The current debate about immigration is polarized and racially charged. The political right is successful at presenting the pending challenges of an immigration society as a relation of competition and a conflict of distribution between “us Germans” and “the immigrants”. By posing the social question along ethnic lines, they connect with extant modes of thinking and present supposed solutions: the community of natives with corresponding preferential rights for the well-established. Interwoven with this narrative is the neoliberal tale of personal success, available to everyone, if he or she just properly strives for it. For many, however, that doesn’t work. They sense that something isn’t right. Dissatisfaction with one’s own living or working situation, or the feeling of not being able to decide over one’s own life, of not receiving one’s “deserved” share – all of that rests upon everyday experiences.
In this conflict situation, some seek out culprits who are apparently taken care of without having to make the same effort: “the immigrants”, “the refugees” or “economic refugees”, “asys”, “welfare spongers”, “bums” – sometimes also “bosses”, “bankers”, and “politicians”. What does that mean for the project of an immigration society based upon solidarity, that seeks to – and must – include everyone who is marginalized, or at least feels marginalized?
Engaging in personal conversation with people that one does not otherwise encounter, instead of just talking about them, can bring to light important questions and insights. DIE LINKE was on the move in twelve cities nationwide during the autumn of 2016. On doorsteps, members spoke with people primarily from low-income neighborhoods to discuss burning issues, and which problems could be tackled together. With trained lay-interviewers, we went door-to-door and conducted 379 conversations. The documentation of these conversations provides insights into everyday thinking about politics, neighborhoods and living conditions at the lower margins of society – a kaleidoscope of “the state of affairs in Germany” . Time and again, we encountered racist resentments and linguistic violence, even on the part of open-minded people. But it was seldom a case of solidified attitudes or closed worldviews. Frequently, they were spontaneous truncations or displacements present everywhere within societal discourse. At the same time, prejudices fractured against real experiences, truths and falsehoods stood closely alongside each other, contradictions became visible. Antonio Gramsci called this “bizarre everyday consciousness.” “Challenging others precisely as far as possible without rupturing the relationship” (Schrupp 2011) is a question of practice. The left, which often bears the stamp of academia, can learn a few things here.
Learning Processes on Both Sides
Despite racist prejudices that arose in conversations, there was, for example, knowledge about the causes of flight and the role played by German policies. It’s possible to start there.
A retired woman from Leipzig-Gohlis brings up the supposed lack of work ethic on the part of refugees and the arms exports of German companies, all in the same breath. Her neighbor thinks that refugees should either “go home” or “integrate”, but had “never had a problem myself with foreigners.” She also saw arms sales in civil war countries as responsible for current developments. A ticket inspector from Essen-Frohnhausen believes refugees are criminal, and demands at the same time that wars must stop.
Analyses of the right’s increasing strength point out disconcerting shifts in the field of the doable and thinkable. But some debates about everyday racism tend to take statements by people with little practice in sophisticated argumentation too literally, instead of taking them seriously. Racism is not a question of education; one’s mode of expression is.
Understanding the “sense” that a racist, sexist, tough-guy statement creates in another person might take some getting used to. But, by means of attentive inquiry and trenchant objection, one can find out the importance the statement has in their thinking, how entrenched the worldview is, and whether there are durable starting points for common activity. Some people mean exactly what they say. Whether or not that’s the case, however, can only be clarified by direct conversation, since people from low-income neighborhoods rarely publish articles and usually aren’t invited onto talk Shows.
A convinced AfD  voter from Dresden-Prohlis does not allow himself to be diverted from his view of the world: “Deport them. Dump them into the ocean, or shoot them. German bums, too. Women who sleep with three bums.” If misogynistic-racist statements are stated with such clarity, it’s easy to draw a line. We end the conversation, there’s lots of other doors waiting.
Sounding out commonalities or drawing a line? That’s a learning process. One therefore has to step out of one’s comfort zone. Leaving the personal echo chamber, the Facebook bubble, the intellectual “regular’s table” occasionally, is an opportunity that cannot be underestimated to examine one’s own language, political praxis, and fondly held certainties. Knowing how things look “down there”, and which coping strategies there are, can help in developing a feel for the facets of a damaged life. The precarity of academics with an abundance of social capital (and sometimes parental wealth) looks different than the poverty of the disenfranchised or the fears of social descent on the part of the row house middle class.
