Disruptive Territory East Germany: East German Normality Between Deviance and Avant-Garde

Starting to destroy the state economy of the GDR in 1989 and making room for capitalist nation (re)building, transformation managers created perfect examples of ideologies such as “creative destruction.” In their contribution to the text series “Black Box East,” political scientist Stefan Kausch and discourse analyst Jürgen Link show: by constructing “the East” as an ambivalent normality class, the interests of capital can be served quasi at will.


East Germany: A shimmering series of images and space of association between „Dunkeldeutschland“ („dark Germany“) and „Mezzogiorno“ on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the oft-cited „blooming landscapes“ („Blühende Landschaften“). While East Germans are described „as Avantgarde“, East Germany even appears to be a „Laboratory East Germany“ and therefore a new (escape) route towards a better future in the new, „post-modern“ capitalism 4.0. Or isn’t it?

In the following we would like to tell a short history, or rather highlight discursive events regarding East Germany. The knowledge that becomes apparent in these debates cannot be seen as neutral. Rather, this knowledge offers us images and collective symbols and, not least, invokes certain courses of action and solutions we can follow in order to agree with a certain truth about East Germany.

We will attempt to critically analyse the abovementioned images and collective symbols, and to inquire into their anticipated effects. For most attempts at producing truth have inscribed into them an option that suggests political, social or economic courses of action we could follow in order to step out of the dilemmas of problematising East Germany. This is where we come in with our questions: How do these options for actors and subjectivities include regulative and disciplinary instructions for behaviour? Which (political) consequences and challenges do they imply for the persistence of individuals as well as in everyday life (grounded in terms of political economy)? Our emphasis is on debates around and implications for labour market policy debates.

Secondly, we are interested in governing by normality. On which basis have political programmes been implemented and justified in East Germany, historically and currently (see the example of Tesla in Grünheide)? In brief: Which rationales (rationalities) and political ideas about normality/normalcy has (disruptive) politics in East Germany been built on? How is this disruptive politics being pursued up to the present day, and with which consequences for the country and its people?

Finally, we will sketch out discourse tactical and strategical options regarding non-normal or less regulatory-normalist coming communitisation and consider whether a „beyond“ or a different form of normality is to be spelled out.

East Germany“: A brief discourse history of a (non)normal area

„East Germany“ oscillates. In media discourse as well as in political and economic debates, East Germany swings between the „Dark side of the Moon“ – that is, its medial production as „Dark Germany“ („Dunkeldeutschland“), „Second-class Germans“, „Germany’s Mezzogiorno“ – and the often reiterated lighthouse metaphors of „blooming landscapes“, „East Germans as Avant-garde“, „Laboratory East Germany“ – that is, a new (escape) route towards a better future in the new, „postmodern“ capitalism 4.0.

East Germany rises and falls, or to put it more precisely, it is raised (to the avantgardist heavens, e.g. in Wolfang Engler’s „Die Ostdeutschen als Avantgarde“). And it is actively brought down again: into the cellar of our society, banished there with the abovementioned concepts and discursive enclosures such as „Dark Germany“, „Second-class Germans“, „Germany’s Mezzogiorno“ etc., and kept down like a naughty child.

This means that to study East Germany and to mark out analytical pathways through this discursive throng is like nailing jelly to the wall.

We try anyway: Since 1989 at the latest, and increasingly since the early 1990s, East Germany has been a subject of media, political statements and programmes, in economic papers and through many experts. That is, there has been talk of East Germany since the peaceful revolution and the „Settlements“ („Landnahme“) Christoph Hein. in terms of political economy, society, identity politics and space in the years 1989/1990f. that have been termed „Wende“ and „reunification“ („Wiedervereinigung“).

An image of East Germany is produced: A discourse about East Germany is constructed. This discourse, in its negative form, was anything but pleasant: The talk of „the East Germans“ as slum kids („Kellerkinder“ („Cellar children“)) of the newly constituted Federal Republic of Germany in the years following 1990 quickly – and persistently to this day – made them feel like „Second-class Germans“.

Even where media didn’t shout the deficits of the (normalistic) „curve landscape“ from the rooftops, their metaphors and linguistic images spoke volumes: Besides the already mentioned „mezzogiorno“ and „dark Germany“, there was also the „wall in the heads“ („Mauer in den Köpfen“) as well as an area „on the brink“ („auf der Kippe“, as Wolfgang Thierse put it). Germany as a whole was described as a „two-speed country“ („Land der zwei Geschwindigkeiten“).

