Tag Archives: Germany

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.

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.

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.

It’s all about wages

29 May

The FT is running this week a series of articles (here but behind a firewall) on European manufacturing and how it is surviving the crisis. In an article on French industry, it suggests that focusing on the grim facts of deindustrialisation and declining competiveness in the North-East of the country risks missing much of what makes French industry successful. It argues that in some sectors France is following the German recipe of success: focus on cutting edge industries, invest heavily in research and development, and make the best use of a highly skilled (though albeit expensive) labour force in order to produce high-quality manufacturing products. The example it gives is of passenger jet engine-maker, Safran, and its more specialised companies like Turbomeca that make helicopter engines.

The article has some arresting facts and figures. Turbomeca is recruiting 200 new engineers this year, a reflection of its status as the world’s largest helicopter engine maker by volume. Safran, its parent company, is recruiting up to 7,000 new engineers, half of which will be employed in France. Its strategy has been to focus on R&D: 12% of its sales revenue was reinvested last year into research. On the Hollande government’s 20 billion Euros tax credit aimed at boosting competitiveness, the article cites the Peugot-Citroen CEO as saying that it will only bring down the company’s 4 billion Euros labour cost bill by 2.5%.

The article itself suggests high labour costs can be offset by investment strategies that focus on innovation and research. But the figures it gives all go to show that what matters is the ability to bring down the wages bill: either via internal adjustment or through outsourcing. Internal adjustment is what Southern European countries have been experiencing, with a positive impact on some export sectors. In France, Safran’s success comes from outsourcing 70% of its engine components. Much of the lower end manufacturing is done in countries with lower wages, a move that also matches German businesses. Another arresting fact: according to McKinsey, in 2009 the average hourly cost of a French factory worker was 32 Euros and in Germany it was 29 Euros. But taking into account the contribution of component suppliers from Eastern Europe, where wages are lower, the real cost of German labour was 25 Euros an hour.  In discussions of Germany’s current competitiveness, much is made of Schroder’s labour market reforms and the discipline shown by the country’s labour force. Less attention is given to the role played by this out-sourcing strategy. The FT article concludes with the suggestion that North Africa should become France’s low wage periphery in the way that Eastern Europe has become Germany’s, something Renault has already done by relocating some of its car production to Morocco.

There has been much debate about how France can regain some of its competitiveness. Some suggest a strategic reorientation away from traditional manufacturing towards more hi-tech activities. What seems obvious is that lowering wages is still the strategy overwhelmingly favoured by businesses. Given how unlikely it is that this occurs via internal adjustment in France, the most probable outcome is that French companies continue to exploit outsourcing opportunities.

François Hollande, a year on

7 May

hollande

A year into his Presidency, François Hollande is struggling. Of all the analyses made of his first year in office, very few have been positive. At The Current Moment, we commented extensively on the elections a year ago and on Hollande as a leader (see here, here and here). A few points are worth reiterating to make sense of today’s widespread disappointment.

It is important to remember that what secured Hollande’s victory a year ago was the prevailing anti-Sarkozy sentiment. Some of that feeling came from a rejection of the substance of Sarkozy’s presidency and so signalled a real endorsement of Hollande’s agenda. But much of the anti-Sarkozy feeling came from a reaction against his style: showy, celebrity-focused, hyperactive, lacking the gravitas expected of the President of the Republic. This list could go on.

Far from challenging this superficial rendering of politics as a matter of competing styles and personalities, the Socialists launched their own brand: normality, embodied in the rotund (but much-slimmed) cheeriness of François Hollande. He enjoys football, he makes jokes, he will govern through the country’s institutions and not above or alongside them. The notion of the ‘normal presidency’ never really stuck, not least because it lacks any capacity to inspire. But it did just enough to give Hollande the election victory on May 6th. Other factors counted too of course: his promise of a 75 per cent tax on incomes above 1 million Euros was timed perfectly to play on the anger felt towards high earners living in luxury at a time of social crisis. Even then, Hollande’s victory was wafer thin. He edged in front of Sarkozy by very little in the first round (28.63% to Sarkozy’s 27.08%) in comparison to Sarkozy’s thumping victory against Ségolène Royal back in 2008. In the second round, Hollande secured 51.64% of the vote, to Sarkozy’s 48.36%.

