Taking the Downturn on the Chin Why Is Germany So Calm?

The French are kidnapping managers and taking to the streets in protest against the global downturn. But their neighbors in Germany seem curiously unmoved by the economic nosedive -- at least for now.

By and

Arne Brecht has a problem, the kind of problem only a radical leftist in Berlin's bohemian Friedrichshain district can have. In one of the hippest neighborhoods in the German capital, where there is a bar or restaurant on every corner, Brecht is having trouble finding a café where he can give an interview.

Brecht, 21, is in his fourth semester of his history degree at Berlin's Humboldt University. He has been a member of a group called the Berlin Antifascist Revolutionary Campaign (ARAB) for some time. He rejects capitalism, welcomes radical action like the torching of vehicles belonging to the German military (currently something of a trend in Berlin) and is looking forward to "Revolutionary May 1," traditionally a day of riots in the German capital and elsewhere. He has also spent a lot of time studying Marx and Engels.

A man like Brecht refuses to meet in just any café. But "Liberación" and "Zielona Góra," two leftist establishments, both happen to be closed on this particular day. The only remaining alternative is a place called "Kuchenrausch" ("Cake Bliss") -- a name that doesn't exactly appeal to a revolutionary. Brecht insists on sitting at a table where there is no waiter service.

Brecht is probably one of the most radical history students registered at Humboldt University. As an adolescent, he spent a lot of time reading about the low wages of workers in Asia, the destruction of the environment and how corporations rake in billions in profits.

Brecht has a low opinion of demonstrations, which he regards as mere requests to the government. If they were effective, they would be banned, he reasons. He also rejects the government -- all governments, in fact. And he is opposed to capital. As far as Arne Brecht is concerned, the time is ripe for radical change.

He shares at least some of his views with Oskar Lafontaine, the fiery chairman of Germany's far-left Left Party. "When French workers are angry, they lock up their managers," Lafontaine told WDR public radio last Friday. "I would like to see that happen here, too, so that they notice there is anger out there and that people are worried about their livelihoods."

Lafontaine's words marked the climax of a week of irresponsible rhetoric in Germany. Michael Sommer, the chairman of the German Confederation of Trade Unions (DGB), had earlier warned of the possibility of "social unrest" if the crisis worsens. Gesine Schwan, who is the center-left Social Democratic Party's candidate for German president, even went so far as to characterize the crisis as a "threat to democracy."

Despite such comments, things have been relatively quiet on German streets until now. The only significant protests were expressed at two larger rallies leading up to the London G-20 summit. About 20,000 people attended a rally in Berlin, while an event in Frankfurt attracted a somewhat smaller crowd.

The people who took to the streets in Frankfurt and Berlin included men carrying red flags, jokesters carrying signs intended for the bankers in their office towers that read "Jump you fuckers," labor union members, opponents of globalization and critics of capitalism. In other words, the usual suspects. Despite the crisis, the masses stayed home.

'A Mixture of Fear and Anger'

Bernd Riexinger wants that to change, and he has big plans to make it happen. He is interested in getting the masses involved and he wants to see a general strike. Riexinger, the district head of German service workers union Ver.di in Stuttgart, has always been a leftist crusader.

In late March, he was standing in front of Frankfurt's landmark Bockenheimer Warte tower, wearing a black leather jacket, to launch a demonstration against the crisis. Microphone in hand, Riexinger tried to make his point as concisely as possible: "We will not pay for your crisis." It was time for those who had profited from 20 years of neoliberal policies to pay for their mistakes. It sounded straightforward enough. There was a crisis, there were those who had brought it about, and there were ways for people to stand up for themselves.

Riexinger, a member of the Left Party's regional organization in the state of Baden-Württemberg, is part of the left wing of his union. He has been trying for years to disabuse Ver.di members in the Stuttgart area of what he calls their "resignation mentality." But confrontation does not come easily to people.

Germans like harmony. They may not like their bosses, but the standard approach is to keep quiet about it. Although the German penchant for consensus makes for reasonably pleasant interpersonal relationships, it is of little use to a true labor activist. "I'm beginning to sense a diffuse mixture of fear and anger, but the situation isn't clear yet," says Riexinger. Germany, it seems, is not easily aroused.

