Tag Archives: democracy

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.

The meaning of Merkel’s victory

2 Oct

Originally published in the October issue of Le Monde Diplomatique

Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrat party (CDU/CSU) have won a resounding victory in Germany’s general election. Merkel has broken what had become an established rule of European politics since the beginning of the crisis: incumbents don’t get re-elected.

Merkel had seen this at first hand as close working relationships with other European politicians were felled by electoral fortunes. The peculiar alliance of France and Germany (“Merkozy” to the European press) was undone as Nicolas Sarkozy lost out in the 2012 French presidential election to his Socialist challenger, François Hollande. Mario Monti, another favourite partner of Merkel, was routed in Italy’s election earlier this year by the comedian-cum-blogger Beppe Grillo and his Five Star movement. Incumbents have lost out across southern Europe — Spain, Greece, Portugal — as voters hope that a change in government might mean a change in fortunes. There has been no decisive shift left or right, just a broad and sweeping dissatisfaction with existing governments. Apart from Germany.

Merkel’s re-election doesn’t mean that nothing has changed in Germany or that it has been blissfully untouched by the Eurozone crisis. Looking at the substance rather than at the party labels, we see shifts. The more dogmatically free-market FDP, Merkel’s coalition partner in the outgoing government, failed to secure any parliamentary representation at all. The Left Party, Die Linke, a persona non grata for mainstream German politicians because of its roots in East German Stalinism and its opposition to NATO, now has more parliamentary seats than the German Greens. If the Social Democrats (SDP) enter into a coalition with Merkel’s party, then Die Linke will lead the opposition within the Bundestag.

The policies of Merkel herself have steadily drifted leftwards as she has taken on ideas first floated by the SDP. From military conscription to a minimum wage and rent controls, Merkel has adopted policies that first came from the left. This had the effect of emptying much of the campaign of any traditional ideological conflict. German voters have not been divided by the politics of left and right, given the vastly similar programmes adopted by the main parties. Merkel has even given up on nuclear power, in a move that pulled out from under the feet of the Green Party their most distinctive policy position. Instead, the campaign was fought around the language of risk and of personality. Germans preferred Merkel’s low-key, homely aspect to Steinbrück’s debonair image and, seeking reassurance in the widespread depoliticisation, voted for Merkel’s motherly, risk-averse approach.

Political stability in Germany reflects its unique position in Europe as the country that has survived the crisis. Not unscathed, as the leftwards shift suggests, but markedly better off than any other country. Having reformed itself in the early 2000s, German industry rode an export-led boom that continues today. As trading partners in Europe — from Eastern Europe through to southern Mediterranean economies — crashed and burned from 2009 onwards, Germany compensated by expanding sales in non-European export markets. What it lost by way of demand in Europe it has gained in emerging markets, especially in Asia. Germany’s current account surplus, at $246bn over the last year (6.6% of GDP), is greater than China’s. Along with a more flexible labour market that is keeping unemployment low (but part-time employment high), we have the material foundation for Merkel’s victory. But though this foundation is solid, Germany is not booming. Since the early 2000s, German wage growth has been very limited. Moreover, few Germans own their own homes, meaning that they have not experienced the same wealth effects of rising house prices felt by a chunk of the British middle- and upper-middle class, the Dutch, Italians and Spaniards. They have been saved from the effects of collapsing property prices but have not known the heady days of year-on-year price rises. Merkel’s cautious optimism reflects the attitude of a large part of the German working and middle class who feel that their relative prosperity is precarious and needs to be closely guarded.

The meaning of Merkel’s victory for the rest of Europe is mixed. It is possible that Merkel will soften her stance to some extent now the election is over, though we should not expect any sudden U-turns on something like Eurobonds. A slow recalibration of the Eurozone economy is more likely, as crisis-hit countries like Spain and Ireland regain some competitiveness via internal adjustments to wages and prices. Where Merkel may compromise is on measures to boost domestic demand. If Germans were to consume a little more rather than save so much, that would help pull other Eurozone economies out of their deep depression. Though something like this may happen, any recalibration will still occur within the context of a Eurozone marked by massive disparities in wealth and spatially organised around a clear logic of centre and periphery.

Buying time and running out

11 Apr

Guest book review of Wolfgang Streeck’s „Gekaufte Zeit: Die vertagte Krise des demokratischen Kapitalismus“. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2013.

By Philip Mader, Governance Across Borders editor and postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany

streeck cover

Democratic capitalist societies have been “buying time” with money for the past four decades – first via inflation, then public debt, then privatised Keynesianism – but are running out of resources for postponing the inevitable crisis. As a result, we now find ourselves at a crossroads where capitalism and democracy part ways. That in a nutshell is the thesis of Wolfgang Streeck’s new book, currently only available in German, but being translated for publication with Verso.

