Inequality is rising, social divisions are becoming more entrenched, social guarantees once taken for granted have yielded to a generalized culture of insecurity and a common fear of decline. Even the putatively secure middle classes need to make an ever greater effort to maintain their status. Oliver Nachtwey (2016) has metaphorically expressed this in the image of an escalator that is moving downward: one must not stand still, if one does not want to drift downward, and one needs to make quite an effort, if one wants to make it a little further up, against the direction in which the escalator is moving. Only a very few arrive at the top. Entry into the upper classes is barred, the prosperous are isolating themselves.
Once it was the Left Party that lent expression to the protest of the precariat. A class faction that was so difficult to grasp because it defined itself primarily in negative terms: no one wants to rank among the precarious. And yet precarization has long ceased to be the problem of a small few. But it’s not. It concerns illegalized migrant cleaning women, security personnel or cashiers as much as the well-trained East German temp worker in the Ruhr, the (pseudo) self-employed trucker or the computer proletariat in call centers. It also concerns (forcedly) mobile software engineers working on short-term projects, independent journalists, freelancing creative artists or scholars. They are all subject to various forms of flexploitation (Bourdieu).
In the course of transnational relocations and new rounds of layoffs, even core workers are no longer safe. The pressure – including pressure brought about by the precarious – is ubiquitous. The issue is not only one of employment relations bereft of security, but also one of insecure living conditions, the absence of recognition and future prospects, the dismantling of social infrastructure, displacement through drastic rent hikes, and the absence of planning certainty within one's life plan. What separates these groups, and might there be something that unifies them? What is at stake here is working out the “re-making of the working class” (Candeias 2009).
The Class Question from the Right
Today, the class question is no longer associated with left-wing, but rather with right-wing protest. While the membership base of parties such as the Alternative for Germany or the Front National, and of movements such as Pegida or “Manif pour tous” (opponents of homosexual marriage in France), consists largely of groups from the economically secure middle classes or the petty bourgeoisie – and mainly of men –, these parties and movements are now able to attract a relevant number of workers and unemployed persons as well. Didier Eribon (2013) calls this electoral decision in favor of the radical right an “act of political self-defence” – a measure taken in order to feature within political discourse at all, if only in the form of “negative self-affirmation”. Eribon's autobiographical self-experiment, his Returning to Reims, was no doubt the surprise bestseller among last year's political books. A book on his return to his parental home, which he had left as a “class refugee”, in order to be able to live out his homosexual orientation and become a professor of sociology – and not to return for decades. The many-faceted book, which narrates tales of shame, of the life and nightmare of the working class, and especially of women, attempts to furnish elements of an explanation why a working class that once voted left – at least to a significant degree – is now voting right. Sold out by social democracy, disappointed by the ineffectiveness of the Communist Party, many turn to a powerful new narrative: that of defending hard-working people, the nation and culture against others, “Islam”, “immigrants”, globalization, gay and LGBT persons, the “moralizing members of the 1968 generation”, who are now in power, etc. Eribon strikes a nerve.
The class question has also been invoked to explain the electoral decision that led to Brexit: The Brexit vote, Owen Jones (2016) argues, was a “working-class revolt. Perhaps it was not the kind of revolt against the political establishment that many of us would have wished for. But the outcome of the referendum is without doubt due to the voices of an angry, politically alienated” working class, at least of a predominantly white and male. This development is evident in many European countries (least of all in Greece, Spain and Portugal).
As for Donald Trump being elected president of the USA, the majority of his supporters were not working-class. Nevertheless the fact that a significant number of male white workers shifted their support to Trump in certain states lent him the decisive advantage and led to his winning the election. Even more important, perhaps, was the sense of alienation Hillary Clinton, a representative of the establishment par excellence, inspired in large parts of the working class. These workers voted right, or even more of them not at all (see also Hochschild inLuXemburg 3/2016). How should the left react to such a development?
The Third Pole: A “Lower-Middle” Alliance Lacking the “Lower”?
