Leftwing politicians are singing the praises of border control while rightwingers call for expanding the welfare state. Old political certainties could be turned upside down in Germany this summer as the far ends of the country’s political spectrum both moot a “national social” turn.
A new leftwing movement soft-launching in Germany in August aims to part ways with what one of its founders calls the “moralising” tendency of the left, in an attempt to win back working-class voters from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
The as-yet-unnamed new populist movement, partly inspired by the British Labour party’s Momentum and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, and spearheaded by the leftwing party Die Linke’s chairwoman, Sahra Wagenknecht, will include former and current members of the Social Democratic and Green parties, and prominent academics such as the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck.
According to one of the movement’s founders, its defining feature is likely to be its adherence to “the materialist left, not the moral left”.
“When people live in social conditions that make them feel secure, they are usually prepared to act generously and tolerantly,” said Bernd Stegemann, an author and dramatist at the prestigious Berliner Ensemble theatre who is working with Wagenknecht on the movement’s programme.
“When they live in increasingly precarious and atomised conditions, however, they are also likely to react to challenges in a tougher and colder manner. Brecht summarised it wonderfully. Grub comes first, then ethics.”
As well as rallying around traditional leftwing causes such as disarmament and a reversal of Germany’s Hartz IV labour market reforms, an unsigned position paper circulating around Berlin political circles in recent weeks suggests the movement will also advocate law and order policies and a tougher stance on immigration. “Open borders in Europe means more competition for badly paid jobs,” says the paper, which is headed “fairland”.
Stegemann, who is not a member of any political party, said he was frustrated with middle-class leftwing intellectuals lecturing working-class Germans for their sceptical reaction to Angela Merkel’s decisions at the height of the refugee crisis.
“We are dealing with an absurd situation when the winners of neoliberalism tell the losers that they must be more humane. And it galls me when politicians think it is enough to pass down moral judgments. No, politics must act.”
The launch of the new movement, which will start as an online forum where supporters can upload and visualise policy proposals, comes as the AfD is trying to win over disappointed Die Linke supporters in the former states of East Germany. It is doing so by occupying positions on social welfare usually associated with the left.
With three crucial state elections in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia coming up next year, east German branches of the AfD have started to part ways from the party’s economically liberal roots. A new pension plan unveiled this month by the Thuringian AfD MP Jürgen Pohl proposes stabilising pension levels at around 50% of earned income, outdoing proposals made by Die Linke, the Social Democrats or the Greens.
Non-Germans are largely excluded from the AfD’s newly discovered welfare initiatives. A proposed “state resident’s pension” of €190 a month could only be claimed by German citizens who have worked in the country for more than 35 years.
Björn Höcke, the far-right politician who has emerged as the leading architect of AfD’s “national social” identity in the east, has argued that “the German social question of the 21st century” is not primarily the redistribution of national wealth from top to bottom, or old to young, but “inside to outside”.
For both Die Linke and the AfD, the new “national social” formations – as a recent article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung dubbed the new political initiative – face opposition from within their own parties. There are fears among the former’s strategists and activists that the new movement’s launch proper in early September could backfire and destroy Die Linke’s already low chances of entering parliament at Bavarian state elections in October.
Wagenknecht is a widely recognised politician whose rhetorical gifts have made hera regular presence on Germany’s political talkshows, but critics inside her own party say her popularity is an illusion. Unlike Labour’s Momentum, her new movement has so far mainly attracted older white men. In terms of policy, she runs counter to the successful socially liberal, pro-refugee Berlin branch of Die Linke, which is leading polls for state elections in 2021.
Inside Alternative für Deutschland, calls for higher pensions and rallying cries against labour market deregulation clash with the official positions of the party’s upper ranks, where its leader, Alice Weidel, advocates Swiss-style pension funds as the model for Germany to follow, and its deputy leader, Beatrix von Storch, rails against high taxes on Twitter.
New research, however, suggests that political realignments are not only taking place in party headquarters but across the country at large. Sociologist Klaus Dörre’s in-depth study of a new “workers’ movement on the right”, based on more than 70 interviews across Germany, reveals rapidly increasing support for the AfD’s “exclusive solidarity” among functionaries and members at Germany’s unions.
Manual workers who used to vote for the far right or far left in protestare increasingly solidifying their identification with the AfD, Dörre said. “They used to be a fluctuating protest movement, but now they follow the party line.”
One of the anonymous case studies quoted in the study, a previously “exemplary” union activist who had fought for solidarity with Czech temporary workers, expressed views that crossed over from “national social” to national socialism: “In my view, the refugees have to go away … I wouldn’t have a problem if they opened up Buchenwald again, put barbed wire around it, them inside, us outside.”
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