Pandemic insignificance: how Germany’s left failed to defend life against capital during the COVID pandemic

By JONNA KLICK. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

A “Querdenken” protest in Berlin holding the symbol of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and flying the flag of the German Empire (1871-1918). Right-wing populists often fly the German Empire flag because they refuse to recognise the authority of the existing German Federal Republic.

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic reached middle Europe it finally happened: I caught the virus. I was sick for two weeks, which I spent mostly in bed, despite three vaccine shots. Getting infected is not surprising right now, since Germany is in the highest wave of COVID-infections since the beginning of the pandemic right now (with more than 1700 infections per 100,000 people per week at the end of March, though it has decreased since then). At the same time, a lot of anti-COVID measures are being lifted, including mandatory masks in shops. I am recovered now, but not all are that lucky. Even though the vaccination gives relatively good protection, people can still suffer from long COVID and especially for vulnerable groups (e.g., with previous illnesses) there is still a significant risk of a severe course of the disease or death.

This situation is a result of the loud voices of COVID-denialists and individualists, but most of all of the fundamental function of the capitalist state that systematically prioritizes capital’s interests over the health of workers and marginalized groups. In this piece I will look at responses to the pandemic from the left in Germany and try to analyse how it failed to counterpose those forces effectively. Germany may serve as an example here for the situation in many other European countries, but I will focus on Germany since I know more about the situation here and also since it was often called a good example for handling the pandemic during the first COVID wave in 2020.

Germany’s reaction to COVID

When the pandemic started in China or even when the virus infected masses in Italy and also started spreading in Germany, very few people on the German left predicted that it was something that would affect “us” to a huge extent. Only when there was the official recommendation to cancel events with over 1000 participants in the beginning of March 2020, people started to take it seriously. Things went fast then and two weeks later there was a lockdown with most shops closed and one was only allowed to meet one other person outside of one’s own household in public.

This was of course a new situation since this kind of regulation of people’s private lives has not been seen before, at least not in recent decades. However, to most people it soon became clear that COVID was a serious threat that should be acted upon – at least when there were pictures in the news that showed military trucks in Italy transporting dead bodies since the crematoriums were overloaded. So most statements from the left in this first wave tried to find a balance between, on one hand, criticizing authoritarian state measures such as those against people meeting in public, and on the other hand, agreeing on the necessity to fight the virus and calling for health safety measures (sometimes tending to emphasise one or the other position). The anti-authoritarian communist alliance “Ums Ganze” wrote:

The irrationality of capitalism becomes all the more apparent in the crisis: when meetings of more than two people are banned except at work, capitalism shows that it will go over dead bodies for its survival. The biggest corona parties do not take place illegally in playgrounds or parks, but are state-sponsored: every day in open-plan offices, Amazon fulfilment centres and the country’s factories, as well as, not to be forgotten, in the refugee housing facilities where the state cramps the unwanted people together.

Broader interventions in the discourse from the left focussed on calling for health and safety for all. For example, there was a campaign by the anti-racist alliance Seebrücke for the evacuation of the Moria refugee camp in Greece. Since normal demonstrations were not possible, protest took creative and decentralized forms, such as putting shoes on public squares to represent protesters, or holding signs while queuing in front of shops. In the first days of the lockdown, spontaneous networks of mutual aid were also formed; not only by leftist activists, but in many cities they played key roles in them. Those networks organized via messenger groups where people offered to do grocery shopping for people who were either in quarantine or who were elderly of other members of vulnerable groups and did not want to risk an infection while shopping. There was a huge willingness from many people to offer those acts of mutual aid that outnumbered those that needed or wanted it by far.

However, there were also some demonstrations that downplayed or denied the threat of the pandemic. They came mostly from esoteric and conspiracy-theorist milieus and the far right, but also some people from the cultural sectors and leftists participated in them. This combination was quite similar to that of the red-brown “peace protests” that spread over Germany during the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, where those forces had taken a conspiracy-theorist and pro-Putin position.

Neither the party Die Linke (“The Left”) nor the trade unions offered their own answer to the pandemic, but mostly accepted the stance of the government, a coalition of Social Democrats and the conservative CDU/CSU. However, some members of Die Linke, including MPs, sympathized with or participated in the denialist protests.

