The political crisis in Germany presents both dangers and opportunities for the European anti-capitalist left argues Evan Sedgwick-Jell
The talk of the current impasse in German politics is of a ‘crisis’. Whenever this word is used, it seems to suggest a catastrophe, yet the question that we must always ask ourselves is, for whom?
Currently it would appear that the crisis exists in a European context in the fact that Germany, as the country seemingly lending stability and leadership to the EU as a whole, is itself no longer stable. Within Germany however, since the failure of the ‘Jamaica’ (named after the colours of CDU/FDP/Greens) coalition due to the FDP’s (Germany’s ‘pro-business’ liberals) withdrawal from negotiations, the crisis has become one not just of the political system, but especially for the SPD (Social-democratic Party of Germany).
Christian Lindner - leader of the FDP and the focus of a vacuous and personality obsessed election campaign – emerged together with the hard right AfD as one of the few parties whom substantially increased their vote in September’s election. Linder is another example of a well-dressed young neoliberal attempting to present himself as the face of a new politics, following in the footsteps of Emmanuel Macron and Robert Kurz of the ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party).
Having been wiped out in the last elections due to falling under the 5% hurdle, the 10.7% garnered by Lindner’s FDP can be seen as a triumph for the party. Precisely this enabled the party’s narcissistic leader to go for broke and opt for the strategy of rejecting a coalition out-of-hand early on in talks, so as to avoid the classic fate of falling popularity suffered by minority partners in coalition.
Linder’s strategy left the seeming certainty of Jamaica in tatters, setting the scene for the SPD’s current dilemma. Martin Schulz’s vehement opposition to a Grand Coalition in the recent election campaign struck a chord with many SPD members, who had seen their party’s vote share fall consistently after participation in power-sharing.
The SPD’s role as a ‘Volkspartei’ (‘People’s party’ – generally used to designate the CDU and SPD as Germany’s mass parties) however creates an enormous pressure on the party to participate in ‘saving’ the republic from it’s political crisis. Were there a strong and organized left fraction within the party, they might be able to resist this pragmatic and ultimately disastrous course within the party, yet as it is, those on the left enjoy few top positions, with many having left in 2003 after the party’s neoliberal welfare and labour-market reforms. As it is, Schulz has executed an embarrassing u-turn which appears unpopular within the party as well as among the population in general.
The party’s youth wing are the only inner-party grouping offering clear resistance, yet they remain entirely subordinate within party structures, with little influence beyond the possibility to consistently needle the party through media appearances.
Currently the SPD are engaged in preliminary talks with the CDU, and have named issues such as the abolition of private health insurance and pension redistribution as key issues. These progressive demands have quickly been deflected by the CDU, who remain adamant that they will not make any major concessions.
Marxist state-theorist Nicos Poulantzas reminds us that the major parties of state, to a certain extent become a part of the state itself, meaning not only that political programs are sacrificed in favour of gaining power, yet also that for these parties, a political crisis that threatens the state, turns into a crisis of the party itself.
For this reason the SPD will almost certainly enter into coalition as a means to stabilize the country in the short-term, yet precisely this move will result in the continued long-term decline of the party and exclude the possibility of regaining its role as largest opposition party.
While minority-governments have been facts of life in many EU countries for decades, it would appear that this option (in the form of a CDU/Greens coalition) appears as the most unlikely outcome after new elections.
A strong government in Berlin is not just vital for national politics but also the continued legitimacy of the EU. As Brexit looms, Greece continues to exist as a debt colony and right-wing populist governments in Hungary and Poland defy EU directives, so too does anti-EU sentiment build within core member states such as Italy and France. Solving the German political ‘crisis’ thus becomes about bolstering the imaginary of a stable and functional EU with Germany at its core; certainly one thing that Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz both see as vital.
Poulantzas states that not every political crisis must turn into a crisis of the state, i.e. an event that questions the very foundational legitmacy of the political order, and in terms of the Federal Republic itself, this political crisis has certainly not yet become insurmountable. It is however defined by the long shadow of German fascism, resurgent in the form of growing streams within the hard-right electoral formation AfD (Alternative for Germany), and the continuing crisis of European mass-based conservative and social-democratic parties.
This tendency is seen by German economic historian Wolfgang Streeck as a breakdown in the ability of capitalism to govern itself: ‘What is to be expected, on the basis of capitalism’s recent historical record, is a long and painful period of cumulative decay: of intensifying frictions, of fragility and uncertainty, and of a steady succession of ‘normal accidents’ .
In the future, we can expect a situation in which far from being exceptional, such normal accidents come to define politics as such, representing both a danger and an opportunity for the European left.