No Turks, please, we're German

Gerhard Schroder's new citizenship law is provoking a backlash against immigrants

O tempora, o mores, as Enoch Powell might have lamented. There used to be a time when a British shadow cabinet minister was sacked if, like the Roman, he saw the Tiber foaming with blood at the prospect of more immigration.

More than 30 years on, if Germany's new Social Democrat interior minister, Otto Schily, says that "Germany's capacity to cope with immigration is exceeded", he not only keeps his job but finds his comment on the front page of Der Spiegel.

"Too many foreigners?" the respected weekly asks, accompanied by an alarmist illustration of an array of alien characters crammed into Germany's borders.

Conservatives are exhilarated that the minister - a defector from the Greens and once a left-wing lawyer who defended Red Army Faction terrorists - has dressed up their slogan of "the boat is full up" in more polite terms. "Schily has only said out loud what every reasonable German has known for 20 years," commented Rudolf Schlierer, the not-so-reasonable leader of the far-right Republicans. According to a recent poll, 52 per cent agree that there are already too many foreigners and only 7 per cent would feel at ease with more immigration.

Despite this xenophobic mood, Gerhard Schroder's government is proposing a reform of Germany's antiquated blood-based citizenship laws. The second generation of German-born immigrants will automatically receive citizenship. Other foreigners will now qualify for naturalisation after eight years and be allowed to retain their original citizenship.

This may sound modest, but it is a near-revolutionary break with an ethnic concept of nationhood on which Hitler once based his whole ideology.

Is Germany making a fresh start by transforming itself into a multicultural melting pot from Bamberg to Berlin? Not if the opposition has its way. Christian Democrat leaders, still smarting after their worst electoral defeat in the history of the republic, smell a gerrymandering operation of vast proportions. If all eligible foreigners were to take up the offer of a new passport - which is by no means guaranteed - they fear the creation of four million left-wing voters grateful to the government which enfranchised them.

To the Bavarian hardliner Peter Gauweiler, this amounts to nothing less than "a shift in the balance of power" in the new Germany, with Turks forming a notable political constituency. Bars are abuzz with fears of cultural subversion: if Turks are enfranchised, will they call for equal treatment of Islam next?

Schily tries to dispel these concerns: "I would have a problem if a muezzin drowned out the bells of a village church in Bavaria. We will have to counteract such developments."

While populist politicians play to the gallery, the country is ever more in danger of drifting into a Powellian mindset. Schroder himself, when he was trying to prove his credentials as the Social Democrat candidate for chancellor, hardly sent a message of social harmony when he dabbled in prejudice in writing for the German tabloid Bild: "You've got to point out, even if some people don't like to hear it: Poles just happen to be conspicuously active in organised car-theft, the Russian mafia dominates prostitution, drugs-related criminals are often from south-eastern Europe or black Africans. For those who abuse their status as guests, there can only be one answer: get out, and quick!"

The figures are daunting: between 1987 and 1994, the seven million foreigners already residing in Germany were joined by another 1.6 million asylum-seekers (compared with the UK's 240,000) and nearly two million ethnic Germans who were welcomed from the disintegrating eastern bloc by the supposedly anti-immigration chancellor Helmut Kohl. Under an all-but-forgotten legal provision, these Aussiedlers not only assumed citizenship automatically but also received a very generous package of benefits, prompting second- and third-generation Turks, who do not even enjoy the rights of foreign EU-citizens, to condemn the privileges of the "Russian-Germans" as based exclusively on race.

The advent of the Aussiedlers fuelled a rise in violence by the extreme right. As Turkish families died in the arson attacks of Molln and Solingen, jack-booted neo-Nazis patrolled the streets in search of dark-skinned victims. In the disaffected east, the violent backlash against immigrants has been particularly intense: with one in five unemployed, the resentment against the "job thieves" erupts on an almost daily basis. In response, alienated Turkish youths have started looking to Islamic fundamentalism as an ideological platform from which to organise their fightback.

The violence seems an almost inevitable consequence of an immigration policy that for 45 years has lacked any thoughtful planning. From the 1950s, when politicians urged the first "guest-workers" to cross the Alps to man the engine rooms of the economic miracle, the elites told voters that the presence of the eager new workers was a necessary, but temporary, evil.

They were wrong. As early as the 1970s it was clear that foreigners would not return to their impoverished origins. Instead they brought their families to join them. Moreover, the establishment was slow to realise that Germany's singularly munificent right to asylum - a basic right any newcomer could pursue through every appellate court - had become a burdensome provision in the constitution.

Yet the immigrants' contribution was also overlooked. Many started their own businesses, often family-run and remarkably successful; in recent years, the 10,000 independent kebab shops have managed to outsell McDonald's.

A study by the RWI economic research institute showed that 75 per cent of foreigners do jobs that Germans would not even consider taking on. The immigrants keep alive trades that would otherwise suffer acute shortages of labour.

Moreover, according to Rainer Munz, professor of demographic studies at Humboldt University in Berlin, the immigrants fulfil another role: according to recent studies, Germany will need around 300,000 immigrants a year during the next three decades to keep its population steady. The statistics seem to sound the death knell for Schily's last delusion: that the country cannot take any more newcomers.

Meanwhile, the cause of assimilation has received an unexpected boost: late last year Peter Kohl, the son of the defeated chancellor, announced that he is soon to be married to a Turkish girl.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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