What German Left (Part II)

18 Jun

This guest post, by Phil Mader, a researcher in sociology at the Universal of Basel, follows on previous posts by him and by Wolfgang Streeck on the German Left. Mader’s first installment dealt with the SPD and the Greens; this second and final part highlights some issues plaguing the parties on the left of the SPD in Germany.

What German Left? (Part II)

The Eurozone crisis has set even the rigid German political landscape in flux. Merkel’s seemingly post-political governance, with what from many a German’s perspective appears as benign motherly strictness towards the continent, has attracted voters with its siren call of stability and morality. Paradoxically, this has come at the expense of both the Social Democrats and the neoliberal FDP, which is in death throes. As Wolfgang Streeck argues, the coalition of the SPD and the CDU may best be understood today as two faces of one larger Volkspartei representing Germany writ large. Germany especially is big enough, and its position in Europe comfortable enough, for its European policy to rest on the stereotype of free-riding southern Europeans profiting at the expense of virtuous, hard-working Northerners, whose interests only Germany can protect. It falls to the Left in Germany, which has made fairly little progress on domestic and European issues in the crisis, to break through this narrative. One positive signal in terms of greater pan-European solidarity was Die Linke party co-leader Bernd Riexinger’s trip to Athens, simultaneously with Merkel in 2012, which saw him protesting side-by-side with Tsipras. This, however, earned Die Linke near-universal disapproval among German voters.

Die Linke is the only party of relevance to the left of the SPD. In comparison, the rapid rise and disappearance of the Piratenpartei (“Pirate Party”) stands out as a recent blip. For Die Linke the past few years have been a time of consolidation and transition, securing its hold in several state parliaments and slowly expanding outside its traditional voter base in the old East. But the party remains marginal in German parliamentary politics (particularly now as part of the smallest opposition in recent history) and is internally divided along a number of fault lines which often correlate with the rift between East and West. Die Linke was patched together in 2007 from the Party for Democratic Socialism (which emerged from the ruins of the East German socialist party) and the WASG, largely a West-German breakaway of disaffected social democrats and trade unionists. Despite the almost complete change of personnel and its ongoing critical reappraisal of the GDR, the party’s partial origins in the East German state still make it unpalatable as a coalition partner for many in the political establishment.

The East-West fusion brought together political leaders with very different histories: Gregor Gysi, who was legal counsel for many GDR dissidents, and is the party’s leading intellectual; and the more populist West German Oskar Lafontaine. It also brought together fundamentally different voter bases. Among the party’s current leading lights are Katja Kipping, who represents the more libertarian-socialist stream (Emanzipatorische Linke), and Sahra Wagenknecht of the more traditional Kommunistische Plattform, who effectively acts as the party’s mediagenic spokesperson (and also is “Lafo’s” lover). The Linke’s East German voters often combine nostalgia for the GDR and its welfare state with a heavy dose of political pragmatism. West German supporters tend to include disaffected unionists as well as principle-driven leftist radicals among their ranks. Western cadres often resent the East’s pragmatism and relative conservatism, which has included facilitating austerity measures when governing regionally (for instance in Berlin), while the East often resents the West’s perceived radicalism, sectarianism, and aversion to governing.

The Linke’s stance on Europe and its current impasse has not been as outspoken and clear as the broader European Left may hope for. Officially, Die Linke advocates Eurobonds, an expansionary German fiscal policy, and a deep democratization of Europe’s institutions against the Troika’s diktat. But in practice the German median voter is hardly easy game on these issues, so that in effect the party’s most relevant (yet insufficient) demand could be its more forcefully-pursued minimum wage of 10 Euros.

The fundamental problem of the German Left remains the undeniable difficultly of formulating a saleable leftist project among the winners of Europe’s crisis. No matter how asinine, the new Right’s myth of the Euro disempowering Germany has gained the upper hand in the battle for interpretational hegemony. For the first time since the immediate post-war era, a considerable parliamentary force to the right of the CDU is emerging: the ordoliberal, D-Mark nostalgic, socially reactionary Alternative für Deutschland. Bringing together sections of the old conservative establishment with parts of the new Right, it barely missed the 5 percent mark in last year’s national election, and recently bagged seven percent of votes for the EU Parliament, where the AfD will be joining a parliamentary group of Eurosceptics.

The left wing of Die Linke, and particularly the autonomous Left beyond it, also remains haunted by another deep schism which dates back to 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall, in the estimation of many on the radical Left, was an instance of history repeating itself, as the German state once again expanded eastward. While hailed abroad as a peaceful revolution, the “reunification” of FRG and GDR in fact went forth on the back of a disturbing nationalist current (“Wir sind ein Volk”) which found its most violent expressions in a string of xenophobic attacks across the country, including the notorious multi-day pogrom in Rostock (in which miraculously nobody was killed). Reacting to this new Germany, large fractions of the antifascist and autonomous movements adopted a more decidedly anti-nationalist stance, bringing forth a distinct “anti-German” (antideutsch) current which questioned and challenged various accepted tenets of the traditional “anti-imperialist” German Left.

In essence, the Antideutsche rejected categorical pacifism. They disavowed solidarity with Palestinian and Arab nationalist causes, adopting a Shoah-informed, pro-Israeli position instead. The anti-Germans vehemently denounced anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism among the Left. They praised “Western values” over what they saw as sympathies among the Left with global Islamist reaction. And they promoted an unabashed hedonism over (Greens’ and others’) praise of economic restraint. (A somewhat similar but smaller split found its expression in Britain with the 2006 Euston Manifesto).

Although hardly the single most important divide, this split shaped a generation of radical left activists in Germany and still informs the politics of the organized Left; for instance with sectarian battles within the youth organization of Die Linke over some party members’ activism for the 2010 “Gaza Freedom Flotilla”. Not only do both camps invest energy in gaining the high ground over symbolic issues with little immediate practical salience in Europe (e.g. Israel/Palestine), but the division also has informed divergent explanations for and policies of resistance against European crisis management. To simplify and (somewhat) caricature: one side understands the Euro crisis as a conspiracy of transnational financial capital against labour and sovereign nations; the other smells anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in any hint at the power of financial capital.

Looking forwards, the activities of some autonomous-communist networks such as “Ums Ganze” indicate a move beyond the divide. The “Interventionistische Linke” network is another non-parliamentary force working to merge anti-capitalist ideology with actively throwing a spanner into the German-European crisis machinery, in part by seeking to push the party Die Linke in a more decidedly anti-capitalist direction. The M31 and Blockupy protests in 2012 and 2013 illustrated the promise of a more active and coherent anti-austerity movement from within the radical Left in Germany. All of this remains fairly low-key. But the upcoming protests and blockades against the inauguration of the new ECB headquarters in Frankfurt in fall 2014 could prove a good test for the German Left’s capacity to effectively mobilize for pan-European political-economic and social change.

The SPD under Merkel

2 Jun

As part of its continuing series on the European Left, The Current Moment publishes an article by Wolfgang Streeck on the SPD under Merkel. Wolfgang Streeck is a director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany. Widley recognized in Germany and abroad for his work in sociology and political economy, Wolfgang Streeck’s most recent book is published this month in English with Verso, under the title Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism.

 

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Since the fall of 2013 Germany has been governed by a Grand Coalition, led by the Christian Democrats under Angela Merkel and including as junior partner the Social Democrats under Sigmar Gabriel. Arguably the union of Black and Red was nothing more than the formalization of an informal cohabitation that had followed the end of the first Grand Coalition of the new century in 2009. Now that the opposition in the Bundestag has been reduced to a tiny and politically dispersed minority, it seems not much of an exaggeration to consider the government firmly in the hands of a centrist national unity party into which the two former Volksparteien have peacefully dissolved.

What is remarkable is how happy the two parties are with their reunion, and how stable their share in the vote has remained since 2009: the CDU/CSU attracting roughly 40 percent of the electorate – at steadily declining rates of turnout – and the SPD being stuck at around 25 percent, a result that was considered catastrophic in 2009 when it was attributed to having been the smaller party in a Merkel cabinet. Now the SPD seems content with having ceased to be in serious completion for the Chancellorship, if not forever then for a very long time.

There are several reasons for the stability of the current power-sharing – or better: cooptation – regime and its apparent prospects for a long life. Angela Merkel seems much to prefer the SPD over the coalition partner of her second term, the FDP. With the Social Democrats on board, she is no longer at risk of being forced by her party, or tempted by her own passions if such she has, to hurt the feelings of pensioners, the unemployed, or the remaining clients of the welfare state by pursuing neoliberal “reform”, at least in Germany. While the SPD is less given to electoral-political panic, being (still) sufficiently far away from the five-percent hurdle, the FDP may never recover and disappear in the no-man’s land outside of the Bundestag. Moreover, if the SPD were for some reason to break away from Merkel, there are now Greens, eagerly waiting to claim the place of the SPD as the CDU’s partner in government – and the SPD knows this. Having abandoned their old leadership after the disappointing election results of 2013, the Greens are still angry with themselves for having rejected Merkel’s invitation to coalition negotiations. Merkel can now choose between two comfortable majorities, one with the SPD and one with the Greens, and next time around she may actually want to change partners once the SPD will have done the dirty work of revising the Energiewende in line with the interests of the German export industry and, perhaps, the private households suffering from steadily increasing prices of electricity. More on this below.

Meanwhile, Red-Green-Red, a government formed under SPD leadership and including the Greens and the Left, looks ever more remote as a practical possibility. The Greens, having finally abandoned their leftist inclinations, will not let entering a government that includes Die Linke get in the way of their being perceived as a thoroughly buergerliche, middle-of-the road party with a socially progressive and environmentally conscious agenda. And while the Left has worked hard to style itself as a staunch supporter of “Europe” – which in Germany is now the same as the Euro – its empathy with Russia in the crisis over Ukraine is likely to make it even more of an outcast in the German party system than it already is, not least because of the SPD’s untiring denunciations.

Inside the SPD Sigmar Gabriel, party leader and minister of economic affairs, is now fully in control. Not least this is because Merkel, by making major substantive concessions to him during the coalition negotiations, including a disproportionate representation of SDP ministers in the cabinet, made it easier to forget the party’s crushing defeat of 2013 that ut received under his leadership. Moreover, Gabriel’s candidate for Chancellor, Steinbrück, miraculously disappeared only two or three days after the election, as though he had never existed; nobody has heard from or of him since. Steinmeier, Gabriel’s other former rival, is happy to be back at the Foreign Office, in the post he already occupied in the first Grand Coalition 2005 to 2009 when the party was sufficiently impressed with him to make him candidate for the Chancellorship, to disastrous effect.

As to Gabriel, his junior partnership with Angela Merkel has given him the means to heal the rift between the SPD and the unions, with two policy moves he extracted from the CDU/CSU. The first is the introduction of a general minimum wage, the second an effective lowering of the pension age for a select group of workers. Both measures are still in the legislative process and details are contested between the SPD and factions in the Christian-Democratic Parties. The Chancellor, however, as one would expect, sticks firmly to the Coalition agreement and there is no doubt that the two measures will eventually be passed in one form or other.

The prehistory of the impending minimum wage legislation is rather curious. For a long time the unions had opposed any legal regulation of low wages, in order to protect collective bargaining. The first to break ranks was the service sector union, Verdi, which after the Hartz reforms had finally lost control over the low wage end of the labor market. With a delay of a few years IG Metall, still the most powerful among the unions, concurred, which it might have done much earlier given that there are practically no low wage workers in its constituency. Now the SPD can offer a legal minimum wage as a tribute to its union allies, and as a sign that social-democratic participation in government carries real benefits for workers – which in this case is actually true.

Pension reform, too, serves to mend fences with the unions. Under the first Grand Coalition the then Social-Democratic party chief and Minister of Labor, Franz Müntefering, almost single-handedly raised the legal age of retirement to 67 years, bypassing the SPD in what was practically a coup-de-état with the support of Merkel. The new legislation will allow workers with more than 45 years of service, including times of unemployment, to retire at age 63, at full pension. The matter is more complicated than it looks and more complicated than its supporters and detractors make it look. What is true is that it will benefit mainly the core union constituency of male manual workers. In exchange, the SPD has swallowed an even more expensive pension increase for mothers with children born before 1992, which was and is a pet project of the Christian Democrats trying to get back the female vote. Like the minimum wage, both pension reforms are fought tooth and nail by German economists, a neoliberal monoculture of astonishing internal conformity that has never been more predictably opposed than now to anything looking only slightly like it might be social-democratic.

In addition to minimum wage legislation and pension reform, three issues in particular will dominate the agenda of the Grand Coalition. Ultimately they will decide upon which constellation of political forces Merkel’s fourth term – and nobody seriously doubts that she wants and will get one – will be founded. The first is Europe. Here the SPD was always in agreement with Merkel, in government or out. It is true that once in a while it deployed anti-Merkel rhetoric to attract the Euro-idealistic segment of the middle class, as represented primarily by the Greens. In this vein, before the 2013 election Gabriel made several attempts to win the backing of intellectuals such as Jürgen Habermas, for what he pretended to be a social-democratic alternative to Merkel’s European policy. The message, although mostly coded and subtle, was that Merkel did less than required to mitigate the suffering in the South. But the only practical consequence, if any, was that Merkel won and the SPD lost among those afraid that “Europe” would become too expensive. It seems that this was why Merkel felt no need to be vindictive about the Social-Democratic attacks.

In fact, when coalition negotiations began after the election, the first deal that seems to have been struck on the very first day was that the SPD gave up on the Europeanization of government debt (“Eurobonds”) so dear to the heart of the Greens and the progressive middle-class milieu, in return for the CDU agreeing to the legal minimum wage. Both CDU/CSU and SPD know that more than symbolic assistance for the crisis countries would be costly at the ballot box although the SPD, to Merkel’s delight, had to pretend for the consumption of the “progressive” part of its constituency that it did not care about this. In truth, Merkel, Schäuble, Gabriel, Steinmeier and the forgotten Steinbrück have for long formed an Einheitsfront, knowing they must defend the Euro to the hilt as it is the lifeline of the German export industry, not just of its employers but also of its unions. For the German economy, European Monetary Union means a favorable external exchange rate plus fixed prices for their products in a captive “internal market” protected from political distortion in the form of a readjustment of national currencies. The German political class knows that at some point this will have to be paid for, but they are determined to keep the price as low and as invisible to voters as possible. One way of doing this is insisting on “reforms” in debtor countries, another offering financial support for social programs in Greece or Spain that are small enough not to make a dent in German public finances but also too small to make one in the South’s misery. Much more important is the tacit backing by both CDU and SPD of the European Central Bank’s various covert measures to bail out the ailing Southern European banking industries and surreptitiously refinance the debt of the Mediterranean states, in contravention of the Maastricht Treaties. While the Christian Democrats pretend they don’t know, the Social Democrats claim credit with their pro-Euro supporters for not getting in the way of the ECB’s “emergency measures”.

The so-called “European elections” were officially framed in German politics in two not readily compatible ways at the same time and by the same players. First, they were depicted as a Manichaean battle between the “good Europeans” united in the CDU/CSU/SPD/Greens/FDP Einheitsfront and the “enemies of Europe” – the “Anti-Europäer” – represented mainly by a new center-right party, AfD, which had formed to demand an end to monetary union. During the election campaign all controversial issues among the governing parties, most of them just pseudo- controversial anyway, had been hidden away (no mention any more of “Eurobonds”!), just as at the European level all impending critical decisions had been postponed (like banking union and the various additional “rescue operations” it will require). This left as common objectives for both Christian and Social Democrats a higher voter turnout and keeping the AfD as small as possible. Both goals were in part achieved as the 7.0 percent won by the AfD remained below the protest vote in many other countries, and turnout increased for the first time in decades in a national election, from 43.3 to 48.1 percent.

Second and simultaneously, the election was presented as a competition between two individuals, both long-serving European functionaries with indistinguishable European convictions, running Europe-wide for the Presidency of the European Commission on behalf of their respective “party families”: the Luxemburger Christian Democrat Jean-Claude Juncker and the German Social Democrat Martin Schulz. Merkel had more or less enthusiastically allowed her party to participate in the charade, apparently on condition that she rather than Juncker was featured on the CDU election posters. The SPD, on the other hand, insisted that the “winner” of the contest had to be appointed President, even though nothing like this can be found in the Treaties, and although Schulz never had a realistic chance of gaining a majority in the Parliament. Remarkably, throughout the campaign the SPD presented Schulz under the slogan, “From Germany, for Europe”, in obvious contradiction of Schulz’ pan-European rhetoric outside his home country. The nationalist frame in which the Social-Democratic “European” candidate was advertised paid off handsomely. While the Christian Democrats lost 2.6 percentage points and ended up at 35.3 percent, the SPD gained 6.5 points (up from 20.8 percent in 2009, which had been the party’s lowest result ever) to finish at 27.3 percent.

The election over, it is again the time of the European Council, the representation of national governments, which today means the time of Angela Merkel. If she wants she can now act as the informal leader of her “party family” and try to install Juncker at the head of the Commission. For the required majority in the European Parliament she will need the support of the Social Democrats, which she might get if she offers Schulz a post as Commission member, maybe as Vice President. This she would be able to do by sacrificing the sitting German commissioner, a former Christian-Democratic Minister President of the Land of Baden-Württemberg who, conveniently, happens to oppose Merkel’s anti-nuclear energy policy. Sending Schulz to Brussels on the German ticket would make Merkel’s German coalition partner happy: not only would it transport the German Grand Coalition to the European level – where Christian Democrats and Social Democrats had always worked together hand-in-glove – but the SPD had during the coalition negotiations demanded the German post on the Commission, without the two sides having come to an agreement. Moreover, a Schulz appointment would usefully demonstrate, if such demonstration was still needed, that Merkel knows how to punish disobedient members of her camp. Alternatively, Merkel could, after a period of indecision, disregard the election results altogether and appoint a Commission President able to get the approval of the British – which would exclude both Juncker and Schulz. This would be a positive signal to the rising numbers in Europe, not just in the UK, who favor a repatriation of competences from Brussels to the nation-states. In particular, it would be a good preparation for the impending negotiations with London on a revision of the Treaties in this sense. Germany, it would appear, should have a strong interest in keeping Britain inside the EU, if only as reassurance against all too ambitious integration projects as are likely to originate in Southern member countries and could be quite costly from a German perspective. Ultimately, perhaps after some public fuss, the SPD, in charge after all of the German Foreign Ministry, will go along with this as it always has.

The second issue the SPD will somehow have to master is the implementation, drawn out over more than a decade, of the balanced budget constitutional amendment passed by the first Grand Coalition under Merkel in 2009. As CDU-CSU and SPD had passed the amendment together, it would be hard for both to defect from it. On the other hand, while the language that was inserted in the Constitution is extremely detailed and technical, making the amendment the longest ever and entirely unreadable for the general public, loopholes can always be found to mitigate spending cuts if need be. As long as the general economic situation in Germany continues to be as good as it is now, the consolidation of public finances, which has already begun, will cause only little pain and budget balancing can remain a joint undertaking. Already, however, the 2014 pension reform was counter to the spirit of austerity under which the Schuldenbremse was installed, and the moment tax revenues will begin to stagnate or decline, the higher pension entitlements will make themselves painfully felt. Among the budget items that may then become politically contentious are the still very high annual transfers to the Neue Länder, the former GDR. For a government that will for political if not for other reasons have to defend these against spending cuts, it will be impossible to advocate new fiscal transfers to the Southern and, increasingly, the South-Eastern member states of EU and EMU, regardless of whether through Brussels or on a bilateral basis. Obviously this will further constrain German options in Europe and in the defense of the common currency. While this is unlikely to destabilize the Black-Red coalition, what may become critical is that the Länder, which together account for half the public spending in Germany, may have a harder time than the federal state to consolidate their finances as required for them by the amended federal constitution. It so happens that most of the Länder are today governed with strong Social-Democratic participation, and some Länder Prime Ministers are powerful figures within the SPD. Bringing them in line with the Federal Government’s fiscal consolidation policy will be a strong test for the SPD national leadership and the Social-Democratic cabinet members, and one that they may well fail.

The third and final of the three critical issues for the Social Democrats under the Grand Coalition is energy. When Merkel ended the nuclear age in Germany by command decision during the panic after Fukushima, she with one stroke gained for herself the option of a Black-Green coalition. In this, perversely, she could count on the support of the SPD, which had long identified itself with the Greens’ anti-nuclear energy stance, in spite of considerable skepticism among the unions, who were concerned about jobs, and among local governments, often Social-Democratic, who worried about a secure energy supply. When general enthusiasm about the Energiewende had dissipated and the immense difficulties of replacing nuclear energy wholesale with renewables began to make themselves felt, Merkel cunningly conceded energy policy to the SPD, by agreeing to move it from the ministry for the environment to the economics ministry which the SPD had claimed for its party leader. Gabriel will now have to square several circles at the same time. First, he will have to find ways to end and perhaps reverse the rise in energy prices for private households caused by the heavy subsidization of renewables. Second and at the same time, he must reassure the Green element in the SPD that he will not fall behind Merkel with respect to the pace and scope of the “energy turn”. Third, German industry has meanwhile become more restive than ever over the rising price of energy, and firms are beginning to talk about relocating production to countries where energy is cheaper. The same fear is expressed by unions in the manufacturing sector, in particular the union of chemical workers, which happens to represent also the energy-producing industry, including the operators of nuclear power plants. Fourth, the European Union in Brussels has become suspicious about what it perceives to be public subsidies (“state aids”, in Brussels jargon) to lower the costs of energy for manufacturers in energy-intensive sectors – which, in turn, are in fear of Brussels depriving them of their benefits. Fifth, citizens, including some of those who had applauded the end of nuclear energy, are becoming averse to the construction of the new power lines required for the transport of wind energy from the north to the south of the country. For Social Democrats, the main battlefield will be the retail price of electricity for low-income households, followed by employment in manufacturing and energy production. No doubt Merkel had every reason to hand the responsibility for Energiewende to her partner, with the Greens waiting in the wings for when Gabriel will have to throw the towel under the intensifying pressures from different and incompatible interests. This, then, may be the hour of Black-Green.

 

What German Left? (Part 1)

7 May

Guest post by Phil Mader, researcher in sociology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and an editor of the Governance Across Borders blog, www.governancexborders.com.

TCM’s launch article for this occasional series argued that today’s German Left was more German than Left. It would be hard to disagree. However, equating the German Left with the SPD (as the article mostly did) offers too narrow a picture. It’s not easy to say what’s Left (and left) of the traditional social/Christian democrat divide in Germany, so for the sake of a tour d’horizon, I’ll attempt an overview of the factional positions and various counter- and cross-currents rippling across the left-of-centre political spectrum in Germany. Marx and Engels bitingly remarked in the German Ideology that “The thoughts and actions of the foreigner are concerned with temporariness, the thoughts and actions of the German with eternity.” They were, of course, criticising their contemporaries, but the statement retains validity for both the tamer and the more radical elements of the German Left, the former being more concerned with the permanence of the German model than Europe’s present ailments, the latter preoccupied with more abstract matters than the current impasse. This first article deals with the moderate parliamentary Left: the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party (Die Grünen). The next examines the leftier Left: the Linkspartei and the extra-parliamentary Left, including the trade union sector and the autonomous movement.

Overall – as in most parts of the Western capitalist world – the past thirty-odd years have shifted the general parameters of party politics in Germany to the right. However, the failure of the German Left to advance solidarity in the banking-cum-Southern European debt crisis has specific Germany-rooted causes. Partly of course economic profiteering plays a role, but ideologically for the vast majority (far into the Left voter spectrum) the only possible narrative of the Euro crisis is that of economic virtue versus immorality. Mirroring the overall rise of a new nationalism, for many in Germany southern Europe’s woes are a welcome confirmation of Germany’s own virtue. Its model for the past 20 years has been the astonishing, perhaps even historically unique, cumulative wage repression amounting to 79 percent of GDP (since 1995), while private debt levels remained among the lowest and steadiest in Europe.

German popular wisdom on southern Europe is embodied in the figure conjured up by Merkel of the proverbially frugal, economically savvy and morally virtuous “Swabian housewife” who knows that you can only ever spend as much as you have. Germany’s current relative economic stability in terms of high capitalization, continued export success, and moderate unemployment (7 percent officially; but 1.4 million Germans receive wage subsidies and 900,000 are temps) appears a late reward for this “wisdom”, while tabloid tirades against lazy, scheming “Pleite-Griechen” (“bankrupt Greeks”) offer rhetorical solace to a populace which has stolidly borne the clear-cutting of social insurance and creation of a new lumpen-precariat, publicly reduced to rummaging in bins for bottles worth 8 cents deposit. Given this combination of base and superstructure, political acts of solidarity with Southern Europe are risky enterprises for any force vying for power.

Not that, under normal circumstances, Germany’s social democrats would be too keen. Far more than Britain’s Labour Party or France’s Socialistes, the SPD has a history of organic alliance with conservative elites, supporting the national cause in decisive, difficult impasses: Lasalle’s anti-communism, the SPD’s “yes” to war bonds (1914), Ebert and Noske’s violent quashing of the revolution in 1919 and 1920. Since World War II, the SPD’s two defining moments in government were Willy Brandt’s rapprochement (conservatives labeled him a traitor yet reaped the later rewards of a smooth incorporation of the East) and the Schröder government’s early 2000s “Hartz” tax, welfare, and labour market reforms, which cut deeper through the social safety net in one electoral term than Kohl ever attempted in four.

At the ballots, the Social Democrats have fought a losing battle ever since, clinging to diminishing remnants of power. After the last election in fall 2013, Social Democrat leaders never considered a possible “Red-Red-Green” Left majority, quickly choosing instead to repeat their “grand coalition” with the CDU (and making Linke and Bündnis 90/Die Grünen the smallest opposition ever in the German Bundestag). One effect of the SPD’s preference for centrist coalitions has been that any political achievements it can show increasingly bear the CDU’s stamp. For instance, the two social causes it championed in the last election – a universal minimum wage and dual citizenship – are materialising as barely recognizable compromises. Over one third of employees who should have benefited from the minimum wage of €8.50 per hour (before tax) will be exempt, and those previously unemployed for over one year are additionally excluded. Dual citizenship will be restricted to Germany-born-and-raised children, bound by strict rules of residence and discriminatory clauses. Despite occasional back-bench grumbling, today’s SPD solidly remains in the hands of Schröder’s successors – foreign minister Steinmeier and a still-powerful Peer Steinbrück – and their political stepchildren, Sigmar Gabriel and Andrea Nahles. This leadership is committed to defending and cementing the turn-of-the-millennium reforms, the undoing of many of which would be conditional for any partnership with Die Linke.

The SPD has thus become a party without a cause, and though much the same may be said for Merkel’s CDU, the conservatives retain a final trump card: values. That, together with SPD cadres’ mortal dread of sharing anything – even opposition – with the Linkspartei, explains its hunger for “scraps at the table” (TCM). SPD stalwarts still resent the treason of the Lafontaine-led Left breakaway which created today’s Die Linke (more in the next article). Conservatives’ praise for Schröder’s and Fischer’s reforms, meanwhile, has been ample, nurturing a genuine, helpless affinity among Social Democrats across the centre aisle (“nobody except the CDU understands us”). More than once, lately, political commentators have sounded the SPD’s death knell; its aging faithfuls have kept its vote share between one quarter and one fifth, but its decline into insignificance is increasingly a real possibility. Neither going forward – devising or embracing more liberal reforms – nor back – recanting Schröder’s legacy and ousting his disciples – are emerging as practical options.

The Grünen, meanwhile, whose entire history since 1980 has been an intense identity struggle, are currently the most dynamic and growing political force in Germany (aside from the right-wing anti-Euro AfD). The Greens are rapidly eating into the SPD’s share of the vote, as well as attracting middle-aged, middle-class, socially and economically liberal voters from all camps; each successive shift away from its militant roots to the organic food liberalism of an eco-bourgeois party has rewarded internal “reformers” against the resistance of party “Fundis”. Die Grünen now even head the state government, of all places, in conservative Baden-Württemberg, ruling with the SPD as their smaller partner. Having won the election on a tide of popular outrage against a major railway infrastructure project (hardly their core ecological agenda) this geographic shift of the Green heartland south-west illustrates its programmatic metamorphosis. The change is personified by Winfried Kretschmann, one-time student radical turned proudly Catholic eco-libertarian schoolteacher, who heads the government. He embodies a transformation within the Green party as profound as the one once undertaken by Joschka Fischer.

The party’s recent change in leadership has cemented its trajectory towards the centre, further increasing the likelihood of a green-conservative love marriage after 2017, should the SPD flag as Merkel’s partner. The Greens supported the balanced budget amendment which enshrined austerity in Germany’s constitution with far less groaning than the SPD (only Die Linke opposed). A series of state-level coalitions (most recently in Hessen) have demonstrated the viability of such coalitions which on a newly-demarcated political centre ground.

Thus, for different reasons economic support for Greece or Portugal – let alone visions of a more thoroughly redistributive Europe – are not on the menu of the traditional centre-Left in Germany. Protection of the German economic model remains both the SPD’s and Greens’ priority, albeit with two different flavours, both oddly palatable to the conservative majority: first, a productionist economy of wage-moderated full employment in collaboration with national capital (the SPD/“Volkswagen” model), or a fiscally sustainable eco-libertarian economy of green technology leadership (the Greens/“organic growth” model). Neither envision overcoming Europe’s impasse by addressing the imbalances which Germany brings to Europe. The next article will explore the possibilities for such progressive politics further on the Left.

Hollande vacillates (again)

4 Apr

This week’s cabinet reshuffle in France has done little to clarify where François Hollande stands on the key issues facing his presidency. What it has done is confirm that Hollande remains the manager of his own fractious party rather than a president with a clear political agenda.

When it was announced that Manuel Valls would replace Jean-Marc Ayrault as prime minister, it seemed that Hollande was completing his turn-to-the-right that had begun in January, in a speech where Hollande promised to cut public spending and reduce the tax burden on business. This ‘social compromise’, denounced by Marine Le Pen as an embrace of neoliberalism, was at the time seen as a new departure for Hollande. His nomination of Valls at Matignon seemed to take it further. The Financial Times complemented Hollande for ‘daring to turn to the right’ and commentators began to associate this new socialist government with the likes of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK, Schroder’s SPD in Germany, and the current much-transformed state of the Italian Democratic Party.

A couple of days later and the impression is very different. The appointment of Valls has been tempered by the promotion of key left-wing figures within the French Socialist Party. Arnaud Montebourg – the self-appointed spokesperson of the anti-globalization wing of the French Left – has been given a beefed up economic profile. Benoit Hamon, another prominent leftist, was made education minister, a powerful and key government department.

With such a cabinet, there is little evidence of any dramatic turn to the right in the Hollande presidency. Indeed, there is no dramatic turn to anywhere. Hollande’s goal seems to have been to manage the different currents within his own party, deploying the popularity of Valls as an antidote to his own poor poll ratings whilst compensating the left of the party with the promotion of Montebourg and Hamon. Michel Sapin’s nomination as finance minister hardly signals a radical change in France’s economic policy, given the little Sapin has achieved as labour minister. The impression Hollande gives is of placating his party rather than leading it. It may be that all along his success in the presidential primaries of 2011 was down to good luck: an absent Strauss-Kahn, strong antipathy to Valls, a weak showing by Royale and Montebourg, Aubry running rather than Fabius. Now Hollande continues to act as manager of his party’s different currents and egos, at the cost of pushing forward his own programme. There is little evidence as compelling as this to suggest that the French Socialist Party is no more than a sum of its many – and very different – parts.

The next UK election: a contest in unpopularity

24 Jan

Continuing in our series of posts on the European Left, Andrew Gamble takes up the case of the United Kingdom and the prospects of the British Labour party in next year’s general election. Though opinion polls have consistently put Labour ahead of the governing Conservative party, Gamble suggests that behind this stability lies a more uncertain and volatile political landscape.  

Andrew Gamble is a professor of politics at the University of Cambridge. He is one of Britain’s leading political economists, and author of many critically acclaimed books, including The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism, Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty, Politics and Fate, and The Spectre at the Feast: Capitalist Crisis and the Politics of Recession. Professor Gamble is joint editor of New Political Economy and The Political Quarterly, and a Fellow of the British Academy and the Academy of Social Sciences.

***

British politics exhibits a puzzling stability. In the eleven YouGov polls so far in January Labour has had an average lead of 6 per cent over the Conservatives. Its share has fluctuated between 37 and 40 per cent, the Conservatives between 31 and 34 per cent. The other two parties also have been stable; UKIP’s share fluctuating between 12 and 14 per cent and the Liberal Democrats between 8 and 11 per cent.  It has been a similar pattern for a long time now. Labour’s lead has come down but only gradually and there is no sign yet of it disappearing. If this pattern persists, Labour will win the election in 2015 and Ed Miliband will be in Downing Street. Most commentators are perplexed. The recovery from the crash is now finally under way, four years later than expected, and there is good news almost every week; inflation is falling, unemployment is down, and growth forecasts are being revised upwards. The Government is loudly proclaiming vindication for its strategy of austerity and retrenchment. An improving economy is normally associated with increasing optimism among voters about their own financial situation and that of the economy, and greater willingness to vote for the Government. But the polls are not moving.

The Conservatives have also been busy creating clear dividing lines between themselves and Labour, setting traps for their opponents on the deficit, on welfare, on immigration, and on Europe. On all of these issues the Conservatives are more aligned with public opinion than is Labour, which has been forced on to the defensive and has failed to develop policies which are either clear or popular. When to this is added the greater resources of the Conservative party, the strident partisanship of a tabloid press which is strongly pro-Conservative and anti-Labour, and the consistently negative poll ratings of Ed Miliband as Labour leader, it is easy to see why many think Labour is a lost cause. The Conservatives have a winning hand and will surge past Labour in the run-up to the election and win a decisive majority. On this reading of British politics Labour has lost the political argument, and lost the political initiative. It is going down to a second defeat.

Except that is not what the polls are saying. Labour remains for the moment comfortably ahead, and nothing seems to dent its lead. There are several possible explanations for this. One is that Miliband’s personal ratings do not matter as much as many think. All the leaders have negative ratings. Nick Clegg is at – 50, Miliband – 30, and Cameron – 20. That still means that in the comparison between Miliband and Cameron as preferred Prime Minister, Cameron wins, and there is still a barrage of negative campaigning to come. But the Tories do not have an overwhelming advantage. The contest between the party leaders is a contest in unpopularity. Trust in politicians and their ability to deliver what they promise remains low in Britain. Negative ratings are clearly a handicap in an election in which there will be so much focus on the personalities of the leaders, but they will only be one of many reasons why votes are cast.

A second explanation is that Labour has begun to perform better and is making more impact on voters. Since Miliband’s Autumn conference speech in which he announced his plan to freeze domestic energy prices for fifteen months if Labour won the election, Labour has managed to dominate the agenda with its message that despite economic recovery there is a cost of living crisis, and most workers are suffering real wage cuts every year, because wages are rising more slowly than inflation. Asset prices have been protected by quantitative easing, and the average share portfolio has increased by 25 per cent in the last four years. But real wages have fallen, so few people are feeling better off. Miliband’s proposals on energy, and his more recent proposals on splitting up the retail banks, have attracted a lot of scepticism from commentators, experts, and interest groups, but the polls show that they are popular with voters. Some of the pledges may well be hard to implement in government, but Labour has begun to stake out new ground and prevent the Conservatives from dominating the agenda as they have been doing during the last three and a half years. Labour still does not excite much popular enthusiasm, and it is still struggling to regain its reputation for economic competence. But it has begun to do better.

Yet it is hardly doing well enough to explain its poll lead. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may be seriously unpopular, but Labour is not far behind them. There has been no great surge of hope and confidence on the Left. One explanation therefore of Labour’s continuing poll lead is that it is due to the failings and divisions among their opponents rather than because of Labour’s positive appeal. Support for the Conservatives is fragile. They have not won a general election outright or polled over 40 per cent of the vote since 1992. They have tried since 2005 to broaden their appeal but have only partially succeeded. There are still parts of the country where voters who have deserted the Conservatives show no sign of returning. The modernisers in the party complain that the modernisation project has stalled and that in some policies the party has started going backwards, alienating the voters it needs to secure a majority. But the Right complains that the reason the modernisation project has stalled is because it has lost the party many of its core voters to UKIP. At the 2010 election UKIP had only 3 per cent of the vote. Its share of the vote over the last two years has been above 10 per cent, and in some by-elections and local elections much higher. It is expected to do well in the European Parliament elections in May. UKIP is increasingly taking voters from Labour, but the polling evidence shows that the majority of its support comes from the Conservatives. It is the loss of Conservative defectors to UKIP which, as Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows, is the biggest single obstacle to an outright Conservative victory at the next election. The party is now doing everything it can to win these Conservatives back, by banging on about Europe, immigration, and crime in the way modernisers deplore. But it is seen as the only way to put UKIP back in its bottle. If it fails it is hard to see how the Conservatives can win a majority at the next election.

All of this makes the next election extremely open and difficult to call. It may well turn into a four party contest as far as England is concerned, and given the vagaries of the first past the post electoral system, the outcome in many seats will be very uncertain, since it will increase the number won by very small majorities and minority votes. If both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats maintain their present level of support, no party is likely to win an overall majority, certainly not the Conservatives, who have the added disadvantage of the bias in the electoral system. Measures to reduce it were blocked by the Liberal Democrats when the Conservatives failed to deliver on Lords reform.

The Conservatives are waiting for politics to return to normal, with the support for third and fourth parties shrinking as the election approaches, and the improving economy brings their defectors back to the fold. They are confident that in a straight fight with Labour they will win. But just as the economy did not behave as expected after the financial crash, neither is the political system behaving as expected now. The kippers are on the march, and there is a sizeable body of Conservative MPs who sympathise with them, particularly on their call to withdraw from the European Union, and to impose much more stringent immigration controls. The disaffection of Conservative voters is proving hard to reverse, because the Conservatives cannot outbid UKIP in its populist stances on either the EU or immigration. Short of backing withdrawal from the European Union, and freezing all immigration, the Government can never satisfy UKIP demands. But unless they can find a way to reduce UKIP’s appeal in the next sixteen months, they will struggle at the next election.

Five Theses on the French Left

17 Jan

As an antidote to the snide gossip that passes for analysis of French politics at the moment, and in line with our broader reflection on the state of the European left, here are five theses on the French left that we hope might go some way to explaining the present impasse.

1. The French Socialist Party remains haunted by François Mitterrand’s u-turn in 1983-4. Elected on a platform of ‘Keynesianism in one country’, Mitterrand was forced to choose between spending more money and keeping the Franc within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Outsiders were betting he couldn’t do both and they were right. After much discussion with his anti-ERM “visiteurs du soir”, he opted to follow the advice of his finance ministry and give up his Keynesian policies. But instead of declaring a clean break with socialism, Mitterrand presented his decision as an embracing of Europe. Market-friendly policies were introduced through the backdoor without any ideological change at the level of the party. Hence the difficulty for the post-Mitterrand Socialist Party: they have pro-market policies but no new ideology with which to justify them. François Hollande, in his press conference this week, fumbled around with the language of social democracy. ‘Liberal’ in France remains a taboo, particularly on the left. The result is disenchantment all-round. Verbal gestures – such as Hollande’s promise to attack finance and re-moralize capitalism in 2012 – fall flat as they are not accompanied by policies that match the rhetoric. France’s business elites remain frustrated at the drip-drip nature of labour market reform. They know the Socialists have accepted the market but they see little public evidence of it.

2. France’s left-wing parties are not parties of the French working class. In the course of the 1980s, the French Communist Party (PCF) lost its status as the main, mass-based opposition party. Former PCF voters have gone in a number of different directions: many have left politics altogether, a few remained within the party or joined other small extreme left parties, and a large number shifted to the far right and began to vote – or at least sympathise with – the National Front (FN). The shift from the PCF to the FN is one of the most significant political developments for France in recent decades, though it is rarely commented upon. The Socialist Party has retained the support of much of France’s large public sector but it also competes for the urban, middle class vote that has little in common with former card-carrying communists whose life was spent working in French shipyards or fixing French trains. In Italy, Matteo Renzi’s transformation of the Democratic Party is aimed at keeping the public sector vote whilst also winning the support of employees and owners of the country’s small and medium-sized businesses. In France, the Socialist Party has made no such gamble and continues to experience these different constituencies as irreconcilable tensions.

3. The extreme Left in France has recently found a leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Unfortunately for the left, Mélenchon is a narcissist. For all his eloquence and timely put-downs, his obsession is with himself. Rarely can he give an interview without talking about his persecution by the Socialist Party and the socialist-sympathising French media (e.g. here in the revue Charles). The momentum his party gained during the 2012 election campaign was partly a consequence of the widespread anti-finance and anti-elite sentiment, which also helped Hollande win the presidency. Yet Mélenchon was once again overcome by his own ego by deciding to run in the parliamentary elections against Marine Le Pen in Hénin-Baumon, a locality in the North of France, as if his mere presence could lift a town out of its depressed state and magically infuse it with some anti-National Front Mélenchon-inspired rhetoric. He scored poorly (just over 20%; Le Pen won with just under 50% of the vote) and has since been a more marginal figure in French politics.

4. Hollande will not change his spots. Ever. He will not pull out of his back pocket some long-hidden master plan for reforming the French economy. Nor will he take on the banks, or dent a long-standing trend towards growing inequality in France. He is what he has always been: a party apparatchik, clever and determined, but without any big idea or project. His election in 2012 was fortuitous. He became candidate because of the exit from the race of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and won the election because of the strength of anti-Sarkozy sentiment. His own contribution was to hold the line and not make any big mistake. Even then, he only just won. Another week of campaigning could have been enough for Sarkozy to claw back a victory. So there will be no “Mitterrand moment”, as Peter Gumbel recently put it, no grand transformation, no metaphorical rabbit out the hat.

5. Based on a close reading of the 2012 campaign, and an assessment of the state of French society and politics from the perspective of the left, it seemed that there were two historical goals against which the newly elected Socialist President – along with his Socialist majority within the national assembly – could be judged. The first was the goal of growth and social equality: pulling France out of its quagmire, reducing the terribly high levels of unemployment, doing something about the searing injustices of the dual labour market, tackling the decline in competitiveness. On that score, the record is dismal. Hollande failed to renegotiate the Fiscal Compact in favour of growth, as he had promised, and the preference for internal devaluation of prices and wages as a condition for the return of growth within the Eurozone – the ‘sadomonetarist’ agenda – remains central to EU macro-economic policy-making. The second goal was to halt the drift in French politics towards the right – the main-streaming of National Front rhetoric, the social acceptability of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, the growing interest in law and order as a solution to France’s social problems. On this, the Socialist government has also failed completely, with its passing of the law on gay marriage a welcome exception that proves the rule (though even there, many defended gay marriage in the name of the family rather than equality). In fact, the most likely successor to Hollande is Manuel Valls, the hardline interior minister who has made much of his war on the Roma population. In his actions and rhetoric, there is little to differentiate Valls from the political right. Less likely to collude with the National Front in an election, the Socialist Party has nevertheless acquiesced in the rightward shift of politics in France. And here we also have to thank Mitterrand, whose tolerance of the National Front was due to his calculation that it would split the right and therefore keep the left in power. Perhaps it is too early to judge the Hollande presidency but so far, on both those counts, it has failed.

More German than Left

6 Jan

This post is the first in an occasional series on the European Left and the Euro-impasse that we will run over the course of the next few months. We shall begin with a series of posts from the editors and guest contributors on the German Left.

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More German than Left

The German Left has always been a lynchpin for the international left. For that very reason it has also been a disappointment. From the failed hopes of 1848 to Ferdinand Lasalle’s cooperation with Bismarck; from Bernsteinian revisionism to the SPD’s vote for war credits during WWI; from the failed revolutionary years of 1918-1923 and the split between communists and socialists in the interwar period; from post-war, Brandt-era ambivalence and indecision to the decisive abandonment of socialism by the 1980s, the German Left’s potentiality never quite measured up to its actuality. Nobody has been sharper on its failings than its own progeny. Marx’s famous critique of Lasalle, Luxemburg’s condemnation of reform, to name just two, mark not only the missed historical possibilities but the dashed hopes. There was a moment but it was never realized.

Today, Germany remains the center of Europe, and the German Left the only agent able to shape a different course than the current sadomonetarism emanating from the Bundesbank. The election of Hollande in France yielded the sop of high marginal tax rates, but within the context of a concession to austerity. Some brief sparks were ignited in Greece, during last year’s election campaign, but the leader of Syriza – Alexis Tsirpas – blinked and eventually caved into the prevailing ‘bail-out in exchange for cuts’ consensus. The SPD’s lukewarm reaction to Syriza, replicated in many other Left parties across Europe, contributed to its capitulation.

The historical difference now is that there is not much reason even to view the German Left as…Left. Angela Merkel’s recent appointment to a third term as chancellor, under a Grand Coalition including the SPD, involves a nominal turn leftward on condition that everyone accept more of the same with respect to the major economic issue of the day: the euro and its debt problems. Sabine Lautenschläger’s nomination to replace Jörg Asmussen at the ECB came with a promise to increase German pressure to focus on inflation rather than employment. As Wolfgang Munchau recently commented, among the rather narrow mainstream alternatives, the idea of debt mutualization and bank backstopping appears to have finally lost out to “austerity and price deflation.” The SPD, meanwhile, happy for scraps at the table, refuses to fight for leadership of Germany, let alone Europe.

The problem for the European left is that Germany is the core. Without the SPD breaking from its benighted belief that the rest of Europe needs to follow its decade of ‘virtuous’ wage-suppression, not to mention its ruinous embrace of European-wide internal devaluation, there is little wiggle-room for the rest. The dismal LTROs, ELA, and other monetary efforts, which receive only reluctant German support as it is, all come with the austerian string attached. The German Left has accepted the basic equation that since their workers have been sucking it up, it’s time for everyone else to do the same. This demonstrates a distinct lack of trans-European solidarity, let alone serious assessment of the possibilities. Moreover, the unwillingness of the German Left to articulate a clear alternative strategy means it tacitly participates in the increasingly nationalist terms in which the whole Euro drama has been cast. Ugly nationalist stereotypes have been trotted out to explain everything from ‘Mediterranean’ stagnation to the so-called dangers of eastern immigrants to the ‘virtues’ German prudence. In the absence of a conflict within Germany between concrete alternatives – alternatives that can be repeated across Europe – Germany appears unified around trying to punish the rest of Europe. And as Marx once said: “relations…appear as what they really are.” The German Left really is, at this point, more German than Left. The Left in Germany (and elsewhere for that matter) has never been rewarded for being the junior partner in a national coalition, but until it becomes willing to take risks and challenge its major opposition, it will remain what it appears to be. It could be more.

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