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The Tiger and his Trainers

by Hans-Jurgen Urban
How preposterous to think we can avert the next crisis without regulating or shriveling the financial sector, addressing income inequality and radically rethinking the meaning and assumptions of economics! Hans-Jurgen Urban, a German union spokesperson from IG Metal Frankfurt, likens the financial crisis to a tiger breaking his cage and sees the welfare state and unions as his trainers. Economics should be pluralist and not brainwashing in market radicalism (cf. Ulrich Thielemann). Once saving was the elixer and then spending was the elixer.

Welfare State and Unions in Today’s Capitalism

By Hans-Jurgen Urban

[This reading sample from Hans-Jurgen Urban’s “The Tiger and his Trainers,” VSA Verlag, Hamburg 2013 is translated from the German on the Internet. Hans-Jurgen Urban is an IG Metal union spokesperson in Frankfurt and author of many articles and books on unions and social justice. This reading sample is translated from the German on the Internet,]


After decades of sociological capitalism analysis and in the face of a great crisis of finance market capitalism, a contemporary intellectual recognized that the hoped-for taming of capitalism thought to be possible was an illusion. Concisely and resigned, he explained: “The discipline believed the capitalist tigers could be made into dairy cows. A little later the tigers did not like being in the stalls any more.” As a result, “capital broke out of its working animal cage” in the course of the dissolution of the Keynesian postwar order, Wolfgang Streeck said. Since then the markets freed from social regulations failed again and again. “No one can say why they will not fail again.” [1]

This is a sobering conclusion. Who should accomplish this trick of domesticating predators, it could be asked? The answer is obvious. Those who wanted to train the tiger were the unions and the welfare state, not only those guarding the gates of the cage. They set a fundamental transformation project on the agenda: transporting the capitalist profit economy into a “social market economy.” The model of the social market economy was promoted in the German postwar system from a political-economic concept to an essential social self-description delimited from the so-called totalitarian state socialism in the world of the system adversary.

Schools of thought and personalities critical of capitalism were undoubtedly present and powerful in this period in the unions. Doubt in the stability of the social in the market economy never completely died away. Unions and welfare states cooperated in the self-description of the postwar order as a successful reconciliation of capitalism and (social) democracy and accepted the role of trainers of the predator. They sought to carry out the dangerous task of exploiting the elemental force of the capitalist accumulation dynamic as a driving force of a state welfare machine… Again and again they had to resist aggressive attacks by the economic, political and cultural elites and defend their ole against caricatures like “union state” or “welfare state hammock.” Up to the 1980s, the economic, social and democratic state of “model Germany” seemed to bear witness to the success of this historical project.

In the course of the veritable crisis of this development model, the defenders of the welfare state gradually lost ground to modern “reformers.” These “reformers” came from the neoliberal camp and a newly constructed social democracy of the “third way.” Neoliberal and new social democratic advocates acted from different motives and with their own accents. However they ultimately pulled on the same rope of deregulation, privatization and activation. They carried out a policy of “structural reforms” on the labor market, in the social security systems and other welfare state sectors that introduced what was devised in anti-union and anti-social state think tanks as a “neoliberal counter-revolution” (Milton Friedman). In its course, an imaginary conjuring trick was increasingly obvious in the wondrous change of the capitalist predator into a useful animal furthering prosperity, not a real and irreversible historical act. To those who long refused this sobering discovery encouraged by the triumph of capitalism over its system rival, the financial market crisis drove out the last illusions with its gigantic consequential damage for the already consumptive social democracy. The finance capitalist tigers set out to attack their former jailors. The outcome of this battle is still open.

The metaphor of the tiger to characterize capitalist enterprises or the market is original but not new. With regard to the dynamic aggressiveness with which the finance market-dominated accumulation regime are engaged in a process of “capitalist conquest and occupation” (Klaus Dorre), social sectors and social state institutions and not only economic spheres are added because of the greediness of untamed predators. While the greed of the capitalist tiger may be impressive (and the fascination of the “civilizing” power of capitalism has been a constant in the capitalism-critical reflections of the left since the well-known passages in the “Manifesto of the Communist Party” from 1848/49), his courageous trainers are the center of attention in this volume, not the tiger. Unions and the welfare state are described in their efforts to train and ride the capitalist tiger.

Training is the presupposed condition. The periods of transformation of present-day capitalism and the formation of neoliberal finance market capitalism are emphasized. This happens mainly in the framework of the analysis of developments in Germany without ignoring the restrictions from a crisis-shaken Europe which is on the way into a new form of a precarious authoritarianism. With view to different welfare state and union political fields, the question is raised how the former trainers of the capitalist tiger labored on his taming, what successes they achieved and what injuries they sustained. Lastly, how did they transform themselves under the pressure of their dangerous work?