The radical right articulates the counterpole to the authoritarian neoliberalism whose exponents range from Merkel and Schäuble to Macron, and which governs in an authoritarian manner. The SPD was briefly able to disrupt, through Martin Schulz, this polarization between neoliberalism's more-of-the-same approach and the right-wing authoritarian promise to provide all “Germans” with protection within the competitive community of the nation. Many had high hopes that the SPD would finally strive for majorities from the left. But it is obviously unwilling to do so. The brief moment of optimism is over, the bubble has burst. Social democracy remains in an existential crisis. It does not want to participate in lending a voice to the great “camp of solidarity” (Kipping/Riexinger) – i.e. to all those who strive for a democratic, social and ecological way of life. Yet absent a genuine left turn, the right cannot be combated effectively. This is demonstrated by the outcome of numerous elections. Mélenchon was able to help this “third pole” become visible briefly, during the first round of the French presidential elections, just as Bernie Sanders had done before him, in the run-up to the US elections. The Left Party must, for the time being, rise to this challenge without the support of other parties.
What is required to counter authoritarianism from above and from the right is the defence of a democratic and solidary way of life, one that extends far beyond the elements of a left mosaic and well into middle-class circles. Such a third pole already exists “in itself”, and it is surely most visible in the countless welcome refugee and citizens' initiatives, as well as in social movements. But it has not yet found political expression (and it is doubtful whether one should be thinking, in this case, of a party-political expression in the strict sense). This is something that needs to be worked on, so as to create the preconditions for a change of course within society – and in government. The Left Party is an indispensable part and a driving force behind this endeavor. And it has done much to create an open and solidary society, when parts of society turned against refugees and immigrants and insecurity was on the rise. As the elections in other countries demonstrate, the chances, including in terms of electoral arithmetics, of moving beyond the “ten-percent-niche” have improved. The Left Party has a duty to assertively occupy the party-political space left vacant by the SPD and the Green Party.
To date, the third pole has however manifested itself mainly in the “solidary middle of society”, among those with high levels of formal qualification, in urban milieus and class factions. It is much less rooted, by contrast, in the so-called popular classes, in the “endangered middle of society” and among those subject to precarity. The “dissident third” (Thomas Seibert) in society is too small – to focus on it alone is to do too little. This imbalance in society's composition also concerns the Left Party, which is now strongly shaped by persons with an academic background – in spite of also being, in some cases, more rooted among the so-called left-behinds. What is lacking for the indispensable creation of a “lower-middle alliance” (Michael Brie) is largely the “lower”. The party does not reach, or no longer reaches, large segments of the popular classes; it is losing them to the right. More frequently still, the popular classes withdraw and seclude themselves. This class-specific discouragement is an existential problem for the Left Party: no matter how many value-oriented people were to vote for it, the result would resemble a process of internal erosion. If this situation does not change, the best the Left Party can hope for is an imaginary proxy politics.
A New Class Politics
A change of perspective is therefore needed: a new class politics that does not negate the variety of interests within the left mosaic. A straightforward return to the class struggle of former times cannot be the answer. Issues such as racism, gender relations, social issues, ecology and peace are inextricably interwoven. There is a connection between different relations of exploitation and oppression. It is not for nothing that we ought to “overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, forsaken, despicable being” (MECW, vol. 3, p. 182; emphasis in original).
Authoritarianism and right-wing populism have driven emancipatory forces into a defensive position. We are told that an excess of “gender madness”, “early sexualization”, the “quota”, “pink hullaballoo” and “green paternalism” has alienated the social left from “normal” people and workers. Feminism, LGBTIQ rights and ecology are described as elite projects. In fact, left-wing feminism and critical political ecology have always criticized the forms assumed by a feminism “from above” or an “ecological lifestyle” for the affluent, forms that allow for recognition or an ecological “clean conscience” without any redistribution of wealth and power (Fraser), and which are incapable of reflecting upon gender relations and society's relation to nature in terms of society (as a whole), or even as relations of production. The critique of a one-sided orientation toward recognition should not, however, lead us to throw the achievements of emancipatory struggles for recognition overboard: what has been successfully struggled for in terms of gender equality, the recognition of gay and lesbian life styles, diversity of sexual orientations, cultural openness and small steps towards a more ecological way of life etc., needs to be defended. We need more of this rather than less.
