Interview with Gotz Werner

[This interview published in: die Tageszeitung, 11/27/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

[Hartz IV is the current German welfare reform that combines income support and unemployment benefits and radically reduces the time period of assistance. The unemployed are blamed for unemployment caused by radicalized capital exploitation strategies. The “activating” state turns out to be the disciplining and punishing state. Cf. “Exploitation and Precarity” by Werner Seppmann and “Reforming or Dismantling the Welfare State” by Christoph Butterwegge (translator’s note)]

Taz: Mr. Werner, Germany recognizes full of surprise that a completely new species lives at its social margin – the lower class all allegedly rotten and anti-social. Many believe they will never work unless Hartz IV is cut. Is that true or false?

Gotz Werner: False. A person thinks badly of people – of others, not himself naturally. Whoever looks down on others acts inhumanly. The lower class is quickly stylized as sub-human.

Taz: Who is responsible in this scandal of the new poverty? The affected themselves? The welfare state? Hartz IV?

Werner: We have an upper class problem in Germany, not a lower class problem. The upper class cannot understand the overall social situation and fails to use its intellectual abilities and financial possibilities to do justice to the whole reality.

Taz: The CDU (centrist party of Helmut Kohl) and the SPD (centrist party of Gerhard Schroeder) urge punishing those unwilling to work more harshly.

Werner: When I don’t give any free space and pester another person, I do not do justice to him. One of the goals of the French Revolution was equality! Equality means encountering one another at eye level, granting the same strengths and weaknesses to the other as to myself.

Taz: Many unemployed, it is argued, demand Hartz IV like a salary for themselves and their children.

Werner: We are living in a society of total foreign provision. The modern person makes nothing himself any more but buys everything. Whoever wants to participate in this society is dependent on receiving an income. Each of us needs such a bit of participation. This can be very modest but nothing happens without it. I call this the socio-osmotic principle: if you do not enrich water with a little sugar solution, you cannot draw the sugar from the sugar beet.

Taz: Is participation a human right?

Werner: Participation is a prerequisite for humane life. Article 1 of the German constitution insists: The dignity of the person is inviolable. Protecting that dignity is an obligation of all state authority.

Taz: SPD head Peter Struck says the Red-Green view of the person “may have been too positive” when it introduced Hartz IV.

Werner: Struck is either cynical or makes fun of the unemployed.

Taz: CDU leader Volker Kauder argues the government must demand more from the people. For example, an unemployed could be expected to serve at the pub.

Werner: Yes, a person must knuckle under. He has to do what the authority or work agency demands of the employee. My God, how can politicians speak that way! That sounds like aristocracy, not democracy. If I were a politician, I would say: Sorry, the Hartz program was a mistake and should be abolished. Hartz IV only causes human suffering.

Taz: You said once “Hartz is open imprisonment.” “Hartz IV is robbery of freedom rights, torments people and destroys their creativity.”

Werner: That is still true. Is this what we envision as a free liberal society that the authorities snoop around in the lives of the unemployed? Hartz IV violates an elementary principle: Do not do to others what you do not want done to you. People are socially excluded with Hartz IV. It should be abolished.

Taz: Politicians say whatever creates work is social regardless of how work is paid, regardless of whether the work suits the jobless and regardless whether there is enough work.

Werner: Politicians still believe in the myth of full employment. They are completely befuddled about this. Full employment is a lie.

Taz: Doesn’t everything simply depend on paid work: prosperity, identity, self-esteem and a sense of belonging?

Werner: No! This manic fixation on work makes us sick.

Taz: Don’t we become sick when deprived of work?

Werner: What a contradiction! We have no problem with unemployment.

Taz: Oh, come on!

Werner: We have a cultural problem. We live in abundance for the first time in over 5000 years of the history of the human race. But we cannot accept this new reality. We cannot enable all people to profit and share in that abundance.

Taz: Some unemployed desire nothing more ardently than a regular job.

Werner: We only have unemployed because we use the term unemployment. Most so-called jobless work. They don’t lie on a couch all day and guzzle 48 oz. pitchers of beer. They are employed in the family, in social work and in sports clubs. They do valuable things. When someone cares for her children, this is far more valuable for society than twisting lids on bottles in a factory.