All the chapters of the volume ultimately grapple with that symbiotic and always fragile and conflict-laden relation between capitalism and its welfare states and unions. The central threat connecting the reflections from different contexts does not only consist in the question about the strategies and instruments used by the welfare states and unions in their risky task. The traces left behind in these attempts are also highlighted. The changes in the functions, action capacities and self-images of the unions and welfare state actors in the periods of the transformation of capitalism are also discussed. This always happens in pursuit of the honorable intention to successfully offer the desired trick of predator punishment in the most attractive way.

The tensions observed here are not novelties. The interdependencies of capitalist markets and their social-political regulations represent constant themes of critical social sciences. The fact that union successes were gained by hard fighting and defended again and again against the expansion pressure of the markets has been shown in many sociological and historical studies. Nevertheless the destructive consequences of the financial market crisis and neoliberal crisis policy are manifest in the antagonism between the capitalist economy and social and political democracy and in the loud uproar in the public and academic discourses.

Old and new questions intrude and provoke critical socioeconomic discourse and union strategy debates. Can the always fragile but still productive symbiosis of the capitalist economy and democratic policy in the postwar era be understood as a final epoch? Has the “release” of the (financial) markets from the cages of market-correcting regulations by the neoliberal and new social-democratic watchmen led the capitalist success model into a profound system crisis? Can a new prosperity coalition with a new balance between the two emerge from (certainly hard) social and political (class-) conflicts? Can the finance market-driven economization of paid labor be curbed and can counter-concepts of a good, healthy and democratic alternative welfare state development model be implemented? Do restrictions for such a reform strategy result from the integration dynamic in Euro-Europe or does the Europeanization of the economy and politics provide starting points of a regulation of capitalist markets overcoming the borders of nation-states? Finally, what role should and could unions play in these processes? Will they fall under the wheel of the European liberalization-offensive and authoritarian austerity policy or will a power-political revitalization and a contribution to a plural reform alliance succeed? In short, is a social mosaic left capable of intervention?

This text grapples with questions like these without making any claims to final answers. Development- and action-options should be worked out in the transformation process of today’s capitalism. By naming the antipodes, the socio-economic and political terrain should be marked off on which social and political actors are tested with their emancipatory or capitalism-critical projects. The individual sections of the book strive to grasp conceptually and penetrate analytically those gaps where the conflicts over the future of national welfare states, Europe and the unions will be waged.

The text is based on essays that arose on different occasions and were published in different contexts. In the course of the revision, they were corrected for redundancies and expanded with transitions and supplements. Different arguments and suggested terms emerge in several places of the text but in different contexts. This could not be avoided and was due to the method of integrating independent treatises in one text. Some passages inescapably reflect their contemporary historical origin and focus on developments and debates which have not lost their actuality or strategic significance. These developments give insight in the genesis of the presented analyses and recommended strategies. The shortcomings should be forgivable… Judgment whether the project succeeds is reserved to the readers.

The social-theoretical background is explicated more incidentally than systematically in the text. The analyses of actors and political fields collected here can be recognized in the context of an interpretation of capitalist societies and their transformations oriented in Marxist political economy and inspired by the so-called regulation school. The analyses are enriched by theorems and discoveries borrowed from the school of historical actor-oriented institutionalism. In this sense, the context in which the developments of the welfare state and unions occur can be understood from capitalism theory as a transformation of the social democratic welfare state based on actors and power in a neoliberal finance market capitalism.

Present-day capitalism reflects a formation of society in which the distribution- and power interests and the rules of the game of the financial economy influence other spheres of society. This growing significance of the financial economy affects the social distribution of power and interests and the constellations of actors in particular political arenas and in which political and state actors and unions are exposed to new restrictions and action options that must be strategically worked out and mastered. Capacity to act and the power of enforcement in today’s capitalism should be secured and developed. The supposition that this is possible, that actors have a strategic choice mostly under restrictive conditions, follows the premise of an organizational- and sociological actor approach and can be inferred from the presented analyses (“strategic choice approach”). In this sense, it gives a basis for the optimistic assumption that welfare states and unions see an open window of action possibilities even in current capitalism. However recognizing and utilizing the successful options is an extremely demanding undertaking that always includes the alternative of failure. Above all the capacity for an unreserved analysis of the context conditions and the readiness to question routines in thinking and acting are demanded. This sets limits to optimism and admonishes to realism…

The possibility of a positive change of the present was formulated from a basic attitude of reserved but ultimately optimistic realism. Whether the possibilities become reality is not at all certain. My hopes would be surpassed if some of the discussions have a positive effect on the conflicts around a new domestication of today’s capitalism, a lasting revitalization of unions and – ultimately – a fundamental socio-economic change of course in Germany and Europe.