Quickly, neoliberal voices, e.g., from the liberal party FDP, also called for loosening the restrictions for economic reasons, which many on the left criticized as an attempt to sacrifice the health of workers and marginalized groups for the interests of capital.

However, when the number of cases went down and restrictions were loosened in May, there was no resistance against the loosening, even though some – including on the left – warned that this might be too early. Many people were also happy that there was a partial “return to normal”, and many leftists were happy to be able to do demonstrations and events again, even though many leftists acted more carefully than others. The pandemic was not really an issue that the left or progressive social movements acted upon during the summer of 2020. It was, however, for those reactionary forces that kept on protesting against the restrictions that were still in place, mainly mandatory masks. That movement began to organize mainly under the label of “Querdenken” (“lateral thinking”). There were some counterdemonstrations by Antifa groups, but they were mostly outnumbered by the Querdenken-protesters.

Flattening the curve

By loosening the restrictions as soon as the number of cases went down, the German government like most governments chose a “flatten the curve” strategy. This means that measures are implemented to keep infections low enough to prevent the collapse of the health system, but as long as the health system is not under threat of collapse, infections and deaths are tolerated. This shows that a simple demand for a better health system with more capacity – as good and supportable as it is – is not a sufficient leftist answer to the pandemic. In the context of a “flatten the curve” strategy, more capacity in the health system would actually mean more cases and more deaths since they do not threaten the health system’s collapse. An alternative to the “flatten the curve” strategy is to prevent outbreaks at all, a zero-COVID strategy as implemented by New Zealand but also China in the early waves. A few eco-socialists already called for this during the first wave in Germany and Austria. The third kind of strategy is that of uncontrolled infection, called for by many forces on the far right. This led to mass deaths in countries where the far right is in power, such as Brazil. It was however also adopted by non-far-right governments, like Sweden.

In the context of decisions by governments of capitalist states (China included of course), all three strategies are different attempts to find a balance between two interests: On the one hand, making sure that the population does not get sick or die en masse (because that could bring into question the government’s legitimacy, but also because it needs a relatively healthy population as a workforce); on the other hand, making sure that capitalist production and circulation do not get interrupted for too long, since economic growth is the base of the power of every capitalist state. Capitalist states need economic growth to provide their population with jobs and to earn tax money in order to finance whatever the state wants to do. Which strategy a government chooses, and which is the best way to balance those two interests, may change depending on context, and governments are also capable of making decisions that are bad even from their point of view – especially if there are two potentially conflicting interests. A radical left or Marxist point of view, in my opinion, should prioritize the health of workers and marginalized groups, and work towards an end of the capitalist growth imperative that endangers peoples’ health as well as the environment.

But let’s go back to the course of the pandemic in Germany. In autumn and winter, cases were rising again and got a lot higher than in the first wave. However, the federal government as well as the state governments (who made most decisions concerning the pandemic together) hesitated to decide on another lockdown. In November 2020, they introduced a “lockdown-light” which meant restrictions on the number of people that were allowed to meet, bars and restaurants were closed, but other workplaces as well as shops and schools stayed open. Several voices on the left criticized this imbalance between harsh measures for activities in people’s leisure time and few to no restrictions on most workplaces. That changed only slightly, when a harsher lockdown with shop and school closures was introduced in December as cases kept rising. The virus seems to stop spreading when people do things that raise the GDP, was a common joke in those days. Die Linke mainly criticized that the government instead of the parliament held power over most decisions concerning lockdowns, but besides that it again did not promote a distinct position.