Furthermore, in these encounters, the topics discussed were sometimes of secondary concern. The interest in a common conversation was decisive. Contact trumps content? That forces leftists to expand their established terrain: the force of argument, the sober reference to facts. It’s challenging to build personal contact with strangers in a short period of time – sustained by empathy, if possible – while at the same time not losing sight of the political goal, and trusting in the fact that people will engage with one if they are met with sincere interest.
Offering Interpretations and Shifting Discourses
A 50-year-old gardener from Bremen-Gröpelingen, who works as a foreman in a correctional facility, initially encounters us with reservation. He is convinced that DIE LINKE will “never be in a position” to change anything anyway. Besides, “you leftists take on too many refugees, we can’t pay for that!” Spoken to concerning his work situation, he answers that he can’t complain, his wage is sufficient, we’re talking to the wrong person. But then he lets the following slip: “The temp workers earn much less than I do, barely the minimum wage. But they do the same work. They should get equal pay, they deserve it.” We agree with him, and ask questions about pay gaps and the relation between him, as a foreman, and “the team” for which he’s responsible. From this moment on, the situation becomes more relaxed. He answers “yes” to our question of whether there are people on his team that haven’t been living in Germany for very long, as well as to our follow-up question of whether he gets along well with them. Now we have a common denominator: the notion that all who do the same work should get equal pay – regardless of their background or passport. At least during the conversation, “this refugee thing” takes another twist and decreases in significance.
The point is not remaining silent about racism, but rather to decode it in a manner close to everyday life, and to offer other interpretations. The sociologist Didier Eribon delineates this sometimes arduous work: the French working class had already been racist and homophobic in the past. But the Communist Party succeeded in making it a political offer that placed class identity at the center of concern. It channeled the anger of the exploited into a common struggle for better working conditions, and did not provide the space for right-wing slogans, even if workers’ parties are not free of racism and sexism.
“My little daughter only has Turkish friends. Parents in the daycare center distance themselves when they hear that I’m a Muslim”, complains a Turkish woman (without a hijab) from Essen-Frohnhausen. At the same time, she demands a tougher course against “welfare benefit freeloaders”.
It’s actually banal: there are no homogeneous groups, neither among ethnic Germans nor among immigrants. People affected by racism can themselves be racist, exhibit chauvinism of affluence or be hostile toward the disabled. Disabled people can be misogynistic. Women can be blind to class. That makes the question cutting across all this so important: along which interests can commonalities be discovered and articulated, without denying individual differences? Because money problems, fears about the future or of social descent, performance pressure, planning uncertainty, and sexist comments affect people with or without a German passport. But the knowledge or the experience of belonging to the working class is repressed in the interpellation as a German or Turk.
Before us stands a retired couple from Dresden-Prohlis with classic “East German biographies”. Both were working in the GDR, the fall of the Berlin Wall came in the middle of their lives. After the “Wende”, she went through various jobs and employment schemes, interrupted by phases of unemployment. He suffered an on-the-job injury. Now their pensions aren’t enough, they have to work for supplementary income. Recently, their rent was increased. They initially reacted to us with hostility: “one gets called a Nazi for marching with PEGIDA . We aren’t Nazis. But all the refugees, they get everything, whereas people like us…” – a very familiar argument. “Well, to my knowledge most refugees here live at the poverty line”, is our point. There is still no connection. How can one recognize the frustration, but frame what’s said in a different way and give the discontent a different thrust? “We hear that a lot, that rents increase faster than pensions. Assuming you’re right and one wouldn’t give refugees anything anymore, would the problems you mention go away?“ The question brings a moment of reflection into the conversation.
As a variation of this question, we ask on other doorsteps: “When you think back to the time before lots of refugees came. Were things better for you?” Or, “who profits from it, when we allow ourselves to be played against each other?” Even though such questions don’t overturn worldviews, they often create a rupture in apparently seamless convictions.
The experience of deprivation is real; it’s just the explanation that’s false. Immigration has, according to the British-Indian journalist Kenan Malik, “come to be the means” through which many people perceive social problems. “The trouble is, so long as we continue to scapegoat migrants for such problems, we will continue to ignore the underlying reasons for […] many people’s sense of being politically abandoned and marginalized.” (Malik 2017) Clearly and comprehensibly naming the causes, without disputing the experience of our counterparts – that’s the challenge. But reactions on the doorsteps demonstrate: changing the definition of the problem, and thus shifting the discourse around the “refugee crisis”, is possible at least in small steps. Conversely, people with small pocketbooks also spoke out directly for more support for refugees. Openness or reservations towards non-Germans are thus not questions of income.
Building Relationships in the Face of Division and Powerlessness
The experience of not having control over one’s own life, of having no power to shape things, was shared by many of our conversation partners. There are different ways of dealing with this: “I won’t take part anymore” (withdrawal, electoral abstention) or “I’m voting AfD” are two of them. Making tangible the capacity to act in concert with others is therefore a strategic starting point for organizing from within everyday life. This “struggle for sovereignty” (Pieschke 2016) could be a common denominator independent of background or nationality.
Suffering and affliction alone offer no way out of isolation and passivity. Especially since the intuition isn’t wrong: every attempt at standing up and resisting contains the risk of failure.
Due to his foreign surname, a 36-year-old unemployed man from Kassel has never worked in a regular employment situation, only as a temp worker. His repeated experience that “you can’t do anything anyway, that won’t change” has solidified into a personal conviction that can’t be shaken up in conversation. Examples of successful struggles that demonstrate the opposite hardly convince him.
How can one convey to people with feelings of powerlessness that nothing has to remain as it is, that people can achieve something together, while the promise that “everyone can do it, that’s why everyone is exactly where they belong” roars from every loudspeaker? Patience and sensitivity are necessary for fomenting new relationships and pointing out perspectives within fragmented everyday life. Entering into conversation with others at all can be a first step, especially since if one looks closely, one finds stubborn forms in which poor people in precarious life circumstances provide mutual support, indeed organize informally.
That raises urgent questions: how can the left absorb the loss of spaces of solidarity and zones of security outside of the nuclear family? How can the need for community, security – indeed, for home – be taken up and fulfilled in an emancipatory way? Can the left develop more of a sense for pathos and emotion? Must it? And how are things with regard to places of encounter that transcend class and social milieu? Given the self-perceptions of distinction shared by the middle class, forging the often-invoked alliance of the middle and lower classes is not easy. The heterogeneous class situations within the precariat yield experiences of oppression that are widely divergent. Already-existing divisions are further exacerbated by the political elite.
Political Efficacy from the Left
The strategy of “first speaking to the various dissident milieus that – on their own! – articulate themselves in a politically leftist way” (Seibert 2016) runs the risk that children of the bourgeoisie remain among themselves. Social engagement is dependent upon education, income, and living environment – a question of class. Academics, as studies demonstrate, are overrepresented in all political organizations. Not coincidentally, one finds among those engaged in refugee aid – alongside women and people with an immigrant biography – disproportionately many highly qualified and financially secure people. Political consciousness is also a question of socialization. In any case, very few people simply articulate themselves in a leftist way “on their own”, especially not when the social mood threatens to tip to the right. And if social conflicts are supposed to touch upon property relations one fine day: how should that be possible without the majority of those who possess nothing other than their labor power? It not only concerns the poor white male, but also involves the female, immigrant and educated proletariat. It’s a question of political efficacy for impulses from the left capable of effecting Change.
If the left wants to be more than a cliquish lot, it has to win people that don’t participate on their own initiative – but who can be reached. The fact that precisely those whose interests must be of importance to the left are increasingly withdrawing from politics and society has a lot to do with precarious life. Within DIE LINKE, a discussion has been going on for some time about how the party can root itself in low-income neighborhoods and accompany and strengthen their residents around conflicts relevant to everyday life. Outreach conversations are a central component of that. That has nothing to do with social romanticism or a mystified view of the supposedly vanished working class, but rather with the certainty that an emancipatory project isn’t one when proletarians aren’t part of it.
