Pop-Up Populism: The Failure of Left-Wing Nationalism in Germany

Pop-Up Populism: The Failure of Left-Wing Nationalism in Germany

Aufstehen’s leaders insisted that their movement was not defined by its opposition to migrants. But they consistently cast migrants as either pawns in the game of finance capital or as the phony poster children of misguided urban idealists.

Sahra Wagenknecht, one of the leaders of Aufstehen, at a rally in 2017 (Die Linke Nordrhein-Westfalen/Flickr)

In 2016, a dramaturge, a career politician, and a retired sociologist met at the Paris-Moskau Restaurant in Berlin to hatch a plan to disrupt the German left. The dramaturge was the fifty-something Bernd Stegemann, a large man in wire-framed glasses with the slumped mien of an eternal graduate student. He worked a five-minute cab ride away at the Berliner Ensemble, a theater company founded by Bertolt Brecht in the same year as socialist East Germany.

The politician was Sahra Wagenknecht, one of the country’s most poised and merciless critics of the status quo. Born in East Germany to an Iranian father and a German mother, Wagenknecht was the parliamentary chairperson of die Linke (the Left) party. Since its 2007 founding, die Linke’s mixture of ex–Social Democrats and former East German communists had polled around 10 percent nationally. Despite her party’s mediocre electoral performance, Wagenknecht had remained one of the most popular politicians in national polls and a fixture on primetime talk shows.

The sociologist, a partisan of earth-tone sweaters with a paintbrush mustache, was Wolfgang Streeck. One of Germany’s best-known intellectuals, Streeck achieved celebrity status in the leftward reaches of the Anglosphere after Verso published his 2014 book, Buying Time. To the readership of the London Review of Books and their broader penumbra, Streeck had become a trusted guide through the thickets of European politics in the age of the troika and the bailout.

Soon a fourth comrade emerged from the wings: Oskar Lafontaine, Wagenknecht’s husband and arguably the most seasoned left strategist in German politics. Lafontaine had served as finance minister under 1990s third-way–style Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schröder and was himself chair of the party before resigning in dramatic fashion. He helped found die Linke, for which he remains a member of parliament.

The quartet were drawn together by a shared distaste for how the center and the left were reacting to new threats from the right. In particular, they were angry with the political establishment’s embrace of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “welcoming” immigration policy. Most EU member states had clashed with Merkel over national refugee quotas, but within Germany the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) was the only party to capitalize on criticism of the chancellor’s immigration policy. Wagenknecht and her allies believed that, to reverse the AfD’s electoral success, anti-Merkel and anti-migration politics could not be ceded to the far right. The rules of politics were changing, and “the center” would not hold.

Left-wing populism was an idea bouncing around Europe at the time. Jean-Luc Mélenchon had announced the launch of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) in February of that year; Momentum was founded in Britain the year before; Podemos the year before that in Spain. Why shouldn’t Germany have its own populist party and populist movement?

The quartet decided they would start one themselves.

Pop-Up Populism

It began with a hashtag. The beta version was #fairLand, listed at the head of a document that leaked to the German press in May 2018. Tinkering followed and the movement debuted officially in August across social media platforms as #aufstehen, or “stand up,” with a stick figure logo raising its arms inside of the “a.”

The official website featured a mosaic of interviews with people on street corners, playgrounds, harbors, and benches—all shot by the Cologne-based advertising agency Dreiwerk, better known for its work with clients like T-Mobile and eBay. Signaling the constituency for the movement, the videos included a well-curated palette of faces spanning gender, race, age, and apparently class: “Rene the DJ,” “Margot the pensioner,” “Thomas the businessman.” Streeck would snark later about other political parties with their “PR departments” and “impression management,” but #aufstehen was a start-up social movement self-conscious about just such issues from the jump.

The most important feature of the website was the text box for names and email addresses at the top of the page, hailing the viewer to “be part of the movement!” In coming months, the volume of email addresses accumulated would be cited as crucial evidence of the growing movement’s scale. By the time of #aufstehen’s September 2018 launch—a traditional government-style press conference with veteran politicians from die Linke, the Greens, and the Social Democrats—100,000 users had registered on the site. The number later peaked at around 170,000. The sum made headlines across German media, which noted that the movement’s “membership” was around twice that of die Linke.

The figure was impressive. Yet there was something odd about this would-be grassroots mobilization. Social movements are not typically planned from above with a readymade hashtag, logo, and a date marked on the calendar. Left-populist theorists, some of whom #aufstehen’s leaders quoted, teach that “the people” is always constructed in the course of mobilization. Aufstehen (they dropped the hashtag after a threatened lawsuit from an Austrian group with a near-identical hashtagged name and logo) seemed to be reading the instructions backward. They were conjuring a people before the movement was underway, rolling out a social movement like the latest iPhone.

There were plenty of sources of grassroots energy the organizers could have tried to draw upon. The week before Aufstehen launched their website, more than twenty thousand people demonstrated in the rain in Munich against “the politics of fear” and for a more liberal asylum policy. Earlier in the summer, protests in support of refugees had taken place in nineteen German cities. Organizers from “Sea Bridge,” a refugee rights organization, expected 1,500 attendees at their rally in Berlin; five times that number showed up.

Such actions for a more inclusive Germany might appear like the kernel of a genuine grassroots movement: urban and diverse; interested in coalitions across class, race, gender and nationality; attentive to the precarities of the New Economy; and angry at the generation above them for the failed compromises of third-way social democracy.

But here was the rub—these crowds in the streets were the precise group that Aufstehen was mobilizing against.

The Adversary on the Left

Theorists of left populism like to argue that “the people” needs an adversary against which it can define itself. Who was “the adversary” for Aufstehen? It was an eclectic group. At its head was Merkel’s government, followed by the forces of what they called “Goldman Sachs capitalism.” Arrayed behind them were a less typical crew for the left: an alliance of migrants (some of whom were suspect followers of “hate preachers of radicalized Islam”) and the naïve leftists who loved them. Together, they played the role of useful idiots for a ruling class intent on driving down wages by swamping the remains of the welfare state.

Against this union of elites and outsiders, Aufstehen offered “the realistic left” a middle approach that distinguished between “forced” and “economic” migration—lest all “competitors for scarce resources at the bottom of society” be given access to the German labor market and social welfare benefits. “If the core concern of leftist politics is to represent the disadvantaged,” Wagenknecht explained, “then the no-borders position is the opposite of being on the left.”

Although Aufstehen’s leaders insisted at every opportunity that their movement was not defined by its opposition to migrants, their consistent tack was to recast migrants as either pawns in the game of finance capital or as the phony poster children of misguided urban idealists. “Cosmopolitanism, anti-racism, and protection of minorities,” Wagenknecht claimed, “are feel-good labels to conceal crude upward redistribution and to preserve a good conscience for the beneficiaries.” Streeck went further, calling the use of taxpayer euros for migrant resettlement “morally obligatory expropriation” and casting doubt on the motives of the refugees coming to Germany. In one snide remark, he complained, “we send our own troops into the Afghan fire and simultaneously take as refugees Afghan men who are fit for service and have no desire to stand by our side to fight the Taliban.”

According to Aufstehen’s theorists, real international solidarity meant helping foreigners stay at home and fight their own struggles. In an interview-debate with former AfD leader Frauke Petry, Wagenknecht criticized the AfD for being too open to immigration—specifically, for drawing “highly qualified people from poorer countries,” who would be better off in their native lands. Or, as Streeck put it in an interview: “Would you want Nelson Mandela to be a refugee in Germany? No! He’d be a mail carrier bringing Amazon parcels to your house. . . . he was needed somewhere else.”

Against the Alternative for Germany, Wagenknecht and Streeck posed Attrition for Germany: barricade the remaining territory of the welfare state against the invaders without and their witless accomplices within.

The Inner Logic of the Lilla Leftists

If part of Aufstehen’s argument rested on debatable assertions about an irreconcilable tension between economic migration and social welfare, the inner logic of the movement relied on an even more dubious chain of equivalences between “postmodernism,” “identity politics,” “political correctness,” and “neoliberalism.” Here the surest guide is the only professional showman in the quartet, Bernd Stegemann.

Described by the media as Aufstehen’s “mastermind” or “éminence grise,” Stegemann called himself “the dramaturge of the movement.” “A dramaturge,” he explained, “talks with the director and the actors, gives input, makes suggestions about what, how, and where things could be done, and so on. In principle that’s my role.” His most recent books—Critique of Theater (2014), In Praise of Realism (2015), The Specter of Populism (2017), and The Morality Trap (2018)—develop what he calls a “political dramaturgy.” When one newspaper described In Praise of Realism as Aufstehen’s secret script, Stegemann clarified that his most recent writings on populism “explain more precisely what we’re trying to do with #aufstehen.”

Stegemann casts “neoliberalism” and “postmodernism” as the dramatis personae of our time. It was this twin menace, he argues, that decimated the welfare state, exterminated class consciousness, and transformed race, gender, and class into matters of mere “social construction.” To reclaim power, left populists need to Make Class Hegemonic Again, thereby blurring established lines between right and left.

The first step, it would seem, is casting opponents of immigration as the designated representatives of “the people.” This also meant catering to AfD voters, who studies have shown tend to be of average or above-average income, disproportionately male, over thirty, of average education, and skeptical of not only immigration but also gender equality and the human provenance of climate change. By design, migrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and non-white inhabitants of Germany are left on the margins of “the people.”

Observers have compared Stegemann’s polemics against the German left to Mark Lilla’s denunciations of American liberals, and for good reason. Both trace the breakdown of the center and the rise of the right to the evils of identity politics, and both envision center-left coalitions reforming around concepts like border security, national citizenship, the traditional family, and the homeland.

Another West Germany Is Possible

When the gilets jaunes popped up across rural France in November 2018—without a PR roll-out in advance—Aufstehen’s leaders moved to draft into the Gallic slipstream. They branded yellow vests of their own, not with demands but with their own logo. For a video on Aufstehen’s website, Wagenknecht appeared in front of Merkel’s Chancellery alone with a microphone, giving another version of her stump speech. The symbolism was striking. Das Volk, c’est moi.

Though Aufstehen’s first test of an internet forum for policy discussion had drawn in a relatively high share of users unaffiliated with any specific party—the quartet’s original dream—their plans for online community building never panned out. Embarrassingly, the website itself went dark temporarily when the movement’s PR firm claimed it had been stiffed on the commission. A mere matter of months after its launch, Aufstehen’s populist theater was turning into a muted monologue.

The quartet were playing out their professional roles a little too faithfully. Wagenknecht and Lafontaine were doing party politics and turning Aufstehen into a proxy battle for leadership of die Linke against the party chairs Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, who supported the “open borders” demand in die Linke’s platform. Wagenknecht effectively conceded this battle as lost when, in March 2019, she announced that, for health reasons, she would not run for a party leadership position again later in the year.

Stegemann was successful only at creating diverting dramas, capturing headlines even as whatever momentum Aufstehen had faded. He was also trapped in a performative contradiction of his own making, summoning the working class to the stage to fight the cultural elite of which he was transparently a member.

Perhaps the most surprising figure in the Aufstehen drama was Streeck himself, who seemed to have chosen to devote his retirement to the decidedly non-septuagenarian sport of throwing bombs. In an ambitious article titled “Reflections on Political Scale,” Streeck praised a (largely imaginary) version of the current populist wave for its desire to secede, to drop out, to break off. Under conditions of late globalization, he now believes, it might be more desirable to delink, to decouple, to go smaller—and he seems to view populist movements as the most promising agents of decentralization.

Yet Streeck’s yearning for local communities sits awkwardly alongside his deep attachment to a version of nationalism modeled on mid-century West Germany. In his repeated descriptions of the EU as an “empire,” it’s hard not to hear echoes of the same strange version of anticolonialism that others have heard in the demands of Brexiteers. Here Streeck appears as a kind of German Kwame Nkrumah manqué. Just as Ghana’s first postcolonial leader, Nkrumah (as described by Adom Getachew in this issue), called to “seize ye first the political kingdom,” Streeck’s gambit lays much on the freedom that will supposedly follow a departure from the EU with little suggestion of how that will look beyond incantations of the category of “autonomy.”

If he looked beyond the EU, however, Streeck would see that, formally speaking, decolonization has already happened. And he might notice that the end of empires does not necessarily bring the liberation he seems to imagine will follow the release from the yoke of the European Commission in Brussels. Most nations in the world find that the right to devalue their currency, however useful for short-term adjustment, is hardly the royal road to self-determination. After all, when it comes to monetary policy, the European Central Bank and the German Bundesbank are housed in the very same city of Frankfurt, and many (including Streeck) see the former as a scaled-up version of the latter.

Why would a perpetual skeptic like Streeck have any confidence that the German central bank’s governing philosophy would change abruptly after the end of the eurozone? And when “the people” are surrounded by so many adversaries on their left—all those misplaced foreigners and native-born suckers for the identity politics con—how are they supposed to stand up to global capital?

By his own account, Streeck was not much of a fiery ’68er. Yet if he has decided to make up for lost time with a late go at épater le bourgeois (gauche), he has also missed one of the New Left’s central lessons: capitalism-in-action creates new victims as it creates new agents. Giving up on the young and urban, the educated but underemployed, the paperless and the stateless means falling back to the same problems that sank the old left: seeking salvation only from the factory floor when the material base for that kind of politics no longer exists.

Attrition is no slogan for a reinvigorated left. As we write these lines, tens of thousands of people gather in Berlin to demand the expropriation of its largest landlord, which has exacerbated the problem of rising rents and housing shortages in the neighborhoods with the highest rates of need and unemployment. The AfD claims this is all part of a conspiracy to get more refugees into homes and undermine the working class. Meanwhile Aufstehen’s leaders are at a remove, internally regrouping and licking self-inflicted wounds. Even as the curtain falls on a season of their left-populist theater, the drama of struggle goes on.

Quinn Slobodian is the author of Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. He teaches history at Wellesley College.

William Callison is co-editor of Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture (forthcoming with Fordham University Press) and of “Europe at a Crossroads” (Near Futures Online). He is Visiting Assistant Professor of Government and Law at Lafayette College.