What’s the point of protesting?

When Sweden's labour movements take to the streets on May 1st this year, they will for once have something other than a socialist government to protest against. But, argues Captus's Nima Sanandaji, they overestimate the influence of ideology on politics.

This year, for the first time in a long time, the Swedish left has something other than a socialist government to protest against on May 1st. Harsh criticism of all aspects of centre-right policies is to be expected, mixed in with traditional Marxism, feminism and left-leaning environmentalism.

May Day demonstrations are perhaps the most predictable events in Swedish politics. The same message is repeated year after year: the US is bad, as are the Moderates, businessmen and oil companies. Socialism is good, civilization is a threat to the environment and gender is a social construction.

If it were possible to communicate a message to the May Day demonstrators, it would be that government policies are on the whole not so different under the centre-right than under the Social Democrats. The left is not willing to abolish capitalism and hurl Sweden into poverty; the right is not going to implement large scale welfare reforms – millions of people have become dependent on government jobs and handouts.

Politics is not so much determined by ideologies as the interplay of interest organizations. The unions that organize large parts of the May 1st demonstrations are themselves the strongest interest organizations in Sweden. Their support for the Social Democratic Party is equivalent to hundred of millions of kronor during each election year.

When it comes to expressing solidarity with workers around the world, the unions are good at painting signs to brandish during demonstrations, but they are no less good at shutting foreign workers out of the Swedish labor market (remember Waxholm?). The reason is simply that it is in the interest of unions to monopolize the working market, and that interest comes before socialist ideology.

The hundreds of government agencies and the thousands of bureaucrats that work in each one of them themselves form interest groups, typically wholeheartedly supporting big-government policies regardless of the cost. This might go against the political views of some government employees, but makes perfect sense – a government bureaucrat who criticized public spending would simply be biting the hand that was feeding him.

Even the centre-right parties are interest groups. Ideology plays a role in their organizations, but is often less important than the interest to gain and stay in power. This explains why the Moderates have embraced a view of the labour market in which regulations and union power are regarded as something positive, or at the very least tolerable. An interest organization that wants to stay in power is reluctant to get into conflict with the strongest interest organizations in the country.

When May 1st demonstrators are protesting against massive unemployment, they should remember that the unions who are arranging many of the demonstrations are themselves part of the problem. When they are expressing discontent with failing welfare programs, they ought to remember that bureaucracy is an integral part of all large organizations, particularly those that like the government face little or no competition.

There are a lot of ways to make Sweden a better country. But the black and white ideological viewpoints expressed during May Day rallies are of limited relevance to the public policy debate. The simplest truth in politics is that policies are never perfect, typically leading to unintentional negative consequences. Demonstrators who see socialism as the answer to every imaginable problem easily miss this point.

Nima Sanandaji


May Day in Kreuzberg: music trumps riots

Berlin’s Kreuzberg district has seen May Day riots for over 20 years, but Sarah Roberts reports on how the neighbourhood is hoping this year will be different.

May Day in Kreuzberg: music trumps riots
Myfest in 2006. Photo:DPA

Like any newcomer to Kreuzberg, Niko Dregori knows about his neighbourhood’s long history of May Day riots. But this year, the 23-year-old student from Dortmund is more excited than worried.

“You always hear news about the violence but the people round here say it’s not that bad,” said Dregori. “I’m looking forward to all the free live music right on my door step.”

Dregori’s bedroom window has a direct view of two music stages set up for a street festival that Kreuzberg officials hope will finally spell the end of over 20 years of May 1 riots in the district.

Kreuzberg is arguably the most un-German part of Germany. It’s large Turkish population and penchant for attracting people seeking out alternative lifestyles have created a distinct reputation known throughout Berlin and across the country. Here, old punkers mix easily with younger immigrant kids and new arrivals like Dregori.

What was once an isolated part of West Berlin on the frontline of the Cold War, has now become the heart of the reunified German capital. But the neighbourhood still retains a bohemian feel and its predominately left-wing denizens aren’t shy about protesting against the establishment.

