Torturing the Poor, German-Style

Ever since the social-democratic and green coalition government of 1998-2005, Germany’s once mighty social welfare state has been moved towards neoliberal deregulation and its planned destruction. Historically, the rudimentary origins of Germany’s welfare state date back to Bismarck (1815-1898). It really took off in the years after World War I when the “betrayed revolution” of 1918/19 ended with a class compromise between capital and labour. Engineered by Germany’s main reformist social-democratic party (SPD), this compromise allowed not only capitalism to continue unabated, it also paved the way for the integration of labour into capitalism’s institutional apparatus. Relying on the ideology of “Blair’s Third Way” (Great Britain), however, Germany’s chancellor Schröder (SPD) –known as the “Comrade of the Bosses”– no longer sought to integrate labour into capitalism, at least not the Lumpenproletariat or precariate. These sections of society are now deliberately driven into mass poverty, joining the growing number of working poor on a scale not seen in Germany perhaps since the 1930s.

The neoliberal programme means mass poverty and tormenting the poor. It allows, for example, for $3.80 (3.20 Euro) as an hourly wage for a hairdresser.  Starvation wages can be supported through hand-outs. A state-run job centre told an unemployed teacher, for example, to apply for a job as a sales assistant in a sex shop. Failure to take up the position results in the government’s harsh sanctioning regime. This means deduction of already minuscule payments. The teacher said that she had been forced to put up with a lot but “This is too much”. It is how neoliberalism is tormenting the poor. Beyond that, Germany’s version of neoliberalism also creates the poor and particularly the working poor as Germans increasingly need two jobs to get by. In the year 2003, roughly 150.000 people in Germany had two jobs. In March this year it was well over 3 million.

Yet people are fighting back against Schröder’s neoliberal slashing of the welfare state that Merkel seamlessly continued. Berlin’s “Centre for Unemployed”, for example, offers brochures on “how to defend your rights against the Job Center” – an initiative launched by Germany’s protestant church. It is one possible response to Germany’s neoliberalism. The initiative sees that people are distressed feeling powerless against the neoliberal bureaucratic behemoth. Today, many of Germany’s poor, working poor, underemployed and unemployed are viewing the state as a clear and present danger to their livelihood as it operates with humiliation, threats and torment.

Being poor, however, is not confined to the working poor and unemployed. Increasingly, cuts in the welfare state create large scale poverty among Germany’s pensioners. Many are ashamed to even recognise their (deliberately engineered) “plight”(!) let alone discuss their financial misery. Some of Germany’s retirees are forced to exist on less than $600 (€500) a month at a time when renting an apartment often means spending $300 (€300) a month. Together with the rising cost of living, many feel the pain of the deliberately shrunk welfare state on a daily basis: less food and less heating during the long and often harsh winter months.

Typically for Germany’s neoliberal punishment regime is precarious part-time work. A cleaner earning $400 (€340) a month is not uncommon. The cleaner explained, ‘I’ve had a letter from the Job Centre saying I haven’t declared my income and have to pay back $300 (€250). They made a mistake”. But it is hard to fight these so-called “mistakes” as they are part of a structure designed to torment the poor way beyond simple stigmatisation. It is a first class “blame the victim” policy – blame the poor for being poor.

Much of Germany’s farewell to the welfare state is called Hartz. It is textbook style neoliberalism following the ideological rulebook written by Hungarian aristocrat Hayek. It features labour market de- or better pro-business re-regulation in favour of capital, the annihilation of trade unions, and the elimination of the welfare state. Its German manifestation is inextricably linked to its main engineer, the former Volkswagen manager Peter Hartz. As a failed HRM director – his illegal doings included bribing with cash, tropical holidays and prostitutes – Hartz received a two-year “suspended” sentence and was fined €500,000. If you are a highly paid manager and government advisor, a slap on the wrist is all you get. Just do not steal bread when you are poor because the full force of the law will rain down on you. In capitalism, rich and poor alike are forbidden to sleep under the bridge.

Hartz’s main hit on the welfare state was merging social and unemployment benefits. This marked the downward trend to poverty creating welfare payments of $485 per month (2017) for a single person. According to textbook style neoliberal ideology, this encourages the unemployed (Orwell’s Oldspeak), now called “customers” (Newspeak) to seek underpaid and inappropriate jobs quickly. Tormenting the poor also means that such payments are strictly linked to an utmost coercive monitoring and surveillance regime.

Today, almost six million Germans depend on such payments. This includes the officially as well as the unofficially unemployed and those statistically cleansed by being placed in training and coaching schemes and mini-jobs. They make up the core of Hartz’s victims. Beyond that, these statistics also include 1.6 million children meaning that one in five children is exposed to poverty. This what 21st century social-democracy can achieve. Meanwhile, Germany’s tabloid press accuses the poor of being “Hartz parasites”.

It is not at all surprising that “anti-Hartz” protesters hold up signs saying “slaveholder state” and are fighting against social-democratic neoliberalism’s plan that started in the late 1990s when Schröder adopted Tony Blair’s “The Third Way” ideology from Great Britain. After two decades of social-democratic neoliberalism, Schröder’s poverty creation policies show that Hartz’s full-frontal attack on the welfare state marked the most important break in the history of the German welfare state since Bismarck. The landmark deal for moving Germany’s welfare state onto a tormenting state occurred in August 2002 when Schröder announced his plan. He called it “a great day for the unemployed’. This also marked the merger of hypocrisy and cynicism.

The Schröder/Hartz plan was a marvel of managerial double talk peppered with the ever popular “Denglish”, a twisted mix of German and English. Using Managerialism’s key buzzwords such as controlling, change management, bridge system for older workers, voluntary work and job centres with improved customer service, etc. it ideologically camouflages what is in store for German workers and the poor.

Hartz in fact meant lower wage costs for employers with so-called mini-jobs paying between $480 and $530 a month, the use of temporary labour, etc. With this clear signal from Germany’s social-democratic party’s “comrade of the bosses” (Schröder) employers became insatiable. They foresaw a supply of cheap labour through Schröder’s new job centres. Soon German capital started to convert regular full-time jobs with regular wages into precarious jobs. Combined with Germany’s high productivity, declining wages engineered economic success. Schröder’s neoliberalism assisted German bosses – not the workers. Soon the number of people in temporary employment began to rise. Their jobs rose from 300,000 (2000) to nearly a million in 2016. This is the success of social-democratic neoliberalism for the bosses – just not for the working class.

Rather quickly, the number of working poor also rose from 18% to 22%. In many ways, the excesses of Schröder’s neoliberalism were so severe in driving down wages, that Schröder’s successor Merkel was forced to introduce a minimum wage. This was the first time that Germany needed a minimum wage. Traditionally, German trade unions had set what might be called a minimum wage at the lower end of collective bargaining agreements. But since the weakening of trade unions showed effect, German firms increasinlyg left employer federations while workers are increasingly non-organised. As a consequence, the introduction of a minimum wage at about $10 per hour in 2015 (now increased to $10.50) was needed. This, however has not affected neoliberalism’s march towards mass poverty. Today almost 5 million workers survive on so-called mini-job that pay them $530 per month. In short, Germany’s neoliberalism has converted unemployed workers into paupers while others became the working poor. Mass poverty is spiced up by the fact that anyone non-compliant with the state’s harsh new rules will be tormented.

In actual fact, Hartz is a precarious employment service where unemployed workers –now called customers– are in perpetual danger of falling into neoliberalism’s punishment trap. It is not unusual for highly skilled workers in their 50s to be told by Schröder’s job centre to turn up at 4am in the morning for a construction job with a pair of safety boots or face the punishing torment of the job centre. In some cases, these orders are deliberately issued so that there is no time to appeal. Non-compliance leads to immediate punishment, the cutting of financial support by the state which means the loss of money anywhere between 10% and 100% of income support.