It was scientists across Europe who acted more politically than most politically active leftists in this situation by publishing the call “Contain Covid” on 19 December, arguing for a zero-COVID-strategy. Finally, some leftists from Germany but also other countries in Europe spoke out in favour of that strategy and formed the campaign “Zero Covid”. They called for a just shutdown accompanied by a redistribution of wealth, and stressed the importance of also shutting down workplaces and lifting patents on the vaccines that slowly started to be available. However, no bigger organization supported “Zero Covid”, it consisted mainly of individual leftist intellectuals and activists from undogmatic, libertarian communist, eco-socialist and Trotskyist traditions. Many other leftists from different factions ranging from Die Linke to anarchists criticized “Zero Covid” for demanding “authoritarian” state measures. The question of how to implement a “Zero Covid” strategy was also debated within the campaign. The campaign did manage to make their voice heard and was debated in newspapers, despite not being a movement with a presence on the streets. It is hard to say if it achieved anything besides that. At least, there was now a distinct leftist position regarding the pandemic, while previously the discussion was only between the line of the government and calls for loosening restrictions from the right. Maybe “Zero Covid” thus managed to prevent a quicker loosening in spring 2021, but the implementation of a proper Zero Covid strategy never seemed even close to being carried out.

“Free Left”, conservative left

Warmer temperatures as well as vaccinations brought cases down in summer 2021. Vaccination now started to be the main issue concerning the pandemic. Querdenken, which had been full of anti-vaxxers from the beginning, now made this their main concern, while leftists – no matter how their position had otherwise been on measures against the pandemic – mainly called for lifting the patents and making the vaccines accessible globally. However, there were no mass protests for that demand, even though Germany is until today one of the main forces globally to uphold the “necessity” of patents for the COVID vaccines. There were also some vaccine-sceptical voices on the left, the most prominent being the politician Sahra Wagenknecht from Die Linke. Wagenknecht is a picture book example of conservative leftism (she even claims that term for herself) and takes over every reactionary talking point that becomes popular. Some leftists even formed an outright red-brown organization, the “Freie Linke” (“free left”) and participated in Querdenken-protests. They seem to come from different factions of the left, including autonomists and anarchists, but mainly from the conservative leftist crowd of Sahra Wagenknecht-supporters. A critical investigative research by the anarchist podcasters “Übertage” who participated in their meetings revealed a wild melange of Marxist jargon and far-right conspiracy theories in the talking points of “Freie Linke”. It also showed that “Freie Linke” is well connected to the leadership of Querdenken.

After the federal elections in October 2021, a new government was formed consisting of Social Democrats, Greens and the liberal FDP. The latter had been the party most critical of anti-COVID measures (with the exception of the far right AfD who took more extreme talking points and tried to be the parliamentary arm of Querdenken).

During winter 2021/22 with a high number of COVID cases, there were thus only very few restrictions, most of which only concerned unvaccinated people. Fortunately, the vaccines prevented a lot of severe cases and the number of COVID patients in intensive care units was no higher than in the previous winter. Since the collapse of the health system was thus prevented, the strategies of “flatten the curve” and unrestricted contamination are now becoming the same, and the government is tolerating high numbers of infections and most restrictions are lifted. With the exception of some hashtag-campaigns, there is no resistance against this development and critical voices, e.g., from “Zero Covid” seem to be rather insignificant in public discourse. The war in Ukraine is now also overshadowing almost any other issue. Some of the COVID-denialists, including “Freie Linke” are now also shifting to this issue, and adopting reactionary Putin-apologist positions. At the same time, most on the left are struggling to take a clear stance in solidarity with Ukrainian resistance against Russian invasion. One could see a parallel here between the relative insignificance of the left in the face of the pandemic as well as in the face of Russian imperialism – but here is not the place to elaborate on that, and I will focus on the pandemic.

Where was the left response?

So what are the reasons why the left did not manage to take a clear stance for defending the health of workers and marginalized groups against the interests of capital and the capitalist state?

On the one hand, there seems to be a general problem that “we” as leftist groups, organizations or movements are not very good at reacting to new situations, to crises that we may not have foreseen and where we would have to develop a new analysis and act upon it. If the left reacts at all it is often by saying things it has said before and thinks are somehow fitting for the current crisis, e.g., “more money for the healthcare system” when the pandemic hits or “against all wars” when Russia invades Ukraine. And those slogans are often right, but they still fail to really answer the questions that new complex situations pose. It is still an open question to me how we can develop ways to organize, analyse and react in situations that we did not prepare for before. But it is crucial that we pose ourselves this question and look for answers since if we are not able to act in historical turning points, we will not have a meaningful impact on the course of history (in the direction of emancipatory goals) at all.