We will cursorily follow the discourses and programmes relating to social and labour-market policy – and connected to political economy – , as these play a decisive role in governing East German normality to this day. In their article „Pioneers of precarity – East Germans as Avantgarde of the new labour market regime“ („Pioniere der Prekarität – Ostdeutsche als Avantgarde des neuen Arbeitsmarktregimes“ ), Buck and Hönke concisely sum up the hegemonic strain of discourse about East Germany regarding its labour market, the subjects acting within it and its programmatical restructuring. Leading up to the near-total flexibilisation of the labour market in the whole of Germany with the „Hartz IV“ and other reforms of the „Agenda 2010“ in the years following 2003, East Germany in particular was gazed upon and exhibited as a laboratory for unconventional labour market reforms. East Germans, „Ossis“, were gazed upon and exhibited as avantgarde of new ways of existing and of labour entrepreneurship. Here is an example of the abovementioned strand of discourse, the putting on a pedestal, the raising to the heavens, of progressive, even extremely flexible-normalistic subjectivation.

On the other hand, there was the recurring figure of the „Jammer-Ossi“, the „whining East German“, who remained resistant to the life after „Wende“ and peaceful revolution because of or in spite of the transformation of GDR normality to a (new?) German normality. Who didn’t want to participate in this normality of flexible labour entrepreneurship and low-wage sector, but who preferred to live on the dole, alias Hartz IV, alias ALG 2, and not be governed.

If we look at the collective symbols, a most complex picture is being painted and called upon in media discourse and interdiscourse (that is, the discourse in which all discourses from media, politics, economy etc. come together). Of course, the collective symbols themselves merit critical questioning regarding their effects and productive power. They imply right and wrong behaviours, and they produce problematic normal distributions or a normality that leaves little to no space for deviance and non-normal, or differently normal, subjectivity/subject existence.

An article in a Swiss medium puts it in a nutshell: „Weaker economy, less satisfied people, worse quality of life – what’s the real story? We serve the numbers.“ For normality is produced through statistics and data about spaces, populations and other collectivities. The article is teeming with statistics and graphics that support the thesis. This generates knowledge and produces normality by statistical graphics and measuring, for example, GDP, population growth or shrinkage, labour market indicators etc. At the same time, a return to this normality is demanded where there is deviation.

But statistics can be patient. What is the use of concerning ourselves with images that are roving around in society? What harm can all these collective symbols do, what can they mean? Not least: what do we and other agents of power and knowledge regimes make of all these statistics, normal distributions and columns of numbers? We interpret them as fields and spaces of opportunity that enable certain interventions in society and even challenge them. The produced truth(s) about East Germany are followed by government programmes and governmental practices. We will now briefly address  them.

Governing Normality and Deviance

Wherever the production of truth is attempted and successfully operationalised, we will find options inscribed that suggest political, social or economic courses of action or even offer them up as the „only alternative“. For East Germany, so far, this has meant the restructuring of labour markets and wage sectors „to the bottom line“, that is, without social security and of course without minimum wage standards. This practice was demanded and implemented for years, with tangible consequences for the people in the „real laboratory“ East Germany, including poverty in spite of work etc. Post-transformation capitalism put its children in its mouth with relish, sucked out their labour power and spat them out again as poor precarious workers with low spending power.

Naturally, the conditions in the year 2021 are different than they were in, say, the late 1990s or even the 2000s („noughties“), when the industrial reserve army was large and unionisation was more than low, not to mention the existence of industrial cores.

Nevertheless it is interesting that the problematisations of East Germany have not been completely disentangled from the normalistic idea of a second normality class. Quite the contrary, as the example of Tesla shows.

