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The Soup Kitchen State Grows
by Christoph Butterwegge
Tuesday Dec 17th, 2013 6:01 AM
Old age poverty is the result of deregulation of the labor market and dismantling the social state... What is lacking for the impacted is justice. Need justice and distribution justice have always existed in the political realm. The task of the social state was to fight poverty and protect citizens from certain standard life risks, sickness, accidents and so forth... The wealth of the country cannot be concentrated in a few hands so hardly anything is left for the great multitude.

Poverty in Germany

By Christoph Butterwegge

[Poverty researcher Christoph Butterwegge tells of the transformation of the social state. He paints an alarming picture of our divided society. His article published on 11/25/2013 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet,!128075/.]

“We have built a functioning low-wage sector and set the incentives for accepting work in the foreground” (German Chancellor G. Schroeder at the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos on the Hartz IV law). [Hartz IV is the German welfare reform/dislocation combining income support and unemployment benefits and drastically reducing the duration of benefits. The law was ruled in violation of the German basic law by the German constitutional court.]

“With Agenda 2010 the Red-Green coalition under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder started a radical change of course that implements the so-called Lisbon strategy in the national setting. At the special EU summit in March 2000, the heads of government of member states passed the “strategic goal” for the decade “making the Union into the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economic zone of the world – an economic zone able to achieve permanent economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion.”

From the beginning, there was lying and whitewash or glossing over. Hartz IV or Unemployment benefits II was not “a consolidation of unemployment assistance and income support” as the German chancellor at that time, Gerhard Schroeder, formulated in a misleading way. Nothing was consolidated; unemployment assistance was simply abolished! The established part6ies represented the interests of the long-term unemployed, the poor and low earners less and less since the so-called Hartz law affected “modern services on the labor market.” Otherwise they would not have passed laws to deregulate temporary work and subcontracted labor, introduced mini- and midi-jobs and thereby created a broad low wage sector.

Precarious paid labor is the main gateway for poverty for us today in Germany. Old age poverty comes automatically from this working poverty. Thus old age poverty is the result of deregulation of the labor market; dismantling the social state in general and reducing legal pension insurance in particular through partial privatization of old age provisions.

Since the introduction of Hartz IV in January 2005, social inequality has intensified and the benefit level for citizens fell greatly. The “reform” of the social state inevitably entails pauperization. More people are overtaken by impoverishment processes. They are the ones who suffer most from this policy and many turn away disgusted, shocked, appalled or horrified from the established parties or from politics.

The impoverished and the poor withdraw more and more because participation in public social life costs money. They do not climb the barricades because they have very different worries like how they will put something warm on the table on the 20th of the month. The social division deepens day by day. We enter a vicious circle that will bring a brutalization of our society if we do not adjust, with more drug addiction, alcoholism, criminality on the streets and much more.


The poor feel like foreigners in their own country. This was striking in big West German cities in the last Bundestag election. The poor do not vote anymore. In high-rise apartment buildings in Koln, voter participation is 40 percent; in the luxury section, it is nearly 90 percent. This shows we have a crisis of the representative system of representative democracy and not only a crisis of the social state, the economy and the financial market!

The socially disadvantaged are so disillusioned that they do not participate in political education and decision-making processes. A democracy looks different. For me, democracy means that all persons living in a country are able to jointly decide politically about the country’s fate and their own fate. They cannot do this when they are hopeless, if their social security is endangered or hangs by a slim thread because they worry about not being able to pay their rent next month or their electricity and gas may be turned off or because they receive “transfer payments” and are constantly subject to degrading harassment.

What is noticeably lacking for the impacted is justice. Justice is experienced and identifiable. Havoc is increasingly played with the term justice. This is hardly connected with the traditional idea of justice.

Need justice and distribution justice have always existed in the political realm. Need justice means making sufficient help available to those needing assistance through disability, unemployment and similar plights. The tasks of the social state were to fight poverty and protect citizens from certain living standards and standard life risks, sickness, accidents and so forth – which are accomplished for us by social security.