However, I think there are also some specific issues that one can point out concerning the pandemic. I will first focus on those on the left that opposed or at least did not support a “Zero Covid”-position and tended towards playing down the pandemic, or even went into alliances with the far-right and conspiracy theorists.

One of these problems is that there is a lack of understanding for natural processes like the exponential growth of virus infections, as eco-socialist and “Zero Covid”-initiator Christian Zeller also points out. The virus is not something that we can negotiate with. The range to make compromises between different goals, e.g., of not limiting “personal freedoms” and of containing the virus, is limited by the virus’s feature to grow exponentially once it is allowed to do. Most politics, and here I mean mainstream politics, are concerned about making compromises between different goals. This becomes catastrophic when natural forces are ignored, which is also true for climate change. Concerning climate change, the left is often good at pointing out this problem, but when it came to the pandemic many left positions actually reproduced the same problem. This problem is deepened in some factions of the left by a postmodernist approach of viewing reality as primarily constructed through discourse. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who ignores the reality of the virus and sees the crisis as primarily a discourse used to justify biopolitical control, is an example of how postmodernism can go dangerously wrong. While there are some good insights from poststructuralist and postmodernist theories about discourse, the left needs to be able to analyse the materiality of the metabolism between human and nature if it wants to be able to answer to the crises set off by capitalist human-nature relations.

Another problem is the question of how we analyse the state. Anarchism sometimes tends to see the state as an institution that simply oppresses, dominates and controls people out of pure evil. This kind of view lacks a materialist analysis of the role of the state within capitalist society, meaning that the main function is actually to secure good conditions for capital accumulation. While the former view tends to only criticize oppressive things that the state does, e.g., restrictions on how many people are allowed to meet during a pandemic, a materialist analysis can also analyse and criticize the state’s inaction when it comes to protecting people’s health. While both views conclude that the state cannot be used for our ends and that we need to fight for the things we want against the state and finally abolish it, they come to quite different conclusions when looking at how the state deals with the pandemic.

Sometimes connected to this tendency within Anarchism is an individualist understanding of freedom. The state then oppresses my individual freedom to do whatever I want. This notion of freedom is not something specifically anarchist (and social anarchist currents do not share it), but it is indeed the mainstream liberal bourgeois understanding of freedom. The pandemic showed that any emancipatory concept of freedom needs to centre the dependency between us all. If it is “freedom” to go around unmasked and infect everyone with COVID, this cannot be a useful concept for the left. Instead, we should understand freedom as the collective capacity to form our social relations in a way that allows us to care for each other.

Those forces on the left that sympathized or participated in the Querdenken protests shared all of these problems, and in addition also that of a lazy populism that supports every position that is being shouted in the streets, no matter how reactionary it is. Interestingly, this position is itself inconsistent since during the pandemic, the Querdenken position was always a minority, even though a loud one. At most times, the majority either supported the state’s anti-COVID measures or actually thought they were not strong enough.

On the other hand, those on the left that did support a “Zero Covid” position also have to ask ourselves why this did not become a significant force. The fact that a lot of people and organizations on the left did not share this position can only be a partial answer. Another part is that the problem lies in the matter of the pandemic itself: People who are not afraid of getting infected or infecting others have no problem of taking to the streets in masses while the more careful people who tend to support a “Zero Covid” strategy also tend to hesitate more before going to protests. But the insignificance of “Zero Covid” also points to the same problem that causes the relative insignificance of radical leftist positions in general: our groups and organizations are small and barely rooted within the working class. From a materialist analysis of the capitalist state, it is clear that publishing a call alone will never move the state towards shutting down the economy. The only way to introduce a “Zero Covid” strategy in Germany would have been by shutting down the economy ourselves through mass strikes. Most of the intellectuals who signed the call probably knew that. It is still good that they did publish this call, since pointing out alternatives to the status quo even when there are now forces to push through these alternatives has a value in itself and maybe makes it more possible to do things differently in the future.

It is still unclear how the COVID pandemic will develop in the next couple of years and if new variants will make it more dangerous again. But it is clear that in the future, capitalist agriculture as well as climate change will lead to more frequent pandemics. That is why we should try to learn from what happened during the COVID pandemic.

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