In Schröder’s world of social-democratic neoliberalism, nobody is safe from the tormenting powers of the state and this also includes children. Job centres can cut monthly allowances even for children that are still at school. It can “advise” (Orwellian Newspeak) a child to look for work in any industrial sector deemed to have a labour shortage. The state can even stop allowances if children miss work or centre appointments. This became legitimate as corporate media engineered an ideological offensive against the poor.

To avoid the infamous “Blind Spot of Western Marxism”, the ideological groundwork for demonising the working class and tormenting the poor has been laid by corporate media. As in many countries, Germany too has its Berlusconis, its Rupert Murdochs, Hearsts, Turners, Sabans, Carlos Slims, etc. Capitalism’s extremely right-wing, racist, pro-business, and xenophobic media mogul in Germany was Axel Springer, once owner of Germany’s largest tabloid, The Bild Zeitung. What such tabloid newspapers often do when writing against workers, trade unions, and the poor is “framing”. Framing establishes a mental framework in which new information is interpreted.

To achieve its anti-workers and pro-capital goals, several frames are established by the media. These frames can be divided into “wealth and the wealthy”, “workers and the poor” and “trade unions”. Today, we basically see what Karl Marx has described in the “Germany Ideology”: The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.

The ruling elite is well aware of media’s ideological powers and it knows there is class war. As one of the world’s richest men, Warren E. Buffett, explains, “There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” To win the class war, eliminating trade unions, eroding workers solidarity and tormenting the poor may well be part of the old “divide and conquer” politics pitching workers against workers. This is where media framing comes in to establish a positive frame for the wealthy and negative frames for the workers, the poor, and trade unions.

Media framing for the wealthy means, for example, establishing a consensus frame (the wealthy are like everyone else), an admiration frame (the wealthy are generous and caring people; it glorifies wealth), an emulation frame (the wealthy personify something to emulate), a price-tag frame (like the wealthy, you too should believe in the gospel of materialism), a sour-grapes frame (some of the wealthy are unhappy and dysfunctional), a success frame (individual hard work leads to success) and the infamous and often applied bad-apple frame (some wealthy people are scoundrels and some are bad but the majority is good).

Meanwhile workers and the poor receive a very different media framing. The thematic frame is used to present the poor as statistics (not real people); the negative frame presents the poor as deviant, welfare dependent, shamed and suspicious while the exceptionalism frame pretends that if this person can escape poverty, you can do likewise. The episode frame tells us that poverty is a short episode in life disconnected from capitalism. Some of these frames are linked to the charitable frame that provides media audiences with a way to feel good about themselves. At times, the poor are placed in a historical frame to pretend that the working class is an out-dated concept. We are all middle class now. In other cases, corporate media uses the caricatures frame portraying workers as white-trash and trailer park trash often presented as buffoons, bigots, and slobs.

Finally, trade unions also receive negative framing as they can represent a direct attack on capital. As a consequence, trade unions’ actions are framed, for example, as senseless (trade unions’ and workers’ struggles are pointless, selfish, avoidable). This is can be linked to the goal frame (union goals are unachievable and detrimental to society). There is also corporate media’s greedy frame (unions are made to appear greedy) and the wage-bonus frame where corporate media focuses on workers’ wages, not on management’s bonus. Perhaps more dangerous is the impact frame (it focuses on the impact of a strike – not on the reasons for it). Once there is a strike, corporate media switches to the neutrality frame presenting the corporate state, police, courts, army, etc. as neutral and independent. Strikes can also be linked to the harm frame (under-reporting of the harm done to workers) as well as the anti-solidarity frame (media’s general unwillingness to cover workers and union solidarity).

Perhaps the final frame is one of the keys to understand the destruction of the welfare state in Germany and elsewhere. Once de-solidarisation has taken hold through a daily barrage of negative images portraying workers and the poor as a menace while favouring hyper-individualism, the step towards eradicating the welfare state can be made. Indeed, in many countries this step has already been made or is well on the way.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of German Conspiracy Fantasies.