Five years into the European debt crisis, at a time when Germany’s hegemonic role in it—both stoking trade imbalances and imposing debt brakes—had already become apparent, I was offered a job as an unemployment consultant in a small East German town where the largest employer, a solar-panel manufacturer, had closed down, laying off 550 people. Over the next nine months, our task would be to counsel, reorient and reintegrate the redundant personnel back into the productive labour market. I had never worked in this field before, my only contact with labour-market issues stemming from the rather explicitly Marxist seminars on political economy and the ontology of work I taught at Humboldt University. But ‘soft skills’ seemed to be all that was required to enter this industry famous for absorbing white-collar career changers, and I was delighted to earn (considerably) more money than at my teaching job while getting an opportunity to do some fieldwork in the German unemployment regime.
In what follows, I want to tell the story of that year, 2014, in Prenzlau, focusing particularly on the work of the consulting company, bob Transfer, whose task was literally to ‘transfer’ people from the socially protected industrial workforce into what might be called the ‘permanent reserve army of labour’. In other words, this is a tale about the production and management of surplus labour in the heart of Europe. At the same time, it is a drama about the post-industrial countryside, caught between local resilience and the tides of globalization, which unfolded during the days between the loss of the last good jobs in the region and the fresh influx of large numbers of non-white refugees, to join those already penned in a Lager on the periphery of the town. Lastly, while a manifestation of crisis, the story takes the form of ‘ordinariness’, which in turn begs questions about the particularities of the German model of crisis management—and, indeed, about our representational categories for grasping the limits to capitalism, or what might lie beyond.
Located 100km north of Berlin, Prenzlau—population: 19,000—is not exactly on the periphery of the European project, although as a small provincial town in the economically depressed state of Brandenburg, it is very much on the social, cultural and political margins. Since Berlin has become a cultural magnet and hotbed of real estate and it investment over the past decade, the gulf between the city and its rural hinterland has only widened. Not many Berliners have roots in the surrounding region, which they appreciate for its lakes but also tend to despise for its presumed petty-bourgeois culture and latent fascist tendencies. Conversely, country folk tend to be wary of the big city, even if they have barely set foot in it.
The first thing you learn about Prenzlau, as a job consultant, is that this is a ‘structurally weak region’. Not only is Brandenburg a depressed East German Land, but the Uckermark region, the county over which Prenzlau presides, boasts one of the highest unemployment rates in Germany, a little above 10 per cent. In the post-war decades, the gdr managed to fold the Uckermark into its developmental plan by collectivizing agriculture and relocating industrial activity to the region. Unlike agrarian enclosures in the West, the state-socialist approach did not involve casting farm workers off the land; rather, it modernized agricultural production with the help of local farmers as wage proletarians. The fall of the Wall and German reunification spelled a second round of enclosures in the form of deindustrialization, caused by the forced bankruptcy of state enterprises and the seizing of public assets for the funding of subsequent transfer payments—a strategy Eurozone elites would apply to the Greek bailout, twenty-five years later. In the 1990s this plunged millions of workers into early retirement, or saw them enter retraining programmes or set off to West Germany looking for work. Supposedly the reunion of two long-lost siblings, German reunification was rather the annexation of an unevenly developed economy to history’s designated winner.
After reunification, the new Länder, as they are known, experienced two ‘recoveries’. The first was a construction boom that fizzled out by the late 90s. The second, running from 2000 to 2012, was a government-subsidized round of industrialization focused on renewable energy, wind and solar power. From the turn of the millennium, the German government poured €31 billion into the photovoltaic industry located in its eastern ‘Solar Valley’. In a classic case of capitalist over-investment, intensified production across Europe and, increasingly, China—aided, indeed, by German technology transfers—pushed down the price of solar panels and solar energy to a level at which Western governments could no longer afford to subsidize the industry. Once government support was phased out, German manufacturers began closing down. In 2011, the local photovoltaic industry had employed 111,000 people; two years later, that number had halved.footnote1 Finally, in March 2013, the Bosch group announced that it would be closing down Aleo Solar, its subsidiary in Prenzlau, adding another 550 workers to the post-industrial labour reserve.
Twenty-five years after reunification, the economy of the eastern Länder continues to lag behind the rest of the frg, reinforced by a sparse and ageing population.footnote2 Wages are around 15 per cent lower than in the West. Rural towns like Prenzlau have a hard time attracting new inhabitants, with the notable exception of asylum seekers forced to reside here. Tellingly, perhaps, the two growth industries in Prenzlau at the moment, are elderly care and call centres. Aside from these, a few manufacturing jobs can be found in the seasonal dairy-processing facility, the car-parts supplier or the occasional logistics company. Otherwise, there is always on-site work to be had in assembly, construction or security, a type of internal migrant labour East German men have always seemed better suited for due to lack of employment alternatives and cheaper labour costs.
When Aleo Solar announced bankruptcy, employees were given two options: they could either accept a cash severance package and immediately register as ‘unemployed’ (arbeitslos) or they could become employees of the transfer agency for a maximum period of nine months, where they would receive a monthly ‘salary’ (not higher than the severance pay) and figure as ‘job seekers’ (arbeitssuchend). The distinction made by the Ministry of Labour between arbeitslos and arbeitssuchend is formal but not insignificant. Job seekers do not figure in official unemployment statistics and, by entering a quasi-formal employment relationship with the transfer agency, they are supposed to keep the habits of wage labour intact, and be less at risk of dropping out of the labour force entirely. The state benefits doubly from this—by keeping unemployment statistics low and by sharing the cost for managing unemployment with the insolvent company and the transfer agency. By April 2014, when Aleo Solar closed its gates, 75 per cent of its former employees had registered with our agency, bob Transfer. This would not have been possible without the active cooperation of their union ig Metall and the works council at Aleo Solar who fought hard during the insolvency proceedings to secure transfer services for their members.