As to distribution justice, the challenge of the social state – as its third main function – is to ensure social balance so the gulf between poor and rich does not become ever deeper.

That was a very concrete desire for the fathers and few mothers of the German basic law. In Articles 20 and 28, the Federal Republic of Germany is clearly described as a social federation, a social constitutional state. This is based on the necessity of distribution justice. The wealth of the country cannot be concentrated in a few hands so hardly anything is left for the great multitude of citizens.

The whitewashed 4th 2013 Poverty- and Wealth Report of the German government says the richest 10 percent of households hold over 53 percent of total net assets while the poorer half of the population, 50 percent, have only 1 percent of the total net assets. Over 40 million live from hand to mouth.

The average earner who has only his insecure job and no assets is in a kind of limbo or social suspense between poverty and affluence. Only one serious illness or dismissal separates him or her from a crash. The precariousness of paid labor is the main gateway for poverty among us today,


While private net assets increased 1.4 trillion euros between 2007 and 2012, the net assets of the state fell more than 800 billion euros in the last decades. One of the effects is the proclamation “tighten your belt.”

Only the rich can afford a poor state. They solicitously look after themselves and their children attend private schools and foreign universities. They do not depend on good public schools and hospitals, on public swimming pools, libraries and other community institutions. The life reality of a dependent employee drops out of their perception. Today an employee must work full time for 45 years at a standard wage of 10 euros so he can gain a pension just above the Hartz IV level. 4.7 million workers earn less now.

These two conceptions of justice, need justice as a task of the social state and distribution justice are repressed more and more by neoliberal ideologues, their think tanks and institutions. For example, there is the Institute of the German Economy in Koln with its director Michael Huther who claims this gulf between poor and rich is a fairytale…

As a lobby organization, the Institute of the German Economy has an understandable interest in trivializing social inequality. “Equal opportunities” is emphasized very strongly. According to an analysis, equal opportunities are seen as partial justice.

In the 1970s people spoke of equal opportunities as a goal. Today many parties emphasize equal opportunities in their programs… It is like buying a lotto ticket and playing lotto. Equal opportunities seem devalued.

The prevailing concept of justice was transformed in three regards: from need- to performance justice, from distribution- to participatory justice and from social justice to generational justice. This term should divert from the growing unrighteousness within all generations. One thing is completely indisputable: justice is only possible when there is a minimum of social equality.

Repressing that this is not the case is the goal in propagating new stylish words and empty phrases. Language criticism is also very important. The inversion of words and values, the reinterpretation of traditional terms like justice, equality and reform, the misuse of language as a political instrument for “brainwashing” and obscuring their original meaning should be highlighted.


In the time of the “economic miracle” in Germany, “prosperity for everyone” was the predominant slogan. This comes from the 1957 book of the same name by Ludwig Erhard. Today “education for all” is the promise announced by the German chancellor. This promise of fighting poverty with education may be true for isolated cases. However education is not a guarantee any more for ensuring career advancement and good income.

For example, 11 percent of all persons in the low wage sector have a university degree. 80 percent of those in public service at universities only have a temporary position. Their positions are generally regarded as socially privileged. Nevertheless making Germany into an education republic is propagated untiringly. Whoever has no work or only a poorly paid job has not made enough efforts in education.

However youths with better education simply only compete on a higher level for jobs and do unpaid work. More taxi drivers drive around with university degrees.

Education has also been “trimmed” at the universities. Education is understood as only professional training. The universities should produce the necessary units for the labor market in the shortest possible courses of studies or bachelor degrees. I fight bachelors, masters, modularization and all this because the university is basically reduced to an academic vocational school.

The university was restructured and my university is made more and more into a business with the catchword excellence initiative. Increasingly strong pressure burdens individuals to only produce what can be exploited and yields economic profit. Conformism in academic is greater than in the 1950s of the leaden Adenauer time.

Education promises are not suited for fighting poverty any more than promoting wealth in the fiscal real. A redistribution downwards of income, assets and work is necessary. Reducing working hours would be a very important beginning as well as reducing life working time. A substantive, organizational and structural renewal of the social security systems is obviously indispensable.

