Darko Vujica: In 2021, Angela Merkel’s fourth and last term as the chancellor of Germany will end. How would you evaluate the policies that she and her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), have pursued since 2005? More specifically, what have been the effects on domestic and foreign policy?
Ingar Solty: Angela Merkel came to power in 2005 following the first center-left government since 1982, the government of Gerhard Schröder (Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD). To understand Merkel’s domestic and foreign policy, one must understand the country she inherited.
Merkel was in the fortunate position of becoming chancellor after a coalition government of social democrats and Greens had done the devil’s bidding of implementing very unpopular neoliberal policies to the sole benefit of German capital and the rich. The key goal of the Schröder government was to rediscipline the German working class and lower the burden on capital in the name of global competitiveness, based on the neoliberal ideology of trickle-down economics. According to this idea, giving resources to the capital-owning class and providing a business-favorable situation would create a healthy investment climate for German capital to compete in globalized capitalism. Per the social-democratic message, Germany had to surrender to global market forces and dismantle social services in order to maintain the welfare state. In other words: this was not “having your cake and eating it too,” it was throwing the cake out of the window and enjoying the idea that deep down you were still a cake-lover.
Called Agenda 2010 and the Hartz reforms, the programs were implemented when the predecessor of the Left Party (DIE LINKE), the East German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), had been ousted from the Bundestag for three years—with the exception of two directly elected candidates. This meant that the only opposition to these measures came from the liberal and conservative right (CDU/Christian Social Union in Bavaria, CSU, and the Free Democratic Party, FDP), which wanted the restructuring to go even further.
The Schröder government’s main initiative was to end German welfare as we knew it. A tremendous campaign by the political class, in alliance with the corporate media, proclaimed Germany to be the “sick man of Europe.”1 The welfare state was overburdening German competitiveness, the narrative went.
The interests of the capitalist class were promoted, first of all, by dismantling the traditional public pension system. Heretofore, capital and labor had carried the same burden of paying equally into the public pay-as-you-go system. In the name of competitiveness, this reform dissolved the old formula, cut the contribution capital had to make, lowered the overall pension level from 52.9 to 46 percent of previous incomes by 2020 and 43 percent by 2030, increased the pension age from 65 to 67 years old, and requested that people pay into private pension plans (Riester-Rente)—a profitable business model for surplus capital in search of profitable investment opportunities. The effect was a rapid growth in old-age insecurity and poverty. Suddenly, old people going through public and private trashcans in their search for empty bottles that would give them 8 cents each popped up everywhere. They are the visual manifestation of Agenda 2010. The average German pension today amounts to €906 (2018). In France, it amounts to about 50 percent more (averaging €1,400). This, however, does not stop the German press from informing the French general strikers of 2019–20 that they need to reform their pension system and follow the German model.2 Meanwhile in Germany, more and more people depend on soup kitchens. In 2019 alone, the number increased by 10 percent and doubled among retired people, amounting to a total 1.65 million people.3 Many people can no longer pay their bills. For instance, in 2018, 344,000 households had their electricity cut off. Yet, instead of fighting the epidemic spread of nonunionized, low-wage sector jobs, which are old-age poverty in the making, or helping poor people replace their energy-intensive old refrigerators (for example), what did the government do? In Baden-Württemberg, the coalition government of Greens and conservatives spent public money on teaching the poor how to save energy, as if they were little children.4
The second initiative was to rediscipline the working class as a precondition to increasing the rate of exploitation and driving down German wages. Accompanied by another corporate media campaign, the government identified and targeted a few bad apples in the German welfare system in order to dismantle the social security system for all. The media and upper-middle class journalists happily partook in the witch hunt against the notorious “Florida Rolf,” who took advantage of the system, instead of analyzing the consequences of such reforms.5 The old unemployment insurance, developed as a common social security system against the systemic risks of capitalism, was smashed and replaced by neofeudalist poor laws. The new system of Arbeitslosengeld II, which mimicked Bill Clinton’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (1997), essentially means that, after twelve months of unemployment (or eighteen months, if you are an older worker), you lose everything you paid into the system through taxes on labor incomes and are rendered to a punitive system of workfare. In essence, the Hartz reforms were a form of dispossession of labor incomes. And what used to be social rights in a system based on working-class solidarity is now essentially a system of alms granted by the state in a paternalistic system akin to a parent-child relationship: if you behave well and don’t act up, you receive a lump sum that is too much to die on and too little to live on like a human being. If you do not behave, the state sanctions you with even lower payments. And up until a Supreme Court decision in November 2019, it was legal to cut welfare payments beyond 30 percent. This system has, over the course of the past fifteen years, traumatized millions of people, wiped out economic existences, and perpetually violated the first article of the German Constitution according to which the dignity of a human being is “inviolable.”
It says a lot about the hegemony of neoliberalism that Third Way social democracy (New Democrats in the United States, New Labour in the United Kingdom, Neue Mitte in Germany) enforced these measures according to the deeply pessimistic and conservative anthropology of the Austrian School, which essentially considers workers to be egotistical gangsters while approaching global capital (big banks and insurance companies) with the utmost trust, deregulating labor and financial markets for private, profit-maximizing corporations. In other words, here were left-wing parties that mistrusted their own core constituencies as “lazy free riders” and “self-serving cheats,” but simultaneously had faith that the capitalist class would act in the best interest of society despite pursuing the worst objective ever imaginable: profit maximization. The question really is: Who needs procapitalist, authoritarian right wingers if this is the already existing emancipatory, prolabor left?
It also says a lot about the predominant upward-mobility mentality within German social democracy and the thoroughly bourgeois character of the German Greens that, when it came to the poorest of the poor in society, the Hartz laws employed an army of public officials to tear up every carpet and wooden floorboard in the houses of the poor, dead set on finding even the last hidden penny that would allow the state to refuse to pay money to unemployed workers, which, as I said, they themselves had previously paid into the system. At the same time, the government downsized public oversight of capital, which facilitated the tremendous degree of tax evasion and tax fraud among the super rich, including the European value-added tax scandal and the Cum-ex scandal (which German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble knew about since 2011 and didn’t do anything about until 2016, and which the SPD in Hamburg apparently let the Warburg investment bank get away with after the bank managers donated extensively to the party).6 To the German taxpayer, the costs of these two schemes alone are estimated to amount to between €6 and 13 billion for the value-added tax scandal and between €10 and 30 billion for Cum-ex.7 To put this into perspective, the entire budget of the German Ministry for Education and Research was €18.27 billion in 2019. Public spending for social housing programs amid the biggest housing crisis since the Second World War amounted to merely €1.5 billion.
The Hartz laws were one of the biggest crimes, if not the biggest crime, in postwar German history and they embody the key rupture in German history since the fire-sale privatizations of East Germany’s publicly owned companies that followed so-called reunification in 1990. Everything that followed, including the rise of the far right, cannot be explained without reference to Agenda 2010 and the Hartz laws. The German social scientist and former presidential candidate Christoph Butterwegge is correct when he argued that the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is a belated “present” of the Hartz reforms, because it has purposely driven the fear of economic declassing and marginalization deep into the center of society.8 After all, the new laws mean that no matter how high your wage earnings are right now—and for the core labor force in the industrial export industry they are still quite high—you are always just twelve months of unemployment away from total exclusion from social life and loss of personal sovereignty, and just twelve months away from dependence on charity. Essentially, if you lose your job, you lose your credit-financed home and cars, then you may lose your family as a result of the emotional strain, and, in the end, you lose your dignity as a human being in the German workfare system.
The Hartz laws thus are sanctioning the marginalized poor, but—and this is crucial—they have disciplined the entire German working class, disciplined it into concession bargaining, individually accepting the worst kinds of precarious jobs, which the Schröder government itself enabled (Leiharbeit and Werkverträge). As the University of Jena sociologist Klaus Dörre has pointed out, this kind of precarization functions like “communicating vessels,” penetrating society in general and dispersing existential fears and a sense of economic powerlessness throughout the subjective middle class of professional, highly qualified, and still very well-paid workers.9 And that was the conscious purpose: because people who are this dead scared of losing their jobs will make all sorts of concessions in bargaining procedures, just like the German metalworkers union was doing—even before the COVID-19 recession—in the 2020 collective bargaining round that offers no wage demands in exchange for job guarantees from German industrial capital amid rampant capital-driven automation rationalizations.
So, add digitalization and robotization to the equation and the fact that today many workers cannot say whether their job will still exist ten years from now, including the jobs of lawyers, medical doctors, translators, and journalists, and you can understand how that disciplining has worked. And while the neoliberal center essentially says that there is no alternative to this situation, that we can only adapt and that it’s every person for themselves, the far right reclaims “sovereignty” and utilizes social fears and powerlessness for its own völkisch visions of a racially and socially homogeneous society.
Today, some neoliberals and right-wing SPD cadres as well as the bourgeois media are still defending the Agenda 2010. They argue that in the early 2000s, Germany had been suffering from mass unemployment and, the narrative goes, labor markets and workers needed therefore to become more “flexible” in order to boost employment. The logic itself is ironic: it ought to be easier to fire workers in order to employ more of them, all in the name of “labor market resilience.” It reveals the nature of capitalism that, for it to function properly, workers must be afraid. However, even on its own terms, this logic was a lie. When you look closely, you can see that the number of hours worked did not increase at all. Instead, what increased was the number of involuntary part-time jobs within the widely expanded low-wage sector, the largest in all of Europe (with every fourth job in it). Furthermore, many of the jobs created do not pay into the social systems at all; on the contrary, the reforms simply increased the number of jobs supplemented by government copayments. In other words, the government is subsidizing private for-profit superexploitation, including the replacement of yesterday’s unionized public sector jobs by so-called “€1 jobs” provided by public-private partnerships in the social work sector.
So, Merkel was very fortunate to come to power when all those neoliberal measures in the interest of the capitalist class had been implemented by a social democratic and Green government. These measures destroyed the SPD and its legitimacy to a point that the social democrats have been unable to regain their credibility and might never recover from the disillusionment they fostered. The SPD was kind of like the subservient dog that did everything its master asked it to and was then discarded because of old age at some highway resting place. Due to its policies against its own working-class base, since 1998, when it still received 20.2 million votes, the SPD has lost more than ten million disillusioned voters to voting abstention, DIE LINKE, the Greens, and lately even the AfD. In 2017, the SPD received 9.5 million votes and 20.5 percent of the voters’ share. Today, it stands between 11 and 17 percent in the polls. Ever since the Schröder government entered office in 1998, the SPD has lost almost half its membership, down from 755,000 to 419,000 today. The SPD leaders and mainstream political sociologists will say that this is due to Bowling Alone, that is, post-1968 individualization, the erosion of social-moral milieu, and the distrust in political parties and social institutions in general. This is bullshit. They simply don’t want to face the reality that this is not a natural disaster but a human-made disaster, a disaster of the neoliberalization of social democracy. The UK Labour Party example shows that this is not a secular but rather a political development; ever since the Jeremy Corbyn socialist grassroots revolt enthused the Labour Party base, it has almost tripled its membership, up from 201,293 on May 6, 2015, the day before the general election, to 580,000 in January 2020. The UK Labour Party today is the biggest social-democratic mass party in the world. While the SPD’s membership is literally dying, the UK Labour Party is propelled by a new generation of young socialist activists.
In the 2000s, Margaret Thatcher famously said that Tony Blair and New Labour were her biggest achievement. Likewise, Schröder ought to say that Merkel was his worst achievement. The only unfair thing is that the Greens, whose base—the left-liberal new petty bourgeoisie—was much less affected by the Hartz laws, essentially remained unscathed from the neoliberal politics of the Schröder government and are now poised to form solidly bourgeois governments with the conservatives.
DV: So, you’re saying that the rise of the far right is actually of Merkel’s making and will be her lasting legacy? What is the relationship between her concrete politics and the rise of the far right? How did Merkel govern from here?
IS: Merkel’s luck of being an heir to center-left neoliberalization, the heir to a super-competitive German capitalist class, transformed into a very particular style of ruling. At the Leipzig CDU party convention of 2003, Merkel, who was CDU chairwoman at the time, had still presented herself as a neoliberal hawk and right-wing hardliner. It was the time when she promoted the model of Deutsche Bank and Allianz professor Paul Kirchhoff, a model of a flat tax that would fit “on a beer coaster.” It was also the time when she flew to the United States and apologized to George W. Bush for Germany’s refusal to openly partake in the disastrous 6.4 trillion-dollar U.S. “war on terror” in Iraq. Her article from back then, “Schroeder Doesn’t Speak for All Germans,” published in the Washington Post, is one for the history books.10 Domestically, her hardline libertarianism hurt her badly and was part of why she almost lost the 2005 national elections in spite of the incredible dissatisfaction with the Schröder SPD. Her electoral disaster and Schröder’s adrenaline-driven reaction in the live postelection television debate with Merkel (Berliner Runde) is another one for the books. And the way he attacked her and the ensuing siege mentality might have saved Merkel from sniper fire from her own party.
As a result, Merkel then developed a presidential, opportunistic kind of ruling, leaving the hard work to her ministers, blaming unpopular decisions on them, and shifting positions whenever it seemed opportune. This involved a moderate way of liberal modernization, including a semifeminist maternity and paternity leave, day care, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and so on. For instance, after the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe of 2011 (with 10 to 20 percent of the radioactive emissions of Chernobyl and the displacement of 150,000 people), and faced with tremendous antinuclear energy protests, Merkel suddenly switched positions from the planned extension of the operating licenses of German nuclear power plants to the ad hoc declaration that Germany was going to end nuclear energy. This was not hard to do since, at the time, it was a political goal that had the support of three quarters of the population. At the same time, this co-optation and absorption of the demands of political opponents from the neoliberal left had the effect of asymmetrical demobilization. In the end, the switch in nuclear energy policy did not, as had been intended, prevent the predicted rise of the Greens to their first minister president in Baden-Württemberg, the former Maoist-turned-very-conservative Winfried Kretschmann, but in general Merkel showed a flexibility not seen since the Prussian king in 1848: There’s a revolution against you? Simply turn around and say that you’re leading it!
But Merkel did not lead. By and large, she represented the status quo, especially in terms of political economy. That status quo created by the Schröder government, however, was untenable. The center could not hold. Something had to give. The fear of declassing inside German society, if undealt with, had to find an exhaust pipe. The loss of faith in social democracy, this situation of indistinguishability between political parties, this crisis of representation, had to find a vessel. And that vessel was, for a while and to some extent, DIE LINKE, which managed to return to the Bundestag with the help from the popular tribune, former SPD chairman and neo-Keynesian finance minister Oskar Lafontaine, once deemed the “most dangerous man in Europe” by the British tabloid press because, in 1998, he had intended to re-regulate the eurozone’s financial markets.11 For a while, DIE LINKE enjoyed or endured the notion of the pariah party, being viciously antagonized by all others, especially by the social democrats, and by almost the entire media. And yet, DIE LINKE only captured about one third of all the votes that the social democrats had lost. The crisis of representation mostly meant growth in nonvoting behavior, and it has been mostly from nonvoters and the CDU that the far-right AfD has gained its following.
By not undoing the damage done by her predecessors, Merkel will go down in history as the chancellor who failed Germany. And not only Germany, but also Europe and the world. She and her cabinet failed by refusing to deal with what, in a forthcoming chapter in the 2021 Socialist Register, edited by Leo Panitch and Greg Albo, I call the global six-dimensional crisis of the world today.12 This global crisis stretches across six levels, each of which has the potential to barbarize society. This crisis is obviously an economic one, and as such it has returned fast with the acceleration of COVID-19. Before the virus led to the collapse of international supply chains and the lockdown, German growth rates were as low as they had been in 2009—the high point of the biggest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s Great Depression, which back then led to the rise of European proto- and neofascism.
At the same time, the current crisis is not just one of the capitalist economy and its financial architecture. It is, secondly, also a crisis of politics and social cohesion (think precarization, digitalization, and the way marketization leads to very unequal development across geographical regions). It is, thirdly, a crisis of gender relations and social reproduction, given how the feminization of labor markets occurred under neoliberal conditions of low wages and old-age poverty, and given also how austerity policies further burdens the nuclear family with the brunt of the unpaid social reproductive labor of cooking, washing, cleaning, shopping, and caring for young and elderly relatives. It is, fourthly, a crisis of democracy, given how neoliberal policies have eroded postwar party systems and traditional parties, transformed them into multiple party systems, and have led to the rise of the far right, up to the point that the far right is now capable of seizing power and winning majorities globally—from Brexit and the Donald Trump election in 2016 to India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, Austria, Italy, and so on. Fifthly, the current crisis is a crisis of world order, resulting from the hegemonic decline of the U.S. Empire, the rise of China, and the high-tech rivalry in which they are engaged. And, sixthly, the crisis is a civilizational crisis of ecological sustainability and impending climate catastrophe.
Now, I won’t go into details, but if you look at how the Merkel government addressed the various levels of the crisis, you see very timid and structurally conservative policies, a politics of muddling through but no vision of society that takes everybody along, such as that of the socialist Green New Deal. But without such a vision, I am absolutely convinced that the rise of right-wing authoritarian nationalism will be unstoppable. And the way in which the Merkel government is obstructing the so-called coronabonds and reinforcing European desolidarization during the crisis, risking the disintegration of the eurozone once again, underscores that her politics haven’t changed.
DV: What is the state of the CDU today? Has the rise of the far right led to a change in course?
IS: The CDU/CSU used to be the natural partner of the bourgeoisie and the natural ruling party. Since 1949, the CDU/CSU formed and led the national government for fifty-four out of seventy-one years. It is the party of governance and that habitus characterizes all CDU members. You would expect such a party of winners to have a general claim to leadership and a bold vision for leading Germany out of the current civilizational crisis. However, up until the potentially short-lived boost in the polls following the COVID-19 crisis, tolling the bell of the “hour of the executive” all around the world, the party leadership was in a state of panic because it is being cannibalized from the left by the Green Party, representing a modern transnationalized bourgeoisie and cosmopolitan new petty bourgeoisie adapted to globalized capitalism, and by the far right, representing noncompetitive, fossil energy-intensive, and domestically oriented capital in combination with a popular regressive revolt against the particular current of modernity. This regression is caused by the centrifugal forces of neoliberal marketization. The political economy of the past two decades has torn apart society socially and economically. The market does what the market does best: instead of tending toward equilibrium and creating “spontaneous orders” of optimal resource allocation (as suggested by Friedrich Hayek and neoclassical economics), it creates tremendous imbalances and chaos. It creates tremendous wealth inequality and the divergence of regions between the capitalist core of the Global North and its periphery of the Global South, between the eurozone core and its periphery, between Germany’s south and Germany’s east and north, between Germany’s metropolitan regions and the rural wasteland, between prosperous inner-city neighborhoods and the emerging banlieues and ghettos on the outskirts.
For the CDU and Merkel’s style of consent politics, this, of course, carries tremendous consequences. It is impossible to be a consent-oriented party in an economically polarized society. Economic polarization is followed by political polarization, between subjective winners and losers of modernization, between those who embrace and those who must fear modernization. And the winner-loser divide is not just a plain economic one in terms of fears of downward mobility, but it is also a symbolic one. Because insofar as the rapid pace of globalizing capitalism usually develops faster than people’s mentalities and their ability to adapt to necessary, even inevitable, cultural modernization, this creates a rift between the old and outdated symbolic center of society and the new one. This, I guess, is the background for the divide between so-called cosmopolitans, who embrace capitalist globalization, and so-called communitarians, who revolt against it, which is to a certain degree also a generational divide. This generational divide can be observed in many instances, including in the December 2019 UK election where the Tories would have won one measly seat if the millennials had been the only ones able to vote, and in the United States in the way voting behavior unfolded between Bernie Sanders supporters and the rest in the Democratic primary field.
As a consequence, the CDU/CSU, an aging party losing around one million voters every election cycle due to old age, is being torn apart by the Greens, who represent the modern bourgeoisie, and the AfD, which represents the revolt against this modernity. And, as a result, the CDU has become a particularist, self-interested party of internal divisions, including the emergence of the staunchly conservative, five thousand-members-strong Values Union (Werte-Union) founded in 2017. For instance, during the East German state elections of 2019, its leaders celebrated as a victory that they were still the strongest party and still capable of forming a coalition against the emergent AfD. Meanwhile, in Thuringia, they opened up to the far right of the openly fascist party chairman Björn Höcke, who, in his book Nie zweimal in denselben Fluss (2018), has openly declared a program of mass murder including the dictatorially enforced “remigration” of Muslim minorities and a “bloodletting” of political opponents. Back then, the CDU considered coalition talks and on February 5, 2020, a mere week after the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, the CDU caved alongside the libertarian FDP by getting the FDP candidate Thomas Kemmerich elected to prime minister with the votes of Höcke’s AfD, simply to oust a very popular and quite moderate DIE LINKE prime minister. For the time being, these openings to the extreme right have failed. They came too early. Kemmerich, the FDP candidate, only lasted twenty-five hours and Merkel’s successor to the CDU leadership, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, had to resign five days later. For the time being, the COVID-19 crisis is strengthening the governing parties in the polls at the expense of the Greens. This stabilizes both the government and the CDU/CSU and it is possible that this could last into 2021. Yet, the general trend is different and shifts Germany toward the CDU and Green Party national coalitions. Even if Friedrich Merz, BlackRock’s now former Europe manager and a libertarian right winger, seizes the party leadership with the support of the tabloid mass publication “BILD,” the next German government (after the 2021 national elections) is likely to be a bourgeois government of conservatives and Greens. And the Greens see no problem with Merz. On February 12, 2020, the Green Party’s Bundestag Faction chairwoman Katrin Göring-Eckardt announced that a national coalition with a CDU headed by Merz is an option.13 Keep in mind, this is not just the guy who helped BlackRock squeeze workers on behalf of shareholder value and had the audacity to call himself “middle class” even though he travels by private jet. This is also the guy who, in the week after a far-right terrorist murdered nine alleged “foreigners” in a shisha bar in Hanau after a long series of racist campaigns against shisha bars, went on Twitter and announced that “the CDU must be the party of law and order and the rule of law. Lawless spaces or clan structures must not exist anywhere. And where those structures exist, they must be consequently broken up no matter how much protest this elicits.” And when he was asked later at a press conference whether his statement meant that “your way of fighting right-wing extremism is by talking about clan crime and lawless spaces?,” he simply responded: “the answer is yes.”
Now, after what has happened in Thuringia and with COVID-19 partially reshuffling the political system, the CDU and Greens must hope, of course, that they will have a majority without the FDP. In any case, because a coalition government of CDU and Greens will be one of market-driven development, it will deteriorate the economic and social imbalances in German society and thus will continue to foster the social and economic origins and roots of the rise of the far right. This is because only a gargantuan global reform program with hundreds of billions in public investments tackling, in a comprehensive manner, the social question as well as climate change can fend off fascism’s appeal. The UK Labour election program of 2019 is the minimum of what needs to be done. However, since a bourgeois party coalition of the CDU/CSU and Greens is not going to diverge from the neoliberal course but will follow a kind of green-authoritarian neoliberalism like the current coalition of conservatives and the Greens in Austria, such a coalition government or an extension of the CDU/CSU-SPD coalition in Germany is likely to lead to a conservative and far-right coalition government in the following elections, which will take place in 2025 or earlier. This is particularly going to be the case when the bill for the ongoing corporate bailouts is presented to the public in another round of austerity, which is already shaping up. Seventy-five years after the liberation from German fascism and a German-led world war that destroyed Europe and most of Germany’s cities, and killed close to eighty million people worldwide, the German far right is back. And when the leaders of the old parties point fingers at the far right, the fingers are pointing right back at them: these are your offspring, you did this!
Of course, such a global radical reform program—the necessary minimum to rein in the specter of fascism—would start in Europe and the eurozone. However, the German government gave into U.S. pressure and led the confrontation against Russia alongside the Eastern European governments—led it by constantly tugging at Ukraine and essentially blackmailing and splitting the country with an either-the European Union-or-Russia choice, splitting the country into a bloody civil war. As a result, the old Gorbachevian visions of the “House of Europe” and “good neighborhood” relations were destroyed. Instead, enabled by Brexit and using Trump as a pretext, Germany and the European Union have accelerated the buildup of military capacities, started to advocate “Europe’s strategic autonomy,” and are now conducting the biggest military maneuvers since the end of the Cold War in the shape of 2018’s Trident Juncture and the Defender 2020 maneuver of spring 2020. The global arms race, of which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states are the driving force, is channeling crucial resources away from tackling climate change and into preparations for war—the kind of war we seemed to be very close to in January 2020 when the Trump administration drone-killed Qassim Solimani, the second-most powerful leader of Iran, and the Iranian government responded by bombing two, albeit mostly empty, U.S. military bases in Iraq and downed a civilian plane headed to Ukraine.
This global arms race is wasteful and really dangerous. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a social democrat, announced that he was dead set on fulfilling NATO’s demand of spending 2 percent of GDP on the military. By 2024, Germany will have a bigger military budget than Russia. The combined NATO military expenditures are more than twenty times as much as those of Russia. Meanwhile, Russia, in return, has itself shifted to a (albeit defensive) politics of empire in Ukraine (the secession of Crimea) and Syria (backing the Bashar al-Assad government, which had called Russia for help) and is being pushed into the arms of China in what increasingly looks like a new Cold War between a China-oriented and a U.S.-oriented world—with the weakened European Union, which has now declared China a “systemic rival,” as U.S. appendix.
Why is the European Union weakened? Because the neoliberal path of integration followed ever since the 1985 European Single Act, which enforced unanimity with regards to economic regulations, and the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which disciplined European states into pursuing promarket neoliberal policies, did not lead to economic equilibrium and convergence as the neoliberal orthodoxy young people are taught in business schools around the world proclaims. As was mentioned earlier, it led to the exact opposite. It deindustrialized the European Union’s south and peripherized Southern and Eastern Europe, including the former German Democratic Republic territory, which now functions as a supplier of cheap and servile nonunion labor similar to the U.S. South, while the profits generated particularly in Eastern Europe are repatriated to the European centers where corporate headquarters are located, lining the pockets of capital owners, including the new record-high number of 627,000 Germans who, according to official Statistische Bundesamt data, do not work because their incomes come solely from capital dividends and rents extracted from German renters. 627,000 people in a country with a working-age population of 51.8 million! That is 1.2 percent. (As you know, some people say that the 99 percent versus the 1 percent metaphor first used by the Occupy Wall Street movement was lacking class-analytical precision and, for sure, it does. But this little calculation tells me that it is not actually that far off from some realities of contemporary class society.)
In any case, as you also know, Merkel, as the government leader of the economically dominant country in the eurozone, and her finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble oversaw the particular way in which the European Union resolved the eurozone crisis, namely through a strategy of internal devaluation of costs and wages. They were key orchestrators of the austerity turn in the euro area that followed after the short-lived Keynesian resurgence of 2008–09 and the hopes for a Green New Deal had been buried. As a result, the Fiscal Compact, that is, the new economic governance in the eurozone, reinforced the EU neoliberal architecture with its Sixpack surveillance mechanisms, reinforced punishment of government debt, the rolling back of workers’ collective bargaining agreements, and more. And when these kinds of policies and their accompanying austerity measures turned out to be really unpopular among the southern EU periphery, leading to the strongest class-based protest movements since the 1970s, the European governments stuck to their course. And when these movements managed to gain political power in Greece in 2015 and suggested a eurozone exit strategy of internal up-valuation instead of devaluation, the democratically unaccountable troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) credit-strangulated Greece into submission.
However, the defeat of the European left in July 2015 really functioned as a catalyst for the rise of the far right in Europe. It is not just a temporal coincidence that the refugee crisis followed immediately after the defeat of Syriza. The rise of xenophobic, right-wing authoritarian nationalisms in Europe was facilitated by the prevention of a social Europe exit strategy from the eurozone crisis. If a solution for all was no longer supposed to be possible, it should be a solution for some, a solution for those with the right passport, the right haircut, the right front yard, and the right taste in music, so to speak. Because, as the Greek-French state theorist Nicos Poulantzas argued in his 1974 Fascism and Dictatorship, under generally untenable conditions, it is not the particular strength of the left that propels fascism, but rather the left’s inability to seize power and really change the material living conditions for the working-class majority that creates a political vacuum that is then filled by the völkisch far right. As the late and great British historian Eric Hobsbawm concluded in his book on the horrors of the twentieth century and his predictions for the twenty-first: “the alternative to a changed society is darkness.”
DV: So, what are the potentials of left renewal in Germany today? I noticed that the SPD recently changed its leadership. What can be expected from the new leadership of the SPD? Is there a potential for a re-social democratization of the SPD?
IS: It is true that the new SPD leadership, Saskia Eskens and Norbert Walter-Borjans, is not the leadership for which the party establishment had hoped. Just as much as German capital elites, which call for Friedrich Merz and Olaf Scholz as “chancellor candidates,” the SPD establishment wanted German finance minister and vice chancellor Olaf Scholz, a diehard neoliberal and staunch defender of balanced budget amendments (Schwarze Null).14 The leftist candidates in the party member referendum were Hilde Matheis and Dierk Hirschel. Still, it is true that Eskens and Walter-Borjans ran on a platform critical of Schwarze Null and demanded an active industrial policy, public investments, and a minimum-wage increase. So far, so good. However, once elected, Eskens and Walter-Borjans reached out to the internal right and made a number of significant concessions at the party convention, even though the internal right, the so-called Seeheim Circle, had previously threatened a “civil war” should Eskens and Walter-Borjans be elected.15 The little momentum that was there is now already gone, especially because the new leadership refrained from canceling the grand coalition with Merkel, which has destroyed the party. Meanwhile, the bourgeois media and the neoliberal right within the party have already begun to discredit and disempower Eskens and Walter-Borjans. The inner-party “civil war” is therefore long underway and the neoliberals appear the likely winners.
I think the most important thing to understand, however, is that Germany cannot be compared to the United States or the United Kingdom. What seems possible with regard to center-left party renewal in the United States and the United Kingdom is not going to happen in continental Europe. It is clear that a left-wing shift in Germany is extremely important for Europe given the sheer size of the German economy and the country’s economic dominance in Europe. And yet, people in Europe should not cultivate hopes that German social democracy is now in a situation similar to U.S. Sanderism or Momentum/Corbynism in the United Kingdom. There are two reasons for this. The first has to do with the differences in electoral systems. The United States and the United Kingdom have first-past-the-post majority voting systems. In those systems, the Democratic Party and the Labour Party could be taken over by class conflict-oriented social democrats because the left in those countries had little to no chance of establishing a class-based third party against the existing former social democratic parties. You could hardly be anything but an entryist in those countries. The U.S. and UK lefts were the most pitiable lefts in all of the “West” and their misery was epitomized by the decay of the UK Socialist Workers’ Party as a result of an internal rape scandal cover-up. The cunning of history had it, however, that the global financial crisis has weakened the neoliberal center to such a degree that its conservative parties could be taken over from the far right (Trump) and that its social-democratic parties could be taken over by the left, for real (Corbyn) or at least potentially (Sanders). Corbyn could be elected leader of the Labour Party because the backbencher Corbyn had to stick with his neoliberalized party for lack of a better alternative, voting against the party line more than five hundred times between 1983 and 2015.
On the contrary, the German electoral system is an every-vote-counts proportional representation system. This means that it enabled the establishment of an antineoliberal socialist left party against the neoliberalized social democrats and Green Party—based on a merger between the East German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the Labour and Social Justice—The Electoral Alternative (founded by SPD dissidents and left trade unionists). In 2021, when there will be new parliament elections in Germany, the SPD will have been in power for nineteen of the past twenty-three years and have implemented the thorough neoliberalization of German society and its shift toward militarism and imperialism abroad. You can imagine that during those years, it was essentially DIE LINKE that absorbed all the young leftist idealists, visionaries, critics of neoliberalism, and social movement and antiwar activists, while the SPD attracted people with neoliberal and opportunistic mindsets and a technocratic understanding of politics. In short, to the detriment of despairingly old-aged SPD hopes of renewal, DIE LINKE absorbed most of the capacities for renewal. And given the transformation of the German party system into one with six parties, the SPD will also not be able to garner the enthusiasm that comes with the notion that real government takeover is an option. Eskens and Walter-Borjans are not the Sanders and Corbyn of Germany.
The second and even more important reason is that the political economy of Germany is very different. Socioeconomically, the United States and United Kingdom have much more in common with Spain, Italy, and Portugal than with Germany. The German title of Oliver Nachtwey’s book The Hidden Crisis of Germany (2019) is Downwardly Mobile Society. But even Nachtwey conceded that Germany is not a society in which the middle classes have been factually declassed. As I argued earlier, Germany is among the countries where the problem for the wage-dependent middle classes is not actual declassing, but rather the fear of being declassed as a result of the processes outlined above: capital relocation, digitalization, and old-age unemployment. Nachtwey’s metaphor of a downward escalator is quite useful. The hidden crisis is essentially that people, quite literally, have to work harder and harder in order to stay in the middle income group that still enjoys the “American way of life”: owning your own suburban house with two cars, swimming in Mallorca, and dreaming of snorkeling in Bali. The difference between Germany on the one hand and the United States and the United Kingdom on the other is that while in Germany the erosion of the middle class is merely feared, in the United States and the United Kingdom this erosion has long taken place, especially for millennials. This is due to three key factors: (1) deindustrialization, (2) relative trade-union weakness, and (3) student debt, and in the United States private health care debt on top of that. Youth in the Anglo countries can turn left because they have little to nothing left to lose. As Grace Blakeley argues, the youth in Britain is anticapitalist because they are unlikely to ever own capital. On the contrary, in Germany, where there still exists a strong industrial base with collective-bargaining coverage (providing high industrial wages), where, after strong education strikes, higher education is free again, and where health care is also still largely free, youth are turning right because they still have a lot to lose. Widespread status panic tends to lead the middle classes to join right-wing, top-middle coalitions, like in most EU core countries at the onset of the crisis, whereas declassing enables the educated working class to join left-wing, bottom-middle coalitions, like, for a long time, in the southern and western EU periphery (Spain, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, and to a certain extent also Italy).
In Germany, unfortunately, we are very far away from constructing a bottom-middle coalition. So far, the far right is more dynamic than the left because its message resonates with large segments of the frightened middle. This message partly amounts to the conservative idea that everything can stay the way it is if the middle class is only ruthless enough against the hungry mouths from Syria (refugees), Greece (uncompetitive “lazy” Europeans), and the poor. There is, however, no alternative to creating a counterhegemonic bloc of the working-class majority in Germany that stretches from the job-secure, high-earning sections of the working class in the West German export industry via the precarious, often East German workforce in this very export industry to the expansive 25 percent of workers stuck in the service industry low-wage sector. And as I wrote in my paper for DIE LINKE’s 2020 Strategy Conference, an intelligent combination of both a new feminist, antiracist, ecological class politics and an inclusive left populism will be key to creating such a counterhegemonic bloc.16 And one of the key fields of struggle for a bottom-middle coalition will be housing, because Germany is a country of renters, not homeowners, and the shift of surplus capital searching for profitable investment outlets in the German housing market and the resulting inflationary bubble is affecting the middle income groups as well, and strongly so. It is a site of class struggle because it is in the sphere of reproduction that capital is expropriating labor incomes and wage gains made in the sphere of production.
DV: So, if the SPD’s renewal is unlikely, where does that leave the German left? And what about DIE LINKE? DIE LINKE’s party program states that the party’s goal is to build democratic socialism. The transition from capitalism to socialism implies that the means of production will be owned by those who create (new) value, that is, by the workers. The capitalists are the ones who have these means of production and history has shown us that the expropriation of the means of production has never happened through institutional games imposed by the bourgeoisie, but by open class struggle. However, from the outside, DIE LINKE appears to be a party betting more on electoral success rather than sharpening class struggle. What is your comment on that?
IS: I agree that socialism will be brought about by class struggle. It will be brought about by those who, first of all, have an objective interest in socialism—because they are the propertyless, wage-dependent workers—and who, secondly, have the means of enforcing socialism, because as a class they wield the only power that can challenge the power of capital: the power of withholding their labor power through collective organization and the strike. Because when workers realize that it is they, together with nature, who create all existing social wealth, when they realize that capital is nothing without them, that capital needs them more than they need the capitalists, then socialism becomes a reality, or at least a very real possibility.
The key question, I guess, is what open class struggle means. Generally speaking, I am convinced that social revolution in advanced capitalist societies today depends more on “wars of fixed positions” and less on “wars of movement,” more on transforming the capitalist state into a democratic state rather than storming the Winter Palace. Revolution in the West today is not a question of picking up arms against the capitalist state. If you do that, you will be slaughtered by security forces increasingly interwoven with the far right, as the book Extreme Sicherheit shows. And not only that—you will enter the state only to find out that the real power still lies outside the state, lies with capital.
In my view, the class struggle for socialism today needs to organize itself as the left wing of the actually existing labor movement and it needs to form class-based parties. Unions are the workers’ shields, the party (or parties) are the workers’ sword. DIE LINKE is a socialist party. Its goal clearly is to overcome capitalism and replace it with a socialist society. Even the German social democrats are oriented toward “democratic socialism” on Sundays. And the German Constitution allows for such a transition, as the West German constitutional lawyer Wolfgang Abendroth famously argued during the 1950s Abendroth-Forsthoff debate.
At the same time, recovering from the defeat of the neoliberal turn and rebuilding the labor movement and the socialist left is a very long-term project. It does not make it any easier that the climate crisis, a crisis caused by capitalism and its systemic dependency on growth, does not allow for that time. It actually is a horrid, hard-to-swallow thing. But there are no shortcuts in history, or they come at tremendous costs, such as the Soviet Union’s collectivization and industrialization under Joseph Stalin, when revolution in the West had failed and socialism in one country, one underdeveloped and besieged country, was tried.
For DIE LINKE, the key question will be whether its ideational orientation toward democratic socialism is matched with the appropriate strategy. Transformative strategy today goes beyond the old reform/revolution and also beyond the movementism/parliamentarianism rupture. It includes a politics inside, outside, and against the state. My paper for the 2020 Strategy Conference of DIE LINKE calls for an end to the false dichotomy of the new class politics of a connective party on the one hand, and left populism on the other. In my view, outlined in that paper, I call for a dialectical combination of both, partly because we don’t have much time left before the crisis of global capitalism, the global rise of the far right, and the impending climate catastrophe leads us to a kind of barbarism that can dwarf the barbarisms of the past three big crises of capitalism: the First World War, the Second World War, and the neoliberal turn from the Volcker Shock to 1989, which was a barbarism in its own right.
- ↩ Erwin Grandinger, “Deutschland ist inzwischen der kranke Mann Europas,” Welt, January 6, 2003.
- ↩ Ulrike Herrmann, “Renten rauf – auch in Deutschland,” Taz, December 9, 2019.
- ↩ “20 Prozent mehr Rentner gehen zur Tafel,” Süddeutsche Zeitung, December 7, 2019.
- ↩ Markus Pfalzgraf, “Bedürftige sollen lernen, Strom zu sparen,” SWR Aktuell, November 21, 2019.
- ↩ Christian Baron, “Sollen sie doch Ratten jagen,” der Freitag, November 13, 2018.
- ↩ Volker Votsmeier and Sönke Iwersen, “‘Wir fühlten uns wie die Größten,'” Handelsblatt, November 1, 2019; Martin Hesse and Anne Seith, “Schäuble wusste früh von Steuertricks der Banken,” der Spiegel, February 3, 2017; “Hamburger SPD erhielt Spenden von der Warburg-Bank,” Welt, February 17, 2020; Karsten Seibel, “Die 307-Milliarden-Lücke entlarvt Europas großen Mehrwertsteuerbetrug,” Welt, January 8, 2020.
- ↩ Christian A. Conrad, “Der Cum-Ex-Prozess zeigt, dass die Branche wenig gelernt hat,” Handelsblatt, November 1, 2019; Seibel, “Die 307-Milliarden-Lücke entlarvt Europas großen Mehrwertsteuerbetrug.”
- ↩ Christoph Butterwegge, “‘Die Agenda 2010 war ein Nährboden für den Rechtspopulismus,'” Zeit Online, February 10, 2017.
- ↩ Klaus Dörre, Prekarität und Soziale Macht, (Vienna: Institut für Soziologie, 2010).
- ↩ Angela Merkel, “Schroeder Doesn’t Speak for All Germans,” Washington Post, February 20, 2003.
- ↩ Sue Arnold, “The Saturday Profile: Oskar Lafontaine: Europe’s Most Dangerous Man?,” Independent, November 28, 1998.
- ↩ Ingar Solty, “Die welt von Morgen – Szenarien Unserer Zukunft Zwischen Katastrophe und Hoffnung,” Zeitschrift LuXemburg, December 2019.
- ↩ “Grüne: Bündnis mit Merz denkbar,” NTV, February 13, 2020.
- ↩ Sasan Abdi-Herrle, “Wirtschaftselite für Kanzlerkandidaturen von Merz und Scholz,” Zeit Online, November 21, 2019.
- ↩ “Stichwahl wird wegweisend für den Kurs der SPD,” SWR, October 27, 2019.
- ↩ Ingar Solty, Für Die Verbindende, Neue Klassenpolitik und Für Einen Klugen Linken Populismus (Berlin: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2019).
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