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Fateful Decision for Germany’s Social Democrats | The Nation

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Fateful Decision for Germany’s Social Democrats

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SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel

Party leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel speaks during an SPD party congress in Leipzig, November 14, 2013. The words in the background read, "Party Member Vote." (Reuters/Thomas Peter)

More than two months after its general election, Germany still has no new government. The old one is in place—including, as a ghostly touch, ministers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s previous junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats, who are half committed to civil liberties and entirely so to the freedom of capital. They failed to meet the requirement of 5 percent of the national vote total, and will thus not be in the new Parliament—already sitting—or the new government. There may be one within a week, if the members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) agree to a coalition program their leaders negotiated with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (along with the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, CSU). Results are expected on December 14.

Neither the Christian Democrats nor the Social Democrats are enthused about the agreement, and the official voices of German business are especially critical. They object to the introduction of a minimum wage; to flexibility in the pension system, including an earlier retirement age for some; as well as to increased social expenditure on matters like education, health and family benefits.

Business leaders are relieved that Merkel did not yield on her refusal to accept Eurobonds, so that the Social Democrats, despite their support for a European social model, will be agreeing to impose austerity on some of the other European nations. The German public has been convinced that Germany has no responsibility to pay for the supposedly spendthrift, less wealthy European nations. The SPD leaders somewhat lamely argue that their first priority is improvements for economically marginalized German citizens—as many as 25 percent of the population. They say the coalition agreement strengthens the German welfare state and provides more purchasing power to stimulate the economy. Still, they have implicitly endorsed the myth of a solitary, prosperous Germany, even as the country’s European neighbors stagnate. That view reflects both an economic fallacy and denial of a common European citizenship. Bulging with profits, many German firms practice economic nationalism in their own way, by investing in low-wage economies in the new eastern states of the European Union. Their vociferous objections to the coalition agreement reflect a frustrated project: the dismantling of the German welfare state and a reduction of the regulatory and guiding role of government in the economy. Their protests, and those of business-oriented CDU politicians, are welcome to the Social Democratic leaders. It is just what they want their members to hear.

Submitting a coalition agreement for ratification by all the members of a party is new in Germany, and the Social Democrats have been criticized by Germany’s conservative and shallow media for taking democracy too literally. The process is certainly in striking contrast with the fraudulent Internet consultations of the Obama White House through the incessant e-mails of Organizing for America. The party vote is insufficient to end Germany’s creeping depoliticization—a shared EU affliction—but it has, if only for a few weeks, enlivened German public life. That is because there may be a substantial tally against the agreement. Party leaders have thus abandoned Berlin to meet locally with the members; if they had displayed as much energy in the actual election, they might have bettered their mediocre performance.

Merkel needs a coalition partner, since she lacks five seats for a majority, having won 41 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats, with 26 percent, and Greens, with 8 percent, are far from being able to form a coalition. If they agreed to include the Left Party, with slightly more than 8 percent of the vote, they could do so. Many of their voters would accept, and some would be enthusiastic, about the only possible alternative to Merkel and the CDU-CSU continuing in power.

The Left Party (Die Linke) is a fusion of SPD dissidents in the west and adherents of what was the Communist state party in the east. It is accepted as a coalition partner in the east in city and state governments, but neither Green nor Social Democratic leaders think it possesses the realism to function in a national coalition. The Left Party is uncompromisingly opposed to the political projects of German and European capital. It rejects Germany’s adherence to an American-led foreign policy and military alliance as out of date and destructive.

At a post-electoral SPD congress, the leaders declared that they were indeed prepared to revise their view of the Left Party’s eligibility for national office—in 2017, at the next general election. The SPD leaders have told their members that they would have to resign if the coalition agreement is repudiated. If that were to happen, recourse to a coalition with Greens and the Left would be a chimera. Indeed, Merkel could still form a coalition with the Greens, or ask President Joachim Gauck to call new elections in which she might well achieve an absolute majority. Opposition within the SPD to the agreement was initially quite strong, but much of it has been converted, by the incessant arguments of the leadership, to resigned acceptance.

The Social Democrats made the introduction of a minimum wage an unconditional demand. That is useful for its credibility. Because of some of the labor market reforms they introduced under the government of Gerhard Schröder (along with the export of German jobs to lower-wage economies), the party lost the confidence of significant components of its previous electorate. That includes a large number of younger and women workers, many of whom most definitely did not vote for the SPD and frequently, for no one else. The Social Democrats also gained their future partners’ assent to more investment in education, curbs on the steadily increasing costs of healthcare, an increase in old-age pensions and benefits for the chronically ill. Equally, they obtained Merkel’s agreement to a measure frenziedly disliked by Merkel’s party, allowing children of immigrants to acquire German citizenship without renouncing their original ones. That evokes on the right the smoldering fires of xenophobia—particularly directed at Third World immigrants and those from the new eastern European members of the EU.

Merkel has championed a deeper and wider sort of German nationalism—the exercise of economic domination over much of the rest of Europe by imposing austerity on entire nations, beginning in Southern Europe, with Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. The imagery used by Merkel and her party to describe their fellow Europeans (the French do not escape, despite the supposedly special status of the Franco-German connection in postwar Europe) is not much above the rhetoric of a Republican congressman from rural America dealing with social expenditures on the cities of the northeast.