Differences ought therefore not to be treated as secondary contradictions or thought of in hierarchical terms. Moreover, diverging concerns and interests cannot simply be added together – they need to be actively connected to one another. This is only possible when done with the people themselves, by being present, organizing alongside them as part of their everyday life, in the neighborhoods and at the workplace, by enabling people to empower themselves. This is also the basis upon which the Left Party can regain credibility. Such credibility can serve as a pedestal for efficient parliamentary representation, and it can develop an appeal for the many persons who do not wish to or cannot become politically active.
What is needed is a stronger emphasis on socio-economic issues. But who is the class? Who represents the class? The coal miner in Lusatia, the industrial worker threatened by digitalization, the DHL courier who finds himself at the end of an IT-controlled logistics chain, or the nurse in a modern hospital corporation? The class is undergoing constant change.
It should not be confused with the old white, male working class of disadvantaged regions that are home to aging industries. This is the part of the working class that is so readily invoked when speaking of Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, the Alternative for Germany and so on. Naturally, this class faction also has legitimate interests. But the class as a whole is more varied, always has been, and all the more so today: we are confronted with an enormous precariat, part of which has an academic background, is cosmopolitan and urban. This part is relatively amenable to emancipatory positions and an essential component of the protest movements of the past decades, which many of us are also part of. And then there is also a formally less qualified precariat that usually lives in other, disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. It tends not to be politically organized and participates in elections more rarely, if at all, though it would nonetheless be available for a left-wing politics, if only someone were to reach out to it.
If nothing else, the class today is a considerably more female, (post)migrant and motley one, boasting the most varied sexual orientations and identities. The greater part of the immigrants and refugees coming into our country are themselves part of the working class. And the working class has long since been united across borders by virtue of the work it performs within global production chains – it is at least subject to transborder exploitation; transnational organization has still only begun. Thus the social question also has to (and always has had to) be posed from the perspective of migration, for the immigration society has long become a reality (cf. Kron in LuXemburg 1/2017). When we speak, then, of a necessary return to the question of class, we are not speaking about a return to a reductionist concept of class or a putative main contradiction; rather, we are speaking about a new class politics that always takes into account, from the outset, but without any sort of patronizing political correctness, the interwovenness of relations of oppression (intersectionality, as one says today), as exemplified by Lia Becker at the 2016 fall academy of BdWi and the RLS, “Europe, What’s Next?”.
This means class needs first of all to be rendered visible in all its diversity. What do they think, feel and want – the coal miner in Lusatia, the precariously employed Amazon worker, the nurse in the health factory, the young female student, the ordinary people of the welcome refugee initiatives or the migrant who has been living here for forty years and is faced with growing hostility to Islam, as well as with violence? These diverse situations, concerns and hardships need first of all to be met with empathy.
Class Politics: Concrete and Local
Class politics also means venturing forth, to go out, and building real connections to the popular classes, particularly in disadvantaged areas, beyond the usual suspects. Creating structures of solidarity, rebel neighborhoods and rebel cities, becoming more numerous, organizing a stronger social base – all of these things are indispensable, if the Left in general is to become effectual (Candeias/Brie 2016). Some of these projects are already getting off the ground. The Left Party bears a responsibility, here, that the SPD and the Green Party refuse (so far) to shoulder: it needs to embody an alternative that breaks with business as usual.
In concrete terms, this also means doing things that can seem so very difficult: approaching people, going from door to door, mainly in the present and former strongholds of the Left Party, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and across the country (cf. Steckner in LuXemburg 1/2017). Regardless of whether we are dealing with German natives, first-generation immigrants or persons with a postmigrant background, and regardless of whether they have the right to vote or not, or whether they are newly arrived refugees – we need to establish connections. This requires perseverance. We need to listen, discuss, issue invitations to local assemblies addressing local problems of everyday life, such as those related to issues of housing. We need to come back, try again. It is a surprising experience for both sides to even be approached and begin a personal conversation on everyday problems and politics. The approach must not be a purely instrumental one, simply a matter of recruiting members for one's organization or winning votes. It is a question of establishing local nodes of resistance and forward-looking action.
