News | German / European History - Democratic Socialism An Uncanny Resemblance

The dull monotony of state socialism resembles life in neoliberal capitalism in more ways than one might think


East German Young Pioneers at a May Day rally in Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, 1951. CC BY-SA 3.0, Photo: Wikimedia / Deutsche Fotothek

It’s a good thing that Paul Mason exists. Not because I find his analysis of capitalism singularly convincing, but because in his 2015 book PostCapitalism, he compares neoliberalism and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), metaphorically suggesting that both were (or are) doomed. It is a friendly reminder of the historicity of all things societal, but at least it’s a starting point.

Stefanie Hürtgen is a sociologist and geographer at the University of Salzburg and a Permanent Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research.

This article originally appeared in LuXemburg. Translated by Joseph Keady and Sonja Hornung for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

It is clearly appalling that the right has once again co-opted slogans like “Vollende die Wende”, a catchy German phrase calling for the Wende, or reunification process, to be completed. They forget that left-wing former East Germans long ago critiqued the half-finished process and its broad failure to achieve economic or social renewal.

It is also nauseating that people affiliated with the so-called Querdenker demonstrations against public health measures during the pandemic, which platformed both conspiracy-theorist and openly fascist positions, made truly remarkable statements like “As East Germans, we know what a dictatorship looks like, so we’re sensitive to the direction things could go — and are going — today”.

I believe that the narrative of a looming “return of the GDR dictatorship” must be removed from right-wing and even far-right hegemony, and not just because of their rank xenophobic nationalism. The links between the anti-democratic experiences of yesterday and today need to be articulated in a way that does not encourage authoritarian thinking.

If we look, for instance, at statements made by author Uwe Tellkamp, a former GDR dissident turned far-right sympathizer, his speech about historic and present dictatorships is in no way intended to expand the capacity for political action, nor does it call for society to be economically restructured. He rejects the GDR opposition’s historic orientation toward democratic socialism, arguing that it was completely disconnected from reality and “the people”. Instead, he proclaims that, in retrospect, he now recognizes the material and political possibilities presented by the “liberal order” of the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1990s.

According to Tellkamp, living a good private life was all “we” ever wanted — an individualistic conception of freedom that closely correlates with right-wing and Querfront appeals to the state to preserve order and safeguard this freedom, if need be by fending off alleged external threats (from migrants, feminists, etc.). Invoking the return of a dictatorial past authoritatively calls up the figure of the “average Joe”, who wants nothing more than to carve out an existence for himself in a world that offers him better opportunities. In a time of increasing social instability, this figure pursues an “order” in which his own place is secure — rather than extending himself to and fighting alongside (all of) his neighbours for the structural expansion of social agency.

The GDR and Authoritarian Neoliberalism

Many East Germans saw different forms of authoritarianism at play both before and after 1989. How can their perceptions be discussed without adopting reactionary approaches — and how can that be done without denying their lived experiences, or arguing that they lack knowledge of the allegedly outstanding institutions of “Western democracy”? [1]

In a 2004 interview, Bernd Gehrke, a former member of the GDR opposition, made an offhand statement that was as disconcerting as it was illuminating: “In the GDR, dictatorial rule looked a bit different from what it is under West German capitalism”. So how can we approach this lived experience of authoritarianism without joining the dismal chorus of a “Merkel dictatorship”? How can we formulate a critique of both the past dictatorship and the market-oriented democracy of the present from a perspective of broad democratic self-empowerment?

The bureaucratic administrative way of imposing authoritarian power, in both its alienation from everyday life and its capacity to transform everyday life, is ludicrous and menacing in equal measure. It logically follows that rolling one’s eyes in secret is not enough to change the underlying conditions.

My proposal is not to emphasize, yet again, the ways that “the” [2] East Germans are positioned as second-class citizens with respect to huge wage disparities and poor representation in German national institutions. This has already been analysed in detail, and rightly so. However, the prevailing perspective regards East Germans as a “special case” that deviates from an apparently universal set of standards, including the demand for alignment with that universality.

