Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Neoliberalism and center-left politics: Germany

Charlie Pierce's standard epitaph for Rick Santorum is some variation of, "and have I said lately what a colossal dick that guy is?"

I find myself thinking of that when I read about Peer Steinbrück, leader in Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the most likely SPD candidate for Chancellor in the 2013 election. His most notable accomplishment to date was when he was Chancellor Angela Merkel's Finance Minister during her first Administration when the SPD was the junior partner in a Grand Coalition (Christian Democratic Party [CDU/CSU] and SPD). He successfully championed the raising of the retirement age for pensions from 65 to 67, a truly bad idea.

And this guy is a Social Democrat, the supposed party of the center left.

The fact that his two most likely challengers within the Party, the Party Secretary Sigmar Gabriel and Caucus Lead Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have pretty much shrugged their shoulders at even trying isn't a sign of enthusiasm for Stenbrück in his own party. It's much more a sign of the dangerous level of stagnation within it.

One way to describe the role of center-left parties in the neoliberal scheme of politics and policy is not only to note their role in selling bad, destructive policies like that one to the traditional left constituencies of workers, intellectuals, "middle class" professionals and (some) small business owners. A key aspect of what happens in reality is what we see with the SPD; it moves what we call in American politics the "Overton window" to the right, making the center-left party a de facto center-right party. We see the same process at work in the US, France, Spain and elsewhere.

"Steinbrück ist unter führenden Sozialdemokraten zwar am engsten mit der Wirtschaft verbunden." ("Among leading Social Democrats, Steinbrück is clearly the most closely tied to business leaders.") So write Ulrike Sosalla, et al, in Kanzlerkandidatur: Warum Merkel Steinbrück noch überlegen ist Financial Times Deutschland 30.09.2012. Pretty much a simple corporate whore, in other words.

Is that too strong a characterization? The same article says that when Steinbrück was simply a Member of Parliament, i.e., before he became a minister, he was already charging high prices for "Vorträge, Reden und selbst Interviews" ("presentations, speeches and even interviews"). This is a guy who is focused single-mindedly on using his political position to cash in. Not that such a thing is a new phenomenon. But it's reaching qualitatively new heights in the neoliberal world of today with extremes of wealth and income unseen since the 1920s or even before.

If the Social Democrats of the First World War were known derisively as "the Kaiser's Social Democrats", an SPD led by Steinbrück could well be called the One Percenters' Social Democrats.

Here I feel obliged as always to inject that, yes, there are differences between the main two parties, in Germany as in America, and Angela "Frau Fritz" Merkel is clearly worse than Steinbrück. Of course, in my mind, saying that someone is "better than Angela Merkel" is pretty much the definition of "damning with faint praise."

And Steinbrück is emphasizing positions that distinguish him from Frau Fritz, particularly a demand for tighter regulations on banks. But the SPD is explicitly citing the model of French Socialist François Hollande, who won the French Presidency this year with progressive-sounding promises but barely pretended to fight for them once he was in office. (Peter Ehrlich und Thomas Steinmann, Financial Times Deutschland 30.09.2012) After the Grand Coalition government broke up in 2009, 40% of SPD voters even knew that the very prominent Steinbrück was even affiliated with the SPD! Nothing much in the way of progressive change could be expected from him, even if he became Chancellor.

But he's also still an explicit fan of the Agenda 2010 neoliberal "reforms" enacted by Gerhard Schröder's red-green coalition of 1998-2005, which have resulted in lower pay and reduced job security - and that's in a German economy that has low unemployment thanks to the benefits it gets from the euro currency. He sneers at his fellow Party members who criticize the anti-worker "Hartz IV" aspects of Agenda 2010 and his own disgusting success in raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 as whiners ("Heulsusen").

This center-left neoliberal schtick has got to break down sooner or later, and it's probably sooner. Greece can't be considered a political belweather for the EU. But one notable - and hopeful! - development in Greek politics has been the drop to third-place status of Greece's corporate-whore Social Democratic Party, Pasok, behind now second-place Syriza. Something has to give. As long as there is still a functioning democracy in a country, people are going to find some way to resist corporate abuses, much less the kind of play for oligarchical dominance we see pretty much across the board in advanced countries. At some point, center-left parties whose main function is to enact policies that they win election by opposing become useless to their base voters.

We also have to figure in here the way Germany's multi-party system functions. Since neither the center-right CDU or the (nominally!) center-left SPD can expect to win a majority, though they will almost surely be the two leading vote-getters, as always. So they have to think about their future coalition partners as they campaign. Merkel's current coalition partner is the Free Democratic Party (FPD), the farthest right of the German parties in Parliament. (And they are the "liberal" party! Don't bother trying to translate that into American political terms, you'll just give yourself a headache.) The seemingly political natural coalition partners for the SPD would be the Greens (seated to the right of the SPD in the national Parliament) and the "postcommunist" Left Party.

But a corporate whore like Steinbrück isn't likely to consider a coalition with the Left Party, which in any case hasn't managed to break out of its main identity as an eastern German regional party. A depression would seem an obvious opportunity for them. But we also have to keep in mind that Germany as yet hasn't felt the depression as severely as most European countries or even the United States. Merkel is about as business-friendly as it comes on economic policies, bringing the EU to the brink of destruction in pursuit of them. But there is bad blood between her and the nuclear power industry going back to her time as Environmental Minister, and she committed to phasing out nuclear power in Germany completely in preference to renewable wind and solar power after the Fukushima disaster, so she's neutralized some of the Greens' still-potent environmental appeal. And the Greens themselves have blunteded their peace appeal by their foolish, hard-necked support of German participation in the Afghanistan War.

All of this adds up to a conventional wisdom, which is actually pretty reasonable as far as it goes, that a new Grand Coalition lead by Merkel with the SPD as the junior partner is the most likely outcome of the 2013 election. Which means that Steinbrück will be careful not to ruffle Merkel's feathers too much during the campaign.

Given the state of the euro crisis, this is a sad picture of failure of the German political elite to grasp what a serious problem Merkel has created by her disastrous handling of the crisis. The commitment to the euro, and more generally to the neoliberal concept of the EU as primarily an instrument to force the neoliberal menu of low wages, weak unions, financial and industrial deregulation, reduced job security, privatization and continuing reductions of social insurance and public services onto unwilling electorates, is currently the driving force in what is essentially a de-politicization of politics in Germany. There has been little show of solidarity or concern for keeping peace and democracy as central focuses of the "European project" on behalf of either the SPD or CDU the last three years, especially.

Effectively, it leaves both parties tied to Angela Merkel's European policy. Leaving a truly unprecedented show of far-sighted statesmanship on Merkel's part as the main hope of the euro and the EU surviving in anything like their current form.

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