The activists who go from door to door have “repeatedly faced prejudice, resentment, everyday racism and verbal violence, including from persons sympathetic to the Left Party. But only a very few had a coherent worldview or were utterly unamenable to argument – differently from what the current debate on post-truth thinking would lead one to expect. The challenge consisted, rather, in articulating common interests – where such common interests existed – by means of intelligent questions or succinct proposals, without watering down one's own position or denying the reality of people's experiences,” says Anne Steckner in a first assessment of the canvasing projects. We need to look closely and take those who are approachable seriously, to explore commonalities to the greatest extent possible, without becoming spineless. And we need to challenge opinions in such a way as not to lose our counterpart altogether: “Today's experience tells me that it is not just wrong, but also completely unnecessary to conceal or even abandon our anti-racism in order to begin a conversation with people whose everyday thinking is riddled with racist clichés. I have challenged or openly contradicted racist statements and was nevertheless able to speak to people about low pension payments and expensive day care centers,” says Felix Pithan, regional representative of the Left Party in Bremen.
“The main effect is not so much on the persons whose doorbells you ring, but on those who are going door to door. In my view, this is a ‘salutary’ and productive experience, because you can't babble and fret over the world with your left-wing friends; you have to make your own politics communicable, such that you have to be able to explain, in simple language and in only a few sentences, what the problem is and why left-wing politics is the right answer to it,” says Moritz Warnke, member of Berlins local Left Party’s executive.
The next step from there is concrete organizing in disadvantaged residential neighborhoods, so-called deprived areas, in the form of tenants initiatives, welfare counseling, systematic support of labor struggles, be it at Amazon or in hospitals, or in the form of welcome refugee initiatives. In brief, it is a question of building solidary structures in everyday life, as sites of mutual aid and political organizing.
How this works is something one can learn. That is why, in addition to training persons to do outreach work, we also need training courses on transformative organizing. Within any organizing process that does not want to get stuck in the local, the question concerning the relation and the link between different levels of politics quickly arises. So we need to begin anew, starting at the local level, from within the neighborhoods, very much inspired by rebel cities, but in a manner that is integrated into countrywide as well as European perspectives and practices. It is also worth considering adapting the model of Solidarity4all, so as to ensure there is sufficient personnel and an adequate resource base for supporting and promoting what people embark on within such organizing processes – be it within or outside the Left Party.
To date, this is also the only way to win back those segments of the popular classes we have lost. In part, this is a question of the justified fears and problems of the endangered middle of society and of precarious workers – people who no longer feel represented, who feel they have been pushed out of political discourse. This does not imply that all of the interests of these groups should be addressed by the left: group-based discourses of denigration and anti-emancipatory positions that reproduce domination are where we draw the line. After all, our goal cannot be that of operating on the same terrain as the right. It would make sense to make “other themes, perspectives and values” the decisive (electoral) issues, as Horst Kahrs (2015a) argues in one of his analyses of the link between the drift to the right and the question of class. For it is quite common to forget those roughly eight million persons who are actively engaged in supporting refugees. Their interests and their quiet political commitment to a solidary and democratic way of life are discussed far more rarely, in the public debate, than the (much smaller) protests of the radical right.
What it all comes down to is the question of what has shaped one's particular everyday experiences – practical solidarity in the neighborhood and at work, or ubiquitous competition and isolation. This is why it is far from impossible that successful solidary practice should be more attractive than a right-wing project, which is associated only with an imaginary self-empowerment. Two factors must, however, not be underestimated: (a) “imagined communities” (Anderson) such as the “nation” have always been enormously mobilizing interpellations, whereas left-wing organizing requires much patience and the courage to stand up to the real powers that be; (b) integration into a right-wing project alters the segments of the popular classes affected. Winning them back is harder than winning them over in the first place.
