Handwerk, neoliberalism and the disappearing cure to alienation


There are hundreds of German words that are pretty much untranslatable into other languages. Handwerk is one of them.

While your dictionary may provide translations such as trade or craft, these are inaccurate. Handwerk describes a sector of the economy where skilled workers are engaged in manual labour. Butchers, stonemasons, hairdressers, opticians and carpenters are just a few examples of Handwerk-type professions.

If you want to call yourself a baker in Germany, you will need to have completed three years of vocational training (Ausbildung). 70% of that training will take place at the bakery that hires you, while 30% will be carried out at a vocational school. That is what makes you a Handwerker.

This unique melange of theory and practice is the foundation of Germany’s reputation of good quality Handwerk.

Yet neoliberal restructuration is changing our economy at its roots – and Handwerk enterprises are paying the price. Over the past couple of months, I have spoken to 32 traditional bakeries and butcheries in the district (Landkreis) of Nordsachsen, just to the north of Leipzig. They all reported the same problems.

Firstly, they are losing their customers. With Aldi, Lidl and other low cost supermarkets mushrooming all over the place, traditional shops are finding it increasingly hard to compete.

While the quality, the choice and the personalised shopping experience they provide is undoubtedly superior to any Aldi, artisanal bakeries need to pay their staff German salaries, producing every bun themselves. Your Aldis and Lidls on the other hand have their buns made in Poland, allowing them to sell bread with a significantly lower price tag.

Many Saxon bakers and butchers inevitably view open borders and globalisation as a danger to their sustenance, providing ample ammunition for right-wing populists.

Secondly, they can’t find new staff. As the production process behind the food we eat has become invisible, the respect enjoyed by those producing our food has declined. In times when unemployment in Germany is approaching zero, very few youngsters are motivated to work in refrigerated rooms all day, as butchers are required to do. Trained workers have left the food sector, working for the more lucrative car industry instead, or leaving Eastern Germany altogether.

Thirdly, they feel disrespected by politics. Bakers are people whose work day begins at 2 am. While the rest of us sleep, they are kneading their dough and heating their ovens. Bakers and butchers will often work for up to 16 hours a day, earning them no more than €1,600 a month, which barely surpasses minimum salary.

While digitalisation has helped to improve the efficiency of industrial companies, for small businesses the legal need to replace every analogue scale and every till system with computers has produced tons of bureaucracy, coming at an unsustainable price.

These are people who have felt ignored and betrayed by several generations of politicians.

The left, which should have taken them seriously, has blamed their dissatisfaction with the political system on low levels of education and unjustified fears of globalisation, adding insult to injury.

As a result of these problems, the majority of traditional bakeries and butcheries have disappeared. Other professions such as plumbers, bricklayers and painters are met with a similar fate. While wages in the service sector are rising, salaries in Handwerk businesses have remained stagnant.

So, are Handwerk-type shops set to disappear?

If the market logic prevails, the answer is most certainly yes. Yet there is a counter movement.

Many of us are tired of the anonymity of supermarkets and online stores, where the staff is essentially part of the inventory. When you enter an artisanal bakery, you truly enter a world of bread.

The person selling you their Brötchen will most likely have made them herself a few hours earlier. Chances are you’ll even strike up a conversation, and if you come back the day after, you’ll be remembered. Soon, you and the sales lady will be talking about the health of your cat or the progress you’ve made with your German.

Moreover, you will discover the quality of local bread manufacture, swiftly realising that everything you’ve ever bought at mock-up bakeries like Wendel, Steinecke or Lukas was a scam.

Traditional bakeries and butcheries, indeed all Handwerk enterprises, offer a way out of the alienating relationships neoliberal capitalism imposes on us.

So next time you consider buying prepackaged ham from the supermarket, consider going shopping at your local butcher instead, which is probably just around the corner from your house.

Harald grew up in Großpösna, a village just outside the boundaries of Leipzig, but it is only after living elsewhere for four years that he really came to appreciate the city he was born. He is an idealist, a Christian, a socialist, a Europeanist, and, above all, a true Leipzig-lover. He will write about Leipzig’s history and politics, both of which are rather inaccessible to our English-speaking audience.

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