On the other hand, the new, Leipzig-based initiative Aufbruch Ost contextualizes East Germany’s situation within a broader critique that addresses “turbo-capitalism”, the authoritarian European policy of dismantling the social safety net, and mass impoverishment, as in the case of Greece after the 2008 financial crisis. Contrary to the prevailing theories of totalitarianism, which juxtapose dictatorship and democracy, Germany’s so-called reunification and (Eastern) European transformation are to be viewed as components of neoliberalism’s ascendancy in Europe (and beyond). In other words, we can identify a decidedly authoritarian tendency at play — including in the former West.

Authoritarian neoliberalism may rhetorically invoke democratic processes, but in practice it opposes them with the increasingly aggressive “practical constraints” of economic competition and profitability, which are regarded as non-negotiable. In their 2015 referendum, a majority of Greeks famously voted against the so-called European rescue package, which included measures that would remove socio-political rights. The package was implemented anyway.

At the time of writing, mass protests are underway in France against a planned pension “reform”, including a proposal to increase the retirement age. Although surveys indicate that more than 70 percent of the total population and 92 percent (!) of the (waged) working population reject it, Macron is using a constitutional decree to push it through, an act that must ultimately be viewed in the context of competition among European states.

In doing so, Macron is invoking the mantra of financial sustainability for the health and welfare system, naturally without mentioning the private sector’s creeping withdrawal from financial responsibility or holding wealthy people to account. Many European countries have emergency laws that allow leaders to circumvent their parliaments, while at the local level, research indicates a globally standardized, authoritarian process of technocratization. This can be seen playing out, for example, in urban development and welfare policy, which may involve “consulting” with the people affected, but in practical terms denies them any real voice.

In short: taking account of a universalized authoritarian neoliberalism across Germany and Europe entails looking at experiences of political subalternization and disenfranchisement, and of striving for agency within structures of these kinds. In this sense, it may be worthwhile to parse my reflections within their various social, spatial, and chronological contexts.

Deterioration of Infrastructure and Social Reproduction

I have been living and working in “the West” for many years, but of course, the GDR never loses its grip. For quite some time, I’ve often had a feeling: “You’ve seen this before! It’s just like — in the GDR!” In what follows, I will describe three very different examples.

The first has to do with the deterioration of social infrastructure. Busted streets and unsafe bridges, trains that are filthy, run late, or break down, failure of the water supply and the electrical grid (particularly in the UK), shabby school buildings, an inadequate medical care system, and even high exposure to smog, ozone, fine dust, and plastic particles — we’ve seen it before.

Of course, the social distribution of infrastructural deterioration is different today. It is severely fragmented: whoever has (a lot of) money can buy private supplies and move to a better neighbourhood. By contrast, socio-ecological decay in the GDR was generally spread evenly, even if it was slightly less intense in the capital.

Another difference, which would be hard to overstate, is the obvious fact that today, we can inform ourselves, to a degree, and build protest movements without risking immediate imprisonment. Yet there are limits to this as well: consider, for instance, the long jail sentences that people risk by participating in tree-sits (amid mass media agitation against “eco-terrorists”), to say nothing of deportation prisons for migrants.

Despite the differences, it is important to draw a connection between then and now for at least two reasons. First, the Wende was not, as is often imagined, triggered by a yearning for bananas and other ostensibly Western delicacies, but rather by the dramatic deterioration of workplaces and cities. The illegal or semi-legal criticism of this deterioration was motivated primarily by concerns for one’s own personal well-being, however the demand for “freedom”, as chronicled by thousands of Western cameras in the autumn of 1989, was by no means mere navel-gazing. Rather, it was a demand for the freedom to meet the urgent need to restructure society for a different way of living and working together.

