Joschka Fischer served as Foreign Minister and as Vice Chancellor of Germany in the cabinet of Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005. He was a member of Alliance ’90/The Greens.
Jon Roozenbeek/Thomas Dahms: So, the main thing that we would like to talk with you about is the decline of the European Left, which hasn’t really achieved any significant results recently. We would like to ask you: what do you think is going wrong?
Joschka Fischer: The Soviet Union disappeared. (Long pause) – and with the Soviet Union, I think, the basic concept of the Left disappeared. The traditional Left was based on an alternative to market capitalism. For them, market capitalism not only meant the exploitation of workers, but also insecurity – cyclical crises, mass unemployment. And the alternative of the Left was “We know it better: Planning.” There was the hardcore planning of the Stalinists or Leninists which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and their satellites. But the idea was widespread. If you look to France, even the Gaullists believed in planification. Planning was the alternative. Socialism was not a concept that was different in questions of morale. It was primarily a different economic model. This disappeared completely. Since then the Left has been in disarray.
The social democrats are also victims of their own success. They strongly believed in education, especially in higher education for working class children. They succeeded in many continental European states. I guess even in the UK this was an important contribution. They believed in public services, health care, education. They were pretty successful in developing the welfare state. If you look to Scandinavia, Germany, even the high time of Labour here in the UK – the National Health Service here in the country is like a holy cow: untouchable. Every conservative who would try to move against the NHS would immediately ruin his political career. So the victory of the welfare state is also the success of the social democratic model. But now, after the victory, what now? So the historical event of the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the welfare state contributed to the crisis of the Left.
And there is a third element. What does social justice mean in the 21st century? Traditionally – in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century or even for longer – it was a western problem. The affluent societies of the west were running the world and social justice meant social justice for the underprivileged, for the working class in these affluent western societies. The dividing line was in the economy. Nowadays we have different dividing lines. First of all, with globalization and with new computational technologies, the majority of mankind, nowadays more than seven billion people, sees what the western living standards, even for poorer people, really mean. And they want to have the same – with some justification. So, social justice nowadays is also an international issue. The unintended consequences of mass production and mass consumption for the environment are a global challenge. There is an ecological barrier, suddenly, which didn’t exist in the old days. So there is an international element, there is a green element and also a cultural element: sexual minorities are asking for equal justice, women are asking for equal payment and equal opportunities, racial minorities, whatever. There is also a tremendous cultural change.
So, social justice is much more complicated and the interests of different groups are now heavily conflicting, for example traditional blue collar workers would not necessarily subscribe to the emancipation of sexual minorities or ethnic minorities. You can see that in the US with the election of Trump. The green barrier, the international dimension – in the west there is a feeling that we are in the decline, that we are losing power – which is true. There is a rise in China, millions of people there are lifted out of poverty into a rising middle class. So, for the Left the basic concept of social justice is much more complicated nowadays and more contradictory than it used to be in the past.
JR/TD: Do you think the left wing parties should step away from this focus on social justice and instead focus more on the economy?
Joschka Fischer: No. I don’t see that they have a serious analysis of the situation. What does ‘Left’ mean today? We have a conservative chancellor who started a so called “Engergiewende”. It was Angela Merkel who opened up the borders when hundreds of thousands Syrian war refugees arrived. What is Right and what is Left? Is [leftwing French politician Jean-Luc] Mélenchon someone from the Left by promoting an almost identical anti-European program to Marine Le Pen’s?
JR/TD: He calls himself very left-wing.
Joschka Fischer: Yes and what does that mean?
JR/TD: Would you say that the term lost its meaning? Does Left as a concept not work anymore at all?
Joschka Fischer: It does not work.
JR/TD: Then what would be a better classification?
JF: Mélenchon is a nationalist. Period.
JR/TD: And [French president Emmanuel] Macron?
JF: Macron is a progressive.
JR/TD: Progressive in economic terms or social terms?
JF: In political and social terms. He is a progressive.
JR/TD: Would you say that the right, if we want to continue to talk in these traditional terms, has managed to adapt better to changes, especially when it comes to immigration, than the Left?
JF: What we see is that there is a xenophobic right and there is a centre-right which is based on Christian beliefs and that tries to address these issues in a different, non-xenophobic way. But there is a strong xenophobic right. Again, what is the difference between Le Pen and Mélenchon?
JR/TD: Do you think that both have the same xenophobic characteristics?
JF: Both are nationalists.
JR/TD: Would you say there is a difference in the degree of demonization of e.g. immigrants or Muslims?
JF: Maybe the Front National is in this respect even more radical but I don’t see a substantial difference between them.
JR/TD: Do you think that this shift towards nationalism is a continuing trend?
JF: Yes. This is a trend based on globalization. It is seen as a sin against the nation or as a betrayal of the working class. It’s not seen as a new phase in the development of productive means in the Marxist sense. Globalization according to Marx is a new level of the development of the means of production. Globalization affects a certain decline of the west, at least in relative terms, which leads to more social justice on a global stage, as you can see with the rise of the huge middle classes in China and India. It’s a new distribution of global wealth. Therefore, I don’t think it is really progressive to fight against globalization. It won’t preserve jobs at home and in the end it strengthens xenophobic tendencies in our societies and doesn’t stop the decline.
