In Germany, a precautionary tale: earlier this year, veterans of the German left set up a new, supposedly ‘grassroots’ movement called Aufstehen (Rise Up). Its aim was to bolster the left and to move the national conversation onto Germany’s underlying social issues like low pay, austerity in public services, and inequality.
‘Aufstehen is a social and democratic movement for renewal (Erneuerungsbewegung),’ its website declares, adopting some of the anti-ideological post-leftish vocabulary of populism. They are not seeking to become a party, but ‘etwas Neues... eine Bewegung für alle, die gemeinsam für unsere Ziele kämpfen wollen.’ That is, something ‘new’ - a movement which collectively can fight for ‘our aims’. These aims are all honourable and trade heavily on what die Linke (hitherto the dominant party of the radical left in Germany) specialises in: a group of themes around ‘soziale Gerechtigkeit’ (roughly, social justice) in the form of better pay, public services, housing, gender and racial equality.
Aufstehen attracted support from leftward intellectuals like the sociologist and economist Wolfgang Streeck, whose public spats with ‘cosmopolitan’ intellectuals like Jurgen Habermas have raised the question of left-euroscepticism in Germany. It was co-founded by the former SPD Finance Minister and ex-Linke leader Oskar Lafontaine, who has participated in debates around the deflationary effect of the euro on the European economy as well as Germany’s own economic imbalances. His ally, Heiner Flassbeck, co-authored a book arguing for the end of the single currency and a revival of national-democratic Keynesianism. There is, to be sure, some promise in the revival of a kind of macroeconomic ambition on the European left that is not afraid to propose far-reaching reforms to the EU. Even better if it can root itself in a mass membership ‘social movement’ (or Sammlungsbewegung as Aufstehen styles itself).
However, in its desire to short circuit the dynamism of Germany’s far-right, it has made disastrous decisions on the question of migration policy and international solidarity. Lafontaine’s express goal in setting up Aufstehen was to steal votes from the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD). As he put it, he wanted the movement ‘prevent’ (verhindern) further growth of the AfD essentially by foreclosing the issue of migration. How would it do this? Not by insisting on solidarity as an inalienable principle, but calling for a limit to migrant numbers into Germany. Migration, he argued increased competition for wages (Lohn) and rent (Miet). As die Welt put it, ‘Er gehe davon aus, dass die AfD geschwächt werde, wenn der Zuzug beschränkt werde.’ (The AfD would be weakened if the influx was slowed down).
All of this puts Aufstehen in a peculiar position. By wanting to reach out to the largest swathe of the population, it is triangulating to the right on immigration. The bland language of its website and its supposedly ‘common sense’ approach to the issue of the migrant ‘influx’ suggests more than a hint of cynicism. As has been widely argued, migration has little impact on working class income. Open borders are, even at a purely utilitarian level, good for public budgets. Germany has an ageing population and it needs people to arrive to fill its jobs and skills gaps. The chaos and misery caused by Merkel’s shifting Fluchtlingspolitik (refugee policy) should have been exploited by the German left. Yet, Aufstehen has positioned itself rhetorically to the right of Merkel’s CDU on the issue.
In its recourse to a revival of the democratic polity against the greed of the markets (drawing distantly on Streeck’s opposition of Staatsvolk and Marktsvolk), Aufstehen has closed off the opportunity for a left populism that would articulate itself around class rather than the nation state. The typical left argument - that working class people have more in common with each other than with national elites, whatever their passport says - if you simply want to defend national democracy. It is a strangely rhetorical positioning: when Lafontaine makes such arguments, it is not clear even he believes what he is saying. Instead it is merely meant to signal ‘toughness’ and ‘understanding’ on borders. Joe Kennedy has called this type of gesture one of ‘authentocracy’. In its attempt to ‘understand’ the ‘concerns’ of ‘real’ people, it reduces the complexities of class society to a simple opposition between authentic, common sense, real life and the inauthentic, exotic, cosmopolitan world of the academic left.
Die Linke has, it’s true, been struggling in recent years to cut through to the German electorate, despite the woes of the German centre-left SPD. Divides in its leadership over strategy and over message have hampered it. In its pursuit of coalition government with the SPD, it hasn’t been radical enough. Its loss of some votes to the AfD in the former east Germany has propelled the ascent of Sahra Wagenknecht’s anti-migration politics. Precosely when it should be holding the line against racist ‘solutions’ to Germany’s social problems, it is fatally weakened. Aufstehen looks like a symptom of this weakness, an offshoot of its general incapacity to articulate popular discontent to radical ends. It is a worrying example of what an organisation like Momentum could become if it is not held to account by anti-racist groups.
Last week a genuinely large, if inchoate protest hot the streets of Berlin under the slogan Unteilbar (Indivisble). Up to a quarter of a million people demonstrated against racism and the exclusion of migrants and refugees from civic life. The protest was no doubt fuelled by a series of violent mobilisations in Chemnitz by a nascent neo-fascist movement. It came on the back of a series of mobilisations across the country under the slogan ‘Wir send mehr’ (We are more), which attempted to highlight the minority status of far-right opinion in the country. Wagenknecht’s reaction to the huge Unteilbar demonstration was to question the demand issued by some for ‘open borders’. She said: ‘Wenn wir über ,offene Grenzen für alle' reden, ist das eine Forderung, die die meisten Menschen als irreal und völlig weltfremd empfinden und damit ja auch recht haben." Here then was the perfect example of a politician -deeply immersed in the antiracist traditions of the left, no less - treating a huge mobilisation of anti-racist opinion as an extreme, alien, minority hobbyhorse. Most people, she said, would see the talk of open border as ‘unrealistic’ (irreal) and ‘completely unworldly’ (vollig weltfremd). Wagenknecht was seeking to contrast the ‘moderate’, ‘realistic’ view that borders should be strictly policed and migrant numbers forcibly limited with the ‘extreme’, ‘unworldly’ idea that border policy could be humane and welcoming. This, obviously, is a deeply depressing spectacle.
The evidence is also that it won’t pay off. As support for a tired CDU-SPD governing coalition falters, support for the AfD remains undimmed. While the beneficiary of an upsurge of open, tolerant pro-migrant sentiment has not been the left, but the liberal Greens. Polls now shows die Grunen in second place behind the CDU nationally, which is backed up by very impressive results in Munich in the Bavarian local elections in October. The German left has rendered itself incapable of mobilising a similar demographic upswing in its eastern heartlands by triangulating to the right. Where it goes from here depends to some degree on how it taps into the Unteilbar demonstrations. To its credit die Linke itself has been fully supportive. If it wants to avoid further marginalisation, it should make a break with Wagenknecht and the hopeless pursuit of anti-immigrant sentiment.