The fact that the emboldened GDR demonstrators were labelled Konsumdeppen (consumer idiots) in West German political discourse, including by leftists, should also be retrospectively understood as promoting the ascendancy of authoritarian neoliberalism throughout Germany: its essential feature is precisely its conceptual and political conversion of democratic action into “free” economic market activity and its transformation of the (everyday) politically constitutive subject into a market subject.

Second, recalling socio-ecological and infrastructural hardships as a central object and trigger of the Wende is also important if we wish to understand the authoritarian nature of today’s Western democratic societies. Terms like Lügenpresse (lying press) or “Corona dictatorship” are misguided in this respect. Of course, nobody would say that the democratic public sphere functions as it should today, but the democratic moment at stake here goes beyond the manifestation of an opinion.

In the GDR, the individual surrender of the self as a socio-political subject was an outcome of, above all, the bloody suppression of (worker) protests in 1953, 1956, and 1968. Today, it is the overwhelming ‘practical constraints’, presented as a force of nature, that constantly wear away at the possibility of restructuring that is so urgently needed.

Where Tellkamp sees a threat to his freedom to write what he thinks, he is perfectly in line with the (neo-)liberalized reduction of democratic rights to the mere expression (or externalization) of a personal or collective identity that has already been pre-defined anyway. Within this logic, the opinion of each and every individual should be freely proclaimed, and indignation and criticism should be expressed, written, and thought through — on the street, in essays and pamphlets, and in public debates — free of censorship. Yet this freedom of expression (or externalization) remains an individual “proclamation”, as Axel Honneth called it, if it is not realized as part of a necessarily shared, collective freedom to shape social relations.

This is why, from the outset, freedom of social determination entails centring the living and working realities of “ordinary people”, or even of those people who are excluded from society outright: the many who are not afforded a change-making role within the social-elitist hierarchy of the capitalist race-class-gender order. This is something that has to be fought for not only as a political right, but also as a material possibility. Comprehensive self-empowerment, which addresses the social and therefore also the economic in its entirety, interests neither neoliberals nor the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and its ilk, because both are deeply and constitutively authoritarian.

Both of these formations will always exclude people, putting some on the bottom rung and robbing them of their voices. Both affirm the prevailing economic social Darwinism (multiculturalism here, ethno-nationalism there) by propagating the struggle for a place in the sun within ostensibly unchangeable capitalist relations of (re-)production and competitive elimination. The shrill accusations of dictatorship at right-wing demonstrations, and the indignant rebukes that follow from pristine, elite democrats are two sides of the same coin. This hollowed-out freedom degenerates into an empty gesture whenever its socially reproductive scaffolding goes essentially unchallenged.

Non-Conformist (Self-)Understanding

The second example of the GDR’s perceived re-emergence is a university works assembly. The departmental assembly also includes technical and administrative staff. The department head, who has power over everyone in the room, gives a PowerPoint presentation. In rousing tones, he calls on us all to increase our individual performance when applying for research funding, as well as improving our teaching and increasing our publishing rates — our figures up to that point were apparently middling.

“There’s more out there!” he chimed from the start. We were supposed to “get it together” and finally devote all our energy to improving our ranking: by admitting more students (the enrolment rate score), passing even very poor students (the pass rate score), providing positive teacher feedback (the evaluation score), and cranking out more papers, but only in high-impact journals, of course (the publications score). “We can do it!”, he says, borrowing Angela Merkel’s famous quote in an attempt to get us all to toe the line. Drawing alternately on threats and incentives, he attempts to cajole us into fulfilling the annual increase in output, which is measured through scores that track our individual performance.

That assembly conjured up the GDR not only in terms of its “bigger is better” ideology, the gratification of sheer quantitative mass, an obsession that has returned today in digitalized guise. In the 1990s, a lot of so-called transformation researchers mocked the GDR for that, even as those very same researchers enthusiastically now engage in academic mass production. But above all, the staff assembly was reminiscent of the GDR because nobody laughed out loud. It was like a flag ceremony in our old primary schools, the weekly political assemblies, or the grandiose speeches held in claustrophobic Traditionskabinette. [3]

Some people — the more thoughtful ones and the ones who were genuinely engaged — knew from experience that criticism would be futile and might even backfire, while others assumed there was no point in engaging, either way. So, we sat in silence and simply waited it out. There was definitely tension in the air. People who knew each other exchanged brief smiles, others stared at the scratched lecture hall desks in front of them, because one other thing was also clear: there were others who remained loyal to the system. These people still had some ambition, agreed with the authoritarian force-feeding, and were even liable to openly call upon certain colleagues to improve their performance.

