‘THIS IS NOT A SOCIAL STATE ANY MORE”
Interview with Christoph Butterwegge
Poverty is not limited to seniors, unemployed and foreigners. Christoph Butterwegge, professor of political science at the University of Koln, on secret poverty and political shows
[This interview published in: Freitag, 4/4/2010 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.freitag.de/politik/1013-das-ist-kein-sozialstaat-mehr-interview-butterwege.]
Freitag: The debate over social division and performance justice is more vehement and pointed this spring. Westerwelle’s phrase about “late Roman decadence” may enter the history of political phrases. Westerwelle, the conservative FDP chairperson, has been sharply criticized. What is the greatest social-political problem in Germany?
Christoph Butterwegge: That relative poverty has spread so intensely in a well-to-do country like Germany. In Germany, growing riches on one side face extreme social problems on the other side. I see the great danger of society disintegrating or falling apart – above all when polarization increases in the course of a greater economic crisis.
We have been warned of social division for decades. Isn’t “falling apart” an exaggeration?
No, the situation has changed. Poverty is no longer limited to the classical groups: seniors, unemployed and foreigners (migrants). Today poverty reaches into the middle of society, as seen for example in the broad low-wage sector that did not exist before. Poverty grasps more and more groups of the population and destroys the social-political culture of our country. Hartz IV is depressing for those affected and makes anxious those who fear becoming unemployed and soon sinking to the income support level. The division is real. Some have enough money and can buy social security on a welfare market. Others have no social security and depend increasingly on private charity and food donations of the “food banks.” This has nothing to do with the social state as known in the past.
You once called this the development to the “soup-kitchen state.”
It may sound alarmist but we are heading for a welfare-, alms- and soup kitchen state if no social-political change of course occurs. But the public debate goes in the opposite direction. The stricken themselves are blamed instead of recognizing poverty as a structural problem of a neoliberal society oriented in competition and consumption that leads to the exclusion of a growing part of the population. The social problems of people are not in the foreground but their laziness and social misuse. That is regular propaganda… A new round of social cuts is rung in.
This is in contradiction to political campaigns like the “European Year against Poverty and Social Exclusion.” What can this initiative accomplish?
At least the European Union is setting the right signal. Even if it is a pure symbolic policy, the initiative is positive in sensitizing people and awakening consciousness for the problem of growing poverty. On the other side, the European Union has a credibility problem since its policy of privatization, deregulation and economizing of the social deepens the gulf between poverty and wealth.
Can promoting individual projects – the German social minister Ursula von der Leyen spoke of “light- towers” change anything in the problems you addressed?
What use is a light-tower when the light goes out behind the dike or levee? The children and youth projects promoted in the European Year are prestige projects. PR-actions and shows in which the female minister sings to encourage the afflicted do not change their miserable situation. A summer c amp for children from disadvantaged families can be very beautiful in the isolated case. But it does not deliver them from their poverty. Such projects are hardly useful when nothing changes in government policy.
Do you have any expectations for the European Year against Poverty?
I hope poverty will not be whitewashed, glossed over, relativized and ideologically de-contaminated in the public realm, the media and academia as in the past. Only persons who take the problem of poverty seriously can combat the social division in their own country.
Christoph Butterwegge, b. 1951, is one of the best known German poverty researchers. The political scientist teaches at the University of Koln. His last book is titled “Poverty in a Rich Land. How the problem is trivialized and repressed” (Armut in einem reichen Land. Wie das Problem verharmlost und verdrangt wird,” Campus Verlag).