JR/TD: Do you think that globalization is inevitable?
JR/TD: That also gets into issues of automatization, which sufficiently implemented will cause a significant decline in jobs that require a certain amount of education. Do you see this development as inevitable as well and how do you propose to respond to it?
JF: I can’t give you an answer to this very serious question. I think it is a longer talk. This is one of the big challenges we will face. It’s not automatization. It’s a new quality of automatization. Machines will take over the knowledge, the brain, and they will learn. Artificial Intelligence is a new level. But I don’t think we can escape it. If we would say “no, we don’t want to do that”, others will do it and we would be disconnected. We would pay an extremely high price for that and we would suffer the consequences of our foolish decision.
JR/TD: There are certain methods that have been proposed to fix this problem. For example, unconditional basic income.
JF: Well, I understand. We need this debate. But I am not in favour of universal basic income. It’s not only a social measure. This would mean, in consequence, the end of the concept of adult life since thousands of years: After your childhood you are a grown up and you have to work for your income – and it always was a tragedy if you couldn’t work. The universal basic income would mean that a growing group of grown up people would live their lives without work. This is a very far-reaching change, because if you look at the everyday lives of ordinary people, it’s not only the income. Grown up people are spending more time at their job than with their families. It would also mean the loss of social environment and it would mean the loss of dignity. So, I understand that this is the moment that we have to have this debate and I can’t predict the outcome, but we shouldn’t shrink the focus to much on the economic side. It’s a cultural revolution. It goes to the very core of the thousands of years’ old identity of grown up human beings. If you change this, it will have dramatic consequences – and also how you change it. So, I have strong sympathy for the debate because I know the reasons why we need the debate now. But his must be a broad debate, not excluding the cultural consequences. Maybe we will find answers when we include the cultural consequences. I can’t give you an answer now.
JR/TD: Speaking about Brexit. It could be seen as a backlash against globalization. In the past Brexit has been called a ‘very bad idea’, especially before the referendum. Would you say that it would be a good idea for the left to say ‘we’re not going to do Brexit. We are against this.’?
JF: I have no idea. I can’t give you any political advice because I don’t know the political situation in the UK. It’s very complicated. We have a situation in which mom and dad decided not to live together any longer and now they are in the beginning of a process of divorce and usually a divorce is an unpleasant experience. But I think as a family we should try to avoid too much bitterness, too much poison or open confrontation. There is a life after the divorce. And we should not look back, we should look forward and try to find arrangements in order to reduce the pain of these unpleasant events.
JR/TD: Was Brexit something inevitable?
JF: It wasn’t inevitable, but it happened. That’s a fact. We can regret that but now it happened and we have to live with the consequences. My plea is that all sides should try to avoid bitterness and harm.
JR/TD: Why do you think German Chancellor Angela Merkel has managed to stay in power for so long?
JF: The conservatives want to stay in power because they think power belongs to them. The Left does not want the power. They want to live their dreams.
JR/TD: Is that because of their inability to craft a party program that will attract enough voters?
JF: Well, I never believed in programs. I never read one. Programs are printed paper for party activists, fighting over every full stop and comma. You have to have a message, but that’s not the same as a program. Left-wing parties of course want to implement their program and if this can’t be done because of the realities outside and because the situation has changed then they cry out “betrayal!”. Left-wing parties usually are not ready to run a country. They don’t want to run a country. They want to run their program. All successful, democratically elected leaders of left parties were sooner or later confronted with the accusation of betrayal from their own peers.
JR/TD: Would you say that this is also a problem Left right now?
JF: Yes, absolutely.
JR/TD: You could argue that those left wing politicians that managed to counter this problem, for example using types of nationalism, seem to be very successful at winning elections.
JF: I am strictly against nationalism.
JR/TD: Even if it is successful?
JR/TD: What would be your suggestion for the Left at this point?
JF: I have no advice for left-wing parties, because I don’t know what ‘Left’ means anymore. If you are fighting for a majority, then you have to move to the centre. Look at what happened to the far Left in Spain and Greece. This was all based on illusions. They had the dream to get the majority but didn’t dream about the challenges of being in power. Ask [Greek Prime Minister Alexis] Tsipras!
JR/TD: Yes, and he was then basically conforming to the wishes of the IMF and Europe.
JF: Not “the wishes of”! What would there be if he had rejected those wishes? The country would be bankrupt. Period. The IMF is not a sinister force. There are some mathematical realities. One plus one makes two and not twenty. This is not a reactionary conspiracy. Once you are in power you are confronted with reality.
JR/TD: In terms of your own political ideals, what would you like to see with regard to the coming German elections? (of Autumn 2017)
JF: What shall I say, I am out of politics. I will cast my vote on election day. Period.
JR/TD: Thank you very much.
JF: (Long pause) I hope I didn’t disappoint you.
This interview was conducted in 2017, in Peterhouse College, Cambridge, UK.
Crédit photo: Markos Loizou