All the Clever Books Are of No Help to Me Here

My parents are fading right before my eyes – but leftists only exist in my world, not theirs.

by Sebastian Bähr (neues deutschland)

A couple of days away on the Baltic coast, just my parents and me. We try to enjoy ourselves, but something disrupts the entertaining idyll punctuated by fish sandwiches, beach shelters and the cries of seagulls. My father now experiences tremendous pain when he walks and can stomach only little food. His shoulders are rounded, his eyes squinted – his silence has become the norm. He spends most of his time hunched over in front of the TV in the hotel room while my mother and I go out. She has few friends and wants to see something new for a change.

My father is just 61. He still has to wait five or six years before he reaches state pension age. By society’s standards and medically speaking, he isn’t all that old. But I still fear he won’t be able to hack it until his official retirement – his exhaustion, broken body and wage work.

For years, my father would respond to my and my mother’s insistent warnings by playing the situation down. “Things are fine,” he would repeatedly say, even when it was perfectly clear that they were not. Both a destructive masculine ideal and a sense of responsibility towards his family are to blame.

But on this holiday, nothing was played down. “I can’t be bothered anymore,” my father tells me in a quiet moment as he smokes on the balcony. He means his job as a retail salesman, where he carries, builds, dissembles, advises, clears away, orders, checks the stock, works the till, is always on his feet. “I can’t do it anymore,” my mother tells me later as we walk: she means live with my father. I think that my parents still love each other after roughly three decades of marriage, but the burden that they carry separately and together weighs heavy. Having to watch someone you love slowly vanish before your eyes, see them wearily make their way through life, see them broken and continuously worn down, supposedly resigned to their fate and to the terrible circumstances they face both large and small, is extremely exhausting. And it fills you with rage. My mother predominantly directs her anger at my father’s incapability to take care of himself. I primarily direct mine at the circumstances that have cost him the will and ability to do so.  

Blurring of boundaries

I can understand where my mother is coming from. This isn’t the first such holiday. Not all that long ago, my parents went on a short cruise. On my mother’s birthday, my father lay in the cabin stricken with stomach cramps. They didn’t go on their day trip. I found out via text. If my father is unable to get out of coming to the restaurant with us, he covers his uneaten food with his serviette so the other customers won’t notice. The stress of wage labour has destroyed his stomach.

When I look at my father, I see three decades of capitalist moulding and discipline. The violence that he continues to be subjected to, and that mainly exerts its power through fear, runs like a common thread through his past.

My parents met at a combine harvester factory in Saxony, east Germany, shortly before the end of the GDR. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, industries left the former East – both lost their jobs and the Plattenbauten (prefabricated buildings made with concrete slabs) that we called home suddenly lost their good reputation. I was still small; my parents decided not to have a second child. After years of uncertainty, they each managed to find a permanent position; not everyone in my extended family was so lucky. My mother ended up in the small local office of a medium-sized west German company. My father found work in a newly opened supermarket on the edge of town. Neither job was very fulfilling but they at least offered some security. Back then, people were happy ‘just to have something’ and didn’t make a fuss. Those on high constantly hammered home the message that they should be grateful. After all, others were worse off.   

During the first few years, my father gave the impression that things were fairly decent at work. There were Christmas parties, colleagues visited one another, my father was cheery. I was often the last child to be picked up from nursery, but what did it matter: my dad sometimes played Santa at our kindergarten, which made up for it. And when he was in charge of the toy department, there was sometimes a display model left over for me.

Then, in 2000, the social democratic SPD and Green Party coalition government relaxed the general applicability of collective agreements in the retail sector: price wars, wage dumping and cost competition became the industry’s new buzzwords. A short time later, things gradually began to get tougher for my father too. Bonus payments were cut, there were fewer colleagues, and the atmosphere became more strained. The workload grew as the pseudo-modern management practices became increasingly opaque and overtime more frequent. Shifts at the store began to sap ever more energy.

My father was assigned certain areas of responsibility but could not complete his allocated tasks during regular working hours. As a teenager, I often cleared away sport shoes for him before the end of his shift so that he could go home on time. As he grew older, I noticed how little I would hear him laugh – at least that’s what I remember. He’s actually quite a witty man. He wanted to put on a show of strength for the family; he never spoke of his worries.

The blurring of the boundaries between work and home life sometimes bordered on the absurd: at one point, to cut spending, his employers dismissed the store’s security guard. From then on, a handful of regular staff members were on call at night and tasked with checking the store if the emergency alarm sounded. My father was even given a pager for the role. And it buzzed fairly regularly. One Christmas, I seem to remember him having to leave to check the store three times, each a false alarm. The compensation workers were given for taking on this additional job was laughable, but my father and his colleagues were told that it was in their interest to accept. For the store, it was probably only a matter of a few thousand euros; for our family, his extra on-call shifts frequently prevented us from being able to do something together at weekends. He also developed sleep problems as a result.

Smile, please

As a young man, I found the situation unjust, but like my parents, I mostly accepted it. There is a trick to getting people to accept such conditions: my father and mother were constantly told that their jobs were not guaranteed, that their employment contracts were some sort of ‘blessing’ that could be taken away from them at any moment. This complete lack of security, concerns about losing status and a fear of falling into poverty still prevent any form of protest from gaining a foothold. We knew one thing for certain: time spent working was a pain. The precious moments were when we were at home, where you could be yourself. And the family sticks together.

But from then on, it became worse year after year. And the bosses became increasingly shameless. My father is a very placid person, but there were two occasions – as far as I can remember – where even he blew his top. The first was when the bosses called all the workers together and an industrial psychologist hired by the management team explained to the overworked staff that the true cause of their exhaustion lay in a poor diet, excessive alcohol consumption and exposure to draughts. Each was given a trendy booklet filled with smiling faces that outlined exactly the same message but with charts and images. I still have the brochure to this day. The second time was when, after a hard day’s work, my father was told by his boss to smile more at customers. I had rarely seen him so agitated.

The situation continued to deteriorate – slowly, but surely. Then, a few years ago, my father had a burnout. It may sound cynical, but we were almost expecting it. He was physically in pain and completely exhausted. He stayed at home for more than six months, underwent several operations and tests. He spent months in recurring pain waiting for doctors’ appointments, his days filled with television, silence, withdrawal, depression – although it is hard to say when the latter started. The situation made me realise how difficult it is to access certain medical treatments without putting pressure on your health insurer or doctor. During this time, the store managers also sent him two written warnings for trivial reasons, mainly claiming that he had not fulfilled his duties. This absurd accusation would never have stood up at an employment tribunal, but when faced with such a situation, who has the strength to challenge it? He was officially down for the count. We stood together as a family, although my mother took responsibility for most of the care. I was already living in another city and could only visit occasionally. But I was constantly plagued by my guilty conscience.

My father was neither the first nor the last employee in the store to suffer burnout. After a gradual return he worked the switchboard for a few months. Latterly, he increasingly found himself at the checkout desks, alongside other colleagues who no longer had the energy to run around and carry things. For him, this monotonous role brings feelings of shame and further alienation. Other tasks allowed him to work with a little more autonomy and, so he argued, creativity.

Even though he continues to work – albeit with reduced hours – his health never fully recovered after his burnout. He is broken and tired, has no energy left and yet still has five or six miserable long years ahead of him. “I can’t be bothered anymore” is how he sums up the situation. What can he do? He could apply for occupational disability benefit, but it would involve too many administrative hurdles and also be a stain on his pride: he doesn’t want to ‘sponge’ off anyone else. The GDR and current German state’s obsession with work is certainly partly to blame for this way of thinking. Even if he were to hand in his notice, he would have to accept enormous cuts to his pension; the fear of old-age poverty is not far-fetched given his meagre wage. My parents moved away from their Plattenbau and do not wish to return. Given that there seems to be no alternative, my father forces himself to soldier on. In the process, he, my mother and I have long gone beyond our limits. All the clever leftist books are of no help to me here.

Red imitations

Why is all this relevant? Because I think my powerlessness in the face of my father’s situation also reflects the current inability of the societal left to play a meaningful role for the class of the exploited and the oppressed. During my parents’ lives, most notably in the past three decades, there has not been a single organised solidarity-based structure to help them cope with specific problems or whose support would have been an obvious option for them. Ultimately, it was friends – providing they had the energy and time for them – as well as family who were on hand to help tolerate and compensate for the circumstances forced upon them by capitalism. There was no connection with the real – and few – progressive forces in their local area. Members of the left – myself excluded – did not make an appearance in my parents’ lives. They know leftists, or ‘the reds’ as the elderly sometimes say disparagingly, only as imitations: as very uninspiring memories of ‘grey overcoats’ [i.e. civil servants] from the GDR; from the news, when images of masked individuals running in Leipzig-Connewitz flickered across their screens without explanation; and from the appearances of left-wing politicians on talk shows.

These days they cannot imagine what it would mean to achieve something collectively; 1989 is nothing but an ambivalent myth from the past. The idea of achieving something as a group today is considered unrealistic. The injustice of real capitalism is more authoritative and reliable than the vague hope of an emancipatory alternative society or a heroic, symbolic resistance. They are pragmatists. In their eyes, the labour disputes of the 1990s in the former East or the protests against German welfare reform didn’t seem to play all that important a role. I think they were more focused on dealing with their own problems back then. Yet they have internalised the idea that they had lost, just like they always did. For them, it made no sense to remember defeats, as spirited as some of the contests were. They don’t wish for the return of the GDR and they hold no illusions about the status quo in the Federal Republic of Germany. As for the EU, they see it as the capitalist interest group that it is.

It comes as no surprise that some in my parents’ circles toy with the idea of voting for the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). The far-right party promises them self-efficacy, i.e. that they will be taken seriously by the powerful. The authoritarian gains made in recent years even saw liberal-minded individuals question their own humanity. Those who were already racist felt emboldened to proudly state their views. Many of us young leftists had left, which made debate even more challenging. A meeting every other week can only go so far in rebalancing the huge shift in entire districts and businesses, but it is better than nothing.