The first major May Day riots in Kreuzberg took place in 1987 amid a heated atmosphere between West Berlin’s leftist scene and city officials. A police raid against a group opposed to a national census sparked violence that has plagued the neighbourhood ever since.

Some years have been worse and others better, but one development dismaying local residents has been that the riots have become less political and more just an excuse to throw cobblestones at police, smash shop windows and set cars alight.

That encouraged the district to start promoting Myfest, a street festival with music stages spread throughout Kreuzberg, in an attempt to dilute the anarchist tourists from all over Germany looking for a fight with the cops.

Former Kreuzberg house squatter and political activist, Silke Fischer has been organizing the festival for several years. In 2002 Fischer and a group of local residents got together to create a new focus for May Day. Working with social clubs and youth centres they put together the first Myfest in 2003 with the aim of harnessing the district’s political voice in a more positive and creative way.

“The stage is a place where the youth of Kreuzberg can express themselves and get their message across,” she explained. “When you throw a stone at someone they’re not going to listen.”

Myfest says it gives local musicians, artists and performers an open platform for both protest and productivity. There are fifteen different themed stages including rap group Beats Against Fascism, break dance outfit Kingz HipHop, and the Trinkteufel stage will host punk, hardcore and metal bands.

All aspects of the neighbourhood’s diverse culture will have a place at the festival, with special church services and an open-mic stage for budding young MCs. A family festival at Mariannenplatz starts at 3 pm.

“It will always be a day with strong political meaning. People have a right to a day off, a right to speak out and be heard,” said Fischer. “We support demonstrations but people should fight on the stage and not with their fists.”

On the corner of Naunyn and Adalbert Strasse, the Trinkteufel punker bar is something of a Kreuzberg institution. Behind the motley looking bar stands owner and veteran local punker named Hexe, who both supports Myfest and has strong opinions on the annual riots.

“Kreuzberg is a social flashpoint and May 1 has always been about music, demonstrations and fighting the state.” she explained. “These days people come by the bus load to Berlin just to cause trouble. I’m not against riots but not here in our neighbourhood.”

After twenty years of witnessing protests that turn to violence, locals are growing intolerant of pointless chaos, Hexe said.

“When things get smashed up it shouldn’t be here in a working class area but where the money is. Riots don’t happen in Potsdamer Platz or Charlottenburg but in Kreuzberg people seem to think it’s acceptable.”

A bakery used to stand across the street from the bar but was badly damaged during a year of rioting and the owners moved away, Hexe recalled. “They smashed in all the windows, the place was a mess,” she said. “They were working class people too so why did the rioters target them? It’s lost meaning.”

Trinkteufel will host a collection of punk and hardcore bands on its stage, who will blare out messages of anti-capitalism and class struggle, but Hexe hopes the actually May Day demonstration walks right on by so people can also enjoy the music.

The Myfest festival is financed by Berlin’s city government with €150,000 this year and Kreuzberg’s Arts and Culture Commission helped out with logistics and general organization of the event.

Kreuzberg Mayor, Frank Schulz, has been working together with Fischer and the Myfest team since January to ensure the smooth running of the festival on Thursday.

“It’s a real shame that trouble is connected with the day, but we have a very optimistic view that this year’s event will be a peaceful festival,” said Schulz. “I will be there on the day to see the bands and the demonstration. We have very good relations with all the locals involved including immigrant groups and hope the day will be a big success.”

Although the riots were less dramatic in recent years in part due to Myfest’s success, Berlin police still anticipate trouble and will patrol the streets in full force all day Thursday.

“We have hopes that the festival will pass without violence this year,” said Berlin police spokeswoman Heike Nagora. “However, the Berlin police will be reinforced with officers from neighbouring states.”

Despite indications this May Day could be a peaceful one, authorities aren’t taking any chances – around 5,000 officers and riot police will keep a close eye on left-wing demonstrations.