Throughout the campaign, the gap narrowed between the two leading contenders, transforming what many thought would be a sure victory for the Socialists into a very narrow one indeed. Hollande, an unremarkable figure until then, tipped by few as a likely winner for the presidency, certainly held his nerve. More than anything else, though, he was in the right place at the right time. This explains why his popularity has plummeted. Constructed on the back of the antipathy towards Sarkozy, the fading memory of the latter brings with it a steady erosion in Hollande’s popularity. This is not a problem of voters forgetting the past too easily. It is a product of the negative and opportunistic campaign of the Socialists in 2012.

Hollande’s difficulties today are also to do with what has happened since May 2012. The gay marriage bill has been pushed through but at the expense of a widespread societal mobilization against it, one that brought many people out of their provinces and onto the esplanades of the country’s capital. This author remembers seeing dozens of coaches, all full to the brim, tearing through the Bois de Boulogne on a Sunday morning on their way to an anti-gay marriage demonstration and all coming in from well outside of the capital and its surrounding suburbs.

One event that hit the government particularly hard was the Cahuzac affair: the admission by a government minister, the minister for the budget no less, after many months of denial, that he had a bank account in Switzerland which he kept hidden from the French taxman. The reason the Cahuzac affair has been so damaging for the government is that Hollande’s critique of capitalism, and in particular those private companies and private individuals that escape paying taxes, was always a moralistic one. Hollande presented his case against finance as a moral crusade: it was a war against the vulgar anti-egalitarian materialism of the financial class, fought in the name of the republican values of common good and a sense of patriotic duty attached to contributing to the public coffers.

Cahuzac’s secret Swiss bank account struck at the heart of this moral crusade by bringing those corrupt values into the heart of Hollande’s cabinet. In some ways, Hollande can’t be blamed for having trusted someone who then betrayed him. To misjudge someone’s character is something we have all done at some point. For Hollande, the difficulty was that there was nothing other than this moral crusade underpinning his critique of capitalism. What could have been dismissed as a mere personal failing on the part of an individual, had Hollande’s critique been more substantial, has had the effect of a devastating blow.

This crusade against finance has also been exposed to the harsh winds of the continuing national and European crisis. On this, the French government has managed to achieve very little. A central plank of Hollande’s campaign was his promise to rewrite the European Fiscal Compact, notably by injecting into it a strong growth component. Even at the time, it seemed improbable that Hollande – after the election – would travel to Berlin and tell Angela Merkel what to do. Unsurprisingly, very little in the Compact was changed and Hollande has so far struggled to dent Merkel’s determination to stick to her austerity agenda in the run up to elections in Germany in the Autumn. Promising a radical shake up of France’s sclerotic economy, Hollande commissioned a report from prominent industrialist, Louis Gallois. Focused on competitiveness, Gallois suggested a number of ‘shock’ measures which the government chose to ignore. Hollande may still pursue a reform agenda, by bringing Gallois or someone like Pascal Lamy into a more technocratic cabinet after a summer reshuffle. But there is little momentum in either the reforming or the staunchly anti-austerity direction, leaving all sides unhappy at the government’s immobilism.

Hollande has tended to make his case by courting fellow travellers, latching onto Southern European leaders like Rajoy, or more recently Enrico Letta, whose national difficulties expose the limits of the German austerity agenda. Alliance-building, however, is no substitute for a programme. As remarked upon by Current Moment co-founder Alex Gourevitch, the fact that the case for austerity is currently unravelling has more to do with the pain it is inflicting on European societies and rather less to do with any political alternative being proposed by its growing army of critics.

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.)

Winds of change in France?

8 Nov

Much has been said and written about the Gallois report on competitiveness, made public earlier this week. The 31st report on competiviness produced in the last 10 years, this one had been commissioned by the French prime minister. Louis Gallois, a prominent figure in French industrial life, is seen as able to bridge the divide between French business and the French state. Relations have soured recently between the two, in particular between small and medium sized businesses and the recently elected Socialist government. Gallois’ own career has involved heading large companies that are competitive internationally but are also very closed tied to the French state. He is an emblematic figure of French state capitalism.

The report itself rightly highlighted what is a pressing problem for France: a looming deindustrialisation. France is in the difficult position of straddling an increasingly empty middle ground. On the one side, there are the high-quality goods produced by an export power like Germany, goods that remain expensive but whose quality guarantees that they dominate the high-end markets for cars and many other industrial products. On the other side are lower quality goods from Asia that win-out on price. They are cheap and good enough to crowd out slightly better quality but signficantly more expensive French-made products. Stuck in between this polarisation, France has in the last 10 years lost a great deal of export market shares. Hundreds of billions of Euros of exports have been lost and around 750,000 manufacturing jobs have gone in the last decade. This was not always so: until the early 2000s France enjoyed a strong showing on the balance of payments, not least relative to Germany. But it has now gone deeply into deficit, as the graph below shows. France has not seen the kind of reversal of fortunes that Spain, Greece or Portugal have but its current acccount deficit has been steadily growing.

The report itself recommended that the burden of social security payments should be shifted – to the tune of a 30 billion Euro transfer – away from business and salary contributions and towards generalized taxation, in the form of the CSG tax (generalized social contribution) and VAT. French economist Jean-Claude Casanova put it thus: when employees decide to have babies, companies face a rise in labour costs that in some cases can push them into the red. Bizarrely, as soon as the main recommendation of the Gallois became known – what the author referred to as a “confidence shock” for French business – the government declared that it would not be implementing this particular recommendation. It preferred a different system for lowing labour costs that involved a complex credit transfer system. Companies will have to work out for themselves what they can win back from the state through these transfers, something that favours large companies with bulging accounting departments. Smaller firms, the ones suffering most from declining competiveness, will find the system opaque and difficult to implement. Regardless of where you stand on the rights and wrongs of the labour cost/competitiveness debate in France, the government’s handling of the report was poor.

It would be wrong, though, to dismiss all this with a gallic shrug and a muttering of plus ça change. The business newspaper, Les Echos, points to one recommendation in the report likely to be taken on by the government and one which could have a very considerable impact on France in the medium to long term. Gallois proposed that French firms systematically include in their governing bodies worker representatives. In companies with more than 5,000 employees, between a quarter and a third of the members of these governing bodies should be worker representatives. Les Echos celebrates this as a signal that France will move in the direction taken up by Germany, Austria and other countries with much more successful industrial policies than France. In the German case, this rule is applied to companies with more than 500 employees. For companies with over 2,000 employees, the proportion of worker representatives in these governing bodies rises to 50%. Les Echos argues that therein lies the key to Germany’s success in turning itself round and boosting its competitiveness.

What Les Echos is getting at is labour discipline. German companies were able to boost competitiviness in the absence of currency devaluations largely because German workers accepted the cost-cutting measures being proposed, many of which were harsh and involved temporary unemployment. As well as the German government having a strong hold over unions, company directors themselves have a better hold over their own workforce. The consensual way labour and business interests within German firms implemented the competitiveness drive of the mid to late 2000s in Germany goes a long way to explaining Germany’s present export success. France has famously been an example of a very different kind of industrial relations: more conflictual, dominated by the role played by unions, resistant to change. What the Gallois report proposes is a way in which French labour could be better controlled. If implemented, this could have a far greater impact on French industry than the more public spat over VAT, CSG and how to finance social security. At least, that is what Les Echos hopes. Perhaps, in focusing on its rejection of Gallois’ proposal to raise CSG and VAT, the government is deflecting attention from other measures, that could be more far-reaching in the long term. French business-labour relations will not be transformed over night but this could be the beginning of a greater disciplining of labour through co-option into the decision-making process.

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.

A comment on Soros

18 Sep

For a long-time a bête noire amongst pro-Europeans because of his status as the financier that forced Britain out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and thus cemented the UK’s outsider status in European monetary integration, George Soros has recently emerged as one of the most authoritative commentators on the ongoing Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. His most recent article in the New York Review of Books was one in a long line of alarmist but thoughtful interventions into the debate.