My father, on the other hand, may be at odds with the movement but is essentially a leftist deep down, one of the few who stayed. He knows who is exploiting him and why. Yet he harbours a deep mistrust towards trade unions and political parties, which you can hardly blame him for as neither unions nor parties have delivered any notable successes in Saxony in recent years (with certain exceptions I repeatedly mention) nor have they been able to make any material improvements to his life. His trade union has been particularly ineffective. Despite 30 years of battling, just 20 percent of retail employees in eastern Germany are covered by a collective agreement, the second-lowest rate across all industries.

But there is more to it than that. The union officials my father sees in the media do not represent him or ‘his’ people. The growing service sector proletariat, which includes him, has hardly any public representatives. Not only is this physical, material labour devalued both economically and socially, there is almost no one who is visibly and effectively fighting on behalf of its workers. It is clear to me that some factions of The Left (Die Linke), the SPD and even non-parliamentary left-wing groups would like to take on this role, but they do so with only meagre success. What remains of this supposed mirroring are the woeful, discriminatory caricatures seen on commercial television, the stories of the (east German) Prolls [a disparaging term for those seen as uncouth and uneducated] and people on benefits. My parents understand the absurdity of such twisted images. Yet they still serve as a form of discipline.

How should a militant collective identity be brought to life without any campaigns, visible role models or ideas about what part individuals can play? My father doesn’t see himself as a worker. My parents insist that they belong to the middle class. The capitalist ideology has succeeded in convincing many in a similar position that ‘worker’ is synonymous with ‘uneducated loser’. As far as they are concerned, a ‘worker’ is someone who has not yet managed to earn as well as those higher up. A person who doesn’t work hard enough or works in the wrong field. Being middle class, on the other hand, means economic security, culture, opportunities and success. Nobody wants to be a ‘worker’ for long; if you are working long hours for little pay, you are either foolish or have made bad choices.

Concealed joy

My parents have no idea about left-wing debates, such as discussions concerning new class politics. They think that ‘old-fashioned leftists’ are still cast in the same mould as 20th century (male) steel and factory workers and that ‘modern leftists’ focus their energy on struggles away from wage labour. They see no space for them, their lifestyles or their jobs. My father’s colleagues, on the other hand, primarily see themselves not as an action group but as a community of suffering. The majority cannot see a way to achieve real change within the existing structures without taking huge risks; if you can and are brave enough, you resign. I now also wish for my father to be able to leave the company as soon as possible – it’s my last hope. 

And even that probably won’t be easy for him. It might sound paradoxical, but despite hating his job, he is also proud of the work that he does. In this pride, which is often an integral part of the east German identity, a sliver of resistance occasionally manages to shine through. And when it matters, my father recognises his equals. But not only those in his immediate surroundings. When the exploited class made their voices heard in Greece during the 2015 referendum, and in 2018, when the yellow vests made their mark in France, I seem to remember him showing a glimmer of hope, or at least some concealed joy. I should also mention that he followed the creation of the Aufstehen movement with great interest, at the beginning. For him, that was already something. He wanted to involve musicians that he used to listen to as a young man. Despite all the valid criticism of the objectives and structure, they at least managed to inspire his curiosity. 

It is difficult but not impossible to get through to him. However, recent decades have created a formidable barrier of resignation, cynicism and fatalism. What is arguably needed is long-term, serious engagement on the ground, effective public role models, honest debates without paternalism or lecturing, visible successes (both large and small) and, above all, a low-threshold approach that reaches out to ‘his people’. My father and those like him have been relentlessly subjected to a decades-long message of shame and diffidence from those above. Some direct this suppressed anger downwards; others bottle it up. My father would probably not be the first to take to the streets in protest. But if there were a place where he could progressively channel his anger, that would at least be a start.

For now, though, this society will continue to force my father to remain invisible. He should make no demands, tighten his belt, go about his work quietly and efficiently and, above all, not create a fuss. For his bosses, he is primarily a cost; for his landlord, an impediment to selling; and for the cultural industry, both a consumer and an alien. This society is not designed to meet his needs; he sees proof of that every day. My father has always tried to be as invisible as society wanted him to be in order to provide for his family during tough times. He internalised this demand. But eventually he could no longer escape the system’s constraints, both perceived and real. The fact that he now risks succumbing to this invisibility, to this pressure, and might take my mother down with him, that most of Germany is completely indifferent to people like them, because they are simply part of the system; that instead of a life of dignity, they are solely confronted with ignorance and occasionally applause – all that fills me with rage.

As we holiday together on the Baltic Sea, sitting on the beach with the seagulls, I try not to allow this rage space to breathe. Right now, the distraction from our everyday lives is more important; what is life without the odd moments of joy? Still, I try to point out a few possible avenues but realise that there isn’t much I can do alone. I admire my parents for having the strength to endure it all.

This article was first published in Analyse und Kritik No. 672 and in neues deutschland (both in German)