Black Box East: Unlocking Post-Communist Laboratories of Globalization

While the global geopolitical and economic restructuring related to the Covid-19 pandemic accelerates the decline of Western dominance, post-communist space labeled as "the East" is suspended between emancipatory mobilization on the one hand, and the aggravation of structural problems on the other.

Tackling this trend, the Berliner Gazette (BG) project BLACK BOX EAST takes the case of Germany as a starting point: an expanding nation-state's entrepreneurial agenda ("first we take East Germany, then we take eastern Europe and beyond") that has reached a critical limit. BG founding editors Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki show how studying the making of “the East” from this angle means unlocking black-boxed post-communist laboratories of globalization and exploring their dormant potential for alternatives.

I. In 2019 a German magazine posed the question “Is the East really so different?” (“Tickt der Osten wirklich anders?”) on its cover. In that way, they were implicitly summing up a widespread tendency: “the East” is romanticized as an almost incomprehensible historical object; and it is constructed as the Other, as the talk of being “different” suggests. According to Ernesto Laclau’s populism theory, this makes “the East” the constitutive outside – that is, that Other which, in an alterity structure, is the condition for the emergence of an inside, here: the identity of a reunified Germany. In this function, “the East” is constructed as an imaginary object of capitalist expansionism and conquest. Tellingly, the territory that had constituted East Germany was re-invented as “the new states” (“die neuen Länder”) and subsequently incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990: Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia. A common turn of phrase, “the new states” can be read as the tagline for both East Germany’s transition from communism to capitalism and the entrepreneurial mindset of an expanding nation-state.

The fact that the “the new states” are often depicted as an almost incomprehensible historical object serves different interests that shaped political conditions after the fall of the wall and in the course of reunification. The privatization of state-owned enterprises, for example, has led not least of all to the transformation of public entities into private, profit-oriented entities, whose protocols have come to override if not substitute for the public sphere. The Othering of “the East” thus had a crucial meaning for the strategy of black-boxing that is in turn key to the privatization process: deals could be made in the back room, inaccessible to the public, deals that even today are in some respects beyond immediate comprehension. This fostered the rise of what could bluntly be called mafia politics of neoliberalism.

One example would be the case of the Treuhandanstalt (“Trust agency”), colloquially referred to as the Treuhand. Created in 1990, this agency was initially established by the government of the German Democratic Republic to privatize or reprivatize East Germany’s state-owned enterprises, the so-called Volkseigene Betriebe. Controlling everything from steelworks to film studios, the Treuhand – at the time the world’s largest industrial enterprise – oversaw the restructuring and sale of about 8,500 state-owned companies with over four million employees, and thus ultimately organized East Germany’s transition from communism to capitalism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, this transition was initiated at lightning speed – a process reminiscent of that described as “shock therapy” by capitalism critic Naomi Klein.

Many profiteers of privatization came from what had been West Germany, and at the same time almost all relevant decision-making positions in politics and the economy were filled by “skilled personnel” from former West Germany. The “takeover” – as historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk calls this entrepreneurial expansion of the neoliberal nation-state – was favored by the construction of the opaque East. After all, the supposed differentness of “the East” could be presented as a quasi-natural opacity under which the privatization process also appeared, just as naturally, as beyond the light of rational comprehension. Black-boxing “the East” in this way made it possible to obscure the mechanisms of exploitation and abuse of power. Moreover, it provided the perfect conditions for the misuse of subsidies, white-collar crime, and wide-ranging forms of organized crime by actors from former West and East Germany and beyond. All of this became integral (of course, unofficially so) to the making of reunified Germany as an expansive, entrepreneurial, and, ultimately, neoliberal nation-state that was to become the EU’s hegemon.

II. Today, Germany’s capacities as a platform for global capital crucially hinge upon successfully maintaining eastern Germany as a hub of global logistics networks and largely untransparent supply chains, a supposedly perfect territory for deterritorialized, transnational corporations and their branch offices, warehouses, call centers, and factories. Meanwhile, the mainstream media support Germany’s capitalist interests by continuing to Other “the East,” thus strengthening its black-box nimbus.

Whether in online media or print: romanticizing projections – both positive and negative – are shaping the media landscape. On the one hand, there are well-intentioned portrayals. Wolfgang Schäuble, for instance, previously Minister of the Interior and Minister of Finance and since 2017 President of the German Bundestag, contributed a text in a left-leaning daily newspaper on the occasion of 30 years of reunification. Describing an experience from which everyone can learn – adaptation to extreme social change, in short: globalization – Schäuble wrote: “Some people tend to maintain their own victim status instead of self-confidently pointing out that they are actually ahead of the people in the West: adapting to massive societal upheaval. In view of the demands of globalization and digitization, which do not stop at Western societies, it would make a lasting contribution to inner unity if this lead in experience could be recognized and shared by society as a whole.”

Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, “the East” was first held up as a model. Germany was one of the epicenters in Europe in spring 2020, and yet the number of cases was not at the same level all across the country. There were federal states in the former West such as North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria that were affected at an above-average level, and some that were below average. The federal states in the former East stood out in particular for their low infection rates. Celebrated as a phenomenon, the rates were explained by the fact that in “the East,” the supreme disciplines of globalization – above all, mobility – are practiced in perfectly measured ways. In the end, was “the East” not just the avant-garde of globalization, as Schäuble had imagined it a few months earlier, but even the better, more sustainable avant-garde of globalization?

Of course, the narrative had to be changed only a couple of months later, when Saxony and Thuringia registered above-average numbers in late autumn 2020. Nonetheless, or perhaps even because of that, the aura of Otherness remained unscathed. This was supported by the fact that beside positively colored projections, various negative projections remained in circulation in the media. A renewed intensification of neo-fascist violence reinforced the narrative that portrays “the East” as “dark Germany” and the “regressive avant-garde of counter-globalization”: as a retreat for people who yearn to escape globalization with all its complexities, side effects and problems into the inwardness of an imaginary home. In this narrative, “the East” appears as a place that only neo-fascists (many from the West, of course) can truly figure out. Hence, it appears only too logical that for the first time since the demise of Nazi Germany an extreme right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (“Alternative für Deutschland”), was able to enter the Bundestag, the German federal parliament, in 2017 – led by politicians from “the West” and supported with votes from “the East.”

In this vein, it was easy to portray the “regressive avant-garde of counter-globalization” as the reason why the Coronavirus had suddenly spread in “the East” as well. In fact, not a few on the Left perhaps inadvertently supported Othering narratives by claiming that “a few mask-free demonstrations of neo-fascists and identitarians were enough to turn eastern Germany into an epicenter of the pandemic.” And those usually clinging to the positive version of “the East” could blame the regressivists as concealing the “lead in experience” that could have helped to meet the virus on an equal footing: as a product of globalization.

Obviously, the black-box character of “the East” is reinforced and in a way immunized when the two narratives (“avant-garde of globalization” and “regressive avant-garde of counter-globalization”) are positioned against each other and presented as incompatible. Therefore, it is all the more important to note that the two narratives are by no means mutually exclusive. As other post-communist states also show, e.g. Poland, Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia, where the transition from communism to capitalism was profitably brokered by Germany and its partners, neoliberal privatization and a resurgence of fascism are perfectly compatible. What is more, the two are to a certain extent mutually dependent and are constitutive for each other, as cultural anthropologist and social theorist Joseph Grim Feinberg, for instance, has pointed out. While neo-fascist movements and parties in Eastern Europe declare freedom and prosperity to be scarce goods, they elevate the survival of the fittest maxim of neoliberalism to a vanishing point for “all threatened indigenous peoples”: the distribution of scarce and desirable goods – material or immaterial – should only be fought for among a select group, namely among “native Europeans”; all others should not even be allowed to participate in this competition. Against this backdrop, the unboxing of “the East” can be achieved by reading the “avant-garde of globalization” and “regressive avant-garde of counter-globalization” narratives together. What can be revealed in the course of this is that the twofold Othering of “the East” is required to create a seemingly perfect black box. In other words, only because of the twofold Othering of “the East” can it so comfortably function as an opaque space that obstructs knowledge of its internal workings.

So what is the economic, political, and social reality of such a black-boxed laboratory of globalization? Is it at all possible to say anything qualified about this? One thing seems certain: Governed by untransparent political-economic structures that resist democratic accountability, the “new states” are steadily developing into “failed states.” For instance, the processes in the logistics hubs of eastern Germany literally run in the dark, that is, at night when most people are asleep (for example, at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Brieselang near Berlin or the DHL hub in Leipzig). After all, flows of capital never need to sleep, and for this very reason they seem to escape the vigilance of civil society actors. Meanwhile, eastern Germany has become a wage dumping and low-wage area, an El Dorado for branch offices, assembly facilities and warehouses of logistics empires, and hence an ‘operation site’ for a precarized labor force.

Migrant workers, who fill the systemic gaps and at the same time function as scapegoats for the precarious developments, can be doubly instrumentalized. Their (inofficial) value as doubly “essential” is a key to understanding “the East” as a laboratory of globalization: export-oriented supply-chain economies, such as Germany, benefit not only from the low costs of cheap product modules but also from the low costs of workers, who, like the modules, are kept in motion along the logistical supply chains so as to optimize profit margins. Often this means that these very workers are putting final touches on products whose parts were first assembled on the cheap in their home countries, e.g. in Eastern Europe, and are then in the end moved and sold precisely there at a considerable margin.

Thus, unlocking post-communist laboratories of globalization means challenging the twofold Othering of “the East.” This task is all the more challenging since even (or perhaps especially) in the face of the dissolving hegemony of “the West,” this Othering continues to contribute to the fact that interest in the inner workings of the black box is exhausted in battles over the alterity structure of “the East” and its function as a constitutive outside. As a result, political, economic, and social force fields are perceived, if at all, in a highly distorted manner. Consequently, the challenges that the processes and consequences of Othering pose for civil society can be dealt with only inadequately, while the potential of progressive civil society actors (e.g. commoners, socialists, and feminists, climate and labor activists, as well as anti-fascists, anti-racists, and anti-anti-semitism-activists), like the potential of counter-narratives and counter-politics emerging from post-communism, remains dormant.

III. Following the exploration of invisibilized labor in SILENT WORKS, the BG 2021 project BLACK BOX EAST has two objectives. Firstly, to support and establish links among progressive civil society actors active in eastern Germany and other regions of Europe and the world. Secondly, to explore and create links to international discussions on the topics of political economy and globalization, migration and digitalization, and thus to bring a breath of fresh air into current debates about “the East” and post-communist states at large. The BG can realize both of these objectives with its many years of experience of being actively involved in discourses and with an “organically” grown international network. Accordingly, guests from more than 25 countries will be invited to join the project, opening up a transnational perspective. This will show that eastern Germany is relevant for globalization debates around the world (and not just a topic for Germany’s business of commemoration).

To this end, the BLACK BOX EAST project wishes to explore the following questions: What does it mean to challenge the instrumentalization of precarious (and often migrant) workers? What does it mean to deploy collective strategies for labor struggles if a significant segment of the labor force is not represented by collective bodies such as labor unions? What does it mean that privatized spaces are used as substitutes for public spaces for the processes of making visible and public and for creating collectives and collectivities? How can a reclaiming of public spaces be initiated so as to enable emancipatory processes of becoming common? What alliances can reveal and combat the fusion of neo-liberalism with fascism?

How can the national histories of post-1990 privatization in post-communist states such as East Germany be turned into transnational histories of neo-liberal globalization? What does it mean to share transition experiences in former East Germany, former Yugoslavia, and the former Eastern Bloc? Considering the emancipation of post-communist states – including “anti-Western” reflexes not only in eastern Germany but also in Poland and Hungary, as well as Russia’s geopolitical advances and China’s rise as global superpower – then the question is: to what extent do the emancipating struggles of post-communist states reproduce the mechanisms of their own subjugation and incorporation as “the East”? Finally, is there a potential for intersectional, transnational, and, ultimately, nonidentitarian alliances that can render post-communist spaces into fields of struggles – against capitalist nightmares, towards commons-based societies?

A German version of this text is available on Berliner Gazette: https://berlinergazette.de/black-box-east-postkommunistische-labore-globalisierung/

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