Sunday, October 05, 2014

The "Merkel Effect" - as imagined by one of her journalistic admirers

Dirk Kurbjuweit has a piece on how, 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the event that in the US came to symbolize the end of the Cold War, the heritage of East Germany affects present-day German politics, The Merkel Effect: What Today's Germany Owes to Its Once-Communist East Spiegel International 10/02/2014.

Kurbjuweit is a safely conventional reporter. So one should never expect anything particularly innovative or cutting-edge from him. So it's not surprising that he dismisses with a sneer the reservations of Günter Grass in 1990 about unification.

And he offers deep historical-sociological observations that would make Little Tommy Friedman happy, such as, "A revolution has two goals: to put an end to everything that preceded it and to create something new."

Yes, the same thing could be said for breaking up with a romantic partner. Or renovating a bathroom.

Kurbjuweit is an admirer of Chancellor Angela Merkel's de-politicizing style of leadership. Here he compares it - admiringly - to the style of the East German regime:

A dictatorship fears open discourse and conflict, and it thrives on the fiction of unity. The ruler or the ruling party claims that it is executing the will of the people, and because that will is supposed to be uniform, everyone is under forced consensus. Silence in the country is treated as approval. Merkel grew up in this system.

Elements of it are reflected in her political style. She despises open dispute, she does not initiate discourse and she feels comfortable when silence prevails. She prefers to govern within a grand coalition, because it enables her to create broad consensus within small groups. Things have become quieter in Germany.

Many people in the country like that. Eastern Germans are used to it. Even in the past, the Anglo-Saxon model, with its dualisms and heated conflicts, was suspect to most West Germans. Even the French argue more heatedly than the Germans. Merkel has enabled Germans to find themselves.

Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) have been forged into a new kind of SED, a more social-democratic one, one which generously funds the social consensus, providing money for families and retirees, as well as a minimum wage. The only party that managed to show some sympathy for Anglo-Saxon capitalism, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), has all but disappeared.

While Merkel brings the East German element of silence instead of discourse into federal German politics, President Joachim Gauck, also an East German, provides an audible dissidence. As a pastor in the northeastern city of Rostock, Gauck was no resistance fighter, yet he was a civil rights activist. He injects his energetic approach to freedom into German politics, along with the message that freedom must be fought for or defended, with armed force, if necessary. [my emphasis]
All this romantic-nationalistic jive talk about "the Anglo-Saxon model" and how Angie the Great "has enabled Germans to find themselves" could be generously described as reactionary hot air.

Merkel and her Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic policies for the eurozone are an extreme form of the Washington Consensus/IMF neoliberal faith. Currently, the 2009 stimulus in the United States was enough of a boost to the economy to make the US a somewhat more healthy departure from the true neoliberal way than Germany and the eurozone. Britain and Australia and even Canada, are even closer to the Washington Consensus of "Anglo-Saxon capitalism" than the US itself.

In other words, "Anglo-Saxon capitalism" of the Herbert Hoover/neoliberal variety is exactly what Germany under Angela Merkel is practicing. Kurbjuweit is spinning his admiring Angie-bot propaganda out of thin air.

But despite himself, Kurbjuweit actually gets part of this right. Merkel's style of governance does seem like it's derived from the authoritarian, pseudo-consensus model of the DDR (East Germany). The comparison of her Grand Coalition to the SED, the "Socialist Unity Party" that was the formal shell for the ruling East German Communist Party, is useful as a proverbial "30,000 foot" view. She's neutralized the SPD as an opposition party, and the SPD has effectively surrendered any prospect as part of the Grand Coalition to affecting any substantive change in Merkel's Hoover/Brüning economic policies that are wrecking the eurozone economy, with a little additional help from the sanctions against Russia that Merkel and Gauck have pushed as part of their ambition to make Germany a more active geopolitical player.

But beyond that general symbolism, it's not a very helpful analogy. Merkel is head of the conservative CDU, not a communist party, and she's made a more hardline, dogmatic free-market ideology dominant in the CDU than it historically was. The effective political end of the (classically) liberal FDP largely came because the CDU so thoroughly adopted Merkel's preferred "ordoliberal" free-market economic policies that there's little market left for a tiny party devoted to a very similar ideology. And the current state of the SPD is primarily due to a 15-year process initiated by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD backing away hard from its social-democratic tradition and embracing neoliberal economics. The SPD has since even backed away from the foreign-policy caution that led Schröder to opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

So when Kurbjuweit writes, "Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) have been forged into a new kind of SED, a more social-democratic one, one which generously funds the social consensus, providing money for families and retirees, as well as a minimum wage," it's pretty much silly. Or beat-sweetening hype. Or just Angie-bot propaganda.

