Between Hope and Pessimism
Erich Fried, in a conversation I
had with him in London, once asked me, Are you a syndicalist? I
think he considered himself a syndicalist and perhaps he deciphered
similar tendencies in my poetry. I’m not sure that I can be called a syndicalist.
I simply feel that there is a lot that is questionable with intellectuals
when they try to form an avant-garde. Hoping to fan the active thought
process of others is alright but to act as their mentors and guardians
can be very questionable. Ordinary citizens, especially working people,
have to find their own route; they have to make up their own mind, draw
their own conclusions, and act inependently. Perhaps this tendency, expressed
in some of my poetry, let Erich Fried think of me as a syndicalist.
Today I sway between hope and pessimism
when it comes to forming a factual view as to the readiness of the majority
to think and act “independently.”
I sense that Chomsky is right when
he notes the factors that drive fragmentization, distrust, hatred but also
despair and apathy or drug addiction and crime in his country.
But I think Chomsky is wrong when
he assumes that things in countries like Germany are a lot better than
in the U.S.A.: Germany is not really a lot better off than the U.S., and
its society is almost as threatened by fragmentization, atomization, and
dissolution as U.S. society.
As far as the unions in Germany
are concerned, on the whole, they are no longer a strong force that allows
for cohesion and joint action. They should be able to bring this about,
but they have been weakened. Their membership is down; union leaders often
sit on the board of directors of big corporations which gives them added
incomes, on top of frequently very high union salaries. This and the legal
framework under which unions operate has made them tame and compromising
even before the advent of prolonged unemployment of millions. Today, with
the sharper crisis, they seem even more convinced that it is better to
seek “compromise” and co-operate with the bosses. Ordinary members, the
rank and file, have often lost all confidence in the ability of unions
to protect them. The “climate” on the workshop level often has become a
climate of suspicion between workers. Everyone is afraid that he may be
the first to be fired. Newcomers often are mobbed, especially if they are
immigrants (and this includes immigrants of German descent, from the former
The protest movements often spring
up outside unions – although, again and again, there is a certain measure
of support from union members, as was seen in Stuttgart last fall, and
in the case of anti-nuclear protests.
If such protest movements seem strong,
this appearance of strength is captured in photos and videos, and they
show indeed vast numbers of active citizens. But as a percentage of the
population, is their number really “vast” or rather tiny?
The authorities, faced with occupied
squares or the blockade of railroad tracks, simply call in the police.
And if the crowd has gotten too big for that, they wait till the tide subsides.
Betting on the tiring effect of occupying a square for weeks on end. They
have a lot of time. They just wait for it to subside.
I suppose in Egypt, too, with the
Tahir Square empty or almost empty now, they’ll try to return to business
The “dangerous” elements are tortured
in jail meanwhile.
In Germany and perhaps in Spain,
Italy, Greece, protest movements often were movements of anti-war
activists in the past, usually supported by dissident elements
in the Catholic church and by a few protestants. Intellectuals and students
played a role. The workers? You wouldn’t really see such a big number of
them. Same with the ecological movement. And the anti-nuclear
It’s above all economic issues that
brought the workers out into the streets, and by and large not too many
in Germany. If the degree of unionization in Germany is still higher than
in many other Western countries, the degree of mobilization seems to be
lower than in Italy and France. Or Greece, for that matter. It has a lot
to do perhaps with the close links between a number of union leaders and
leaders of the Social Democatic Party that unions offered hardly any real
resistance to German “welfare reform” and the simultaneous abolition of
the old system regarding unemployment benefits for those who are unemployed
for more than a year.
If protest movements in Germany
are not, in the first instance, movements of working people, this explains
their moderate numbers. A few hundred thousands are involved, at best –
not millions and millions, as in Cairo. As in the old days of the anti-Vietnam
war protests, young people, including students, but also writers, artists,
clergymen, a small number of well-known intellectuals take a stand.
The authorities have responded by
attacking the last area of free thought and free debate: the universities.
Since the 1960s, the German Social
Democratic Party has already spoiled and de-politicized (and even sold)
what critical newspapers the labor movement possessed. Before that happened,
the Left, whether Social-Democratic or more radical, was “heard” by workers.
Especially in the Weimar Republic. Left-wing opinions and insights were
heard because newspapers and journals owned and operated and therefore
“controlled”by the Left did exist. But in the last few decades, the Social
Democratic leadership in Germany has handed over these media to “mainstream”
control, in their effort to get rid of critical journalists. No doubt they
also wanted to get rid of a “red” image, in order to convince the petty
bourgeois voters, shop owners, professionals, even entrepreneurs, that
they are “trustworthy” and deserve support.
In Germany, fairly critical SPD-controlled
dailies like the Volkswacht which, in the 1950s, had become
the Freie Presse, merged with conservative papers. Much more
recently, a serious “Liberal” paper leaning towards the left, the
Rundschau, was taken over by the SPD-controlled media holding corporation,
then saw critical journalists “eased out,” before it was finally sold to
a yellow press publisher in Cologne. Which was the final act in the destruction
of the last remaining critical newspaper in Germany. The demise of the
Frankfurter Rundschau is paralleled, in a milder way, in
France, by the changes in ownership of Le Monde that affect
the political position and the quality of the paper, and by the change
in ownership, i.e. the take-over by a hedge fund, that Germany’s
Zeitung still suffers from. Prior to all that, the Berlin taz
or Tageszeitung – as well as its French equivalent,
Libération, had been turned around, transforming these
critical newspapers into sources of fun and gossip.
In Spain, as a result of the ‘transition’
that has brought about the leading political role of the PP and PSOE (with
the help of CIA funds, reportedly channeled through two West German foundations),
a high quality weekly, Triunfo, was pushed over the brink,
financially, and destroyed because the PSOE was apparently not interested
in the survival of a left-wing publication. Seems that the CCOO,
the other unions, and the sole ‘orthodox’ party on the Left also were not
keen to help – or were simply unable to do so, for lack of funds.
In Portugal, all the wonderful papers
that appeared in the wake of the revolution, notably Diario das Noticias,
O Seculo and that fine weekly, O Seculo Illustrado,
were turned around after experiencing a brief period of high quality journalism,
largely due to the irresponsible antagonisms within the Left, and (if I
may put it mildly) the conservative role of Mario Soares and his backers.
The fact that Jose Saramago lost every chance to work as a journalist at
the time let him turn to novel writing, he once remarked. It was the only
beneficial result of that defeat of the working class.
Today, as I said, they attack the
universities in Europe. The Americanization of university education will
end up putting much stress on students obliged to take a large number of
high-school type courses. And the emphasis on specialization, as well as
the demand (brought to bear on them during the first four years) to reproduce
standard knowledge, will narrow their outlook. Instead of leaving room
for the development of critical minds, our society will get a lot of mediocre
“specialists” and a few “top” specialists who will conform, who will function
well, in a social context formally liberal but factually already much too
controlled. In other words, if today, students and a few intellectuals
are still the ferment that disrupts the “mainstream” consensus and supports
as well as encourages those ordinary citizens who rise in protest against
what is insane and unjust, the “power elite” may well be able to look with
satisfaction towards a future which will see better adapted and more conformist
minds produced by the universities. Hardly an encouraging view – unless
too much insistance on conformism and too much repression, despite the
soft-pedaling way in which it is enacted, can produce an effect where people,
nauseated, will say, “Enough is enough.”
Go back to URBAN DEMOCRACY issue #