The book is based on a series of three “Adorno Lectures” given by the director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in the summer of 2012 at the renowned Institut für Sozialforschung in Frankfurt (other lecturers in recent years included Judith Butler and Luc Boltanski). Its radical language and conclusions may be surprising for those who remember Streeck’s days as advisor to the “Bündnis für Arbeit” initiated by Germany’s former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, which precipitated far-reaching labour market and social security reforms, or of Streeck’s demands for institutional reforms to forge a more competitive and flexible low-wage service sector in Germany modelled on the USA (Der Spiegel, 1999). But crises bring new beginnings, and Streeck’s defense of democracy against its subjugation to the market is auspicious. His analysis of the economic, political and ideological straightjacket that states have found themselves in, not just since the crisis but certainly more pronouncedly in its wake, ties together a revamped analysis of capitalism with a compelling critique of the “frivolous” politics of European integration. With some wit, a characteristic taste for good anecdotes, and above all great clarity, Streeck studies the processes of the moyenne durée which produced the “consolidation state” as the supreme fulfilment of a Hayekian liberal market vision, and which brought us to the impasse of the current period.

The book begins with a critical appraisal of how useful the Frankfurt School’s crisis theories from the 1960s and 1970s still are for explaining today’s crises. While their works are by no means invalidated, Streeck contends that yesteryear’s crisis theorists could scarcely imagine how long capitalist societies would be able to “buy time with money” and thereby continually escape the contradictions and tensions diagnosed by their theories of late capitalism. He explains the developments in Western capitalism since the 1970s as “a revolt by capital against the mixed economy of the postwar era”; the disembedding of the economy being a prolonged act of

successful resistance by the owners and managers of capital – the “profit-dependent” class – against the conditions which capitalism had had to accept after 1945 in order to remain politically acceptable in a rivalry of economic systems. (p. 26)*

By the 1970s, Streeck argues, capitalism had encountered severe problems of legitimacy, but less among the masses (as Adorno and Horkheimer had expected) than among the capitalist class. Referring to Kalecki, he suggests that theories of crises have to refocus on the side of capital, understanding modern economic crises as capital “going on strike” by denying society its powers of investment and growth-generation. The 1970s crisis, and the pathways that led out of it, thus were the result of capital’s unwillingness to become a mere beast of burden for the production process – which many Frankfurt theorists had tacitly assumed would happen. Capital’s reaction to its impending domestication set in motion a process of “de-democratising capitalism by de-economising democracy” (Entdemokratisierung des Kapitalismus vermittels Entökonomisierung der Demokratie). This ultimately brought about the specific and novel form of today’s crisis and its pseudo-remedies.

The rest, as they say, is history. In the second part, Steeck outlines how public debt rose with the neoliberal revolution, something mainstream economics and public choice quickly and falsely explained away as an instance of the “tragedy of the commons” with voters demanding too much from the state. However, the rise in debt came in fact with a curtailment of the power of democracy over the state and the economy. First, the good old “tax state” was ideologically restrained – starving the beast – and gradually found itself rendered a meek “debtor state” increasingly impervious to any remaining calls for redistribution by virtue of its objective impotence. Then, the resulting power shift to what Streeck calls the state’s “second constituency” – the creditor class, which asserts control over its stake in public debt and demands “bondholder value” – generated a standoff which Streeck observes between the conflicting demands of Staatsvolk und Marktvolk. The fact that the debtor state owes its subsistence less to contributions from the taxpaying “state people” and more to the trust of its creditor “market people” leads to a situation in which debtor states must continually credibly signal their prioritisation of creditors’ demands, even if it harms growth and welfare. Creditors, in their conflict with citizens, aim to secure fulfilment of their claims in the face of (potential) crises. The ultimate power balance remains unclear, but the “market people’s” trump card is that they can mobilise other states to fulfil their demands, leading to a kind of international financial diplomacy in their interest.

The archetype of such a transnational financial diplomacy, Streeck contends in the third and final part, is Europe under the Euro, where we encounter an even more wretched type: the “consolidation state”. Consolidation, Streeck argues, is a process of state re-structuring to better match the expectations of financial markets, and the consolidation state is a sort of perverse antithesis to the Keynesian state, acting in vain appeasement of the financial markets in hope of one day again being permitted to grow its economy. Its story begins with Friedrich Hayek, whose 1939 essay The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism Streeck presents as a strikingly accurate blueprint for the modern European Union, complete with references to the common market as assuring interstate peace. The European “liberalisation machine” slowly and successively reduced national-level capacity for discretionary intervention in markets; but it was European Monetary Union which ultimately rendered one of the last powerful (yet blunt) instruments available to states impracticable: currency devaluation. The resulting multi-level regime, a regime built on an unshakable belief in European “Durchregierbarkeit” (roughly: the capacity to govern Europe) and driven by a bureaucratic centre (or centres) increasingly well-insulated from democratic meddling, completes the actual European consolidation state of the early 21st century. Within this kind of hollowed-out supra-state individual countries have to fulfil their duties to pay before fulfilling any duties to protect, and recent “growth pacts” like Hollande’s are mere political showmanship. In the present framework even more substantial programmes would be likely to fail, Streeck argues with reference to Germany’s and Italy’s huge and hugely unsuccessful regional growth programmes. Stemming the decline of the southern Europe with transfer payments while adhering to monetary union with Germany is as much an impossibility as it is fuel for future discord.

Now, with tighter financial means, the cohesion of the Brussels bloc of states depends on hopes invested in neoliberal ‘structural adjustment’ with a parallel neutralisation of national democracies by supranational institutions and a targeted cultivation of local support through ‘modern’ middle classes and state apparatuses, who see their future in western European ways of business and life. Additional packages for structural reform, stimulus and growth from the centre are mainly of symbolic value, serving as discussion fodder for the greater public and for the mise-en-scène of summit decisions, as well as for politically and rhetorically absorbing whatever is left over of social democracy. Finally, puny as these may be financially, they can also be used to distribute loyalty premiums and patronage to local supporters: instruments of elite co-optation by doling out advantages in the Hayekisation process of European capitalism and its state system. (p. 203)

What can be done? It would be wrong to describe Streeck’s conclusions as optimistic. The capacity of populations or politicians to resist the imperatives of the consolidation state appears small, even where he argues that popular opposition is key, pointing to some rays of light in recent social movements. Streeck characterises present capitalist society as a “deeply divided and disorganised society, weakened by state repression and numbed by the products of a culture industry which Adorno could hardly have imagined even in his most pessimistic moments” (p. 217). It is furthermore politically held in check by a transnational plutocracy which has far greater sway over parliaments and parties than citizens. Given the likely failure of the consolidation state at restoring normality, we have thus arrived at a crossroads where capitalism and democracy must go their separate ways.

The likeliest outcome, as of today, would be the completion of the Hayekian social model with the dictatorship of a capitalist market economy protected against democratic correctives. Its legitimacy would depend on those who were once its Staatsvolk learning to accept market justice and social justice as one and the same thing, and understand themselves as part of one unified Marktvolk. Its stability would additionally require effective instruments to ensure that others, who do not want to accept this, can be ideologically marginalised, politically dis-organised and physically kept in check. […] The alternative to a capitalism without democracy would be democracy without capitalism, at least without capitalism as we know it. This would be the other utopia, contending with Hayek’s. But in contrast, this one wouldn’t be following the present historical trend, and rather would require its reversal. (p. 236)

Small acts of resistance, Streeck notes, can throw a spanner in the works, and the system is more vulnerable than it may appear; the Draghis and Bernankes still fear nothing more than social unrest. For Streeck, projects for democratising Europe, calls for which have recently gained momentum, can hardly work in a Europe of diverging interests. They would have to be implemented top-down, and furthermore have to succeed both amidst a deep (public) legitimacy crisis of Europe and against an already firmly embedded neoliberal programme with a decades-long head-start.

Streeck places his highest hopes in restoring options for currency devaluation via a kind of European Bretton Woods framework; “a blunt instrument – rough justice –, but from the perspective of social justice better than nothing” (p. 247). Indeed, a newly flexible currency regime would re-open some alternatives to so-called “internal devaluation” – nothing but a euphemism for already-euphemistic “structural adjustment” – and thereby permit a more heterogeneous political economy within Europe which could better match cultural differences (the book’s references to which sometimes seem to teeter on the edge of calls for national liberation). The Euro as a “frivolous experiment” needs to be undone, Streeck claims. But would that really mean a return to social justice? States like Great Britain or Switzerland hardly suggest a linkage, least of all an automatic one. Furthermore, declines in real wages from currency devaluation can mirror those of internal devaluation, merely with the difference of how politically expensive the process is (and it would still likely be central bankers, not democratic institutions, taking the decision). A return to national currencies looks like an all too easy way out, falling short of political-economic transformations for restoring some semblance of social justice to capitalism – let alone social justice as an alternative to capitalism.

Nonetheless, Streeck’s is a forceful argument in favour of preserving what vestiges remain of national sovereignty in face of capitalism’s attacks on democracy, as tools for gradually pushing back the transnational regime of market sovereignty. He concludes that the greatest threat to Western Europe today is not nationalism, but “Hayekian market liberalism” – whether the one could be the dialectical product of the other remains another question. Above all his analysis of capital as a collective player capable of acting with guile (Williamson) to ensure capitalism remains in its better interests – intellectual traces of Streeck’s days as a scholar of collective bargaining, perhaps – is clearly one of the most innovative approaches to understanding the class dimension of the political economy of the present crisis. His anatomy of the type of regime we increasingly have to deal with, the consolidation state moulded to address capital’s own legitimacy crisis yet sacrificing democratic legitimacy in the process, perhaps offers the most cogent picture of the present multi-level political economy of debt in Europe (and beyond). Taking back the consolidation state and re-appropriating democracy from capitalism’s clutches at the crossroads, of course, is a task beyond the reach of any book.

(*All quotations are the reviewer’s own translations from the German original.)

The time inconsistency of austerity politics

18 Mar

Mario Monti

 

At his last European Council summit meeting, at least for the time being, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti gave some parting advice to his fellow leaders. Written up as a four page letter and reported on in the FT, Monti argued that the main problem with austerity policies is that there was too big a lag between the positive effect of reforms and their negative bite. Giving his own version of the old adage that things have to get worse before they get better, Monti explained that this doesn’t fit very well with the rules of the electoral cycle. The promise of austerity and supply-side reforms is that they bring gains by way of employment and growth in the long term. The difficulty is that politicians are judged according to pain they bring in the short-term. Something needs to be done to bridge the gap in order that reform agendas are not derailed, as he thinks they have been in Italy. From the perspective of the European Commission or the German Bundesbank, the issue is how to make sure that in the time in between enacting reforms and feeling their positive effects, susceptible policymakers are not tempted to give up on earlier promises and go for quick fixes, like expansionary fiscal policy or other Keynesian pump-priming tricks.

This discussion raises a number of issues. As a trained economist, Monti no doubt knew that his argument was a restatement of what macro-economists call the problem of time inconsistency. This is the notion that policy rules – such as a commitment to balance budgets over the medium term – lack credibility when they are made sequentially. As soon as a firm commitment is spread over a length of time, the possibility arises that short-term considerations will assert themselves. Such policy commitments are thus time inconsistent – they fail to hold over time and thus need to be insulated as much as possible from political pressures.

If this is Monti’s analysis, two questions arise. The first is what if the policy rule has no credibility in the first place – irrespective of whether we are talking about the short, medium or long-term? The commitment of EU member governments is that austerity combined with supply side reforms equals a return to growth. We are into our fifth year since the outbreak of the current crisis in 2008, austerity policies have themselves been in place for a number of years, up to three to four years in some countries. Austerity is nothing new, nor is the idea that supply side reforms boost growth and employment, and yet these policies are not being seen to deliver. Monti’s analysis of current difficulties in Italy and elsewhere, that rests upon the idea of extended lag between introducing reforms and securing their rewards, in fact places a great deal of faith on the idea that these reforms will eventually work. At issue today is not people’s short-termism. It is the more fundamental issue of whether cutting spending and raising taxes in a recession is any way to stimulate growth.

The second question is about what Monti suggests we should do. If we return to the idea of time inconsistency, then we find a very clear recommendation. Institutions should be created that make it as difficult as possible to renege on a policy commitment. This is the famous recommendation to favour rules over discretion. These institutions should be given the responsibility for contentious political agendas – like keeping down government spending, being hawkish on inflation, reform labour markets – in order that legislatures and electorally accountable executives are not tempted to go for short-term fixes.

The problem is that we are not in the 1970s anymore. Profligate legislatures have not been driving today’s budgetary crises. The contrary is true, as we see from the Netherlands through to the UK and Spain. Moreover, today’s crisis happened in a world of rules, not of discretion. Problems of sequential policymaking were hived off to independent central banks, independent budgetary offices, fiscal councils and an array of European rules and regulations in the field of macro-economic policy. As a result, the problem surely lies in something deeper and more fundamental than simply the institutional environment for elected policymakers. This won’t stop European commissioners and national politicians arguing for the strengthening of European rules. In fact, as the Fiscal Compact has shown, this seems to be the dominant framework with which European policymakers are working today. We should be wary of such explanations. A policy framework dedicated towards the curtailment of expansionary policies has given us a European continent saddled with debt and a global debt crisis. There is something more to this than the theory of the time inconsistency of optimal policy rules.

Italy: populism versus technocracy?

7 Mar

Article originally published here with Le Monde Diplomatique

Written by The Current Moment co-founder, Chris Bickerton, and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti

Italian politics has reached an impasse. In last month’s elections, the vote split three ways. A roughly equal proportion of votes (almost 30%) went to the centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani and to Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition. Ahead by a fraction of the votes for deputies, the centre left won a majority of the seats in the lower chamber. But with the regional basis for the senatorial elections, no corresponding majority was produced in the upper chamber. The third block, which secured roughly 25% of the vote in both chambers, is Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S). Since the other two blocks are coalitions, M5S actually stands as the single largest political party in the parliament. Mario Monti, who headed the Civic Choice party and whose decision it was to have early elections, secured just over 10% of the vote, leaving him far behind in fourth place.

How will this impasse be overcome? The media are full of speculation. Some predict new elections, others some sort of political bargain between the main players. Grillo is so far refusing to strike deals with any side, making new elections likely. But beyond the political quid pro quos, we can draw broader political lessons from Italy’s election, which also illustrate more general structural trends in European politics.

Several commentators have pointed out that the traditional left-right axis appears to be ceding ground to a different polarity, structured around the opposition between populism and technocracy. The successes of Grillo and Berlusconi were denounced by the leader of the German social democrats, Peer Steinbruck, as the victory of two “clowns” – an assessment taken up by the German media and by The Economist. Yet, opposed to the “clowns” are figures like Bersani and Monti, considered more serious and reliable. More than any concrete difference over policy, at issue is the competence, seriousness and expertise of the political actors: Mario Monti is cast as Italy’s technocrat-in-chief, Grillo as his populist nemesis. Even Bersani himself played the card of the responsible centre-left leader. In an effort to distinguish himself from Berlusconi’s campaign, which blamed Italy’s ills on Monti’s EU-backed austerity agenda, he firmly committed himself to respecting Europe’s fiscal rules.

While this opposition between populism and technocracy is emerging as a fundamental dividing line in Italian politics, the electoral campaign illustrated something further: it suggested that populism and technocracy entertain a far more complex relationship with each other, which involves some unexpected points of contact and elements of complementarity. Many of the key players and party coalitions actually seem to display several of the distinctive features of both.

Reading the Italian election results through this lens may help us to make better sense of them. It also warns us that there is something amiss in the common opposition between European technocrats and national populists.[1] These political categories are part and parcel of the changing nature of national politics and mapping them onto a clash between atavistic nationalists and dry Brussels bureaucrats only reproduces the Eurosceptic discourse.

Let us begin with the figure most widely seen as the victor, Beppe Grillo. It is clear there are several characteristically populist elements in his political style and in his message – the attack against the established political order and elites, the appeal to the wisdom of the ‘ordinary man’ and the central role of Grillo himself as a charismatic authority figure. Yet few commentators have noticed the more technocratic side of his movement. A recurring element of Grillo’s rhetoric is the claim that the Five Star Movement is neither left- nor right-wing but, rather, interested in proposing “effective solutions” to “concrete problems”, thus going beyond “ideological disputes”. And it is in this spirit that Grillo has claimed that even though his movement will not enter into a coalition with any other political party, they are open to giving their support to specific policy proposals, to be evaluated on a case by case basis “on their own merits”. Far from the ideological discourse we are used to associating with traditional populist movements, Grillo’s flaunted pragmatism suggests that if he is to be considered a populist at all, we may have to admit the existence of a new specifically ‘technocratic’ populism. The Five Star Movement’s programme reinforces this impression. It is a long list of concrete measures, backed up with evidence from local experiences: there is no justification of the underlying values or assumptions of the movement, and no political vision. Challenging the empty professionalism of career politicians, Grillo claims that his parliamentarians, selected from all walks of life, are the real experts.

Mario Monti, the great loser in the election, presents the inverse picture. The respect he initially commanded, domestically and internationally, stemmed from his credentials as a competent technician. The moment he decided to forego this a-political stance and enter the electoral contest, he revealed something about the way technocrats understand the notion of politics. For him, becoming a politician meant trying to dumb down his message in an effort to appeal more directly to what he thought were people’s real concerns. This led to several awkward moments in his campaign, where he appeared to be desperately trying to use some of the same theatrical tricks as a Grillo or Berlusconi, without any of the flair. The image of the erstwhile sober European commissioner holding a puppy on TV and trying to endear himself to viewers by saying “I can feel its heart” was perhaps one of the defining moments in his campaign. Just as Grillo appears to be the harbinger of a new kind of ‘technocratic populism’, has Monti created the opposite image, as some kind of ‘populist technocrat’?

Bersani’s failure is different, but falls within the same basic framework. The leader of the centre-left coalition had the opportunity to break out of the technocracy-vs-populism model and present a properly political programme focused on the pan-European debate about austerity versus growth. For the Italian Democrat Party, this would have meant challenging some of the basic assumptions of the austerity framework and contributing, by way of substance, to the question of growth in Italy, and in Europe. But Bersani’s party failed to do this: its overwhelming concern was to reassure doubters of its seriousness and reliability as an enforcer of austerity. During the campaign, the Democrats’ economic spokesman Stefano Fassina said his party was against fiscal stimulus and preferred an EU-level deal in which a softening of austerity measures was the sweetener, received in exchange for handing over extensive powers over national budgets to the EU. The counterpart was his denunciation of both Berlusconi and Grillo as politically and economically “irresponsible”. So the real choice in the election, according to Fassina, was between the populists and Europeanists, a position that avoided criticizing the operating assumptions behind austerity policies. Bersani frequently said that he was not against austerity and had sided with Merkel in her criticisms of Berlusconi in late 2011.

Berlusconi’s own performance deserves some comment. Initially written off as a sure loser, he managed to rally a sizeable part of his previous electorate, preventing a clear victory of the centre left. But this (relative) success did not just come from his populist appeal. Contrary to most foreign media reports, Berlusconi did not transform himself into a German-bashing anti-austerity advocate; his attacks on Merkel were a very small part of his overall campaign. The key to his appeal has long been his capacity to combine a specific brand of populism with a more familiar technocratic discourse. His public persona, his identification with the Italian people, the emptiness of his party and the dependence on his charisma all point to a populist figure. Yet his constant references to himself as a businessman rather than a politician, his managerial and corporate approach to politics, and his emphasis on numbers and ‘practical’ solutions are closer to a technocratic discourse. This combination highlights the similarities between Berlusconi and other prominent political figures in Europe, such as Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy.[2]

This all suggests that populism and technocracy are not two poles of a new political spectrum, replacing the erstwhile contest between left and right. Nor does this division map onto a confrontation between nation-states and supranational bureaucracies. Populism and technocracy amount to complementary political styles, not to different political programmes. In fact, their strength comes from the fact that national political life is no longer organized as a contest between competing world-views. It is because there was little to separate the political programmes of the centre left, centre right and the M5S movement that the opposition between populism and technocracy captured the imagination of the media and analysts. Monti tried his hand – very awkwardly – as a populist whilst Grillo’s adherence to evidence-based policies and refusal to present an integrated, ideological vision of change makes him as much technocrat as populist. Berlusconi has combined these two styles for years. And Bersani – fleeing any real engagement with the debate about austerity and growth in Europe – hid behind comfortable reassurances about the safety of a Democratic Party victory.

Why should populism and technocracy emerge as the dominant political styles of our post-political age? The answer lies in their common affinity over political representation: they share an open hostility to parties and to parliaments. The technocratic vision is based on a very clear critique of the partisanship of elected assemblies and the inherent bias of party cadres. Monti’s strength was his distance from party politics. As soon as this disappeared, his aura evaporated. Grillo’s movement is equally hostile to parties and parliaments. Its operational logic is that of sensible local initiatives raised magically to the level of national policy. Its campaign was not about issues or ends; it was about the veniality of the political class itself. Populism and technocracy are the political styles that best correspond with widespread public cynicism and an elitist disregard for majoritarian democracy. They are symptoms of the demise of politics, not expressions of its renewal.


[1] See for instance Mark Leonard’s much publicized essay, Four Scenarios for the Reinvention of Europe, published in November 2011.

[2] On the similarities in political style between Berlusconi and Sarkozy, see Pierre Musso’s 2008 book, Le Sarkoberlusconisme (Paris: Aube). On Tony Blair, see Peter Mair’s 2006 essay, ‘Ruling the Void? The Hollowing of Western Democracy’, New Left Review, 42, pp25-51..

Europe’s internal adjustment

14 Feb

With all the talk of competitive currency devaluations and international currency wars, less attention is being paid on the arresting fact that some countries within the Eurozone are achieving what many thought they could not: an internal devaluation via wages and other production costs.

A consequence of this is that some Southern European economies are regaining shares in export markets, their products cheapened by a mixture of labour market reforms and downwards pressure on wages. The FT recently reported that in Portugal exports in 2012 rose by 5.8%, with exports to outside the EU rising 20% in this period. This was Portugal’s third consecutive year of plus 5% export growth. Writing about Spain, Tony Barber suggested that a similar phenomenon was occurring in the Spanish manufacturing sector. Car companies planning to reduce production in France and Belgium are boosting output in Spain. Nissan has committed 130 million Euros of extra investment into its Barcelona plant in order to raise annual production to 80,000 units. Ford, Renault and Volkswagen have all followed suit with their own investments. Barber explains that lying behind such decisions are changes in Spanish labour laws. A reform package last year introduced by the government has loosened up collective bargaining practices, making it easier for firms to negotiate favourable terms with workers.

The ability to boost export competitiveness by internally devaluing is not uniform across the Eurozone. France has enacted its own labour market reforms but labour costs remain significantly higher there than in Spain or Portugal. Monti in Italy has been less successful in pushing through labour market reforms. This unevenness has had the effect of exaggerating the competition between countries within the Eurozone. Unable to compete with one another via national currency manipulations, competition is realized via changes in the labour market. Accepting lower wages has become a matter of national duty in today’s Eurozone.

This development has various implications. The first is that it seems parts of the Eurozone are able to achieve what we thought was only possible in the olden days of the Gold Standard: internal adjustment where the burden falls upon societies, not currencies. This worked back then because there were far fewer public expectations about jobs and welfare to challenge the harsh assumptions of Gold Standard supporters. When such internal adjustment became intolerable, it collapsed. We might have expected something similar today. In fact, the quiescence of European labour has made internal adjustment possible. In some places, it has meant hollowing out national democracy in favour of more stable, technocratic alternatives, but the single currency remains. Differences between the constraints imposed by Eurozone membership and those of the Gold Standard help explain some of the stability of the former but not all. Much is also due to weak labour militancy.

Another implication dovetails with a previous post on falling productivity in the UK. In some Eurozone member states, productivity figures have improved. In Spain, productivity is has risen by 12% since mid-2008. However, such increases have not been achieved via any labour-saving investments. There have been no marked technological developments that explain rising productivity figures. Rather, gains have been made through labour itself. This tells us a great deal about European capitalism: it is far easier to claw back price competitiveness via assaults on labour than it is to boost productivity through capital investment in research, product development and technological improvement. Paradoxically, we can say that weak labour militancy results in low incentives for firms to channel capital into labour saving technology.

The kind of internal adjustment taking place within the Eurozone is thus hardly a victory for supporters of austerity. Competiveness is boosted in short-term ways, via downward pressure on wages. There is no longer term gain in productivity that might actually leave a socially useful legacy for societies as a whole. Recessions and social upheavals in the past had the same human cost in terms of wasted lives but they came with great labour-saving inventions and other gains. European leaders are so worried about currency wars precisely because Yen and Dollar devaluations threaten to wipe away the marginal gains in price competitiveness their businesses have made. And they know that were this to occur, there would be nothing much left. Only the waste.

Italy: the return of politics?

