq war demos).

Leipzig: Over 20,000, a lot of unemployed and older people, but also a lot of young folk who didn’t look like ‘demonstrators’. Not many self-made banners, no chants, no loudspeakers... more or less a silent march.

Potsdam (East): About 500 people turned up at the rally, organized by the ‘Family Party’ and the ‘Grey Panthers’ (pensioners party). PDS, DKP (German Communist Party) and unemployed organizations were there as well, but no fascists. The guy speaking for the ‘Grey Panthers’ demanded a ‘people’s front’ against the government and presented a seven-point-plan for the rescue of Germany (fight back of illegal employment of foreigners, German companies should come back to Germany...)

16th and 23rd of August
Magdeburg: In both demonstrations, the neo-Nazis could march behind the demonstration, secured by the cops. The anti-fascist shouted slogans against them being there. The attitude of the majority of the demonstrators towards this problematic didn’t seem to have changed. The numbers of participants is shrinking and the atmosphere amongst some of them is getting more aggressive.

23rd of August
Potsdam: Not more people showed up than last time, but more flags, the youth organization of the metal workers and building workers union joined the protest.

6th of September
Eisenach (East): 200 people came to the protest. The ‘Alliance against welfare cuts’ launched a ballot about the Monday demonstrations principals from Magdeburg: everyone is allowed to join, we distance ourselves from the fascists etc.. Then the demo started: different organizations of the MLPD, a lot of older members of the PDS, about half of the protesters are ‘normal’ unemployed. The ‘Eisenacher Kameraden’ (fifteen skinheads aged between 20 and 30) were told to march at the end of the demonstration, escorted by five cops. The ‘people’ are stuck in between the bureaucratic paternalism of the MLPD and the fascists, and show few initiatives of their own.

9th of September
Erfurt (East): A Monday demonstration on a Thursday: about 600 came, which means that the number of protesters was going down. Speeches from the union, a ‘normal’ citizen and a lefty guy. People seem to realize that this type of demos don’t lead very far. A lot of them are genuinely angry and frustrated about the callousness of the government. They don’t expect anything anymore from them.

13th of September
Magdeburg: About 2,000 to 3,000 people. For starters the protest leader Ehrholdt, the social forum and the MLPD had verbal fights on the mic. Ehrholdt started with his usual short and meaningless speech (confirming that he understands himself as part of the “democratic forces” and that he doesn’t want a “social change” like the extremists from the left and right). The high point of it all was the speech of a loony, probably a friend of Ehrholdt, who argued against the “billions of wind turbines” in Germany and the “30 percent of interests” which every loaf of bread contains. Quite a few of the demonstrators left the scene shaking their heads.

Senftenberg (East): Still 2,000 to 3,000 people in the streets, no Nazis, no political parties and lefty sectarian groups, but open mic and good atmosphere.

Freiburg (West): About 150 protesters marching for an hour, listening to MLPD, Linksruck (Trots) and unionists. Two weeks before there had been more people and also the composition had been different. More ‘unorganized’ and more people who weren’t part of the political scene. Two weeks before, one also felt a dynamic between the demonstration and the other people in the street. This was lacking this time.

Berlin: Another heterogeneous demonstration, big confusion. Clearly less people than last time. The speech of the main guy of the MLPD was really unpleasant as he presented himself as the representative of the democratic forces (“100,000 for the 3rd of October” - Day of the German re-unification, when one of the nationwide demonstration was planned) and argued against ‘Attac’ and the planned demo on the 2nd of October. It was a real split including the ‘spontaneous’ speech of the MLPD after the demonstration (which was held in order to vote for a resolution for the demo on the 3rd of October).

1 "Rheinischer Kapitalismus" is a term used by the bourgeoisie, meaning a form of Capitalism relying on a social peace and equality rather than conflict and including a formalized negotiation role of the unions in company management structures, and state provision of a social infrastructure (e.g. Health and Education).
2 Social Democratic Party (SPD)
3 Deutscher Gewerkschafts Bund, the head body of all the unions Party of Democratic Socialism – which is the legacy of the SED, leading party of the GDR
4 National Democratic Party of Germany – fascists
5 A charity organization linked to the SPD
6 International Socialist Left, a Trotskyist group

prol-position news #1, 3/2005

From wildcat no.71, autumn 2004