Sahra Wagenknecht—The Self-Righteous

Sahra Wagenknecht’s ‘The Self-Righteous’.

Labour Affairs is pleased to publish below our own English translation of the Foreword to Sahra Wagenknecht’s ‘The Self-Righteous’, published in Germany earlier this year (Die Selbstgerechten: Mein Gegenprogramm – für Gemeinsinn und Zusammenhalt.  Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2021).

The book has had a significant impact in Germany where Wagenknecht is a well-known public and political figure, and reached no1 in Der Spiegel’s non-fiction bestseller list. 

This is not altogether surprising as the author is a fluent writer and original thinker who, until 2019, was the parliamentary leader of the left party ‘Die Linke’ whose origins lie in the former German Democratic Republic. However, Wagenknecht is now out of favour with left-wing activists and political elites although her views resonate with many Germans, particularly those who still care about the well-being of the working class and less well off sectors of society. 

She is out of favour because she thinks that the first priority of left wing parties is to defend the interests of working people and not to pursue identity politics. In ‘The Self-Righteous’ she argues that the political left in German (Die Linke, the Social Democratic Party and the Greens) have been taken over by ‘left liberals’, an intolerant and self-obsessed clique who only talk to each other and ignore their traditional electoral support. As the recent Bundestag general election results have shown, Die Linke, which has traditionally relied on working class support suffered particularly badly, being almost wiped out of the Bundestag. Wagenknecht however retained her seat.

Left liberals advocate a multi-cultural, multi-gender, globalist form of identity politics. Their electoral and activist base lies in those with university degrees in relatively well-paid and secure jobs, who have benefitted from immigration  and free trade. They can afford to have their domestic needs served by low-paid immigrants.  They live in their own social bubbles and have little contact, other than purely transactional, with those whom they exploit. Above all, convinced of the virtue of their progressive lifestyles and attitudes, they scorn and despise traditional working class values and solidarity. It is hardly surprising that the left liberal takeover of the leadership of Die Linke led to electoral rout. Whether the ‘self-righteous’ will draw the appropriate political lesson is doubtful, but for now Wagenknecht’s diagnosis cannot be ignored. The political outcome that she feared and predicted for the left in Germany has come to pass. 

British readers cannot fail to notice that what Wagenknecht observes and criticises in Germany has significant parallels here. Identity politics threaten to consume the left and the Tories, gloatingly, instigate so-called ‘culture wars’ to emphasise the cultural differences between Labour Party activists and working class voters. Labour Affairs has an unremitting focus on working people’s interests and well-being and our politics are dedicated to pursuing them, irrespective of the ethnic, religious or any other background of working people. We publish the Foreword to Wagenknecht’s book in the hope that the left in Britain will heed her message before it is too late.

Sahra Wagenknecht

The Self-righteous: My counterprogram – for social cohesion and the public good.

Die Selbstgerechten: Mein Gegenprogramm – für Gemeinsinn und Zusammenhalt.  Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2021.  Not yet translated into English.

Foreword.

While this book was being written, controversy was escalating in the United States. Trump supporters faced Trump opponents.  Rarely has a democratic change of government been accompanied by so much uncertainty, hatred and violence. On the day of the inauguration of the new U.S. president, the Capitol in Washington was like a fortress in a state of war. Even though the dividing lines in the U.S. are particularly deep and the social antagonisms particularly strong, even though the heated climate there is particularly dangerous because many U.S. citizens own guns, America is not an isolated case. Unfortunately, it is likely that the images from the United States show us our own future as through a magnifying glass— if we do not find the courage to take a new path as soon as possible.  

For Germany, too, is deeply divided.  Here, too, social cohesion is disintegrating. In our country too, social togetherness has been replaced by a set of groups largely hostile to each other. The common good and public spirit are words that have virtually disappeared from everyday language. What they denote no longer seems to fit into our world.

Emotions replace arguments

Things got particularly bad with Covid. While millions of people in often poorly paid jobs were still doing their best to maintain our social life, on many news outlets, online media, and  Facebook and Twitter, a civil war atmosphere prevailed. The rift went through families and ended friendships. Are you for or against the lockdown? Do you use the Covid warning app? Did you get vaccinated? Anyone who questioned the sense and benefits of lockdown and the benefits of closing day care centres and schools, restaurants, shops and many other venues even partially, were subjected to accusations that they did not care about human lives. Those who acknowledged that Covid-19 is a dangerous virus, were similarly aggressively attacked by those by those who saw it all as scaremongering. Respect for the dissenter? An objective weighing of arguments? Not a chance. Instead of talking to each other, people shouted each other down.

