2018 02 – the crisis of German Social Democracy

The German SPD and the crisis of Social Democracy

Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the German Social Democratic party (SPD) from November 2009 to March 2017, has written an article in a recent edition of ‘Der Spiegel”.  The article addresses an ongoing discussion in the SPD about whether it should enter into yet another coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) given the electoral losses it suffered after its two previous coalitions with the CDU. 

In the federal elections after the 2005-2009 coalition with the CDU the SPD lost some 30% of its vote and 76 seats.  In the federal elections after the 2013-2017 coalition with the CDU the SPD lost some 10% of its vote and 42 seats.  However, Gabriel thinks that being in or out of government is not the critical issue for the SPD.  More fundamental is the fact that the SPD has lost contact with its electorate as it drifted into a casual acceptance of many neoliberal ideas at the expense of the social democratic gains it had made for the working class in the period 1950-2000.

While Gabriel’s article is interesting it is also very general.  He conducts his argument by introducing two themes – ‘modernism’ and ‘post-modernism’.  He identifies modernism with the gains made by social democratic politics in the period 1950-2000 and post-modernism with the identity politics that has come to dominate politics since then and with which the SPD has become associated.  He sees the recent rise of populism as a rejection of this post-modern politics and society and not a rejection of the original core modern values of the SPD – social security and solidarity.  The implication is clear.  The SPD needs to return to these core values.

But Gabriel provides little detail of what specifically they could or should have done.  Rather he suggests that the main problem is the power of financial capital and that the SPD can only really be effective in Germany by participating in a European and world social democratic struggle to tame neoliberal capitalism.  This seems very weak.

Furthermore, in this context one might have expected him to make reference to one of the most important victories scored by the anti-neoliberal camp in 2017 namely Jeremy Corbyn’s huge gain of the votes of the young in the English general election in June 2017.  But nothing is said about that. Gabriel may well have deliberately decided in this article to just make the one central point – that the SPD has lost touch with its normal electorate.  It’s an important point to make but until we know how exactly he proposes to re-engage that electorate we cannot know if things are going to significantly change in Germany.  Certainly, Gabriel’s statement that “the nation state can no longer fulfil its social welfare commitments” does not fill one with confidence. 

An SPD team was set up to have exploratory talks on whether a coalition was possible.  Sigmar Gabriel was not included on the SPD team which did recommend that the SPD enter into formal talks with the CDU/CSU on another coalition. At a conference in Bonn on 21st January the SPD voted to accept this recommendation; with 362 for and 279 against.  So without much enthusiasm for another coalition.

We reproduce an English version of much of Gabriel’s article below.

How the SPD should react to right-wing populism.

The German Social Democrats are wrestling with the question whether they should risk entering a renewed coalition with the CDU and CSU or turn down the opportunity.  Not an easy question to answer in the light of their losses in the Federal elections after two similar coalitions in 2009 and 2017.  There are arguments on both sides for and against yet another role in government under the leadership of Angela Merkel – important arguments.  But this difficult issue should not obscure the fact that the problems lie deeper.  For, in the light of many social democratic electoral losses in our neighbouring European states – equally whether in power or in opposition, the explanation that it is simply due to a couple of government coalitions is inadequate.

Actually it’s about much more fundamental questions that have to do with the huge changes that have taken place in the context of globalization and information technology.  The idea of Social Democracy has been based for more than 150 years on a shared representation of interests, on collective action and on a society that values solidarity.  Little is left of that.  Individual lifestyles shape society much more than before.  And the nation state can no longer fulfil its social welfare commitments.  In short: almost all the conditions for the success of social democracy in the 2nd half of the last century have disappeared.  If we do not find convincing answers to these questions and challenges, then the decline in social democracy in Germany will continue – whether in a renewed coalition government with the CDU and CSU or in opposition.

The increase in left and right populism is often interpreted as a reaction to the achievements of modern society.  It is seen as an anti-modern revolt against the status quo.  I propose a different interpretation which may at first appear odd:  The populism is not a movement against this modern society but on the contrary the effect of a desire for exactly this modern society.

It is more accurately a movement against the post-modern society that developed at the end of the last century.

The modern national welfare state had already come under pressure by the end of the last century.  At the same time, the family and the hitherto socially dominant order of gender relations lost their power and relevance through individualization and emancipation.  In my own family history I learned how that had such a liberating effect.  But this freedom had a double effect:  Not only did the authoritarians disappear but also the authorities disappeared- from teachers to policemen, from business leaders to union leaders, from sports to the media to the church.  The battle cry of this post-modern society “Anything goes” did not just equalize.  It also removed security and a sense of direction.  The replacement of the modern society that had developed after the 2nd world war by the post-modern society happened on a wider scale and with a dynamic that would never have occurred to its French proponents.  It became a reality at the same time as the radical liberalization of economic and living conditions which has characterized the last 30 years.  Keynesianism lost ground to Neoliberalism.  “Shareholder Value” replaced “Rhinisch Capitalism”.  Commitments and obligations appeared suddenly as hindrances to the development of the flexibility and mobility that is necessary to be competitive in a globalized world.

Actual modern society had, however, characterized itself after the end of the 2nd world war above all through social rules.  For instance in Germany through the social market.  The social democratic promise of prosperity was throughout the world one of the most important characteristics of this modern society.  Particularly here in Europe.  And in fact it has indeed been possible to create national conditions which tame capitalism and force it in a direction which serves the public good.  And it is exactly to this time that people want to return.  So, in a curious way, to a time which was above all shaped by social democracy and its national successes.  Were there not the racist and anti-European tendencies of right populism one could with irony claim: Anti-post-modern populism yearns to go back to the good old social democratic times.

But it is always less and less possible to tame global capitalism with national legislation.  It blackmails national states with its flexibility.  It is always looking for inexpensive locations with low wages, low taxes and easy social and environmental rules. And if necessary it will head for tax havens which are quite simply areas with little rule of law.  Seen in this way the increase in right-wing populism is a revolt against a Liberalism that is perceived as excessive and dangerous for society.  For this reason this populism is also quite attractive to the followers of progressive and social democratic politics.

The breakup of families, communities and other societies through the atomization of the world of work and living conditions is in no small part of our society understood as the traumatic farewell to modern society and not as its climax as many thinkers from the Green and Liberal parties see it.  The open borders of 2015 are for many people a symbol of extreme multi-culturalism, diversity and the loss of any sense of order.  Among them are many one-time social democratic voters.  Diversity, inclusion, equality, political correctness – all these are therefore now the targets of the new right populism.  At heart they are not the products of modern society but rather of a post-modern society which has embarked on the radical destruction of modern society, in the course of which it has had some amazing successes but now becomes the victim of its own success.  Modern society also promised to people individuality, diversity, freedom and welfare – but regulated and in moderation.  It is the excess and radicalism of post-modern society that creates so much unease.

In the past all Europe’s social democratic parties have made the same mistake in responding to global post-modern society.  Likewise us in Germany.  We have in our economic debates simply adapted ourselves to the competitive pressures of this post-modern globalization.  Although the SPD did a lot in the last legislative period to counteract this development, the ability to compete was more important to us than were the wages and pensions with which people can not only live but live well.  It comes to this: culturally we find ourselves as social democrats and progressives comfortable in post-modern liberal debates.  The environment and climate protection were sometimes more important to us than the preservation of our industrial jobs.  Data protection was more important than internal security, and we almost considered marriage for all the greatest success of the last government rather than our other successes in laying down the minimum wage, increasing pensions or securing thousands of fairly paid jobs at one of the major retail chains.  A look at the development of the Democrats in the U.S. shows how dangerous this focus on the themes of post-modernism can be.  If you lose the workers of the rust belt states, the hipsters of California won’t be of much help.

I appreciate that this is all very blunt and provocative.  And I know very well how important environment and climate protection, data protection and equal rights are for all kinds of lifestyles.  Nevertheless we in the social democratic and progressive movement must ask if we are close enough, culturally, to that part of our society who do not agree with the “Anything goes” battle cry of post-modernism.  These see themselves uncomfortable, often no longer at ease in the society they once knew and sometimes even threatened.

In any case one thing is clear: the majority of us have advanced in society and for the most part no longer live in those parts of the cities in which our electorate live.  We are more likely there to be confronted with other themes – more middle-class, more cultivated and even post-modern.  To put it rather crudely:  We are often too green and liberal and not red enough.

If I want more ‘red’ then I don’t mean by that in the first instance the somewhat fairy-tale debate about whether the SPD should be more ‘left-wing’.  That exhausts itself quickly in classical questions of policy about redistribution which of course are significant.  But at heart it’s more about a cultural appreciation and about issues of identity.  In a world that has become confusing it is exactly this desire for identity that preoccupies a large segment of our electorate.  With whom or more particularly with what can they identify?  Is the desire for a more secure existence which unites them here in Germany behind the idea of ‘homeland’ something that we Social Democrats understand?  Or do we see in it a backward looking and reactionary picture which we no longer find attractive?  Is the longing for a ‘guiding culture’ in the face of the far more diverse composition of our society actually only an instrument of conservative propaganda, or does it hide the wish of our electorate for some sense of direction in the apparently permanently uncommitted world of postmodern society?

It is no accident that the thinkers of the extreme right-wing in Europe frequently describe themselves as an “identity movement”.  Because it is about identity and identification.

In any case, we Social Democrats are now being associated more with a postmodernism with which many do not identify.  In part, this is because we have not so far succeeded in having the achievements of modernity – social security, participation, and solidarity – accepted as being sustainable and as being tangible aspects of everyday life, even in times of globalization.

Once again should all social democrats in Europe lead in essentially national election campaigns?

Once again are national agreements more important for us than international meetings and once again do we allow ourselves to be blackmailed by the power of financial capitalism in our tax legislation?

I am convinced that the crisis of German Social democracy has less to do with a governing coalition with the conservatives in Germany than with the completely changed general conditions for social democratic politics.  If we in the first place accept these changes and therefore also grasp the consequences, then our election results will improve.  Seen from this perspective the question of the survival of Social democracy in this land is relatively indifferent to whether we do or don’t go into government.  There are good arguments for both opinions and the SPD must have no anxiety about either of them.

In short we must – equally whether in or out of government – propose a completely different platform.  And this other platform means above all: the Europeanization and internationalization of our political ideas.  Together with our very traditional values of freedom, solidarity, equality and justice the recognizable difference to all our other political competitors can be clarified.  The SPD party chairman Martin Schulz is therefore right:  More international collaboration, more European collaboration, for only in that way will we again honour the central promise of social democracy, namely to tame capitalism and realise social and solidarity-oriented market economies.  We were successful in that in the last hundred years, now we must be successful in Europe and if possible abroad.  The Social Democrats know better than any party in Germany that the way forward is exhausting.  But we know also that a better land in a better Europe does not come by itself.