Bodo Zeuner

Social Darwinism, or a revival of solidarity?
The political future of the trade unions

In the 'nineties, a number of political theories of 'solidarity' were published. These theories, along with the blossoming of communitarism in the USA and the emergence of the new buzzword 'social cohesion', are indications that society is starting to rebel against the total commercialisation of social relationships. In other words, society is fighting against capitalism and its self-destructiveness in exploiting non-renewable resources.1

'Solidarity' means that otherwise isolated individuals are either drawn together or are encouraged to come together due to common concerns, or a shared sense of injury, or having the same opponents. But solidarity doesn't just happen. It emerges through reflection on issues and their significance. Mutual values and acknowledgement, and the sharing of information about how to deal with social conditions that are against one's interests, are also necessary to make it possible to act in solidarity.

Inclusive and exclusive 'solidarity'
I prefer to differentiate between what I call 'inclusive' and 'exclusive' solidarity: the first being open, tending to broaden out, and the second being isolationist and exclusive.
Solidarity is not automatically all-embracing. Even solidarity within a trade union is centred on a certain group and so excludes others.

Solidarity practised by trade unions has always been in principle both inclusive and exclusive. Trade unions have excluded some, and therefore been more inclusive of others. We can't assume, however, that those excluded by the trade unions have always been the employers. Trade unions have also functioned as male clubs, elitist cliques, and as organisations for the defence of certain ethnic groups against competition from outside their group.

Exclusive solidarity doesn't automatically have to be morally questionable. It is in some sense unavoidable. The main problem of exclusive solidarity is that it has always offered an opportunity for the political right to build up an image of 'the enemy' and then act accordingly. This can lead to women who seek work on an equal opportunities basis being described as 'dirty competition' (Schmutzkonkurrenz), or to anti-immigrant sloganeering such as 'foreigners go home' and 'jobs for Germans alone.' On the other hand, trade union members have always also walked the way of inclusive solidarity, expanding their circle, and this is still possible today.

In actual fact there has been something of a global historical and moral progression in arguments justifying political actions. The possibility of justifying inequality with the argument that there are inferior types of human being, be it because of race, gender, religion, class or caste, is decreasing rapidly. Of course this doesn't mean that inequality no longer exists: on the contrary, it is increasing due to the globalisation of competition. But with this increase, the pressure to act in line with the principle of universal equality in the UN Declaration on Human Rights is also growing. An inclusive solidarity, including as many employed people as possible world-wide, is not only an ethical imperative, but is also in the trade unions' best interests. Production and competition are evidently becoming international, therefore solidarity organised by the trade unions should also become international, otherwise employees will be no match for their opponents. In the face of individualism and globalisation, it is imperative that trade unions do not organise solidarity within small, privileged groups which will end up competing with each other nationally and internationally. This would be damaging for all. If trade unions in high-income countries fight for pay-rises in in low-income countries, they will be doing themselves a favour because they will help to reduce the differences which cause global competition. And if European or American trade unions accept cuts in wages and standards, they will not be helping their trade union colleagues in Brazil or South Africa. On the contrary, the latter will be under increased pressure to give in to wage cuts, in order to retain their status as 'low-income countries.'

There are certainly good ethical and practical reasons for trade unions to pursue 'inclusive solidarity,' according to the principle 'we can only live well if we all live well.' This applies not only in a global context but also within German and European society, which has become increasingly segregated. The trade unions have the opportunity to become organisations of solidarity between all workers, whether they are in conventional or precarious employment, whether they are self-employed or in an insecure company just starting up, or whether they are currently unemployed. All have three things in common:

  • they have to sell their labour or their product in order to live in dignity.

  • their livelihood is under constant threat due to the volatility of the market and aggressive management and financial strategies.

  • they are not strong enough to fight off this threat in the long term on their own: they need help, support and solidarity.

  • The trade unions need imagination and the courage to experiment, in order to bring these people together. But they also need humility and willingness to co-operate with, for example, unemployed groups, without laying claim to 'ultimate truth' and aiming to 'convert.' In pursuing inclusive solidarity, the trade unions must themselves once more become 'social movements'.

