Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Looking for Angie

I read Michael Lümann's short book with the long title, Der Osten im Westen - oder: Wie viel DDR steckt in Angela Merkel, Matthias Platzeck und Wolfgang Thierse? Versuch einer Kollektivbiographie (2010) in hope of getting new insight into how Angela Merkel's experiences growing up and making her early career in Communist East Germany (DDR from its German initials) may have shaped her attitude and approach to the European Union today in her role as German Chancellor.

I wasn't entirely disappointed in that. But I didn't have any "aha!" moments on it, either.

Actually, Lümann wasn't trying to answer that or a similar question in his book.  Despite the title, which implies that their experiences in the DDR will be the emphasis, the question on which he focuses is, what qualities made some politicians from the former DDR more successful than others? In getting there, he makes some useful and interesting observations about the social, political and intellectual environment in the DDR at the time the three politicians of his title had grown up and established their first careers.

But he winds up bouncing back and forth between two sensible but banal observations. One is that the activists of the democratic opposition in the DDR mostly didn't wind up playing leading roles in post-Berlin Wall politics, in part because their outlook and experience in doing oppositional politics in a dictatorship didn't translate well into the parliamentary politics of the Federal Republic. Lümann refers to this group as the Bürgerrechtler (civl rights activists).

The other key observations on which he attempts to hang an analysis is that politics in politics. That is, in a competitive democratic electoral system, to be successful requires some knack for the everyday skills of politics: schmoozing with voters, networking, dealing with the media, navigating intra-party politics, picking friends and enemies, being on the alert for opportunities. And luck. He calls this group the Wendepolitiker (politicians of the transition).

He seems to think he has come across a great insight with the second observation. And consequently, his analysis doesn't get very far, though in attempting to do so, he does provide some interesting factual items about his three main subjects. Angie, of course, is the current head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and German Chancellor. She is currently enjoying a brief moment as Princess Angela von Merkel, ruler of Europe. After which she is most likely to be remembered as the leader who did more than any other to destroy the European Union. Matthias Platzeck and Wolfgang Thierse both rose to senior position in the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Lümann makes it clear that he's drunk the Kool-Aid on the neoliberal vision of the world and the wonders of globalization and deregulation of corporations. And he does realize that Angie is devoted to that vision. But he doesn't seem to recognize that the positions Merkel, Platzeck and Thierse took on policy may have had something to do with their choices of party or the fights they chose or their popularity within their parties and among the voting public. Like one of our American Pod Pundits, he is so fascinated by process that his account doesn't give much clue that democratic politics is there for broader purposes than being vehicles for the personal success or lack thereof by politicians like Angie.

We learn something about who his subjects worked with in their parties, but virtually nothing about the actual policies they supported. For Lümann's approach in this book, it's not important. He repeatedly reproaches the Bürgerrechtler for being unpleasantly moralistic. It seems not to be within the range of possibility for him that the goals and ideals and policies for which they were fighting might have actually been important to them, more important than trying to claw their way into the top levels of their national parties after 1989.

He also seems to think that failure to make it to those heights of political achievement represents a personality flaw, seemingly unaware of the plain fact that only a small minority of people active in politics in Germany can make it to the highest levels. There are only so many Bundestag seats and national leadership positions to go around, after all. And how can anyone with any familiarity with European history of the last century imagine that rising to national political leadership is a sign of special competence?

So what is there to learn about Angie's current actions from his book? Only clues. By his account, she seems to have been apolitical prior to 1989 when the revolution began in the DDR. She was educated as a physicist and worked in a non-political job. She seems to have been pretty single-minded in her pursuit of political power. Lümann also notes that she has a tendency toward black-and-white analysis which endeared her to George W. Bush, who infamously gave her an impromptu next massage at a summit meeting.

But here is where it gets difficult to draw much of a conclusion about her current style from Lümann's book. If Angie has a fondness for black-and-white/friend-and-enemy thinking, how does that square with the pragmatism and flexibility he describes with great admiration, making it sound as though she has no guiding principles at all other than pursuit of personal power. His portrayal of her as basically a cynical opportunist also doesn't fit well with his brief discussion near the end of her particular fondness for the "ordoliberalism" that came to be associated with the Federal Republic's first Economics Minister, Ludwig Erhart. His suggestion there is that she was attracted to ideas that seemed to be opposite to the Communist ideology of the DDR. But that again is a banal observation and doesn't tell us much.

Her grounding in the natural sciences may have given her a fondness for hard-and-fast answers that produce a clear truth, which could help explain her insistence on sticking to an austerity-economics dogma that is demonstrably doing more harm than good. But then, she was a physicist, and physics deals in theories than are anything but hard-and-fast, at least to the perception of non-physicists. And he doesn't give us enough factual material to draw even that conclusion.

So Angie's suicide-pact strategy for the European Union remains a mystery to me.

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