“The Asys [asylum seekers] have to get out, they should disappear!” is the first thing to occur to a young single mother in response to the question as to what’s of burning importance to her. She lives with an infant and a young child in a two-room apartment in a run-down prefab high-rise estate in Bernau-Süd, near Berlin. While she stirs hair dye in a plastic bowl at the doorstep, we inquire about the things that make her life hard: harassment at the unemployment office, a lack of child care, an apartment that’s too small. We encourage her in the conviction that these are real problems – while pointing out that all this existed before the increase in the number of refugees. In response to the later question of whether she’ll vote in the national elections, she becomes monosyllabic. We venture to ask directly whether she’s ever considered voting for the AfD. Like a pistol shot, she answers, “well, nah. I already know that won’t do anything!” We agree. We put her anger at the “asys”, which she does not further explicate, on the back burner – for the moment – and invite her to come take a look at a meeting in the neighborhood. She gives us her telephone number. A thin band that could become a link.
In many low-income areas, DIE LINKE achieves above-average voting results – side-by-side with sympathy for right-wing slogans. But most residents don’t vote at all . Furthermore, as is known, left positions have little chance in the media crossfire. Personal contact, however, lies in the left’s own Hands.
Talking to people is necessary, but not sufficient. It can’t replace organization. A “short-term flirt” isn’t enough, “long and laborious relationship work is required for a stable base to emerge.” (Pieschke 2016) With the door-to-door conversations, the real work has just begun. Now we have to not only identify potential “neighborhood leaders” (Hoeft et al. 2014), but target them for training, so that they can agree upon collective forms of leadership in which everyone can find their manner of participating.
And therein lies the crux. In many places, DIE LINKE has to struggle with structural problems: exhausted volunteers, few activists in rural and small town areas, crippling “committee socialism”, a concentration of resources for parliamentary work. DIE LINKE is confronted with the challenge of sustainably integrating the newly addressed, of how to divert resources for this, and of how the party must change in order to become attractive to more people than the usual suspects.
“And not least, there needs to be a cultural transformation within the party, until the insight that parliamentary motions and talk shows are just one part of politics is recognized, and that democracy presupposes a dialogue with the people whose interests one wishes to represent. But you have to start sometime. Furthermore, DIE LINKE can build upon valuable experience in this area from its history as a party that knows what it means to take care.” (Schlemermeyer 2017, p. 17)
Translated by Alexander Locascio
Hoeft, Christoph et al., 2014: Wer organisiert die »Entbehrlichen«? Viertelgestalterinnen und Viertelgestalter in benachteiligten Stadtquartieren, Bielefeld
Kahrs, Horst, 2016: Wer wählt die AfD – und warum?, oxiblog.de/wer-waehlt-die-afd/ 
Malik, Kenan, 2017: In Defense of Freedom of Movement, kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2016/10/24/in-defence-of-freedom-of-movement/ 
Pieschke, Miriam, 2016: Vom kurzen Flirt zur langfristigen Beziehung, LuXemburg 2/2016, pp.108–113
Seibert, Thomas, 2016: Rot-Rot-Grün: Die Arbeiterklasse wirdʼs nicht tun, Neues Deutschland, 7.12.2016
Schlemermeyer, Jan, 2017: Knockinʼ on Doors in New York, DISPUT No. 1/2017
Schrupp, Antje, 2011: Wie man radikal ist, antje-schrupp.com/2011/03/09/wie-man-radikal-ist 
  Translator’s Note: “Asys” is a derogatory term for refugees in Germany, derived from the word “Asyl” (asylum). There is no equivalent generally used term in English.
  Here I’d like to thank Barbara Fried, Katja Kipping, and Miriam Pieschke.
  Translator’s Note: AfD, Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany): far-right political party focused upon anti-immigration sentiment and providing a broad electoral regroupment of the far-right.
  Translator’s note: acronym that stands (in German) for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamification of the Occident”, a series of anti-immigrant demonstrations occurring in Germany since the autumn of 2014.
  Contrary to sweeping assumptions, the “underclass” doesn’t vote with above average frequency for right-wing parties. It’s also not primarily the poor and disenfranchised who vote for the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), but rather “far above the average men, first of all, and second of all voters with an intermediate-level school certificate, that is to say, the tenth grade and Abitur [translator’s note: the Abitur is a secondary school qualification preparatory to a university education]. Those with a Hauptschulabschluss [translator’s note: the lowest-level secondary school diploma] vote at a slightly below-average level for the AfD, and those with (half-)academic professional qualifications vote at a level far below average for the party. […] Members of the underclass without a perspective for escaping their own class situation – primarily the new service sector proletariat – don’t vote at all, as has already been the case for twenty years.” (Kahrs 2016)