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Hunger Strike Against the Welfare State

The very phrase Hartz IV has come to have a certain social stigma attached; in German vernacular it is almost synonymous with “loser” or “bum.” “Hartz IV kids” is the equivalent German derogatory euphemism to USA’s “welfare moms.”

On November 26th, Ralph Boes quietly ended his nearly month-long hunger strike, with a victory against the German government. Mr. Boes, a resident of the Wedding neighborhood in Berlin, had seen his unemployment benefits cut almost entirely at the beginning of November. He decided to call the system’s bluff: after announcing his hunger strike, he began posting his weight loss via Facebook and Twitter. Three weeks after the fasting began, officials at the Berlin Job Center (the agency responsible for doling out the dole) may or may not have been worried about their 55 year old clients’ health, or the bad publicity that was resulting; whatever the reason (no formal explanation from the Job Center has been forthcoming), Boes’ benefits have now been fully reinstated.

Mr. Boes is a self-described philosopher and author; he is also a recipient of Hartz IV, the German welfare package. From an outside perspective, it might be difficult to understand why a person would mount such severe protest against the unemployment program, which seems to be a pretty reasonable deal, maybe even a generous one. The Hartz IV reforms were instituted in 2005, merging the German federal unemployment agency with regional-level welfare administration offices. Though offering only the bottom rungs of the former East German social safety net, Hartz IV is still, to US sensibilities, practically socialism. Jobless German these days receive a monthly living allotment of 374 Euros (it will be raised to 382 Euros in 2013), on top of having their health insurance and housing paid for. In return, they sign a contract with the Job Center that requires them to take essentially any job they can get.

The reality of the Job Center can be demeaning. The agency’s purpose is to match people with work, and since the majority of available positions are low-skill occupations, it is quite common that people are pushed to take jobs for which they are overqualified. Working at a Call Center is the standard Job Center suggestion. The guys who sell hot dogs at Alexanderplatz, wearing those strap-on grills with the propane tank as a counter-weight in back, are also Job Center clients. The very phrase Hartz IV has come to have a certain social stigma attached; in German vernacular it is almost synonymous with “loser” or “bum.” “Hartz IV kids” is the equivalent German derogatory euphemism to USA’s “welfare moms.” Though there have been considerable reductions in both short and long term unemployment since 2005, the Hartz IV system has been criticized for stifling competition, subsidizing low wages, and creating a permanent class of state dependents.

Like many Germans who list “philosopher” or “author” as their occupation, Mr. Boes was eventually instructed to sign up at a Call Center. There are all sorts of ways to get out of this kind of work; after all, it doesn’t take that much imagination to flub a job interview. Boes could have obediently jumped through the hoops as demanded of him by the government, playing the same game that thousands do, wasting a few hours or days filling out applications and going to interviews before being turned down or finding a plausible excuse for refusing the job. Instead, Boes decided to take a stand. In June, he mailed a six page manifesto-like letter (the full text, in English, can be found here: http://www.buergerinitiative-grundeinkommen.de/brandbrief/Brandbrief-in-Englisch-Toby-Russel.pdf) to Chancellor Angela Merkel, Employment Minister Ursula Von der Leyen, Job Center director Thomas Schneider, and other prominent politicians. Using a rhetorical style reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau, he stated his case: “We are all citizens of a state which has produced a constitution that proclaims: ‘Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.’ Employing people with pointless work is an abrogation of human dignity — and to threaten people with hunger and homelessness, should they disobey this order to do what is pointless, yet more so.”

As a long-time activist around issues of employment and welfare reform, Boes is not an unpredictable candidate to shout that the emperor is wearing no clothes. But rather than simply criticizing the existing system, he offers an alternative model as well: Mr. Boes has long been a staunch advocate of “guaranteed income,” a universal stipend of 1200 Euros a month to be paid to everyone, regardless of employment or economic status. This basic guarantee of survival with no strings of servitude attached would allow citizens to be “independent of the so-called labour market, granting them freedom not in the destitution of unemployment, but in true liberation.” It may sound like a utopian scheme, but Boes is convinced of the plan’s financially feasibility and states that “the advantages for humanity, commerce and cultural development have been laid out in great detail, and ideas for its implementation have been put forward by numerous advocates.”  In the absence of such rational models for social ordering, though, Boes is faced with no choice but civil disobedience. “From today, I openly resist every imposition on me by the state to accept any work I consider meaningless, and refuse to obey any absurd rule presented to me by any governmental agency,” he writes. “I demand an unconditional right to a free, self-determined life.”

Boes’ act of open defiance cost him his unemployment money. The standard punishment for disobeying the Job Center’s contractual requirements (refusing a job without a legitimate reason, or skipping a meeting with your case worker) is a 10 percent reduction in benefits.  By November, Boes had received punitive cuts of 90 percent, leaving him with only 37 Euros a month to live on. This is when he went on hunger strike. Self-starvation is the political prisoner’s last resort, bringing to mind places like Guantanamo Bay or a Russian prison. It is unusual to carry out such an action from the comfort of your apartment, while posting regular updates on Facebook (an entry from day two of the strike: “My body and soul have found a certain stillness. I even accompanied D. to a Chinese restaurant. When I pleaded to at least have a cola, I was sternly reminded: ‘Ralph, you don’t have any money!’”). One might easily dismiss Boes’ struggle as the quintessential example of a “First World problem.”  

However, the terms of Boes’ victory warrant closer scrutiny. The emperor (in this case, the punitive authority of the German welfare state) has indeed been denuded. Boes’ hunger strike was not simply about having the money reinstated; it rests on a philosophical argument based in the opening statement of the German constitution, that “human dignity shall be inviolable.” Boes’ claim is that the operational model of the Job Center violates basic human dignity. His goal is to establish a precedent through his actions: after all, many Hartz IV recipients are sympathetic to his viewpoint, having themselves jumped through the hoops, played along with the Kafkaesque machinations of the system, rather than resisting and risking the consequences. “The question (is) whether a person in Germany has an unconditional right to exist, or if he/she has to first earn a humane life through forced obedience,” writes Boes. By revoking the sanctions against him, the German state has indeed set a precedent: in struggling to reconcile human needs with autocratic modes, the hollow bluster at the core of state authority has been exposed.