Reform - The Left has Lost its Favorite Term
By Susanne Gaschke
[This analysis originally broadcast on: DeutschlandRadio Berlin December 20, 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.dradio.de/dir/sendungen/feuilleton/216625/. Susanne Gaschke is a reporter and editorial writer with the Hamburg Die Zeit. Previously she wrote for the Frankfurter Allgemein Zeitung.]
Dreadful things have happened in the last years with the term "reform". Originally reform meant something like "planned change and improvement of living conditions. Reforms were favorite goals and long-term hobbies of the left in Germany, Differences over improvements appeared in the seventies. That everything should change may have unnerved many people at that time. Perhaps our schools are so poor today because they were exposed to a rather blind and uncontrolled permanent reform for thirty years. The basic impulse of the reforms was philanthropic.
This has completely changed. Sometime in the 1980s, the term fell into the hands of the neoliberals. Perhaps the left was tired or worn out and did not adjust. Since then, "reform" has meant something new: social cuts, profit-oriented privatization of the public infrastructure, limitation of employee rights, lower wages and shorter vacations, more weekly working hours, poorer health insurance, shops open around the clock with corresponding shifts of salespersons and educational drills for four-year olds on world labor market commodification to name only several examples. This complete program in the interest of capital shows that people have not yet understood living beyond right and left.
The zealots who liberate the so-called "reforms" into more so-called "personal responsibility" are not very enthusiastic. Perhaps they have felt for a long time how their life changed, how their job suddenly depended on a distant and inexplicable business decision in America. Nothing counted any more other than the vocation they practiced all their life. When their neighborhood crumbled and their saloon community broke down, no train stopped in their village any longer. The people have a way of knowing what's going on. They adjust and are as flexible as they must be. They don't rejoice. Because they don't rejoice, the current owners of the reform term complain about the country's "incapacity for reform", the reform deadlock and stagnation.
The left should have noticed and discovered that it lost its favorite term. The left could have said: Wait a moment, doesn't reform involve politics beyond right and left? Aren't there still different interests in our country for mediating good policy? Aren't we responsible for the survival of the weaker, for those who cannot help themselves or don't realize they need help?
What improvement of living conditions can we actually promise these people today? The worn-out word "reform" doesn't help us advance. Perhaps promises must appear different today. Perhaps "protection" would be the right goal - protection of the social environment under hardly controllable conditions of globalization and capitalism without alternative.
As a friend and student of politics recently said, why can't a person be born in Plon, go to school in Plon, be trained in Plon, fall in love, find work, marry, have children, build a house and die some time or other? Isn't there a human right to an undisturbed life in Plon?
Recently I learned from a local editor of the daily paper that necessary things change very unspectacularly. The church in one of the little surrounding communities now begins later since no one comes to church at ten on Sundays. Several businesses in a nearby spa town may open on Wednesday afternoon if it is rewarding. There is a new breakfast service for people on the run. A solar collector installed on the roof warms the dishwater ecologically. All the great themes of social upheaval are presented here on a small scale - from the informal church bond to the crisis of personal cooking.
Progress does not need to be proclaimed. The life of people and society changes of itself. Today there isn't an hysterical "more and more" in pseudo-reforms. What is central is protection. Cities must change into a human speed without bitter losses on the way.