Culture & ideas Ideas

Debate: Ingo Schulze – 10 theses about the crisis

27 January 2012
Süddeutsche Zeitung Munich

It is the madness that has become self-evident: for years, the public sphere has been plundered and democracy ruined. The German writer Ingo Schulze has had enough. Here he sets out ten reasons to take himself seriously again. Excerpts.

For about three years I haven’t written any articles, because I no longer know what I should be writing about. It's all so obvious: the elimination of democracy, the increasing social and economic polarisation between rich and poor, the ruin of the welfare state, privatisation and commercialisation of all spheres of life and so on, and so on, and so on...

If the madness is served up to one every day as a matter of routine, it's just a matter of time until one considers oneself to be sick, abnormal. In the following I will try to summarise some thoughts that seem important to me:

1. To speak of an ‘attack’ on democracy is to speak euphemistically. A situation in which a minority of a minority is allowed – i.e., it is legal – to seriously harm the public good for their own enrichment is post-democratic. The public sphere itself is guilty, because it is unable to elect representatives that perceive its interests.

2. Every day one hears that governments must “win back the confidence of the markets." By ‘markets’ it is primarily the stock exchanges and financial markets that are meant: that is, those speculators who, in pursuit of their own interests or the interests of others, are raking in as much profit as they can. Are they not those who have relieved the public sphere of unimaginable billions? They are the ones whose “confidence” our top elected officials should be struggling to win back?

3. We are right to be outraged by Vladimir Putin's concept of "guided democracy". But when Angela Merkel spoke of "market-based democracy”, why did she not have to beat a retreat?

4. The collapse of the Soviet bloc helped some ideologies turn into a hegemony so unchallenged that it has come to be accepted as a natural state. One example of that would be privatisation, which was seen as something boundlessly positive. All that remained in the possession of the public sphere was deemed ineffective and consumer-unfriendly. Thus there spread throughout society an atmosphere that, sooner or later, had to force that public sphere to relinquish its own power.

5. Another ideology that enjoyed a great blossoming is the ideology of growth:  “Growth isn’t everything – but without growth, nothing amounts to anything," as the Chancellor decreed some years ago (2004). The euro crisis cannot be discussed without reference to these two ideologies.

6. The language of the politicians who should be representing us can no longer grasp the reality (something I already lived through in the GDR). Their language is one of self-assurance that no longer receives any checks and balances from across the negotiating table. Politics has degenerated into a mere vehicle, a bellows for rekindling the fires of growth. The Citizen has been cut down to the status of Consumer. Growth in itself means nothing. Society’s ideal would be the playboy who consumes as much as possible as fast as possible. And what would cause a tremendous spurt in growth? A war.

7. The simple questions: "Who benefits from it?” and "Who makes money off it?" have become crude, gross, unrefined. “Are we not all in the same boat?” Anyone who doubts this must be “stuck in class struggle”. The social and economic polarisation of society has taken place accompanied by loud incantations to the effect that we all share the same interests. A walk through Berlin is enough to illustrate the error of that contention. In the better neighbourhoods the few unrenovated houses are by and large schools, kindergartens, retirement homes, swimming pools and hospitals. In the so-called problem areas the unrenovated public buildings are less conspicuous, and poverty can be glimpsed in the gaps between the teeth of passers-by. Today, as the demagoguery would have it: “Sure, we have all lived beyond our means, but everyone has been greedy.”

8. In being deprived of its income, our public sphere has been and is being systematically driven up against the wall by our democratically elected representatives. Under the Schroeder government the top tax rate in Germany dropped from 53 to 42 percent, while corporate tax rates between 1997 and 2009 almost halved, namely to 29.4 percent. Nobody should be surprised that the coffers are empty, even though our gross domestic product has grown year after year.

9. A tale: what was once peddled to us as an antagonism between East and West Germany is now being peddled as an antagonism between countries. In March I held a reading in Portugal, in the city of Porto, from one of my books in translation. The atmosphere of friendly interest was from one moment to the next chilled by a single question from the audience. All of a sudden, we were merely Germans and Portuguese, who sat facing each other as enemies. The question was unpleasant. Were we – meaning myself, a German – now taking over with the euro what we had failed to take over with our tanks? Nobody in the audience disagreed with the sentiment. And suddenly I responded as desired – namely, as a German: “No one is forced to buy a Mercedes,” I said, offended, “and they should be happy to be getting credit that would be cheaper than credit on the financial markets.” I thought back to all the German newspaper stories heaping abuse on the PIGS countries, and it made my molars grind.

In the uproar that followed, my head cleared. And since I had the microphone in hand, I stammered in my imperfect English that I would have responded just as stupidly as they had, that we would all be falling into the same trap, if we, as Portuguese and Germans, sided reflexively with our own national colours as we would at a football game. As if it were now about Germans versus Portuguese, and not the upper versus the lower classes – that is, those who in Portugal as in Germany brought this situation about, and who profited and continue to profit from it more than they deserve to.

10. It would be democracy if the politicians intervened in the existing economic structure through taxes, laws and controls, and forced the players in the markets to play by rules that were compatible with the interests of the public sphere. It's about the simple questions:  Who benefits from it? Who profits from it? Is this good for our public sphere? Ultimately, it would be the question:  what kind of society do we want? That would be democracy for me.

At this point I must break off. I would still like to talk about a professor who said that he had reverted to seeing the world the way he had as a fifteen-year-old, about a study from ETH Zurich that looked into the interdependence of corporations and came up with a tally of 147 of them that have divided up the world among them, the fifty most powerful being banks and insurance companies. I would like to talk about what an important thing it is to take oneself seriously again and to find other like-minded people, because one cannot speak a different language on one’s own. And about getting back into the mood to open my mouth again.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer