Boris Kanzleiter on the pandemic, social challenges, intensifying conflicts and inequalities—and international solidarity in the corona era
Boris Kanzleiter works as the director of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Centre for International Dialogue.
This interview was conducted by Kathrin Gerlof and originally appeared in maldekstra #8. Translation by Joshua Rahtz.
KG: You are based all over the world, you have offices in different countries and regions, and you have colleagues from Germany working together with those from other countries. Has everyone come through the pandemic healthy so far?
BK: The COVID-19 pandemic poses a great challenge for us. We can maintain operations in all of our 26 offices abroad. However, this is work done under very difficult conditions. Sanitary measures must be observed everywhere. Most of our 40 assigned and 200 local employees work from home and have only a limited presence in the offices. One colleague has fallen ill with COVID-19. Events everywhere have to be cancelled, and many plans and projects can no longer be realized. In addition to the restrictions imposed by the sanitary measures, the crisis has made political conditions in many countries more difficult.
What new forms of work have emerged out of necessity? Have some turned out to be beneficial?
We have converted many things into digital formats. To a certain extent, under the impact of the pandemic, communication between our colleagues and political partners has intensified worldwide. New forms of work organization, exchanges of experience, communication, and cooperation are emerging. Some elements, such as webinars and livestreams, enrich our political education work and organizational development.
It sounds like you’ve gotten through quite well so far.
Yes, but at the same time it shows that we are facing a major challenge in the medium and long term. The political Left and social movements naturally depend primarily on the ability of people to get together directly, and to have the chance to exchange ideas and protest together, to struggle. After all, we make politics out of society. This is not impossible under the current conditions, but it is very difficult. Even though there are now more mobile phone contracts than people worldwide, many cannot participate in digital communication because they don’t have the necessary tools. So we have to develop new strategies.
It is clear that people must come together in their struggles: for climate justice, social justice, against right-wing extremism, against racism. Will the pandemic further exacerbate the crisis of the Left?
I would say that the current will be going against us even more forcefully than before the pandemic. Basically, all existing social problems, conflicts, and inequalities will be intensified, deepened, and broadened by this crisis. It starts with the crisis of the health systems, which was already unfolding before the pandemic, and is now becoming more acute in many places. Added to this are the immense economic and social consequences of the pandemic. As early as autumn 2019, a global economic crisis was already looming on the horizon. Now, according to all serious researchers, we are at the beginning of the biggest global economic crisis since at least the end of the Second World War. This will of course have enormous political consequences that are difficult to foresee.
What political ruptures and social changes do you think are on the horizon?
It is very contradictory, but we are probably living through a period of great political upheaval. On the one hand, some authoritarian governments around the world are losing a great deal of legitimacy because, like Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, they are completely failing over the course of the crisis. At the same time, however, other authoritarian regimes tend to be strengthened because they seem to offer security and stability, or are quite successful in crisis management—as the People’s Republic of China has been. The social and economic consequences will be particularly drastic, and will certainly provoke fierce political reactions. The pandemic will lead to the disruption and restructuring of global production chains. According to estimates by the International Labour Organization (ILO), up to 340 million jobs could be lost worldwide by the end of 2020. Added to this are the rapidly growing debts of national budgets and private households, especially in the global South, and the collapse of prices in raw materials. All of this will lead to struggles over distribution. I also think that the ecological crisis will continue to worsen. Admittedly, there is currently reduced air travel and output at the moment. But the dictates of pending cutbacks and austerity will narrow the scope for an urgently needed ecological turnaround. Women will be particularly hard hit by the social crisis and the return to traditional gender relations. The Left is therefore in a defensive situation in many fields.
But where might opportunities for leftists and social movements be found?
Many structures are currently being called into question. This also means radical questions are becoming increasingly legitimate. The astonishing ability of society to react to the pandemic and to change lives within a short span of time has been demonstrated: if there is political will, a lot can be changed very quickly. What many previously considered unrealistic is becoming more plausible because we see that governments are able to make fundamental decisions. There is a new openness in talking about what needs to be changed at a basic level in order to ensure that we have a good future. This new openness was initiated by the protests of “Fridays for Future” and the debate about the global ecological crisis, and it now continues in the context of the corona crisis. Given the lack of medical infrastructure, even some conservatives at the beginning of the crisis saw the need to align production with social needs and requirements rather than the profit principle. The leftist demand for a social infrastructure accessible to all has also become a commonplace in many debates. The recognition that only healthcare for all can protect the individual is gaining acceptance against the backdrop of the pandemic situation. And the recognition that health has much to do with work, economy, and ecology is also more widespread than before. The need to reform and strengthen multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) is discussed more intensively. On the one hand, the Left thus finds itself in a stronger position to speak out in some policy areas. On the other, the starting point for social and political struggles to push through leftist ideas and demands has probably become more difficult due to the worldwide economic and social crisis.
When you talk about there being a crisis of legitimacy in politics, but also in the system, it has to be said that the opposite is true in a highly developed country like Germany. Here, using partly militarized vocabulary—“we will win this war”—a high level of agreement and consent has been reached. Elsewhere there is this loss of legitimacy. Yet in such crises most people hold on to what they have.
That is true. Here the CDU/CSU has gained ten percent in the polls since March. The opposition—unfortunately also Die Linke—is stagnating. From a global perspective, the situation is different. In many countries we have the problem that the state and public institutions are not at all able to truly respond to the challenges of the pandemic. They have been hollowed out and destroyed by the neoliberal policies of the past decades. There is a lack of economic and social infrastructure to cope with such a crisis. We see this in the US, but also in European countries such as Serbia and the UK. There is this crisis of legitimacy.
The Left has long had the experience that when crises intensify, no automatic reaction occurs in such a way that it produces a change of policy, let alone a transformation or revolution. On the contrary—in times of crisis, societies move less to the left and more to the right. The economic situation under authoritarian regimes speaks for itself. With this insight in mind, it is difficult to be optimistic in light of history.
That is quite right. But at the same time, there are windows of opportunity for new left-wing awakenings. The Black Lives Matter movement in the US, for example, which has quickly spread to Europe, is an example of this. The protests in Beirut after the catastrophic explosion at the beginning of August, which picked up from where the democracy protests of last fall left off, or the movement against Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus, also illustrate this. Protests and changes are also possible over the course of the corona crisis. On the whole, however, the balance of power is currently not shifting in our favour.
In Berlin, one often sees signs on tram lines that say: “Caution! A streetcar may obscure another train”. What is the pandemic obscuring? And how can we make this visible?
For the moment, the pandemic appears to hide some problems, such as the ecological crisis. But structural problems and conflicts will soon be back on the agenda. With our political partners worldwide, we therefore want to discuss how we can bring together various struggles for social justice, democratic rights, and systemic ecological transformation. How can we formulate political projects that can set a policy of global solidarity among social, ecological, feminist, and trade union movements against the multiple crisis of capitalism?
Last May, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung planned to hold an international congress on the topic of “Global Solidarity” in Leipzig. That had to be cancelled. What will happen now?
Our starting point was to observe the worldwide strengthening of authoritarianism, the ecological crisis, and growing social inequality on the one hand, and on the other the emergence of new transnational social movements and left-wing actors, such as the climate justice movement, the new feminist movement, and new approaches to trade union organizing. Against the background of multiple capitalist crises, we wanted to discuss with the agents of these new movements and left organizations the possibilities, difficulties, and strategies of a new internationalism. The acceleration of the crises in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the issue even more urgent.
The word “solidarity” has been on many people’s lips in recent months. It has often been used as a reminder to stick to the rules, to keep one’s distance, to abide by social distancing. The term “solidarity” has been stripped down, so to speak, to reasonable behaviour, propriety. As soon as Romanian contract workers fell ill en masse, it was said they brought the virus with them. All the nice words evaporated. How do we regain our hold on what leftists mean by solidarity? The term has been occupied.
The concept of solidarity has actually experienced a boom during the corona crisis. In the past, it was used very differently. Catholic social teaching uses “solidarity” to mean compassionate help for the needy. Anarchists associated it with the principle of mutualism, of mutual aid. In the trade union movement, “solidarity” means workers standing together to formulate and fight for common interests against capital. In the socialist and communist movement the term “international solidarity” was used to mobilize against nationalistic warmongering, or to support liberation movements. But the concept of solidarity is also used by governments to justify and impose unpopular measures. One example is the “solidarity surcharge” introduced in 1991, through which the German government sought to finance the costs of the Iraq War, the market-economy transformation of Eastern Europe, and reunification. When governments now call for solidarity as a means for sharing the costs of the corona crisis, this often disguises the fact that it is really an attempt to pass the costs on to the majority, while a tiny minority becomes ever richer. Our discussion, however, seeks to make the concept of solidarity conducive to a new emancipatory internationalism. In Roman law, solidarity (obligatio in solidum) signified a special form of liability: several people were required to pay for a service in such a way that each of them was obliged to pay it in full, but the creditor could only demand it once. In this sense, the word “solidarity” does not refer to the togetherness of the parties involved, but rather to the fact that everyone is liable in solidum, i.e. “to the whole”.
And that would be urgently needed today?
If we take this as our starting point, global solidarity today means that we owe it to ourselves to seek solutions for the whole in such a way that we secure our existence as humanity. We speak of the necessity of linking various struggles, social and ecological movements, with left and democratic actors in global solidarity in order to work out a response to the various global crises of capitalism. The aim is to develop a dialogue about commonalities and differences, and to organize an exchange of experiences. Solidarity in this sense already means the search for common interests; it also presupposes the willingness to recognize that the other person may not have identical, but rather different interests—and yet is still part of the common response to the crisis. The contradictions between the ecological movement and industrial unions, between left-wing governments and social movements, between workers in different positions within global production chains, between movements against extractivism and left-wing governments trying to forge their own paths of development, must all be discussed openly in order to be able to develop common strategies for the greater good. One starting point for this is certainly, on a normative level, a new, expanded, and radical concept of human rights, which includes not only political rights and personal rights but also social, cultural, and economic rights. At the political level, the aim must be to fortify the struggles for a socialist Green New Deal, in a way that aims for ecological transformation, global social justice, and democracy through a process of comprehensive economic and social transformation.
Corona has shown quite clearly where the boundaries are. In order to visit an outdoor swimming pool at the moment, you’ll usually need an app and PayPal. Never have these pools been as white as they are today. Apartment size determines how well or how poorly people survive the lockdown. The number of tablets and computers determines whether children and young people have the opportunity to continue learning despite school closures. At VW there was 90 percent short-time work compensation; in companies not bound by collective bargaining agreements, it was 60 percent. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was skiers from Ischgl in the hospitals, but later it was increasingly people from low-income families. Pigs cannot be slaughtered in a home office. Inequality is the biggest risk factor for falling ill with corona or dying from corona. Inequality, which has increased due to the pandemic, could also be a catalyst for more solidarity. Is this too optimistic?
I believe that it will be very important in the near future to strengthen the practice of organizing under the new conditions. This will be done precisely by those groups that are most affected by the pandemic. These are, for example, women, who often work in the healthcare professions, but who are also affected by the return of traditional gender roles. Migrant workers, migrants, people who live in ghettos and in confined spaces. The pattern is evident worldwide: corona hits the subalterns harder. And the politics for overcoming the Corona crisis have a class character. We should remember the global financial and economic crisis of 2008, in the wake of which various social movements articulated themselves: from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, and the social movements in southern Europe, like the Indignados in Spain. That took place in a similar context of crisis. First there was shock, then strong social attacks and austerity policies, and then strong social resistance, which also transformed into novel political organizations and left-wing parties. Now we are once again facing a global crisis that will probably be much deeper than that of 2008. We do not know what the political consequences will be. But if leftist movements do not succeed in formulating answers, there is a threat of a further strengthening of the Right.