I do not support the “unconditional basic income.” Perhaps I can convince you by explaining my reasons. The unconditional basic income was offered as an alternative to the social state according to the motto we do not trust our past social security systems but want to completely replace it with a tax-financed unconditional income. For me, that is social policy according to the watering-can principle, a basic income for all members of society, whether poor or rich.


The principle of need justice is turned completely upside down. There are different models in which the concept of DIE LINKE (The Left Party in Germany) is distinguished from the concepts of others. One of the main advocates for the unconditional basic income is Gotz Werner, billionaire and founder of the DM drug store chain who does not really need an unconditional basic income of 1000 or 1500 euros from the state. As a C4 professor, I also do not need it… I can understand that many who are plagued by the harassment and sanctions of the job center and do not have quiet nights any more would reach very gladly for this straw.


The light at the end of the tunnel could soon prove to be a fallacy since there would be no established legal rights any more beyond the basic income. Everything is compensated. The real winners are only the wealthy and businesses that were free from all taxes.

Only rudiments of former rights of employees and the unemployed would be left. The underlying intention is to make the social security state in Bismarck’s tradition more and more to a care-, alms- and soup kitchen state.

As a result, this leads to an “Americanization” of our social state. The possibility of spending, donating, appearing as a patron and distributing alms is opened up to the prestige-conscious rich. Before its dismantling, the social state did not distribute alms because it had to respect basic rights and its actions were based on legal rights. Receivers of alms have no legal claims. They are dependent on the readiness of the rich to give away something of their wealth.

This also reflects the neoliberal and market-radical thinking that the come-of-age individual decides in the sense of his freedom – the freedom of the bourgeois, not the freedom of the citizen and this distinction is essential – why and to whom he gives of his wealth. On the other hand, the needy have the freedom to show good conduct, modesty, flexibility and gratitude – or not.

I plead for something very different: a general, uniform and solidarity citizen insurance as a consistent development of the social security systems established by Bismarck. A further development and reorganization of the existing system into a social insurance of all residents is necessary. This citizen insurance has its most important justification in that it realizes the long overdue transition to a solidarity security system covering the whole population.


Independent persons, freelancers, officials, delegates, ministers and so forth with their entire income should help finance benefits in the social- and health realms… I can envision solidarity citizen insurance for all branches of insurance including sickness and nursing insurance.

Why hasn’t the enormous private wealth contributed more strongly to financing social systems? A broad citizen movement encompassing all population sectors demanding such citizen insurance with all its strength and making possible redistribution from top to bottom is essential to bring this about. A need-oriented basic security must ensure poverty, undersupply and social exclusion are eliminated. Citizen insurance and basic security must be understood as Siamese twins.

This basic social security must deserve its name. It must be clearly higher than the level of today’s income support. It must secure the socio-cultural subsistence level – without degrading applications and an excessive bureaucratic need-testing. It must protect people from poverty and be repression-free and encourage participation in social and cultural life so people are not threatened by existential fear or exclusion. Hopefully this model will not be discredited for ever by Hartz IV.


If neoliberalism with its market-radical social philosophy as a political civil religion that already permeates all pores of society becomes the dominant worldview, this goes along with a rigid poverty regime, a criminalization of the poor and a stigmatization of the superfluous.

I do not hold to the impoverishment theory. Against such a development, broad alliances must form between circles of the unemployed, unions, churches, globalization critics like Attac and the many other critical organizations and initiatives in Germany. In society, there is enormous discontent where people cannot be satisfied with the status quo.

I yearn for a Renaissance of solidarity thinking and the creation of an “inclusive” social state that tolerates all life forms. This differs from the “investing” Red-Green social state whose social policy leads inevitably to more social selection. Certainly, capitalism will not be removed with an inclusive social state. Capitalism can be made more bearable. That is the dialectic inherent in the social state. However such a social state would be the bastion of a movement that strives for a system change and seeks to overcome this financial market capitalism.


Christoph Butterwegge, Education as Tranquilizer, June 2009

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