15 Dec

Originally published on the 14th December in the Monde Diplomatique

Last Friday, the secretary of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing People of Liberty party launched a vitriolic attack against the technocratic incumbent, Mario Monti. Stating clearly that Monti no longer enjoyed the support of his party, Angelino Alfano’s goal was to prepare the ground for Berlusconi’s return to Italian politics. Monti responded by calling everyone’s bluff. He promptly resigned, brought elections expected in the spring of next year forward to February, and made it clear that the rising borrowing costs and tumbling market confidence that followed were all Berlusconi’s fault.

Monti’s move reveals the shallow political foundations of today’s interim resolution of the Eurozone crisis. Temporary stability was bought in Italy via the suspension of partisan politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, economic and political crisis saw the ushering in of military rule in Greece and Turkey. Today, technocratic rather than military solutions are preferred. This was seen at the national level in Italy and Greece with governments led by Monti and Papademos. In Spain, Greece and Ireland, it was managed via bail-out agreements brokered between national and European officials. In the Portuguese case, its bail-out was carefully timed so that it would be finalized and signed off by a caretaker government. The incoming government elected in June 2012, led by Pedro Passos Coelho, was then able to declare that its hands were tied and agreements made by its predecessor should be honoured. The Eurozone crisis has been contained only via the suspension of politics, a course which Monti’s resignation would appear to reverse.

Monti may well now run for office. But on what ticket? If he stands as a candidate in the elections early next year, Monti will no doubt present himself as the candidate who is beyond politics. Already egged on by centrist Catholic parties, and feared by the main centre left and centre right parties, Monti’s whole political persona is that of a non-partisan figure who implements what is sensible and what interest-driven political parties cannot bring themselves to do. Monti’s personal austerity matches his political message. If he ran, he would be a serious threat to those mainstream parties, the Party of Liberty especially, who in the public mind encapsulate the corruption of the political process itself. Monti’s ticket would be a technocratic one.

Against whom would he run? Italian politics is dominated by the centre right and centre left parties. Berlusconi’s return is indicative not only of his relentless desire for public attention but also of the absence of alternatives to him within the party. On the centre left, the new leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, is generally seen as a pragmatic ex-Communist, willing to endorse much of Monti’s programme so far. It is possible, however, that both these parties suffer from public disaffection with organized politics. Many doubt the ability of Bersani to reign in trade unions and have few illusions about the direction Berlusconi would take if re-elected. The alternative to these mainstream parties is Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement: a popular political movement that mobilizes the disenchantment widely felt with the political establishment. A well-known comedian in Italy, Grillo’s movement is explicitly anti-establishment and many of those involved in it deny that they are members of a political party at all.

In next year’s elections, Italian politics may find itself squeezed between the technocratic programme and figure of Mario Monti and the populist alternative of Beppe Grillo. Already, some support for the Five Star Movement has disappeared as Monti has soaked up the anti-establishment sentiment of Grillo’s followers. Squeezed in the middle, the mainstream parties are increasingly tempted by either the technocratic or populist alternatives. Berlusconi has already suggested that he plans a virulently populist campaign, focusing on anti-German sentiment in Italy. Bersani may seek to out-manoeuvre Monti by adopting his own version of technocratic austerity.

Italy is in this way a microcosm of wider trends present within European societies. The shrinking of the political mainstream and the rise of technocratic and populist alternatives appear to be one of the main leitmotifs of how the economic crisis is transforming social and political life in Europe. Europe’s political systems are slowly being transformed into populist technocracies. Italy will be worth watching as a barometer of these important trends.

Aglietta on the crisis

26 Sep

In a comment last week on George Soros’ well-publicized essay on the Eurozone crisis, we noted his fixation with the European roots of the present crisis. In his view, the combination of the Eurozone’s curious institutional design (a common currency without a fully empowered central bank) and the overly cautious approach of European policymakers together explain the European sovereign debt crisis. Whilst there is a specific European dimension to the crisis, we argued that it is also a crisis of capitalism, not just of the Euro.

In a piece published in the New Left Review in May 2012, the French economist Michel Aglietta gives his account of the European crisis. His account is more general and wide-ranging that Soros’. His explanation of the debt build up in Western economies is tied to the emergence of a new “accumulation regime”: one that demands a maximisation of returns for shareholders and downward pressure on labour costs. The gap between stagnating wages and the demand needed to maintain growth levels is provided through credit. The availability of credit in Western economies was made possible by various factors, including financial innovations and the recycling of large dollar surpluses built up by East Asian economies. These surpluses were an outcome of the East Asian crash of the late 1990s: a traumatic event that pushed governments in the region to insulate themselves from further instability by focusing on export-led growth.

Whilst generating a great deal of liquidity within the global financial system, these developments in East Asia also help explain why European economies failed to capitalize on the boom years of the 2000s when borrowing rates across the continent fell steeply on the introduction of the Euro. Aglietta notes that the intention in the early 2000s was that the mobility of capital within Europe would lead to a convergence of national economies. Productive investments would be sought out and the differences between national economies would slowly disappear. Capital certainly flooded to those countries that had the highest interest rates prior to 1999 – Greece, Spain etc – but there was no evening out of competitiveness across the region. In fact, as Aglietta notes, divergences grew. This was because at the same time as capital was moving into Europe’s periphery, so were East Asian economies beginning a concerted export drive as a response to their 1997-1998 crisis. Unable to compete with these imports, industrial activity in Spain, Portugal and elsewhere shrunk. Capital was channelled into a property and services boom, with growth becoming dependent upon rising house prices. In a better starting position and not faced with the temptations of sudden influxes of capital, countries like Germany and the Netherlands faced up to East Asian competition and were able to generate their own export surpluses. Aglietta also notices that given the poor performance of the German economy in the first half of the 2000s, the country was not sucked into the property boom that affected countries like Ireland and Spain. Divergences within Europe are thus not only an internal European story but have a global dimension as well.

Aglietta makes a number of other important points. His discussion of the options open to Greece and to Europe makes for interesting reading. He notes that Europe cannot really afford a Japanese-style era of deflation and high public debts. A reason for this is that Japan has a large industrial sector and is in a very dynamic part of the world. Aglietta also observes that Japanese debt is financed by Japanese savers, meaning that the risk of spiralling debt refinancing costs is kept low. In Europe the situation is different on all counts, making it difficult to replicate the Japanese model. On Greece, Aglietta gives a detailed breakdown of how “Grexit” would work, arguing that the long-term benefits outpace the short-term costs. Argentina, he argues, did the right thing but it did it badly. Greece could learn lessons from it and exit the Euro in a more orderly manner.

For all the elegance in his exposition, Aglietta’s solution to the crisis is surprisingly apolitical. He argues that “the euro must be constituted as a full currency, which means it must be undergirded by a sovereign power” (p36). This means transferring competences to the European level, fiscal union, and a long-term development strategy based on the idea of permanent transfers from one part of Europe to another. Aglietta’s recommendations are obvious but the problem today is that public opinion across Europe is moving in the opposite direction, against the idea of further transfers of power to European institutions. In practice, pursuing Aglietta’s recommendations means deepening the gap between national politics and European-level policymaking, thus compromising democracy in the name of economic emergency. Whilst that may provide some palliative to the economic crisis, it will only make the political crisis even greater.

Betting on austerity

12 Sep

Recent announcements by the European Central Bank have suggested a renewed round of activism for the Frankfurt-based institution. On The Current Moment, we have commented on how the Euro has become a material constraint for a regional economy still marked above all by national variations and diversity. Previously, during the 1990s, national governments across Europe invoked the constraints of the Maastricht convergence criteria as reasons to cut spending and to elevate macro-economic policymaking to a quasi-constitutional status and thus untouchable by the masses. At that time, the Euro was more a political strategy than it was a real material constraint. Today, this has changed. Ideas become entrenched in institutions over time and are subsequently more difficult to challenge or to transform.

Looking at Draghi’s recent decisions, and seeing how promptly France has entered into the austerity camp, we can also see that the Euro serves as a sanction for the lack of political experimentation in Europe today. The claim that “there is no alternative to the Euro”, made by Draghi, Merkel and others, is shorthand for saying that there is no alternative to the approach adopted so far in response to the Eurozone crisis: backhanded financial transfers to Europe’s ailing financial sector combined with much more public austerity measures designed to reassure markets about the long-term viability of European economies.

Draghi’s speech last week – taken by some as leap into new terrain for the ECB – was a reiteration of this same approach. Though the ECB’s announcement appeared to transform the ECB into a lender of last resort, it was in fact just one big bet on austerity. The novelty of Draghi’s announcement was that bond purchases – hitherto tightly limited to precise and timely interventions – would be unlimited. The head of the ECB also promised that the ECB would rank itself as equal to other creditors, meaning that its bond buying would not result in private creditors finding themselves unceremoniously pushed behind the ECB in the pay-back queue. Taken at face value, Draghi seemed to be doing what many have argued should have been done a long time ago: transform the ECB into an institution with the powers to print money in the event of real crisis.

Looking at the decision more closely, we see that Draghi was more cautious (see here for a useful discussion of how previous bond-buying efforts by the ECB have failed to have their intended effect). What he was in fact proposing was unlimited bond purchases on the condition that needy economies commit themselves to the conditionality set by the EU creditors. His promise also rests on the very big assumption that the austerity measures being introduced across Europe will in the medium term lead to a return to growth. Because if not, then there is no amount of ECB backing that will do the trick. On conditionality, there are reasons why some governments may balk at accepting the terms coming from Brussels. Cooked up by national and European officials, these conditions are likely to be far-reaching and Spain’s leader, Mariano Rajoy, has quite a bit to loose by accepting them. On the effect of austerity, the assumption seems to be that if governments make the tough cuts necessary to get back to budgetary balance, they will also return to positive growth. Looking around Europe, this is difficult to believe.

Draghi’s move is firmly within the European consensus about the need for bailouts to the financial sector combined with drastic cuts in government spending everywhere else. This approach, unsuccessful so far, sits as the only idea pursued by policymakers of all political stripes. The Euro appears as both a material constraint upon an uneven and diverse regional European economy and an obstacle to any kind of political experimentation in macro-economic governance.

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