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Konrad Werner: Creating Germany’s underclass

Why does it always take a left-wing politician to destroy the welfare state?

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Photo by fluffisch (Flickr CC)

“But, as we are endlessly instructed, while rich people will not work unless they are given money, poor people will only work if they are not. (These are the two modern meanings of the term “incentive”: a tax break on the one hand and the threat of the workhouse on the other.) And, once the Democratic Party had adopted this theology, the poor had no one to whom they could turn. The immediate consequence of this was probably an intended one: the creation of a large helot underclass disciplined by fear and scarcity, subject to endless surveillance, and used as a weapon against any American worker lucky enough to hold a steady or unionized job.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t write this. I’ll just have to live with that. It comes from Christopher Hitchens’ book No One Left To Lie To, whose main theme is what a complete cunt Bill Clinton is, but whose incidental theme is the betrayal of the poor by left-wing political parties in the 1990s.

You might have noticed that Hitch is talking about the US. “Phew,” you probably thought when you realized that, wallowing in the self-congratulation along with columnists like Der Spiegel’s Jakob Augstein, “am I glad I don’t live there. It sounds really shit.”

But while we bathe in the superiority that only sensible western European social democracies can provide, the fact is that this “theology” has long since taken hold in Germany. Like in the US, it took a centre-left leader, Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schröder – the Vaterland‘s own Slick Willy – to introduce it with his Hartz IV reforms. These ensured that more and more people on unemployment benefit have been forced to take the next job they can find, even – or in fact especially – if it doesn’t provide enough money for them to live on. You’ve probably read the stories about bus drivers with a 15-hour a week part-time job and take home €96 a month and so on.

To top it off, last year, Germany’s “Jobcenter” broke the record for imposing “sanctions” on people who missed appointments, forgot to write letters, and otherwise incurred the disdain of their supervisors. The Hartz IV reforms represented a fundamental shift in Germany’s attitude to its poor, and a more or less conscious decision to create an underclass. That’s at least one point of the hunger strike being carried out by Ralph Boes, who has had his benefits cut to €37.40 a month. This humiliation by the authorities is what is known as making the labour market more “flexible”, and it’s always the first step to the end of the welfare state.