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Privatization Endangers Democracy

by Christoph Butterwegge Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007 at 9:29 AM

Neoliberal hegemony or market radicalism is a danger for democracy because economic mechanisms replace politics. Neoliberals change the understanding of justice in society. The less generous the social benefits, the more powerful must be its security machine.


Neoliberalism seeks to privatize everything, whether educational institutions, city departments or prisons. A conversation with political scientist Christoph Butterwegge

[Neoliberalism endangers democracy and community, says Christoiph Butterwegge, professor of political science at the University of Koln. In the book “Critique of Neoliberalism,” the 56-year old Butterwegge together with a sociologist and an economist analyzes foundations, theories and historical backgrounds of “market radicalism.” Different schools of thought and the contradictions of economic “redistribution from bottom to top” are explored. This interview published in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis 8/14/2007 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Your co-author Bettina Losch, a member of the global justice movement attac, argues neoliberalism represents a danger for democracy. Do you agree?

Chi8rstoph Butterwegge: Neoliberal hegemony or market radicalism is a danger for democracy because economic mechanisms replace politics. In the past, democratic power was shifted from state authorities to the economic interests of private persons and corporations. Democratic control of power became more difficult.

Can you give an example?

Christoph Butterwegge: When city departments are sold to a big concern, a town council legitimated by elections cannot make energy policy any more since managers and owners of capital make the decisions. Democracy fades when whole countries, cities and communities act like firms and draft party programs that look like balance sheets instead of social utopias.

In one of your earlier books, you pointed out some social benefits like the child allowance for tax purposes help rich families more than poor families. Is such “relief primarily for the wealthy” as you describe in the new book?

Christoph Butterwegge: Neoliberals change the understanding of justice in society. Instead of need constituting a welfare state, they prefer performance justice. For instance, a German finance minister carried out a total deformation of the term “justice” and simultaneously broke with the welfare state postulate of the constitution when he reduced social justice to the state’s concern for achievers. “Social justice in the future must mean doing politics for those who do something for the future of our country and who learn and train themselves, work, raise children, are enterprising and create jobs, in a word, make accomplishments for themselves and our society. Politics must be concerned about them – and only them.” This is a reduced neoliberal idea of justice since accomplishment is understood first of all as economic success.

Can you give us an example?

Christoph Butterwegge: When a superrich one buys the right shares on the stock market after conversations with his investment advisor and sells them a year later at twice or three times the price, he doesn’t have to pay a tax on a million profit. Whether this is an achievement that must be “rewarded” seems doubtful. An employee working in his leisure time has to pay taxes on his increased earnings. The efforts of a person with disabilities to diminish his physical limitations through untiring exercise do not “count.”

More and more social initiatives make available food donated to the needy by supermarkets and food stores. Through an initiative in Aachen, Germany, school supplies are collected so needy children do not stand with empty hands when school begins.

Christoph Butterwegge: That is one of the main contradictions of neoliberalism. In political Sunday sermons, its supporters urge people to do more for their education and training but in everyday political affairs they stress that the money purse decides over the state of education. Education is made a commodity and at the same time praised as a wonder weapon in the battle against poverty. However education policy cannot be interpreted as social policy while on the other hand schools and universities are privatized into training centers. Credibility is lost in this way. Ultimately this means reserving education for the well-to-do and the children of well-off families. The less the public authority is able to compensate the material undersupply of families on account of a misguided tax policy, the more children suffer under an educational poverty. Thus neoliberalism hands over the weakest members of society, children, to the market.


Do you think such benefit cuts will turn the welfare state into a “criminal state”? Will more and more children and youth see no perspectiv3e and stray off the straight and narrow?

Christoph Butterwegge: The less generous the social benefits of a rich society, the more powerful must be its security machine. In other words, what the parliamentary majority withholds from welfare systems in resources, it spends later on measures against drug abuse, criminality and violence. The administration of justice, police and private security services devour that money that is ostensibly “saved” with the reorganization or dismantling of the welfare state.

What will happen?

Christoph Butterwegge: In Germany the “punishing” state replaces the “charitable” state more and more – as in the US. The model of neoliberalism is not a weak, democratic and tolerance state but a harsh and if necessary disciplinary state. Long-term unemployed, beneficiaries of income support and housing subsidies and the homeless feel the raw public climate, the intensified disciplining by social laws or administrative guidelines and the increasing repression of the authorities.

Is Germany already a punishing state?

Christoph Butterwegge: The prisons of Germany were never as crowded as today. Therefore imprisonment according to the US and British model is attractive for big investors without the broad public noticing privatization in this area. The jobless are often not disproportionately guilty of a crime. However their continuous criminalization can be understood under psycho-social aspects and also reflects a commercialization of more and more areas of society including the hard core of the state monopoly of force.

Whoever does not want to be criminal needs help. In the past, people were proud of a social insurance state. Now “soup kitchens” are expanding. Is a kind of welfare market resulting from this?

Christoph Butterwegge: Yes. Citizens who can afford social security buy on such a welfare market. The post-modern welfare state is commonly described as “basic security.” Minimum benefits are given to keep people from starving and freezing to death. Consequently charitable engagement, voluntary activity, readiness for social donations and non-profit foundations are now having a boom season again. IN my opinion, this development is not compatible with the welfare state command of the German constitution.

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