Letter from Bad Heiligendammby Robert S. Eshelman and Tina Gerhardt
As might be expected, the June meeting of the G8—the annual economic summit of the world’s most powerful countries—was met by massive demonstrations. An international assortment of activists converged to protest the meetings held in the northern German town of Bad Heiligendamm. Camped out in the vicinity of the nearby city of Rostock, the uninvited guests channeled their general disdain for capitalism into daily marches and rallies on a range of issues including the effects of agribusiness and trade on farming, the right of people to migrate across national borders without being criminalized, and the connection between militarism and globalization. In preparation for the protests, the German government doled out $17 million to erect a state-of-the-art security fence to shield the official proceedings from the globalization protesters. The barrier stretched 12 kilometers from end to end, stood 2.5 meters high, and was topped with barbed wire and security cameras. The fence allowed only two land routes into the meeting ground.
Heiligendamm was an appropriate setting for the world’s boosters of neoliberal economics, not just because of its particular history as a luxury retreat, but also because it sits within the state of Mecklenburg–Vorpommern (MV). Late-1980s reunification introduced free-market capitalism to the former-East German MV. Promising economic vitality, these reforms have instead brought massive job flight, high unemployment and low per capita income.
Long promoted for its therapeutic qualities, Bad Heiligendamm was built as a lavish getaway on the Baltic coast in the late 19th century. The secluded spot served the Duke of Mecklenburg, as well as many European and Russian aristocrats. Clusters of conference facilities, lodgings and pearl-white bathhouses dot Heiligendamm today; it remains an exclusive haunt for the wealthy seeking an escape from the rigors of capitalist accumulation. It was thus a perfect setting for the heads of the world’s largest economies to convene. For three days these power brokers smiled and shook hands for the cameras as they rolled back prior agreements on health care access for Africans, and failed to piece together a plan to address global warming.
But in MV—as has been the case so many times before in so many places—while the neoliberal logic of capitalism has brought greater wealth overall, it has bestowed economic hardship on a great portion of the population. Increased inequality has led to a sharp economic polarization in the state. In many areas of MV, as is typical of former East German states, unemployment rates have hovered between 15 and 20 percent since reunification in 1989. Recent job growth stems from the less stable service sector, including temp work and call-centers. While these positions do provide a paycheck and some health benefits, they are not as secure as those offered by full-time employment. Compared to other German states, MV has the second-lowest average income and the highest unemployment. Contrary to its post-reunification selling points, the flexible economy has brought about a hitherto unseen precarity among workers in MV.
In the streets outside the meetings people were voicing concerns not only about the world’s poorest countries. Many Germans were making connections between the G8 summit and their own compromised economic situations. One such protester was Nadine Fischer, who traveled with her husband and their 14-year-old daughter from Juterborg, a town just outside of Berlin. “I want to do something against the G8,” she said, her shoes and pant cuffs muddied from days at Camp Reddlich, one of three protest sites outside of Heiligendamm. For Fischer, it is deplorable that Germany would spend millions to host the G8 while drastically reducing social services for the poor and unemployed. Fischer has been out of work for four years and is a recipient of Hartz IV, the latest pared-down benefits package in a series of welfare reforms initiated under Gerhard Schroeder and continued by Angela Merkel’s government.
While Germany is commonly perceived as a social democratic state, that is, one that takes care of its citizens, the Hartz IV reforms reveal a new direction: diminishing social services are giving way to a more vigorous assistance of big business. Fischer said that she became politicized through participating in weekly protests against welfare reform in Germany.
In order to sell the G8 summit to the population of MV, its promoters promised a range of infrastructure improvements, and a surge to the local economy through added tourism. Just like the Olympics or other international one-off events, the G8 summit was sold as bringing much-needed repairs that the state had long neglected. The meeting did deliver some of the promised goods as dilapidated railways and roads were repaired, and old Communist housing blocs given a fresh coat of paint.
But Heidi Barz, a 67-year old retiree and resident of Rostock, was doubtful these improvements would have lasting benefits. Instead, Barz seemed to think the protests were the real boon. “There’s a lot of talk about what the summit brings to Rostock, but it’s all talk…I could do without the rioting, but the fact that there are so many demonstrators is great. It is absolutely wonderful that so many people are coming from so far away,” she said. Barz danced in the street as a sound truck roared by during a protest in support of immigrants and freedom of movement.
Not all Germans are as skeptical of the G8 and as supportive of the protests as Fischer and Barz. A bus driver from MV, when asked about the high unemployment, said, “we lost a lot of jobs after reunification but there are people who don’t know how to adjust.” According to the driver, when faced with a political and economic shift from paternalistic socialism to free market capitalism, the onus is on the individual and not the state to provide jobs and a better standard of living. He had absorbed the neoliberal logic well: his position avoided both a systemic analysis critiquing the factors that contribute to people’s tenuous hold on economic survival.
Not only is economic hardship manifest in high unemployment numbers and disinvestment in public works, but neoliberal policies have infiltrated the region’s most fundamental practice—farming. In MV gently rolling hills let onto fields of tall grasses and wheat. Farmhouses with thatched roofs stand on either side of small cobblestone streets. At one point, not so long ago, MV was literally the breadbasket of Germany. Yet, like many other agricultural areas, it is turning from planting wheat to planting rapeseed—from growing food for humans on a small scale to growing fuels for machines on a massive scale.
Gaetan Vallée, a French farmer working in Germany and a member of the international farmers’ union Via Campesina, sizes up the agricultural crisis in Germany and across Europe. “Today, three hundred thousand small farmers leave agricultural production every year,” he said. “Since the wall was torn down, collective land ownership has been destroyed and sold.” According to Gaetan, an entire way of life is being eviscerated. Farms in Germany are no longer passed from one generation to the next but sold by poor families to large agriculture companies.
The economic realities in MV bring into sharp focus many destructive transformations set in motion by the neoliberal agenda. We have grown accustomed to surveying declining conditions in developing countries yet sometimes the global south is not as far away as it seems.
ContributorsRobert S. Eshelman
ROBERT S. ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times.Tina Gerhardt
Tina Gerhardt is currently writing a book about social movements in Germany and has published reviews and articles in Faultlines, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle.