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The Real Invisible Threat To Democracy: Poverty

Even in economically powerful Germany, poverty threatens the social fabric. And neither the left or right has any real solutions — except to play to fears.

Sleeping on a bench in Berlin
Sleeping on a bench in Berlin
Jagoda Marinić

MUNICH — These are scenes that are not worthy of Germany, scenes that should not take place in a prosperous society. For example, this summer I sat down with my friends at a café on one of the lakes in Berlin and we ordered over-the-top ice cream dishes. When a family of four sat down next to us, the mother of the children looked nervously at the father. The father leaned forward and whispered to his wife: "It's ok, it's ok!" She shook her head. "I'll make it back, I promise!" The kids got their ice cream sundaes. It was a treat for them, but painful for their parents.

This is just one of many everyday scenes in Germany, the powerhouse of Europe that reports one economic success after another. Of course, no child actually needs an ice cream sundae to survive or a day of leisure at the lake. Is this poverty? Or are poor children those who cannot go to the lake at all, because their mother struggles as a single parent? Maybe these mothers would like to avoid such scenes in public. In developed industrial societies, poverty is predominantly female. After women, the second poorest category is the youth, the future of the country. Four and a half million children in Germany live in poverty; children who will not get the best out of this country and will not be able to give back their best. No, social mobility is not a "made in Germany" success story.

In the 1960s, the fight against poverty was happening worldwide. In the United States, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "war on poverty." Poverty reduction in Western countries has been so successful that people now speak of "relative poverty." Now they are faced with a new challenge: How radically can we talk about relative poverty? How do we declare war on such a form of poverty? How can we explain what a lack of participation means for people?

The agenda-setting come from the right.

Poverty has been investigated from every angle. More and more see it as a direct threat to democracy. And yet, the topic of poverty rarely engages people's emotions: It doesn't create much debate, doesn't set off protests. The methods to analyze poverty are constantly updated, which helps measure poverty and the needs of those living in relative poverty.

The danger of the invisibility of poverty for social cohesion was revealed by the Brexit vote: Between 2013 and 2015, the number of poor in the United Kingdom rose by 0.5%. Behind this percentage lies the fate of 400,000 Brits whose situation neighbors and friends would have noticed, but that the media and political parties missed. On top of that, the majority of the poor in the UK are among the so-called "working poor," people who remain poor despite having jobs. British economists now see a possible link between the increase in the poor population and the result of the referendum. How could the uncertainty of half a million people change the outcome of a vote?

European Socialists can't seem to find strategies to address these demographics. The right-wingers can't either, but they know how to turn the uncertainty and fear of people into political capital. Many leftists now seek to learn from the right, rather than pay attention to history and conduct an analysis of the present.

Between 2013 and 2015, the number of poor in the UK rose by 0.5% — Photo: Dave Reed

However, the decline of the European Social Democrats shows that voters do not like this new DNA of Social Democracy. Solidarity cannot only be thought about on the national level in a globalized world. The people who want solidarity do not deprive other needy people of solidarity, but fight against the causes of inequality. Democratic parties damage their credibility by ignoring those issues. Who demands a concrete contribution from the financial elite to solve major global challenges, such as migration? To expect a contribution from those who capitalize on the resources of the African continent should be a social democratic demand.

Radical solutions such as an universal basic income still seem too ambitious.

Instead, the agenda-setting come from the right. However, the openness of many to the question of belonging can also be interpreted as a concern for the uncertain: "Does the state provide for me as a citizen?" When confidence in state welfare is shaken, the enthusiasm for solidarity diminishes — and citizens see themselves as lone fighters.

Meanwhile, high rents are pushing people from the middle class out of inner cities. Of course, the poverty debate does not revolve around whether or not people can afford to live in an apartment in the heart of the city. But the poverty debate in a prosperous society must involve more of those who are afraid of poverty because of the exclusion it creates. Radical solutions such as an universal basic income still seem too ambitious, while fears spread about the robotization of work. The superfluous worker is not a reliable democrat; he is a timid man. He currently has no party. This is not a "German fear." It is a profound change for the entire Western society. And those who want to lead our politics need to talk about it and shape real change without creating new fears.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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