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The poor want up but the rich don't want down

Germany's problems are not addressed in its naval-gazing coalition contract. By Arno Widmann

Forty years ago, Ralf Dahrendorf published his classic book "Society and Democracy in Germany". The first chapter is titled "The German Question". In it he writes, "Many people in Germany believe that the only German question of importance is how to 'patch together' as fast as possible our country that is 'split in three'". The rest of the book addresses other German questions which Dahrendorf thinks are more interesting or less outdated than "the German question". Post-reunification, if not long before, we face precisely the same problem. Germany is fixated on East and West "growing together". For years, we have been staring at the former border and trying to make it disappear. The less we succeed, the harder we try. We have failed to grasp the first rule of social behaviour: problems do not get solved by trying. The more bureaucracy deployed to deal with the problem, the greater society's interest in retaining it.

In the case of German unity, another aggravating factor is at play. While Germany – or I should say, German politics – was naval gazing at reunification, the real challenge in the form of globalisation was ballooning. This, and not on the cosy home front, is where Germany's role will be decided. In the years immediately following 1989, elements of the German public feared that there would be a rise of a new German nationalism. That was – thank goodness - a misconception. But the tremendous care which Germans have exercised in sidestepping every issue other than the East-West axis in the past decade and a half was fatal enough. Even more fatal: the coalition contract promises to uphold this tradition, as a quick flip through it makes clear. In 1990, no one had a clue what the fall of the Berlin Wall would mean. There were horror scenarios of the entire population of the Soviet Union succumbing to starvation, of dictators taking over the states that formed in the place of the people's republics. And there was hope that plenty of new social market economies would spring up, promising lots of business.

But nobody understood that the end of the East bloc would also mean the end of the West. The walls were pulled down and up went a see-saw. And we're fighting for a new balance. Germany's political goal of raising East Germany to the level of West Germany is doomed to fail. It can only seem possible to people who have failed to grasp that the issue at stake is not German reunification but a united Europe. The integration of the five new federal states was not going to be as easy for the Bundesrepublik to finance as Helmut Kohl's government tried to tell us and the rest of the world. The collapse of the Eastern bloc made reunification possible. At the same time it also complicated the economic conditions for the European integration. Western Europe will have to release its grip on wealth. Not only at an institutional level. When you know that 35 percent of the European Union's budgetary resources go into supporting the most deprived regions, then you get an idea of what the entry of the new states means for the old.

More important, though, is the free flow of capital and human resources. While this contributes massively to the development of Eastern Europe, it is weakening the social foundations in the West. In a united Europe, a united job market, similar social systems and similar political structures will all emerge. Certainly, it will not be able to sustain the political, economic or social levels of 1989. Berlusconi's style of governance is closer to Putin's than Schröder's. The concept of state as booty is as old as that of the state itself. The idea would only seem utterly foreign to someone who grew up in Western Europe after WWII. As awful as it is, we're just going to have to get used to it.

The collapse of communism - which didn't actually happen – was a giant step of progress but its future direction is for us to decide. Germany will have to take stock, then it will realise that unification is never a win-win situation. The faster it comes to grips with this, the greater its chances of rising to the real challenges. The "creation of equal standards of living in East and West" is not one of them. This will happen on its own, no matter what we do. Germany's reunification has made German politicians blind not only to the problems of the European unification but – and this is much more serious – to the repercussions of globalisation. We are fighting battles that have long since been lost instead of getting ready to take on the real challenges. Care of the aged is eating into the life savings of more and more families. And when old people undertake to take care of themselves with the help of some migrant Poles, the police comes down hard on them to defend German jobs and social standards. They don't know that they're being sent to this particular front because the battle has long since been decided on most of the others.

The American journalist Thomas Friedman recounts in his book "The World is Flat" which – I'm tempted to add "naturally" - has not been translated into German, that an ever growing portion of American tax returns are completed by Indian and Chinese companies, some of whom work as subcontractors to American tax advisers. For a long time now, as Friedman makes clear with copious examples, it has not only been industrial and mechanical jobs that are outsourced to the Third World. It's not just Germany or Europe that's growing together. The whole world is. The more it does, the greater the pressure - all without basic constitutional law and unification contracts - to create equal standards of living. And there's not a thing we can do about it. Instead of building dams, we should learn to swim.

The first step in that direction would be to measure the strength of the waves that are rolling towards us. The idea fostered by certain interior ministers in the European Union that we only need to reconstruct the wall that once separated East and West to protect the North from the South, overlooks the fact that the Wall of China, which was built to keep out the Mongols, did not stop them from ruling China. The German head is buried in the German question like an ostrich's in the sand. You only have to look at the coalition contract (in German, pdf). It's virtually all about Germany. Of the 143 pages, there's not a single one about German policy on globalisation. That comes under a heading that whiffs of 19th century: "Active economic foreign policy." And that's what it's about too. Three and a half lines of the paper touch upon, as if from afar, one of the key tasks of any future-oriented policy. "Together with the EU, we will work for the continued development of multilateral global trade laws. International employment and social standards, such as the ILO core labour standards, should be taken into appropriate consideration."

It's pathetic. If you approach globalisation like that, you're going to be taken by storm. But you will be reunited.

P.S. The title is a quote from poet Gottfried Benn's conversation with his communist colleague Johannes R. Becher from 1930. ... "You mean that everyone who thinks and writes today, has to do so in with the worker's movement in mind, has to be a communist, has to lend his strength to the rise of the proletariat. Why? What are your reasons? Social movements have always existed. The poor have always wanted up but the rich don't want down. Scary world, capitalistic world, ever since Egypt monopolised the incense trade and Babylonian bankers started money transactions they have charged 20 percent debit interest. The advanced capitalism of ancient peoples, in Asia, in the Mediterranean. The trust of the magenta tradesmen, the trust of the shipping companies, import, export, grain speculation, insurance companies, insurance scams, Taylorist factories: this one cuts the leather, this one sews the skirts, extortionate rent, evictions, war industrialists and the exemption of shareholders of the military service – scary world, capitalistic world, and always the counter movement: one minute, it's hordes of helots in the Cyrenian tanneries, the next it's the slave wars in Roman times, the poor want up and the rich don't want down, scary world, but after 3 millennia you should be able to at least approach the thought that the whole thing is neither good nor evil but purely phenomenal."


Arno Widmann was born in 1948 and studied philosophy in Frankfurt with Theodor W. Adorno. A founder and editor-in-chief of die tageszeitung, he has also worked as senior editor of the German Vogue and arts editor of Die Zeit. Today he runs the opinion pages of the Berliner Zeitung. He has translated Umberto Eco, Curzio Malaparte and Victor Serge into German. His literary debut came with his 2002 novel "Sprenger".

Translation: lp. - let's talk european