But the culture of discussion had disappeared from our society even before Covid. Even earlier, controversies were conducted in a similar way. People moralized instead of arguing. Concentrated emotions replaced content and reasoning. The first debate in which this was obvious was the one about immigration and refugee policy, a topic that overshadowed all others for almost three years after Germany opened its borders in the Autumn of 2015. At the time, the government’s narrative was not lockdown, but welcome culture, and dissent was at least as unwelcome as it was in Covid times. While the political mainstream at the time dismissed anyone expressing concern or pointing out the problems of uncontrolled immigration as racists, on the opposite side of the political spectrum, a movement was emerging that saw the imminent demise of the West. The tenor and tone of debate were as hostile as in the discussion about a sensible Covid policy. The climate debate that dominated 2019 was equally dominated by emotion. Now it was no longer a question of the downfall of the West, but of the entire human race. Climate enthusiasts who thought panic was an appropriate reaction, fought against real and supposed climate deniers. Those who continued to drive their old diesel car, bought their schnitzel in cheap supermarkets and struggled with higher electricity and fuel prices, were treated with no mercy. Meanwhile the AfD[1], which is now represented in the Bundestag as the largest opposition party, attacked the “left-green opinion dictatorship”. It seems that our society has forgotten how to act without aggression and to discuss its problems with a minimum of decency and respect. In place of democratic disputes, emotionalized rituals of indignation, moral defamation and open hatred have taken their place. This is frightening. For the path from verbal aggression to actual violence is short, as developments in the United States show. The question therefore arises: What is the source of the hostility that now divides our society on almost every major issue?

Who is poisoning the climate of opinion?

The usual answer to this question is that the ever growing right is to blame.

It’s the fault of politicians like Donald Trump, who stirred people up with his rabble-rousing and vicious tweets inciting people to rancour and  enmity. Parties like the AfD, that stir up hatred, are blamed. Finally, social media, that give lies and hate comments a huge resonance and where everyone moves in their own bubble are also blamed. All this is true. Politicians of the far right do contribute to poisoning the political climate. The U.S. after Donald Trump is an even more deeply divided country than the U.S. before Donald Trump.

When the AfD politician Björn Höcke casually wants to ‘smoke out’ dissidents without further ado, one can certainly be horrified. That social media promote aggression and calumny, because they are programmed to do so, is also true. None of this has improved the climate of debate. But it’s still only part of the explanation. Because the truth is that the climate of opinion is not being poisoned just by the right. The right is not the cause, but itself the product of a deeply divided society. There would have been no Donald Trump and no AfD had their opponents not prepared the ground for them. On the economic level, they have prepared the rise of the right by destroying social safeguards, unleashing markets and thus increasing social inequality and life insecurity to an extreme degree.

Many social-democratic and left-wing parties have also supported the rise of the right politically and culturally, by siding with the winners, and many of their representatives have since poured scorn on the values, way of life, grievances and anger of their own voters. 

Left Liberalism: neither left nor liberal.

For some time, the term ‘left-liberalism’ has been used to describe the world view of these new leftists who have switched sides. Left liberalism in this modern sense of the word is the subject of the first part of this book.  It is a relatively recent intellectual-political movement that has only gained social influence in the last few decades. The name ‘left liberalism’, however, is misleading. Strictly speaking it is neither left-wing nor liberal, but rather contradicts both political tendencies on core issues. An important claim of any liberalism, for example, is tolerance of other opinions. Typical left-liberals, however display the opposite: extreme intolerance towards anyone who does not share their view of things. Liberalism also traditionally fights for legal equality under the law, whereas left-liberalism fights for quotas and diversity, i.e. for the unequal treatment of different groups.

On the other hand, it has always been part of the left’s self-image to stand up for those who have a hard time and for whom society wants higher education, prosperity and opportunities for advancement. Left liberalism has its social base in the well-to-do university educated middle class  in the big cities. This does not mean that every graduate with a good income who lives in a big city is a left-liberal. But left-liberalism is at home in this milieu, and its opinion formers come from this comparatively privileged stratum. Left liberal parties appeal above all to the better educated and higher-income earners and are primarily elected by them.