I've written before about Kurbjuweit's analyses of Merkel's political style: Angela "Frau Fritz" Merkel and the neoliberal depoliticization of politics: "asymmetrical demobilization" in the German case 06/05/2013 and German siesta? Or neoliberal demobilization? 08/05/2014.

The authoritarian, depoliticizing aspect of Merkel's style is the "East German" part of the present-day Federal Republic that Kurbjuweit admires.

But there's part of the "East German" heritage on which Kurbjuweit heaps more scorn:

He has encountered the most resistance from a party whose roots are also in the GDR, the Left Party. For the most part, it emerged from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to the SED, and later joined forces with left-wing defectors from the SPD. The Left Party is so strong that a leftist majority could not be assembled without it. But so far the SPD has refused to entertain the idea of a coalition government with the Left Party at the national level. As a result, an eastern German party is responsible for the fact that an eastern German chancellor has managed to stay in power so long, at the head of a government with an eastern German imprint. It would, in short, be difficult to claim that Germany has retained the character of the old federal republic after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This diagnosis depends heavily on Merkel and could therefore be ephemeral. But the nation itself has also changed. It has discovered a new center.
Chuck Todd and David Brooks would be proud of such "centrism." Because it's as empty as the kind they promote. The "defectors from the SPD" is a nice polemical touch. )Regardless of what one thinks of the Left Party, the "new center" Kurbjuweit praises here is about Merkel's Hoover/Brüning economics. A "center" otherwise known as hardline rightwing politics.

Kurbjuweit calls the Left Party "the quintessentially German party," which in his strange analysis means something bad to him here. Then he proceeds in the next sentence to say, "Still, it cannot achieve majorities nationwide because it defends its position with a radical, un-German approach." Un-German meaning something bad here. It's kind of hard to keep up.

And he continues:

Nevertheless, Sahra Wagenknecht, a member of the German parliament and a Left Party leader, has managed to become a media star with her radical critique of capitalism. During the financial crisis, she gained the support of people who would otherwise have had little to do with the Left Party. Wagenknecht also represents a strong eastern element in German politics.

Of course, many East Germans had initial difficulties in dealing with the free market economy. And perhaps the food in their restaurants still isn't very good, at least judging by the complaints of West Berliners returning from weekend outings to the surrounding state of Brandenburg. But that will disappear over time. Fundamentally, eastern and western Germans are not that different.
Yes, he bases this sociological analysis on the problems East Germans have with "the free market economy" on bitching and moaning that he's heard from Berlin tourists who were disappointed in the food they had on vacation in the surrounding state of Brandenburg.

Kurbjuweit should really set up a meet with David Brooks at Appleby's to discuss Bratwurst sociology after a visit to the salad bar.

Merkel's nationalism in the eurozone crisis is almost certainly based on part on her experience growing up in the Warsaw Pact seeing Russia's domination of that alliance, and on her experience during the transition to unified Germany, seeing how the East German delegation because instantly irrelevant in the 4-plus-1 peace talks (she was part of the delegation as a secretary) after the basic unification deal was made. Only the West German government they were joining mattered then.

Kurbjuweit provides this garbled version of that observation:

Merkel learned policy in a united and therefore complete Germany, a large country that has become more self-confident. She pays closer attention to what is in Germany's interest, and in her view this doesn't always include solidarity with other nations, especially in financial matters.

Germany dominates Europe because it is so strong economically. It is also highly self-reliant in other ways. It is no longer an obedient part of the West. When NATO launched air strikes in Libya, Merkel isolated her country from all the leading Western powers, including the United States, Great Britain and France. When Vladimir Putin took over the Kremlin, he discovered many sympathizers in Germany. [my emphasis]
Yeah, "this doesn't always include solidarity with other nations, especially in financial matters." Cute.

Of course, ole Dirk eludes an important part of Germany's economic position: that its export-heavy economy - at least the One Percent that takes most of the profits - benefits enormously from having the euro as a country, because its considerably cheaper than a separate German national currency would be. It could benefit from the euro with a stimulative, inflationary policy that would be simple, responsible macroeconomics that would save the eurozone and not drive millions of people into unnecessary unemployment and poverty.

But that's not the route that Angela Merkel, the object of ole Dirk's admiration, insists on taking.

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