Book “Die Elenden” about poverty: Anger in words

In the book “Die Elenden” Anna Mayr writes about wealth and poverty. In doing so, she sticks to the criticism of stigmata instead of questioning circumstances.

Anna Mayr is a journalist and lives in Berlin Photo: Anna Tiessen

In elementary school I had two friends who sometimes invited me to their home on weekends. They had big houses, big rooms, big TVs. When I was there, I was given things to eat that I hadn’t seen before. The visits were exciting. But sometimes they overwhelmed me. When my friend’s mother once asked me to get ice cubes from the refrigerator, I couldn’t find her.

My friend came to the rescue, held the glass in a bulge in the refrigerator and I looked stupid out of the laundry. I had never seen an ice dispenser like this before. After these visits, this fascination mixed with anger. Anger that my friends had things at home that I didn’t. I directed the anger against my parents at the time. For me they were responsible for the shortage. I later understood that they weren’t the problem.

When you read “Die Elenden” by Anna Mayr, you read this anger. About material inequality, about wealth and poverty, about this one fact of life that determines how much a person can expect from life; a principle that begins with chance, the geographical and social place in which one is born. You can also find that unfair if you are one of the lucky ones in life bingo. But if you are one of the lower, then you don’t find it somehow, then you are angry.

This is why Anna Mayr is angry when she writes about her new life as a journalist, about encounters with colleagues who come from economically secure backgrounds, about how she perceives what is expected of her. Those who have experienced similar things will recognize this anger, and others who may be offended when they encounter this anger will learn about it. It takes effort to translate this anger into words, to civilize it. What the DOES Mayr accuses in a review, is therefore her strength: “Anna Mayr is outraged.”

A series of questions

Your writing about unemployment is preceded by questions shared by people with similar biographies: When, as a climber in my new life and new milieu, I encounter ignorance of social inequality, do I bring my own experiences into play to counteract it? Or do I, as a journalist from the lower class, leave it at that I raise the question of social inequality indirectly through my awareness of the problem? If I choose the former, what are the consequences for me?

These questions show the gap that opens up in German editorial offices when someone like Mayr is suddenly part of them; a gap that is not only individual, but also social and media-political when you think about who becomes a journalist in Germany and who doesn’t, and what it does with reporting. Ever since the publications of the French sociologist Didier Eribon, the French author Annie Ernaux and the book by the journalist Christian Baron, others have been interested when social defectors pose the social question.

Mayr writes of a personal radio report or of a text before a state election in which she explained why her parents do not vote. She had received positive responses, from people from her original milieu, but also from people from her new milieu, who said that they understood something through their text. That made her happy and she thought that she could counteract generalizations. But today she thinks that the text about not voting was a good text, but one “with an idiotic act”.

Her reasoning: “In reality, this text made me and my parents down. I submitted to those who need an eyewitness report to really believe that people without work are no idiots. ”She writes about her parents:“ I don’t want to write so much about them anyway – because their roles in society are with them as individuals have very little to do. “

The credibility

That’s why you hardly learn anything from her family. This decision is initially understandable, but the anger of the writer remains abstract. After all, the comprehensible decision is also a comfortable, simple, one-sided one. The question of public narration is not one that can be answered across the board. The credibility of a story is strongest where it is filled with concrete information. But filling makes you vulnerable, vulnerable. Which means that before each individual story you have to ask yourself what is still okay to tell.

Anna Mayr: “The wretched”. Hanser Berlin 2020, 208 pages, 20 euros

It is inevitable that there is an inequality in the communication relationship, especially when it comes to social inequality: one side is telling, the other can consume anonymously. But this inequality doesn’t start with the storytelling. It has its structural origin in the social inequality itself. The scandal and thus what needs to be told is not that there are people who are socially secure, but that there are people who are not. Those who belong to the second group have to endure this inequality in storytelling and reading. Mayr decides against it and shifts the argument to a realpolitical and also a philosophical level.

And this is where she settles the accounts: with a social work industry, for example, which one would supposedly not need at all if one simply gave those affected the money that one spends on it; with the concept of social advancement; But above all with contemporary social democracy: it traces the history of Agenda politics and of Gerhard Schröder, then formulates two demands that left-wing social democrats would do quite well: the increase of the Hartz IV rate to the tax exemption, that is to 764 euros per person per month, and the minimum wage to 12 euros.

Mayr calls for wage labor to be devalued in creating people’s identity

It is noteworthy that the author draws a hard line between the unemployed and even precarious wage earners. Because even those working on the fringes of the world of work gained self-esteem by looking down on the unemployed. That shows how much people define themselves through wage labor.

Structurally anchored

That is why Mayr demands that wage labor in establishing people’s identity be devalued and that it should be okay if someone is not working. This fits in with their reception of Karl Marx, which remains fairly limited to his contempt for the “lumpen proletariat” and to their questionable assertion that for Marx the “idler was never an ideal” and that he wanted everyone to work.

If Mayr had dealt genuinely with Marx, she would know that he was not a work fetishist. Then the problems she writes about would not count as problems of perception either. In reality, they are structurally and materially anchored, so they cannot be attributed solely to prejudices. In the Marxist analysis there is talk of real abstraction. What is meant by this is that we do not live and work in a capitalist way because someone is cheating on us, we are deceived or we have not understood something properly.

We live and work this way because we live in a world that is ruled by the categories of goods, wage labor and value; whereby these concepts have not only congealed in our perception to a kind of supposedly immovable natural state, but also materially in a historical development of social division of labor.

If one wants to dissolve this situation, which is responsible for social inequality, it is not enough to strive for freedom from prejudice. “It quickly becomes embarrassing to be on the left – sometimes I have the feeling that it is hardly possible to speak of a fairer world without despising yourself for it,” Mayr writes. Perhaps it is this feeling that prevents her from asking the questions more fundamentally. But that too is understandable. In a time when it is considered brave to make social democratic demands, those who demand more than that are considered completely crazy.