Left-liberals thus do not deserve either of these names: they are neither left nor liberals, i.e. liberals who stand not only for freedom but also for social responsibility. Such liberals have existed in the FDP[2] for a long time, and there are probably even more of them today outside the Free Democrats. These have nothing to do with modern left-liberalism. But neither are left-liberals liberal leftists, i.e. leftists who distance themselves from totalitarian and illiberal traditions.

Taking a stand against this trend, this book is an explicit plea for a liberal, tolerant left instead of the illiberal position, which for many today goes under the label ‘left’. Liberal leftists in the literal sense of the word are therefore not what is meant when left-liberalism is mentioned in this book.

Illiberalism and intolerance.

Left-liberalism has played a major role in the decline of our culture of debate. Left-liberal intolerance and right-wing hate speech are interrelated phenomena that need each other, reinforce each other and live off each other. Whether refugee policy, climate change or Covid, it is always the same pattern: left-liberal arrogance cedes ground to the right. And the louder the invective from the right, the more left-liberals feel strengthened in their position. Nazis are against immigration? So every critic of immigration must be a Nazi in disguise! Climate deniers oppose carbon taxes? So anyone who criticises higher fuel and heating oil prices is also a denier! Conspiracy theorists spread false information about Covid? Those who think prolonged lockdowns are the wrong answer, are probably under the influence of conspiracy theories! In short: Anyone who is not for us is a right-winger, a climate denier etc.  The left-liberal world is as simple as that. 

Probably also because of this way of conducting the debate, the left no longer stands for justice in the eyes of many, but rather for self-righteousness: for a style of debate that makes many feel hurt, morally degraded and repulsed. 

In the summer of 2020, 153 intellectuals from different countries, including Noam Chomsky, Mark Lilla, J. K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie, wrote a public letter condemning left-liberal intolerance and illiberality. Their indictment read: “The free exchange of information and ideas … is becoming more restricted by the day. While we expect this from the radical right, an atmosphere of censorship is also spreading in our culture.” With concern they see “Intolerance of dissent, public denunciation and ostracism and the tendency to turn complex political issues into moral certainties”. And they point to the consequences: “We are paying a high price, in that writers, artists and journalists no longer risk saying anything because they fear for their livelihoods as soon as they deviate from the consensus and do not howl with the wolves. “

However, the similarity between right-wingers and left-wing liberals is not limited to their intolerance. In terms of content, too, right-wingers and left-wing liberals are not in any fundamental way in opposition to each other. ‘Right-wing’ in its original understanding means the advocacy of war, social austerity and great inequality. But these are positions shared by many Greens and left-liberal social democrats. It is deemed incorrect, on the other hand, to say that immigrants are misused for wage dumping, that it is hardly possible to teach a class in a school where more than half the children do not speak German, or that we also have a problem with radical Islamism in Germany. Whether intentionally or not: a left that denounces a realistic approach to problems as right-wing, does the right’s work for it. 

Loss of common ground

Anyone who wants to understand the reasons for the emergence of left-liberalism as well as for the decay of our culture of debate, must look at the deeper causes for the increasing division of our society. They must deal with the loss of security and common identity, with the dismantling of the welfare state, globalisation and liberal economic reforms.

In the decades after the Second World War, there was a long period of economic upswing in all Western countries. At that time people were optimistic about their own future and that of their children. Today, fears about the future dominate, and many fear that their children will be worse off than they themselves are. There are reasons for this. In international comparison, we are falling behind economically. Technologies of the future are increasingly being developed elsewhere and no longer in our country. The European and German economies are in danger of being crushed in the trade war between the USA and China. At the same time, inequality in the countries of the West has grown enormously and social security for sickness, unemployment and old age has become more precarious.

The winners look at the game differently

It is above all the so-called ordinary people whom the unregulated, globalised capitalism has turned into losers. For many, income has not risen for years, and they struggle to maintain their standard of living. A few decades ago, children from poorer families still had real opportunities for advancement, today their personal standard of living once again depends on their parents’ background. The winners of the new era are first and foremost the owners of large financial and business assets. Their wealth and their economic and social power have grown enormously in recent decades.

But the winners also include the new university-educated middle class of the big cities, in other words the milieu in which left-liberalism is at home. The social and cultural rise of this class can be traced back to the same political and economic changes that have not only affected industrial and service workers, but also many craftsmen and small tradesmen. The winners naturally have a different view of the rules of the game than those who have drawn the losing card.