In order to understand this argument, we will briefly explain the theory of normality classes using the example of East Germany. In 1993, Lothar Späth (a German politician of the CDU who became a manager in East German industry after his tenure as Minister President of Baden-Württemberg) put it in football terms: „We have been relegated to the Second League. That is the result of German unification. We must now develop a new team spirit. Instead, eight ‘Wessis’ („Westerners“) are sitting in one corner and three ‘Ossis’ („Easterners“) in the other. The ‘Wessis’ are pointing their fingers at the ‘Ossis’: They’re the reason we were relegated – and that continues until we end up in the amateur division.“

East Germany, then, occupies a different normality (class) than West Germany. Beyond this, the world can be separated into five normality classes. It is also clear that different standards of „normality“ apply across ther world. The media tend to use images from the world of sports to describe this: Countries are not „in the same league“ and Italy is in danger of „being relegated to the Second League“. There are different normaltiy classes, five in total, since the Third World was divided into three classes: „Newly industrialized countries“, „Developing countries“, and „Least developed countries“. The Federal Republic of Germany, of course, has been playing in the „Premier League“ since Erhard (Ludwig Erhard, a German politician affiliated with the CDU and credited with the „Wirtschaftswunder“, Germany’s economic recovery after World War 2).

How are the leages and normality classes identified? By statistical metrics, particularly the famous GDP (Gross Domestic Product), but more generally by a statistical „curve landscape“ made up of many single statistical curves.

When the Eastern Bloc, which had been named „Second World“ for political reasons, collapsed, there was a normalistic problem: The Eastern countries had to be separated into the five normality classes. This was done based on GDP and other statistical metrics. It became clear that no country of this former Eastern Bloc was to be situated in the first class, but most of them in the second and third classes („threshold nations“ or „newly industrialized countries“), while some of them, such as Bulgaria and Ukraine, might even be classified as developing countries (fourth class). What, then, of the GDR and the area that succeeded it, „East Germany“?

Nationally and politically, it was to become part of the first class, but its statistical metrics didn’t fit the bill (after the GDR’s industry had been brutally liquidated). All curves showed a clear disparity between East and West: GDP per capita (in 2013, there remained a disparity of almost 12 percent), average income (a difference of about 900 Euro), unemployment etc. In 2015, the ifo Institute predicted this disparity to be stable for the next 25 years (that is, until 2040!). The more or less blooming landscapes and the solidarity surcharge had not succeeded in raising post-GDR society to first class – it was and would remain firmly in the second normality class. And today? Now we turn to our example Tesla.

Welcome to the future of the present: The contemporary ghost of capital

When Elon Musk announced, in 2019, that Tesla would build a „Megafactory“ in Germany, on the site of the municipality of Grünheide in Brandenburg and therefore within sight of Berlin, politicians rejoiced. One example of this joy comes from Brandenburg’s Minister President Woidke (SPD), who said: „… that we are hungry for success and that we are hungry for industry…“. He went on to say that „… this speed at which Tesla operates, this will to succeed here, meets the still present hunger to bring industry back to our country.“

Hunger – what associations does this conjure up? Who is normally hungry in the world? Is Woidke speaking as the desperate head of government of an industrially developing country? Is the desparation of the second normality class speaking through the political declarations of a Minister Prsesident? Of course, it is difficult to speculate about what Woidke actually means and what could be behind it. This is not relevant for our train of thought, but it is striking that it is possible to expand, speed up and finally circumvent rules in an East-German state such as Brandenburg, as was the case with the approval procedures for the Tesla factory. 

Tesla, like other new capitalist players (see for example Amazon, Google, RB Leipzig with the Red Bull company as its main structure), does not want to follow the normal way of capitalist production and the rules of approval, workers’ rights etc. It is about disruption, or a disruptive politics or company governance. Disruption means an interruption or destruction of old business models or economic or political practices. If Tesla is currently the most powerful agglomeration and power-political expression of this „disruptive innovation“, it will be interesting to see how this disruption agrees with the second normality class in Brandenburg on the one hand, and how both these strands will agree with the desire for a new, more caring normality. Or to put it pointedly: Who will destroy whom – or maybe: who will absorb whom into which normality?

To close: Departing from this cursory analysis, how is it possible to not only imagine, but also operationalise, a post-normalistic future? Or perhaps rather a future of expanding flexible normalism? If we take Tesla as an example, we will see whether the unions will succeed in resisting the disruptive demand for „zero codetermination“. What can we do in this context? We can perhaps support this coming new(er) normality of solidarity and ecological business through our own political and social practices. Not more, but we should not aim for less.

Note from the editors: This contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series was translated by Elena Futter-Buck. The article’s references are here. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de

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