Here, the Greens and Social Democrats should (but do not) blame their own three-quarter-hearted European commitments. With corrections here and reservations there, in the last parliament they went along with Merkel’s refusal of European solidarity. European elections are to be held this coming spring, and the current president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is a Social Democrat who seeks to succeed the Portuguese servant of the markets, José Manuel Barroso, as president of the European Commission. Schulz actually believes that the welfare state is a European and not an exclusively German idea. In an influential post, he would certainly mobilize the other European socialist parties and the social Christian ones to reconstruct a European social model, help the struggling Southern European economies and demand a different, more farseeing and generous, German perspective. That, however, is a matter for next year. In this one, the Social Democrats are struggling with their partially buried European conscience.

Unfortunately, in this and other matters (the status of women, the protection of children), they negotiated from considerable weakness. In the last coalition between the Social Democrats and the Christian parties, the Social Democrats were nearly equal in parliamentarians. Now the Christian Democrats have nearly a hundred more. The advantage of the Social Democrats was that without them, Merkel would have been forced to resume negotiations (begun early and terminated quickly) with the Greens. The Greens have had a considerable change in leadership since the elections, since many in the party think they should have done better. Despite large differences in cultural and foreign policy perspectives, they might be able to find common ground with the Christian parties, if they try hard enough to do so. On environmental issues, on the need for long-term investments in renewable energy, on the timed abandonment of nuclear power, a good deal of Germany is environmentalist now. The alternative of new elections, if no government can be formed, would be exceedingly unpopular with the public, which is already complaining that they pay politicians to govern, not to argue endlessly. New elections could bring an anti-European party, not without serious xenophobia, into Parliament. Paradoxically, new elections could increase the disdain for politics, which is an increasing danger to German and European democracy.

The German public as a whole—along with the elites, usually well-disposed to the United States—has been seriously disturbed by US surveillance in Germany. The most recent revelations, however (by the very serious Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung), aren’t about electronic spying. They concern the presence at the US consulate in Frankfurt of a large center of American intelligence operations. The continuing revelations from Edward Snowden are still headline news in the German press and are major items on the television news and discussion programs. The general anger, across ideological and party lines, is palpable, and it is not diminishing with time. A major German university, Rostock, is considering awarding Snowden an honorary degree—something taken a good deal more seriously in Germany than in the United States.

There is a long tradition of direct collaboration between US and German intelligence agencies, often under only nominal German governmental supervision. It began at the very end of the war, when the head of the Nazi intelligence operation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe sold himself and his apparatus to the United States in return for immunity from prosecution. It remains to be seen how the current crisis will play out, but the United States has made an unintended contribution to demands for authentic German autonomy in foreign and military policy. Should the Social Democrats enter government, the foreign minister is likely to be Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was foreign minister in the last coalition government (2005–09) and is now head of the party’s parliamentary group. Steinmeier was head of the chancellor’s office to Schröder when Germany refused to join the war on Iraq. He is no one’s servant, a reflective realist who would take Germany somewhat further on the road to European autonomy.  

One major question is why there is not more autonomy, in Germany and the EU, in the development of a model of socially responsible capitalism. A German project of this sort, shared by Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, and subscribed to by business and financial organizations, churches and unions, marked the consensual years of German postwar politics, lasting from the 1950s to the beginning of our century. It was the very stability and longevity of that project that allowed a newer generation to concentrate on a critical examination of their parents’ and grandparents’ pasts, to develop a new environmental ethos and put it into practice, to undertake coexistence with the USSR and the Soviet bloc and the East German Communist state, to give Germany—even before reunification—a very expansive world role in development and international collaboration. Now much of German capital has undertaken a systematic counteroffensive. Merkel’s tactical skills are very large, but her limited capacity to offer real leadership is demonstrated by growing inequality in Germany itself. The most prominent Christian critic of capitalism is now His Holiness, Pope Francis. His outspokenness will make it easier for Merkel and the other Social Christians in her party to withstand the pressures of German capital, should they decide to do so. Indeed, the resonance of the Pope’s call for economic and social justice has been much stronger in Germany than in the United States.

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Perhaps Germany is ready for a change, a stronger cultural and political emphasis on solidarity. When Willy Brandt became the first postwar SPD chancellor, in 1969, he grasped that the hardship-driven solidarity of the postwar decades would dissolve unless new ideas became common currency in the party, which is celebrating his 100th birthday on December 18. He had compelling slogans like “Dare More Democracy” and “Blue Skies Over the Ruhr” (a charter for the subsequent environmental movement). But Brandt had more than slogans. With an entire generation of activists and thinkers, he united the working class and many in the middle class in projects that reformed education and labor-management relations and encouraged the practice of a new civic ethos.

The Brandt reforms were not a compromise between market domination and the values of socialism. They were large steps toward the construction of a public sphere that redefined market relations and subordinated them to the common good. The last large reform program of the Social Democrats was the labor market reform under Chancellor Schröder (1998–2005). It made large concessions to capitalist criteria of efficiency, won the praises of the guardians of market orthodoxy well beyond Germany’s borders—and left the Social Democrats with a much shrunken electorate and a desperate sense of resignation. The faceless party about to give Merkel—an incomparably successful political manipulator and historical procrastinator—her third chancellorship cannot jump over its own shadow. It cannot, alas, leap at all.

 

Read Next: Swiss voters recently rejected a cap on CEO pay, but the effort gave us all some welcome inspiration.

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