Soros’ main argument is that Germany needs to choose between either fully backing the Euro or leaving the Eurozone altogether. Lacking the will to act as paymaster, but determined to keep the Euro together, Germany has been accepting the bare minimum that is needed to keep the currency union together. According to Soros, this is a case of the cure being worse than the disease. By insisting on national responsibility for EU-incurred debts, Germany risks recasting the egalitarian European integration project around the twin poles of creditor and debtor. Debtors are pushed into deflationary traps as they struggle under debt burdens and national antagonisms deepen as debtor states survive on a Euro drip provided by miserly creditors. All in exchange for deep cuts in social protection and welfare.

The novelty of Soros’ argument lies in his claim that a German exit from the Euro would save rather than sink the currency. His reasoning is clear. When a debtor – like Greece – leaves the Euro, the benefits of a depreciating new currency are offset by the strangling effect of Euro-denominated debts rising dramatically in value. When a creditor like Germany leaves the Euro, however, the situation is different. The creditor, of course, faces a loss. But those remaining in the currency zone benefit enormously: depreciation of the Euro would bring competitiveness back to Eurozone members and the main political obstacle to further political integration –German obstructionism – would have disappeared. The Eurozone would be free to introduce key measures – debt mutualisation, for instance – that would exist were it not for Germany.

By blaming Germany, Soros’ argument appears as part of a more generalized anti-German sentiment popular all across Europe. In fact, Soros himself seems rather comfortable with the idea of a German-dominated Europe. He would just rather that Germany accept the responsibility that comes with empire. As he puts it, “imperial power can bring great benefits but it must be earned by looking after those who live under its aegis”. Soros’ advocacy of German paternalism is hardly a compelling vision. But his focus on the German origins of the crisis are welcome as they challenge the notion that profligate spending by Southern cone European governments is at the heart of the current mess. But there are limits to the blame game.

It is certainly the case that German banks and businesses benefitted from the introduction of the Euro. In particular, it meant that consumers in Southern Europe could – via public or private borrowing made possible by the low risk premiums brought about by monetary union – buy German exports. But it is also the case that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Germany was – as The Economist put it – the “sick man of Europe”. The changes put in place by Chancellor Schroder were far from socially neutral: labour markets were liberalized and wages were frozen or cut in real terms. Only the Social Democrat’s hold over the trade unions made this possible. Germany underwent an internal devaluation with the burden of adjustment squarely pushed onto the German working class. It was in this period that Die Linke, a party to the left of the SPD, was created. The sentiment driving German caution in this crisis is thus a complex one. It certainly involves some miserliness and a good dose of anti-Southern prejudices. But it also includes an understandable fatigue on the part of German workers at having to bear the burden of adjustment. When we read that in recent weeks banks have been holding over 700 billion Euros in surplus liquidity at the ECB, it seems that there is ample room for some adjustment on the part of German capitalists.

Soros’ account of the crisis is also curiously Eurocentric. As someone aware of the global dimensions of the current economic and financial crisis, he chooses to focus on the unique features of Eurozone governance. Had the Eurozone been armed with a common treasury, and not just a European central bank, Soros suggests that there would have been no Eurozone crisis. Policy mistakes, tied to the short-sightedness of Eurozone policymakers, have caused the crisis. This is at best a partial explanation. Outside of the Eurozone, the British and US economy are struggling to exit a major economic downturn. The crisis itself – beginning with the Lehman Brother’s collapse – originated in the US. Popular mobilization against the inequalities that have build up in recent decades is not European either. It was unwise to create a common currency without institutions capable of exercising the required political discretion in a time of crisis. But the crisis is one of capitalism, not just of the Eurozone. Were the right institutional fixes to be introduced, we would still be faced with the twin problems of financialization and debt-financed growth. And endlessly replicating an export-based growth model raises the question of who will be the “market of last resort”? In focusing on the Eurozone, Soros misses the wider dimension of the crisis.

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