The alternative: exclusive solidarity and a new Social Darwinism
This development in the direction of inclusive solidarity has a grim alternative: exclusive solidarity which is location-based, within a corporation, within a nation. The ideological basis of exclusive solidarity is a new social Darwinism which justifies inequality. This ideology has prominent and very vocal representatives not only among conservative politicians and neo-liberals, but also social democrats in leading governmental positions in Germany, for example the Chancellor, who is the leader of the SPD, and his vice-chairman.

Is an accusation of 'social Darwinism' too harsh, in relation to these policies? Do they really intend to justify 'the survival of the fittest'? Should the big guy really be given the political and ethical right to forget the little guy? Is it right to impute the 'new' social democrats (à la Schröder, Blair and Clement) with social Darwinism?

There are, I think, two arguments for this admittedly strong accusation. One relates to the connection between equal opportunities and the 'equality of results' to which the 'new' social democrats referred in their debate on 'justice.' The other is the purely national interest at the root of Schröder's economic and social policies, including the 'Alliance for Employment, Training and Competitiveness' (Bündnis für Arbeit, Ausbildung und Wettbewerbsfähigkeit). On the subject of justice, social democrats have made the following statements:

'In the past, the promotion of social justice has sometimes been mixed up with the demand for 'equality of results' (Schröder/Blair document, 8/6/99, quoted from Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik volume 7/99, p.888).  'In our society, the imperative of social justice consists in more than just the distribution of wealth. Our aim is to extend equal opportunities ...' (ibid., p.894).
'People rightly demand... compassion for all who need help - but they also demand fairness for those who pay for it' (ibid.).

So much for the new social democrats and heads of government, Schröder and Tony Blair. The only remaining social justice in these statements is pure 'equality of opportunity,' in the sense of giving everyone the same start in the battle against each another. Those who don't use their opportunities have only themselves to blame and have to be content with handouts, the levels of which are dependent on the benevolence of those who are paying for them. The equating of 'equal opportunities' with 'the equality of results' is treacherous. Equal opportunities have always been a liberal and social-democratic principle. Conversely, 'equality of results' has never been demanded by any reasonable person and of course has never been achieved, not even in Cambodia under Pol Pot. It is a phantom concept which is being very well employed to disguise their true intentions. The phantom serves to distract attention from the real problems of equality and justice.

One of the main problems is that citizens don't have equal opportunities in the economic process. The number of working-class children at universities is decreasing. The introduction of university fees and the separation between mass and elite courses will reinforce this trend. People's starting points are already very diverse because of inherited means, and an reform of inheritance law as an egalitarian move is quite the opposite of Schröder's and Blair's intentions. In Germany, Schröder, Eichel and the SPD as a whole haven't even dared to reintroduce the tax on assets. Another problem is that the principle of equal opportunities doesn't specify how the recipients of these 'opportunities' should use them for their own welfare. We are all given the equal opportunity to play the lottery, but only the few will win.

In the 'justice and equality' debate, the two issues which need addressing are talked down by the 'new' social democrats (Schröder, Blair, Clement, Hombach, etc.) because they would lead to political redistribution. These issues are: justice according to need, and justice according to achievement.

Let us consider justice according to need. What needs does a child have, or its mother or father, and is it 'fair' that society should meet those needs - either financially or through institutions? What standard of living does society concede that its members need, including its increasing numbers of 'losers' in the context of ever more aggressive competition, and its disadvantaged and disabled? Are we seeing a return to a social policy of disciplinary action against the poor, such as forced labour, under the catchphrases 'workfare' and 'employability'?

Now let us look at justice for achievement. It is often the case that the success (or failure) of a new enterprise depends on promotional advertising via some sports hero, or on a gambler who seizes the moment to win an advantage over the competition. How, then, is it possible to place work-achievements in a fair relation with salary? (See Mahnkopf in Prokla 121, p.506).

In conclusion: those who talk about equality of opportunity, but only mean giving everyone an equal start, and who equate this with the nonsense-term 'equality of results', ignoring justice according to need and justice according to achievement, are pursuing the inhumane agenda of blaming the losers of the competition for their failure. This is what I call 'social Darwinism': the winners are right, and the losers are to blame.

The social democrats' justifications for their economic and social policies
The concept of 'national Darwinism' is already immortalised in the title: 'The Alliance for Employment, Training and Competitiveness' (Bündnis für Arbeit, Ausbildung und Wettbewerbsfähigkeit). If I understand this correctly, the leader of the current ruling party employs the concept of 'solidarity' exclusively in terms of an 'Alliance for National Competitiveness'; in other words, an exclusive solidarity of the German workforce with German investment, against all foreign competition. But under the surface of the government's exclusive solidarity with 'Corporate Germany', there will be increasingly aggressive competition.

