2011 is the year of the ‘indignant’: across the world, the youth is rising up against a capitalist system that offers them no opportunities. But what about Germany?
Originally published (in German) by Cicero: Magazine for Political Culture
2011 is the year of the “indignant”. Not only in the Arab world, but in many other countries as well, the young have been drawn to the streets. Despite the differences between them, the insurgents share a basic frustration over the lack of economic opportunities. Even in Germany, it’s starting to simmer, albeit only on the back burner — for now.
Athens, Madrid, Tel Aviv, London and Santiago de Chile: it is not straightforward to put such a diverse series of uprisings in a row, bound as they are to their own separate contexts and divergent realities. But while the peaceful protests on Madrid’s Puerta del Sol seem, at first glance, to have little in common with the riots of British hooligans, the two uprisings are connected through an undeniable fact: in both of them, we see the manifestation of the crisis of our present social system; the identity crisis of capitalism.
Time writes that the German youth, as opposed to their European peers, do not have any cropped up anger. According to the Shell Youth Study, the majority of young Germans are optimistic about their future, despite the ravaging euro crisis. No trace of “German angst“. Instead, the Germans live on an island of bliss in the middle of a crisis-ridden Europe — or are people in this country simply not politically engaged enough to get involved?
One group in Germany wants to do away with these prejudices and is forever rehearsing the revolution in Berlin. They manage the online “aCampada” blog, in reference to the tent camps that burst into existence across Spain last May. But it’s a name without a program: real tent cities are nowhere to be found in the capital. A handful of young people, hardly distinguishable from the tourists, meet at Alexanderplatz for a popular assembly.
One of the activists is Florian, who studied politics and sociology. “You can’t compare us with any other political campaign or organization,” says the 29-year-old. “We are neither a group nor an organization, ultimately not even a movement, but simply a network of individuals.” No hierarchy, no ideological predisposition. Anyone can participate. Since June, the diagnosticians of social misery have been meeting regularly at Alexanderplatz, inspired by the 15 May protest movement in Spain.
But the attempt to establish an Acampada — a protest camp after the Spanish model — at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz failed. “We initially set up an information pavilion, and randomly placed some four or five tents around it,” says Florian. The city council and the police protested loudly. “They banned the tents, and the police carried us away. Our camping chairs were next, and finally they even imposed a sleeping ban on us.”
The protest newbies were unable to push through. Florian says that the basic problem of the “networked” activists is their lack of popular support. “In comparison to Spain or Israel, what’s missing in Germany is obviously the masses who take to the streets.” There also isn’t a proper manifesto yet.
The activists are asking the “systemic question,” Florian says, trying to explain his anger. “We need a fair monetary system, a more just social order and a proper democracy. The current system is oligarchic. We have to communicate with each other more, and not only through the mass corporate media. Then we will start seeing solutions.”
Acampada has not managed to do away with the prejudice against the German youth: their protest comes across as politically disoriented, experiential, and chronically understaffed.
Part of the explanation, according to youth researcher Wolfgang Gaiser, of the German Youth Institute (DJI), is the fact the youth in Germany is doing considerably better than their peers in other European countries
The economic crisis has not hit the Federal Republic nearly as hard as the Spaniards or the Greeks. Germany is rather the economic lifeline of the EU. According to the Federal Statistical Office, at just under ten percent, Germany has the third lowest youth unemployment rate in the EU, just after Holland and Austria. Spain recorded the highest youth unemployment, however. Almost half (45.7 percent) of 15 to 24-year olds is without a job. In Greece, more than one in three teenagers (38.5 percent) are unemployed.
But while the numbers may be low, it turns out that even in Germany the real losers of the global economic crisis are still mostly the youth. The young are often more affected by unemployment than the general population. In addition, the two-tiered education system and the various options for vocational preparation are only effective to protect the young from a direct fall into unemployment. Those who can’t find a job after finishing their education may continue studying, but this is only a temporary solution to prop up hope — not a way to fight real unemployment.
Even for those with an academic education there are, despite a shortage of skills in the job market, often only temporary jobs. Poorly or non-paying internships have long ceased to be the exception for entry into professional life.
Young people from socially disadvantaged households see little opportunity for themselves, which is confirmed by a recent OECD study, “Education at a Glance“: Germany lacks highly qualified workers. Only in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia is the split between high-and low-skilled workers similar in size. Overall, Germany’s investment in public education ranks among the lowest of OECD countries.
Only those who have enjoyed an education can afford to be optimistic about the future, and similarly, it is easier for a more educated person to become politically engaged. A glance at history proves that it is mostly the educated and better-off who start revolutions and political protests. The leaders of the French Revolution were elevated commoners, nobility, inspired by the theories of the Enlightenment. Also during the revolution of 1848, while it was mainly the lower section of the population that suffered from the abuses of the state, it was ultimately not the proletariat that spearheaded the political protest, but the bourgeoisie.
This is the dilemma in which the most likely cause of the London riots must be sought: those youths who are really suffering usually do not have as much opportunity for action, let alone the necessary mouthpiece, to give rise to a protest movement. They either suffer in silence or go on a rampage.
The peaceful protesters at the Puerta del Sol, accordingly, are mostly academics and students. In Chile, it is also the students who rebel against the privatization of education and the neoliberal policies of the right-wing government of President Sebastian Piñera. Even in Tel Aviv, it is primarily the middle class that has come together to protest peacefully. And even the small circle of revolutionaries in Berlin is made up primarily of people with higher education. They are all politically engaged, but they are characterized by a generally dismissive stance towards the political establishment. They are increasingly weary of the national popular parties, which they consider to be puppets of global financial capital, or functionaries of the power of the market.
The trend of declining voter participation in many European countries fits right into this picture. Since the early 1990s, voter participation in countries like France and England has been steadily falling. And, as a study of the Swedish International Institute for Electoral Assistance shows, the same has been going on in Germany since the mid-1990s. But to brand the electorate as listless and politically disengaged would be too simplistic. These numbers are not a farewell hymn to democracy, but rather the symptom of a fragile democracy.
The deep currency and debt crisis has once more laid bare the real limits of national policy. For a long time already, the financial markets have been wielding the scepter of power. The financial sector is profoundly sick, but national politics no longer has the power to heal it. The banks and speculators are largely responsible for the crisis, but they are not being held to account. The state and its citizens face the consequences and pay the bills.
So if the youth protests come across as vague and apolitical, this simply lies in the nature of things. The protests are as diffuse as their enemy. They simply reflect the political powerlessness vis-à-vis an all-encompassing, uncontrollable global financial system.
Just like capital, anger has now become globalized. The immediate trigger for protest and rebellion may vary from country to country, but these are all symptoms of an ailing capitalism. Homo economicus as a model is already on its last legs. In this country, all we need is the right spark — and that is inevitable, according to Florian: “Sooner or later, the economic impact will hit us anyway. And while the situation is not as far-developed as in England, we at Acampada have already helped to create the basic infrastructure with the necessary communication channels for peaceful protest.”