Monday, August 05, 2013

German siesta? Or neoliberal demobilization?

"End the Siesta" is the title of an opinion piece by Alfons Frese of the Free University in Berlin in the August 2013 edition of metallzeitung, a publication of IG Metall, Germany's largest manufacturing union (pp. 14-15). The photo above that accompanies it is supposed to illustrate an idea that we see repeatedly from German commentators that German voters are mostly happy and content at the moment. With elections coming next month and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a comfortable lead in the polls, that narrative is not unwelcome to the Chancellor. The idea of Merkel as "Mutti", the kindly Mama of the nation, is closely related to this concept.

This Second Biedermeier theme is at best a half-truth. And a fragile one at that. Dirk Kurbjuweit uses the concept in "Das zweite Biedermeier," an article in the print edition of Der Spiegel 20/2013. Biedermeier isn't just a style of furniture, it's also a period in German and Austrian history, from 1815 to 1848 or 1860, depending on the source you pick. Kurbjuweit likes the 1848 date, the year of the democratic revolutions in the German lands and across Europe. The "Biedermeier" period is thought of as a time where a self-satisfied conservatism dominated among the rising middle class, i.e., the "bourgeois" or capitalist class. The Biedermeier label comes from Gottlieb Biedermaier, a comic character in the Fliegende Blätter magazine who displayed the stereotypical characteristics.

Beidermeier is also a furniture style:

So a Biedermeier mood would be one of conservatism, complacency. Politically it connotes something like the famous "normalcy" idea of Warren G. Harding's Presidency: calmness, dullness, lack of imagination. I discussed Kurbjuweit's argument a couple of months ago in Angela "Frau Fritz" Merkel and the neoliberal depoliticization of politics: "asymmetrical demobilization" in the German case 06/05/2013. As I translated part of Kurbjuweit's article in that post:

Merkel comes out of consensual school of thinking. The DDR was no place to take confrontation or polarization to be fruitful. The SPD has decreed unity and thereby political peace. Even citizens who were not in the {Communist} Party and viewed the system skeptically, like Merkel, found it difficult later to adjust to the eternal fights in democracy.

Merkel avoids open confrontation where she can. She avoids clear words, polarization and social blueprints that might provoke counter-arguments. She purrs herself through the campaigns and hopes that it will be useful for the Union {her CDU party} if the participation in the election remains low because hardly anyone can get upset about the Federal Chancellor. She expects nothing of anyone, but rather parcels out good deeds to pensioners or families. She dries out the country and spreads powdered sugar over it. ...

And in the coming Bundestag election, Merkel starts with asymmetric demobilization, and that is a scandal.
Klaus Stuttmann provides his own image for Frese's "siesta" and Kurbjuweit's Second Biedermeier in this cartoon:

Caption: "In the stifling heat of the election campaign ..."

But Albrecht Müller challenges this Second Biedermeier image in IGMetall greift in den Wahlkampf ein – mit einem Lob für die Agenda 2010 und „die gute wirtschaftliche Verfassung des Landes“ NachDenkSeiten 03.08.2013, specifically analyzing Alfons Frese's article. Frese is encouraging the union magazine readers to get out and vote and makes a case for Peer Steinbrück and the SPD - although, as Müller notes, a box in his article informs readers that IG Metall isn't making a formal election recommendation, just encouraging people to go vote.

But Müller observes that Frese accepts much of Merkel's framing of the election - not unlike the SPD itself! Frese starts off saying, for instance, that "Deutschland macht Ferien und den meisten von uns geht es gut" ("Germany is on vacation and most of us are doing well.") August is the main vacation month in Germany, which Stuttmann's cartoon also reflects. But, as Müller reminds us, not all Germans are doing so well. There is a lot of un- and underemployment, with many jobs being temporary jobs without the longer-term job security that until not so long ago Germans expected. He also calls attention to this argument of Frese's, "Angela Merkel regiert seit acht Jahren. Ob es einen Zusammenhang gibt zwischen ihrer Regierungskunst und der guten wirtschaftlichen Verfassung des Landes, ist schwer zu klären." ("Angela Merkel has governed for eight year. Whether there is a connection between her art of governance and the good economic situation of the country is hard to determine.") And this is a guy supposedly making an argument against Merkel!

In fact, Germany's economy has fared well in comparison to other nations in the eurozone since 2008. Frese chalks that up in large part to exports to China and what he oddly calls "die extrem niedrigen Zinsen wegen der europäischen Finanz- und Wirtschaftskrise" ("the extremely low interest rates because of the European financial and economic crisis.") In fact, Germany is fairing relatively well right now because of the euro giving them very favorable export prices compared to what they would have with a separate German currency. In a real sense, in the current situation Germany is doing relatively well because southern European countries like Greece, Italy and Spain are doing badly. It could be different. If Merkel had a genuinely European policy, Germany would be running deficits and increasing demand to pull the eurozone out of its overall depression. But that would mean accepting higher inflation in Germany and larger budget deficits, both taboos under Merkel's "ordoliberalism," which is really just a present-day edition of Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economics. Frese, like Steinbrück and the SPD, are talking around those realities.

And Germany is riding a currency-zone tiger. If the euro falls apart, which it almost certainly will on Merkel's current course, Germany's export prices will jump by 30-40%, their export-oriented economy will be hammered, and they will find themselves having to recapitalize the Bundesbank to the tune of $1 trillion or so related to the "Target 2" euro-linked clearing mechanism.

Müller also criticizes Frese for accepting - again like the SPD more generally and Steinbrück especially - "die Hauptlinie der neoliberalen Ideologie" ("the main line of neoliberal ideology") whereby globalization the aging of the population are said to be the cause of all the economic troubles that they will admit that some Germans are experiencing.

Frese also goes on to criticize one of the actual good things Merkel has done, her decision to phase out nuclear power within Germany completely and switch to a reliance of renewable energy sources like solar power, which is being exploiting extensively in Germany. Müller is also correct in pointing out that Frese seems to be endorsing fracking!

A final example that illustrates from what a weak position the SPD is campaigning for the September elections. Müller: "So beklagt er bei Merkel mit Recht, dass sie mit hunderten von Milliarden Euro Banken rettete. Hat der Mann vergessen, dass Merkel diese enorme Belastung für uns zusammen mit Peer Steinbrück arrangiert hat?" ("So he [Frese] rightly complains that she saved the banks with hundreds of millions of euros. Has the man forgotten that Merkel arranged this enormous burden for us with Peer Steinbrück?") Steinbrück served as Finance Minister from 2005 to 2009 when the SPD was Angie's junior partner in a Grand Coalition government. (A Grand Coalition is a government of the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats.)

You can see why Wolfgang Münchau recently lamented that the euro crisis would easily be the SPD's best election theme. But with Peer Steinbrück as their Chancellor candidate, they have not chance of making that work as their main issue. (Die SPD kämpft die falsche Schlacht Spiegel Online 31.07.2013)

That empty Bidermeier chair, come to think of it, would be an excellent symbol for Steinbrück in this campaign!

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