German Elections and the Political-Economy of Unemployment

By Angela Jancius (Youngstown State U)

Germany's national elections this fall coincided with the fifteenth anniversary of the country's re-unification.  Onlookers watched with interest as the first "grand coalition" in more than forty years was formed by the two largest political parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD).  The last time such a coalition existed, in West Germany from 1966-69, it clashed with the emergence of a “New Left” youth culture that was revolting against the traditionally oppositional worker party's alliance with the conservative CDU/CSU.  The student riots of 1968 were a hallmark event in the coalition's short and unstable existence.

This time around, some of the old West German student leaders of '68 now hold seats of power in the new grand coalition, while others (like Oskar Lafontaine) have joined with the East German-based Party of Democratic Socialism to form a new political party - called The Left - which gained 8.7% of the seats in Parliament.  Like the West German New Left movement that began in the 1960s, the Left Party of the new millennium has the support of segments of the population who feel alienated by establishment-driven politics and increasingly neo-liberal (or “ordo-liberal”) economic policies.

But there is a significant difference in the political economy of Germany, then and now. In the late 1960s, the two halves of this divided nation were engaged in a competitive quest for social prosperity, in an escalating Cold War.  Because poverty at the time was commonly defined as a symptom of unemployment, the perceived equilibrium of "full-employment" (defined in the West as a 40-hour workweek for a male head-of-household, and in the East as a week of similar length for a labor force of both sexes) became a driving utopian social goal for both lands. At the time of the student riots of '68, these two progress-driven nations each claimed to have permanently solved unemployment, and were recruiting "guest workers" from abroad.

In contrast, the European Left today grapples with the polemic of maintaining a high standard of living within national borders, while continuing surplus-driven growth in world markets that pressure governments to make cutbacks in labor and social welfare spending.  Struggling against this neo-liberal turn, Germany and other European countries have been forced to deal with long-term high unemployment.  Since re-unification, Germany's official unemployment rate has averaged 10-11%, with unemployment in the East averaging twice this rate.

What should be done about high unemployment? That's the social question that plagued late 19th century Germany, and led into the Great Depression and the rise of National Socialism. And it has come around again.  During my dissertation fieldwork in the eastern German city of Leipzig, I spent time at different local organizations and government offices centrally involved in unemployment politics.  I asked people what they thought should be done, and documented their responses.  I also documented the creation of a complex network of related local lobby groups, who struggled to define themselves and compete for legitimacy and funding.  Conducted in 1998-99 and 2000-02, this research took place in the years immediately preceding the SPD's controversial Harz Commission social welfare reforms. Leipzig's mayor was one of the Harz Commission's authors, which led the city to become an experimentation ground for policies that were later implemented nation-wide, such as the merger of unemployment and welfare offices into a single redistributive system.

By the end of the 1990s, I found that local unemployment politics were beginning to polarize around three camps: unemployed workers and their political supporters, who continued to demand their 'right to work'; a small East and West German political-economic elite who believed jobs could only be created by supporting business interests and making the economy 'more competitive'; and a third political hodgepodge that was made up of everyone else.  This group included the dissidents who had supported the unsuccessful "Third Way" reform path, toward humanistic socialism, which was abandoned  during re-unification.  Significant to the anthropology of work, I also found that the formal labor market in Germany was experiencing a fascinating, and seemingly long-term, conceptual split: into the erster Arbeitsmarkt, or competitive labor market, and the state subsidized zweiter Arbeitsmarkt, or 'second labor market,' where the ever-growing pool of “less flexible” workers was being shifted.