But Riexinger is a persistent man, and he does what he has always done: fight. It doesn't seem to bother him that general strikes are banned in Germany, where the traditional role of labor unions is to negotiate labor contracts, not become involved in politics.

"We should get rid of the taboo in this country," says Riexinger, who publicly called for a general strike at the Frankfurt demonstration. He says that he wants to prepare for the strike "in stages," which means convincing Ver.di first, then the DGB confederation, followed by other left-leaning groups. "Once we have reached critical mass, no one will take legal steps against the strikers." The country's trade unions have a combined membership of 6.5 million people. If they all took to the streets, Germany would be brought to a standstill.

Riexinger has many supporters, including political celebrities like Lafontaine, who spoke out in favor of lifting the ban on general strikes on Friday, and activists such as Christina Kaindl, one of the organizers of the Berlin demonstration against the economic crisis. Kaindl believes that Riexinger's plan for a general strike this fall could come to fruition.

Riexinger says that he often hears other Ver.di members say that German unions ought to follow the French example. France is to labor organizers what the UK was to investment bankers: a land of unlimited possibilities.

Experts with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimate that the French economy will shrink by 3 percent this year, or about half as much as the projection for Germany. Nevertheless, the French weekly newspaper Courrier International writes that a "touch of revolt" is taking hold throughout the country. Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin even believes that France is on the eve of a "revolution." The signs include plant occupations, wildcat strikes and workers taking managers hostage.

In early March, the manager of a Sony plant was held against his will, and 10 days later workers held an executive of the pharmaceutical company 3M hostage. Workers occupied a plant owned by US construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar in the western city of Grenoble and detained the entire management team, while directors at chemical producer Scapa, transportation company FM Logistic and Peugeot-Citroën supplier Faurecia were subjected to similar treatment. The management of automotive supplier Molex were held hostage in their offices for about 26 hours.

"The conflicts in France are undoubtedly more frequent and intense," says Claude-Emmanuel Triomphe, who studies trends in working conditions and employment for the industry association ASTREES. According to Triomphe, it is precisely because French unions are more poorly represented in the private sector than in most other industrialized countries that worker frustration is manifesting itself in spontaneous radicalization at the lowest levels of society. "Violence is, to a certain extent, the weapon of the weak," says Triomphe.

But why are the weak in Germany so silent?

Jörg Schindler, the owner of a law firm with offices in Berlin and the eastern German city of Wittenberg, is opposed to violence, and yet he understands the rage of the underprivileged. He often represents the recipients of benefits under the controversial welfare program known as Hartz IV, which has long been the target of criticism by the German left.

About a year ago, Schindler co-founded the leftist magazine "Prager Frühling" ("Prague Spring") in Berlin. It was intended as a forum for the proponents of leftist ideas, the logic being that the best ideas would eventually prevail. Those ideas would then be proposed to the general public. In other words, competition, a capitalist method, would be used to seek an alternative to capitalism.

"We were taken by surprise," says Schindler. "Our aim was to criticize neoliberalism, but then, suddenly, everything fell apart. Now we are lacking a theoretical framework." Schindler believes that the left needs more time to come up with ideas, before it can tell citizens what to write on their protest banners.

Another reason for the relative calm in Germany could be the fact that the weak are not as weak as some might assume. The country has a strong social safety net, so that the impact of the crisis has not been as severe for many. Companies have been able to keep their employees by reducing their working hours, while retirees will receive bigger pension supplements this year than they have received in a long time. In other words, citizens still have money -- but how long can it last?

"One reason that we are only seeing small protests is that politicians will not reveal the true cost of the crisis until after the parliamentary elections," says Elmar Altvater, a former professor of political economics at the Otto Suhr Institute at the Free University of Berlin. Altvater spent much of his career writing leftist books, and in 2005 he published a book titled: "The End of Capitalism as We Know It. A Radical Critique of Capitalism."

According to Altvater, Germans are in for a rude awakening shortly after September's national election. Perhaps there will be a new wave of cost-cutting welfare reforms, like those which spawned the unpopular Hartz IV scheme. After all, the money the government is spending today will eventually have to come from somewhere, says Altvater.

Will the post-election revelations trigger major protests or even violence? It will partly depend whether even more politicians or trade unions threaten to stir up the masses.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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