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.

One Response to “What German Left? (Part 1)”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What German Left (Part II) | thecurrentmoment - June 18, 2014

    […] follows on previous posts by him and by Wolfgang Streeck on the German Left. Mader’s first installment dealt with the SPD and the Greens; this second and final part highlights some issues plaguing the […]

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