The picture of a tiger breaking out of a cage suggests the dynamic aggressiveness with which the finance market-dominated present-day capitalism adds new economic spheres and social state institutions. In Hans-Jurgen Urban’s book, the welfare state and unions are seen in their efforts to train the big capitalist cat. What changes and ways exist to curb financial market-driven economization, to introduce good and democratic work and achieve a regulation of capitalist markets that burst the borders of nation-states? What role should and can the unions play?

Hans-Jurgen Urban is a member of the board of directors of IG Metal and has long been one of the important exponents of a debate on the struggle around the welfare state, eco-social economic democracy and leftist alternatives to the prevailing crises. Urban studied political science, economics and philosophy in Bonn, Giessen and Marburg and is a union leader of IG Metal emphasizing social policy and principles.

In this book, the welfare state and unions are seen in their efforts to train the capitalist tiger. Burning questions intrude. Wasn’t the “release” of the (finance-) markets from the cage of market-correcting regulations by the neoliberal and new social-democratic watchmen one cause of the present system crisis? Can the finance market-driven economization of paid labor be curbed? Can counter-concepts of good democratic work be implemented as foundations of an alternative welfare state model of development? Do restrictions for such a reform strategy result from the integration-dynamic in Euro-Europe? Does the Europeanization of the economy and politics provide starting points for a regulation of capitalist markets that overcome the borders of nation states?

Finally, what roles could and should unions play in these processes? Will they fall under the wheel of the European liberalization offensive and authoritarian austerity policy or can they succeed in political-power revitalization and contribute to a plural reform alliance, in short to a social mosaic left capable of intervention?

Hans-Jurgen Urban’s new book “The Tiger and his Trainers. The Welfare State and Unions in Today’s Capitalism” was published in November 2013. Problems in finance market capitalism are described. Alternatives and necessary strategies of implementation are shown.


By Dr. Hans-Jurgen Urban

[This statement from June 7, 2013 in Athens is translated from the German on the Internet. Hans-Jurgen Urban is a member of the board of directors of IG Metal union in Frankfurt.]

Dear Colleagues, Friends and Compatriots!

Life cannot continue as it is.

Europe threatens to break down.

The great idea of the European understanding among nations threatens to day to the project of a neoliberal market radicalism in the stranglehold of the “Troika.”

The economic and political crisis serves a European oligarchy from the economy and politics as justification for an aggression against social states, democracy and the European populations!

This austerity policy:

• saddles employees, unemployed and pensioners with the costs of the financial market crisis in bailing out financial corporations and finance capitalism;

• shatters social states and drives people into poverty and lack of perspectives;

• violates union rights and wage systems and makes the orders of the financial markets into weapons against political democracy!

Only one thing is attained: social problems are reinterpreted to national problems. Europe will drift apart if countries and people become mad at each other.


This must end!

We do not want a Europe of neoliberalism and capital!

We want a Europe of democracy and solidarity, a Europe of ecology and gender justice!

It is high time that people – all over Europe – rise up against the plundering of their community!

Therefore we assembled in Athens.

Now resistance is announced – the more international the better!

Dear colleagues!

Germany with its economic and political power plays a key role in the fatal austerity policy in the EU.

For that reason, resistance against the policy of the Angela Merkel government is absolutely essential.

Even though much more resistance and protests are desired, alliances are forming even in Germany for a different better Europe.

• Unions fight against wage dumping, social cuts and precarious work in wage and internal conflicts.

• In May unions protested in a day of action against the scandalous youth unemployment in the EU and German unions participated with actions in the weeks of action of the European alliance of unions from June 7-9.

• At the beginning of June, thousands of young persons of the Blockupy movement in Frankfurt protested against the policy of the European Central Bank.

• In our call “Re-establish Europe!” we engaged ourselves a solidarity solution of the debt crisis, a democracy offensive, a Europe-wide social reform movement and against the austerity policy with scholars, intellectuals and progressive politicians.

• Finally, leading unionists brought a statement of support for the summit into the public.

Dear Colleagues and Friends!

The other Germany is central, not only Merkel & Co, a country where people fight against German power politics and for a better Europe.

For these persons, I’d like to bring solidarity greetings and the promise we stand at your side!

After the cold winter of austerity, Europe needs a warm spring of solidarity.

However that will not happen automatically.

A Europe-wide social movement is absolutely essential.

A resistance movement against a neoliberal Europe of the Eurocrats and the banks and a reform movement for another better Europe of people are vital.

We gathered in Athens to strengthen this movement and boost courage for these struggles.

Let us fight that our summit will be the beginning of this movement.
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