Taz: Aren’t you speaking over the heads of the people who suffer when they lose their job and their inner support?

Werner: These persons suffer in that they are not respected and acknowledged, that they are stigmatized as supposedly useless. Only what creates value is regarded as work. When a woman raises her three children, she is asked: Do you work or stay at home?

Taz: Labor minister Muntefering likes to quote the Bible and August Bebel: Whoever does not work should not eat.

Werner: Muntefering has fallen a few hundred years behind. He still lives in a self-support society when everyone grappled with deficiency or shortage. At that time whoever did not cultivate his farmland and till his field was responsible for having nothing to eat. Now we live in a foreign supply society. I cannot work for myself alone. Whenever I work, I work for someone else. I need an income to participate in social life.

Taz: Now do you come and say: it is good if people need not work?

Werner: I say: We don’t need a right to work, in any case to paid work subject to instructions and liable to social security contributions. That is no longer in keeping with the times. We need a right to income, to an unconditional basic income.

Taz: You want to give 1500 Euro to every person month after month from birth to death.

Werner: Yes, money must be given to every person, citizen money. The basic income must be calculated so that everyone can live modestly in dignity. It must be more than a subsistence level – a kind of cultural minimum.

Taz: The government defines the regular Hartz amount as a socio-cultural subsistence level, 345 Euro.

Werner: No one can live from that in Karlsruhe where I live or anywhere in Germany. Perhaps that is possible in Zimbabwe.

Taz: Do you set 1500 Euro as this cultural minimum?

Werner: No, I once suggested in an interview 1500 Euro as a future vision. The introduction of a basic income is only possible gradually. We could begin with 800 to 1000 Euros for every citizen.

Taz: Should everyone receive the same?

Werner: The amount should be oriented to one’s phase in life. Children could receive a smaller amount.

Taz: Should there be no return favor or obligation?

Werner: A basic income should be without condition, simply recognition that every person is a part of the community.

Taz: The favorite first question of all skeptics is: Who should pay for this?

Werner: That is a killer argument.

Taz: Your basic income could easily cost a third of Germany’s whole economic output, almost a trillion Euros a year.

Werner: The CDU-friendly Konrad-Adenauer foundation made an estimate on such a model. The “solidarity citizen money,” a basic income of 800 Euro monthly proposed by Thuringen’s CDU-Prime Minister Dieter Althaus, would cost 800 billion Euro a year, less than the state spends today for all social benefits.

Taz: The question remains: Where will this money come from?

Werner: From taxes.

Taz: I see – more taxes.

Werner: No. I am for a very simple solution. Away with all taxes except one, the sales tax. That is the only tax that is sensible and just.

Taz: How high should it be?

Werner: Much higher than today, perhaps 50 percent.

Taz: You must explain that.

Werner: The purpose of the economy is to make possible income for people so goods can be produced for consumption. Unlike earlier times, we no longer live in a shortage economy. We produce goods in abundance. Therefore we should make consumption the only basis of taxes. Whoever claims the services of others should pay taxes, not the one accomplishing something. Thus all taxes could be abolished – except for the sales tax.

Taz: Would that be just? Why would you relieve the well off and rich for example from the income- and profit taxes?

Werner: Because the rich also consume their income- and thus would also pay the high sales tax. Or they would invest their income, which also gives rise to additional consumption. At the end they always wind up in consumption and thus in the ideal basis of taxes.

Taz: Everyone pays taxes corresponding to his economic effort. You would completely eliminate this principle.

Werner: That is not true. The sales tax could be organized socially: a very high tax rate for luxury goods and a low rate for everyday essentials. With the unconditional basic income and consumer tax, Germany would become an investment paradise attracting labor and creating many jobs.

Taz: The second favorite question of all skeptics is: How can a person act against his nature and not let his laziness run wild if he has enough money to live?

Werner: I always ask the skeptics: Would you stop working? They answer: Not me, I work out of enthusiasm. We only assume others would take it easy.