While the differences in income, outlook and attitude to life have grown, so has the distance between them. Half a century ago, the better-off and the less privileged often lived in the same district and their children sat in the same classroom. Now, skyrocketing house prices and  rents make that impossible and poorer people live among their own kind. As a result, there are fewer and fewer contacts, friendships, partnerships or marriages beyond the borders of one’s own social milieu.

In the  bubble of their own milieu . 

This is where the most important causes of dissolving cohesion and increasing hostility lie. People from different backgrounds have less and less to say to each other because they live in different worlds. If well-off urban graduates meet the less advantaged in real life at all, it is as the underpaid service workers who clean their flats, deliver their parcels and serve them sushi in restaurants. 

Social bubbles exist beyond social media. Four decades of economic liberalism, social cuts and globalisation have so divided Western societies that many people’s real lives are conducted within the confines of their own social bubble. Our supposedly open society is riddled with walls, social walls that make it much more difficult for the children of poorer families to access education now than in the second half of the last century. And there are also walls of emotional coldness that keep those who know no life other than abundance from those who would love to live without existential fear if they could.

Reducing division and fear

As life has become much more uncertain and the future more unpredictable, there is much more fear involved in today’s political debates. How fear can harden the climate of debate has been demonstrated by the struggle over the right Covid policy. Its particular aggressiveness was, of course, because Covid is a disease that can lead to death in many very old people and in certain cases of younger people. Conversely, the long lockdowns mean that many feared for their social survival, their jobs or the future of their life’s work. People who are afraid become intolerant. Those who feel threatened do not want a discussion, they want to defend themselves. That is understandable. It becomes all the more dangerous when politicians discover that you can play politics by stirring up fear. And that, too, is by no means the preserve of the political right.

Responsible politics should do exactly the opposite. It should be concerned with reducing division and fears about the future, and increasing security and protection. It must initiate changes that will stop the disintegration of our societal cohesion and prevent our impending economic decline. An economic order, where the majority expects the future to be worse than the present is not fit for purpose. A democracy in which a considerable part of the population has no voice and no representation is one in name only.

We can produce differently, more innovatively, more locally and in a more nature-friendly way, and we can distribute the results better and more fairly. We can shape our community democratically, instead of leaving the decisions about our lives and our economic development to interest groups that are only interested in their own profit. We can find our way back to good, solidarity-based coexistence that ultimately benefits everyone: those who have lost out in recent years and are now afraid of the future, but also those who are doing well, but who do not want to live in a divided country that might end up where the United States is today. The second part of this book proposes a new path to a common future.

Addressing the majority.

In this book, I have also set out the lines of conflict that contributed to my resignation as parliamentary party leader in 2019. However, I would not have written a book about it if this discussion did not go far beyond the Left Party. I think it is a tragedy that the majority of the social democratic and left-wing parties have taken the wrong path of left-liberalism, which has theoretically gutted the left, leaving it to a large extent alienated from large parts of its electorate. This is an aberration that strengthens neoliberalism as a political philosophy, even though there have long been majorities in the population for a different policy: for more social balance, for a sensible regulation of financial markets and the digital economy, for stronger workers’ rights and for a smart industrial policy oriented towards the preservation and promotion of a strong Mittelstand.[3]

Instead of appealing to these majorities with a programme that is attractive to them, the SPD and the Left have helped the AfD to its electoral victories and made it the leading “workers’ party”. They have accepted  the Greens, in a way that is self-undermining, almost as an intellectual and political vanguard. They have thus distanced themselves from the possibility of assembling their own majorities.

This book is also about what it means to be left-wing in the 21st century. A left beyond clichés and fashionable phrases.  For me, this also includes: What should the left learn from enlightened conservatism? The programme outlined in the second part would be that of a genuine social people’s party. A party that does not contribute to the polarisation of society, but rather to the revitalisation of common values. 

With this book, I find myself in a political climate in which cancel culture has replaced fair debate. I do so in the knowledge that I too could now be “cancelled”. But in Dante’s Divine Comedy the lowest level of hell is reserved for the “lukewarm,” those who sit on the fence …


[1] Alternative for Deutschland, a radical right wing German political party.

[2] Free Democratic Party, the main German liberal party.

[3] translators note: small and medium businesses with a sense of social responsibility

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