From Solidarity to Socialism
Right-wing activists operate on the basis of fear, resentment and hatred. We must oppose to this solidarity and hope, not as an appeal, but as a concrete practice. Bernie Sanders' political revolution is paradigmatic of such a perspective, as are the rebel cities in the Spanish state. It is good and it does one good to be solidary. A solidary practice that addresses refugees and minorities as well as the downwardly mobile and the endangered middle of society: persons subject to the Hartz IV workfare system, unemployed persons and low-wage workers, all those who are caught in the rat race, trying to earn a “good life” for themselves, and who may sometimes be angry at putative underachievers. People need to feel not only that their interests are perceived, but that their situation and their existence are met with empathy. On this basis of the recognition of needs, connective and solidary practices can be developed. The question concerning a new class politics needs to be developed in concrete terms in each particular case, i.e. as an inclusive, feminist/intersectional class politics, as an ecological class politics, an internationalist, anti-racist/post-immigrant class politics, with regard to socio-economic issues in Germany or Europe, with regard to the question of social infrastructures, from healthcare to accommodation for all, whether they be refugees or recipients of Hartz IV payments. But also with regard to work 4.0, the question of conversion in coal-mining regions, questions of migration and the struggle against the right, in trade union work, in educational policy, with regard to the question of democracy, or to questions touching upon the organization of the mosaic and the building of political parties etc. – here a class perspective could make a difference.
Orienting the problematic to class politics serves two purposes. First, it aims to strengthen left-wing approaches and perspectives within feminism, ecology and anti-racism, or with regard to LGBTIQ issues, while allowing for a clearer distinction between left-wing approaches and more limited liberal approaches centered on gender parity, ecological modernization etc., taking up the positive aspects of such liberal approaches and radicalizing them – within a “feminist” (Fried in this issue) and “queer” class politics (Woltersdorf in this issue), an “ecological class politics” (Röttger/Wissen in this issue), an “antiracist and post-migrant” class politics. Each of these needs to be spelled out in detail. For merely to claim instersectionality/interwovenness is not enough. Within practical projects, it is already difficult to relate two contradictions, e.g. class and racism, to one another in a dynamic and productive way. And we need to develop projects and practices that reach beyond the usual suspects and tap into the diversity of the popular classes, projects that are borne by these classes themselves.
Secondly, social justice has always been the left's “core brand”. With a new class politics, the left can promote social justice in a more pronounced way, unambiguously making reference to and connecting with the class “below” and clearly positioning itself as an opponent of the ruling class “above” and “on the radical right” (cf. Candeias 2015). Such a new class politics could become a kind of connective antagonism.
As a political party, the Left Party can embody such a class politics while simultaneously overcoming the false opposition to putatively “soft, purple, pink, green” issues. Feminism and ecology are not only for the elite – they are class issues. Again and again, they are treated, perhaps not as secondary contradictions, but as additional issues, juxtaposed to “hard” fields such as narrow economic and social questions. A new class politics could help bring these issues more strongly to the fore while relating them to one another and binding them inextricably together. An additional benefit of this is that traditional class politics is retrieved from the dusty niches of the main contradiction and conceptualized in a broader and more inclusive way. It is only when they are considered together that the (Gordian) “knot” of the various relations of domination can be cut (Frigga Haug).
Moreover, a new class politics cannot be realized within a nation-state framework. It needs to take a stand for global social rights in an internationalist manner if it is not to produce new exclusions. An approach that takes social, cultural and political rights seriously can supplement a class-based approach; both aim at organization and the collective appropriation of social conditions of existence. So when we speak of a necessary return to the question of class in the form of a socio-economic, feminist, inclusive, intersectional, socio-ecological, anti-racist/post-migrant and international class politics, we are speaking of something that still needs to be developed, for which no blueprint exists.
1. In Greece, the Solidarity4all network serves to promote links between solidarity structures and to empower those structures. Each of Syriza's members of parliament donates a substantial part of his or her earnings to the Solidarity4all fund, and at least one assistant of each member of parliament is released from duty so that they can work within social movements. Solidarity4all operates independently of Syriza. Yet Syriza was enormously important as an infrastructure by which to build the solidarity movements. Many common members of the party, but also party leaders, members of parliament and parliamentary assistants have for years been active not just within Syriza, but also within extra-parliamentary initiatives and struggles. Syriza was present in the movements, but has never tried to control them. The party thereby represents a new type of political party, one perhaps best characterized in terms of Mimmo Porcaro's concept of the “conjunctive party”. This particular attempt to create a connective party has failed. There are many reasons for this failure, which I cannot enter into here (cf. Candeias 2016). But we should learn from this experience.