Taz: Perhaps you are talking to the wrong people.

Werner: No, no. Most people have two views of human nature – one for themselves and another for fellow-persons. In the first spiritual view, a person is a being gifted with reason and freedom. In the second materialist view, a person is more like an animal. He appears as a being of stimulus-response reactions. This conception is reflected in the saying: Trust is good but control is better.

Taz: Do you think people will work voluntarily in your brave new basic income world?

Werner: With the unconditional basic income, we grant space to everyone to work in his or her own responsibility when work is necessary and meaningful. We will work because we see a meaning in work, not because we are forced. Isn’t that a free society where everyone can practice renunciation and everyone has the freedom to say No to degrading conditions? Liberated from their existential worries, people can develop their talents.

Taz: That sounds a little like Paradise.

Werner: You don’t believe me. Living with the basic income will not be simple.

Taz: Why not?

Werner: Because there are no excuses any more. All the victim roles in which we make ourselves at home do not function any more. People cannot say any more they only do their job because they need the money or only stay with their husbands because they depend on their income…

Taz: What would be won with a basic income?

Werner: Dignity, security and power. We could say to the employer we don’t want to work for him any more because he pollutes the environment or treats his employees miserably. A basic income would expand the efficiency of our society.

Taz: Wont there always be persons who don’t want to work?

Werner: They already receive their money from the state. They need only accept the repressions of the social authority. Persons who do not work today will not work in the future.

Taz: When high school students are asked today what they want to become, some answer: Oh, as a senior I want Hartz IV. What will happen with these young persons when they suddenly receive a basic income?

Werner: I cannot tell them: this will all turn out fine. Society has the task of dealing with young persons so their ascent into life is attractive.

Taz: Does attractive mean young persons receive their shingle and are left alone?

Werner: No. They must find a meaning in their life; they must set life goals.

Taz: That young persons today set Hartz IV as a vocational goal reflects the indifference of their parents.

Werner: Do you see the problem in our question? Young persons only say they want Hartz IV because their parents are on Hartz IV. If Hartz did not exist, they would automatically have another life goal. If there was a basic income, their parents could freely decide how they spend their life. A young person seeks his or her ideals. Hartz is not the Alps that the young want to climb.

Taz: What about the work that no one wants to do? Who will drive from shop to shop and dust down the doormats for a few Euros?

Werner: Unpleasant jobs must be paid more. Here is an example: if you want your newspaper delivered at five in the morning, you have only three possibilities. You can make this work so attractive that others will do it. You can let the work be done by machines. Or you do it yourself. However there would be a serious difference with a basic income. The work would be done voluntarily. The meaning of work would be in the foreground, no longer income. That would increase economic efficiency enormously.

Taz: You are a dreamer.

Werner: Whoever has no dreams cannot develop his life. Whoever wants to build a house and doesn’t first dream only gets a nondescript run-of-the-mill house.

Taz: You speak very positively. You own over 1700 drug stores. You have annual sales of 3.7 billion Euros. You are one of the 500 richest Germans.

Werner: That is untrue. Like almost all entrepreneurs, I wanted more and more in the past. Today maximizing meaning is my top priority.

Taz: Do you see the world with different eyes?

Werner: I have read the classics, Goethe, Schiller. I understand my own success is not everything. I want to help others succeed. People are central, not business. I try to imagine a positive world.

Taz: “Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come,” you say.

Werner: Victor Hugo said that. I only quoted him.

Taz: Is the time right for your idea?

Werner: At least the idea could be discussed at last. Two years ago that was something for a few experts. The halls are full when I give lectures today.

Taz: What has changed?

Werner: The old political slogans have nothing to do with the world where people live. Unemployment grows despite temporary announcements of success. Unbridled growth damages our resources. If Angela Merkel would say “full employment” is possible, nobody would believe her any more…

Taz: The unconditional basic income already has supporters in the parties – from left to right. Why is this?

Werner: Because this is the most radical form of socialism and the most radical form of capitalism. After one of my addresses, a listener wrote to me: “Your basic income model has reconciled my socialist heart with my neoliberal mind.”