Andreas Weiland

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 Soviet Union).

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 as usual. 

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 movement

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 Frankfurter 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 Süddeutsche 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.”



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