What can we learn from this? The bureaucratic administrative way of imposing authoritarian power, in both its alienation from everyday life and its capacity to transform everyday life, is ludicrous and menacing in equal measure. It logically follows that rolling one’s eyes in secret is not enough to change the underlying conditions. To do that, we would need to create our own space for understanding and exchange — a space that frees itself of authoritarian expectations.

Tending our Gardens or Fighting for Change

The third example demonstrates how garden plots and disenfranchisement go hand in hand, then as now. The current enthusiasm for urban gardening, the soothing pleasure of growing your own vegetables, and the broadly propagated rediscovery of small, everyday joys are the flip-side of the pervasive realization that “the big picture” is now impossible to fundamentally reconfigure even conceptually, much less in practical political terms.

This reflects a growing sense of powerlessness, particularly with respect to work and social economy. Apart from relatively small victories achieved via corporate bargaining and strikes, we cannot keep neoliberalism in check as a class project and a massive, completely brazen redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top — a process that has long been underway, including in the Global North.

The GDR, too, was neither a society structured around withdrawal and private comfort, nor a repressive dictatorship. On the contrary, in keeping with theoretical work on “domination as social practice”, everyday self-determination (Eigensinn) can also involve deciding not to revolt or resist.

In the GDR, the individual surrender of the self as a socio-political subject was an outcome of, above all, the bloody suppression of (worker) protests in 1953, 1956, and 1968. Today, it is the overwhelming “practical constraints”, presented as a force of nature, that constantly wear away at the possibility of restructuring that is so urgently needed. Accordingly, that quality of the GDR, which has been critically dissected as, in the words of Stefan Wolle, a (supposedly!) “ideal world of dictatorship”, inserts itself back into authoritarian neoliberalism in a modified form, namely that of the seemingly inescapable necessity to fortify one’s own resilience under the existing conditions.

This necessity is driven by omnipresent propaganda: not to let the unfortunately immutable hardship of this world, its difficulties and crises, drive us crazy. Instead, we are encouraged to expend our energy on nice things, like family, the home, the garden, maybe a nice trip, or therapy. All of this (and here is the main difference with the GDR) should serve to better manage competition and uncertainty in the struggle for personal security. Both then and now, the apparently immutable nature of society goes hand-in-hand with withdrawal into private life.

There’s one more insight we can gain if, unlike many on the Left, we do not interpret withdrawal into privacy as an expression of an alleged “lack of consciousness”, but rather, with an eye on the bigger picture, view it, in Klaus Holzkamp’s words, as a “specifically oriented course of action” that has been chosen with good reason. From that perspective, it becomes clear that aspirations toward universalist, humane, meaningful, and ecological ways of living and working together will not simply vanish.

They survived in the GDR — if they hadn’t, 1989 would never have happened — and they are by no means going to disappear today. The question, then as now, is what role each of us can play, alone and with others, to fight for change.

[1] Klaus Wolfram hyperbolically opposes the arrogance of those who still reflexively conjure up a flawed GDR mentality today: “No East German ever disparaged democracy. Not before 1989, and certainly not after. East Germans perceive democracy with more precision. They take it more personally. To them, it means manageable living conditions.”

[2] This is, of course, a “we problem”: “The” East Germans do not exist as a bloc, however there are extensive shared experiences.

[3] In the GDR, aTraditionskabinett was a small room or set of rooms in a factory, school, or institution in which memorabilia relating to the history of the place and/or of the GDR were exhibited on a self-organized basis.