I can't spare you from three further quotations from the Schröder/Blair paper of 8 July 1999:

  • 'We want a society which positively affirms the successful business person as well as the successful artist and football player ...'

  • 'We all share the same conviction that traditional workplace conflicts have to be overcome.'

  • 'We want trade unions to remain anchored in modern society. We want them to protect the individual against arbitrary decisions, and, in co-operation with employers, to bring about change and help create long-term wealth.'

Schröder and Blair's world is shaped by internal competition which functions within society along the lines of competitive sports. The principle is: the winner takes all, and losers are eliminated. It is not surprising that trade unions, as organisations which encourage solidarity, no longer have a place in this world-view. Trade unions are no longer supposed to fight for collective rights, but should only take care of individuals, and work hand in hand with employers towards 'change' (for which 'there is no alternative').

What Schröder is suggesting here is more international and national inequality, and an agreement between the government and trade union leaders on the creation of an exclusive solidarity with employers in the context of national capitalism. Germany's national economy is thus being geared up to compete against other national economies in the world market, because only the fittest will survive. The destiny of those who can't compete with the fittest on an international level is of no interest.

On a national and international level, this policy is neo-Darwinist. And it is known to be a policy aimed at winning over 'middle Germany'.

'Middle Germany' is also a very good term for the sphere of German society from whence right-wing violence stems, and the mindless stupidity which correlates with this (see Willhelm Heitmeyer). Modern Fascism is in many ways a 'chauvinism of wealth': the better-off sense a distant threat, and start taking early precautions. But it isn't as easy as it was to declare other human beings inferior on the grounds of birth, gender or race. It's therefore better to have an ideology which provides moral justification for declaring as 'losers' those who have, for whatever reason, lost out. And this is what social Darwinism provides for the 'religion' of neo-liberal market economics and for the grand plan of so-called 'modern' social democracy.

The trade unions should turn their backs on any kind of solidarity with such an anti-social and inhumane plan as soon as possible, and become more political. I think the trade unions would be better to distance themselves from recent Social-democratic and Green government policies. It's no longer how it was under Willy Brandt, when the government was especially close to the trade unions and wanted to set internal reforms in motion and risk greater democracy.

In working towards solidarity, today's trade unions must, as they always used to, mobilise the power of those who are currently in strong positions on behalf of those who are currently 'the losers'.

Excerpt from a speech given at the Auftaktveranstaltung event held for staff-trainers of the ÖTV (Germany's public sector trade union), Bochum, 19.1.2001.

1. Once everything is finally turned into a product, we're finished. You can't eat money; love and friendship can't be turned into calculations. The slogan, 'We should all consider ourselves as stock market shares' (business consultant Reinhard Sprenger in Tagesspiegel 28.12.1999, p.18), doesn't describe progress, but the final, lethal stage of an inhumane capitalism.


Email: Bodo Zeuner
Bodo Zeuner Ph.D., Dip.Politics, is Professor for Political Science at the Freie Universität, Berlin. He specialises in the regulation of work relationships; political parties, and political adult education. He is also a board member of the Foundation for Human Dignity and the World of Work, Berlin (Stiftung Menschenwuerde und Arbeitswelt) and he lectures at the Hans Böckler Foundation (Hans-Böckler-Stiftung)

LMost recent publications:
Zeuner, Bodo: Das System Schröder/Fischer oder die unvollständige Abschaffung der Politik, in: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Jg. 45, 10/2000, S. 1185-1196
Pollach, Günter; Wischermann, Jörg; Zeuner, Bodo: Ein nachhaltig anderes Parteiensystem. Profile und Beziehungen von Parteien in ostdeutschen Kommunen – Ergebnisse einer Befragung von Kommunalpolitikern. Unter Mitarbeit von Norbert Fröhler und Manfred Leiske, Opladen 2000
Kurz-Scherf, Ingrid; Zeuner, Bodo: Politische Perspektiven der Gewerkschaften zwischen Opposition und Kooperation. Für eine neue Debatte über alte Grundwerte. In: Gewerkschaftliche Monatshefte, Jg. 52, 3/2001, S.147-160