Why the demise of Merkel?

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The growing social dissatisfaction has hurt Angela Merkel

Socialist Review spoke to socialist activist Martin Haller in Germany about the crisis facing the “stronghold of stability in Europe”.

After the disastrous results for the CDU in the Bavaria and Hesse state elections in October, Angela Merkel announced she would be standing down as CDU leader. The mainstream explanation for her demise is that it’s because she let in refugees. How do you explain it?

What we are experiencing in Germany — growing political polarisation and the decline of the political centre — is not unusual when you look across Europe. In France, for example, the political centre fell into crisis earlier than in Germany, but France has allowed considerably fewer refugees to come into the country — so the explanation that Merkel’s refugee policy was decisive in her current demise falls far short. Moreover the image of Merkel as a pro-refugee chancellor is inaccurate. She has not only been abolishing the right to asylum in Germany since 2015, she’s also the architect of the EU policies of closed borders, letting people drown in the Mediterranean and financing torture prisons for Libyan militias. So I reject this story entirely.

The demise of Merkel and the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) as a new political force on the right have much deeper causes. To cut a long story short, they are the same as everywhere else in the world — growing dissatisfaction after decades of neoliberal transformation; years of austerity, inequality and poverty; and fear of losing out among those who are still doing relatively well. The shock to the economic base caused by the crisis from 2007 onwards is now reaching the political sphere.

In Germany this has been somewhat delayed. The great fanfare about the perceived end of Merkel is an expression of the recognition that cracks are appearing in the last great stronghold of stability in Europe. The question is why Germany was stable for so long.

The crisis has had a much weaker impact here so far compared with other European countries, for several reasons. In Germany the massive attacks on the welfare state and workers’ rights took place relatively early with Agenda 2010, a set of policies enacted by the SPD-Green government of Gerhard Schroeder from 2003 onwards. This had political effects, like since then the SPD has lost millions of voters and hundreds of thousands of members.This also contributed to the founding of die Linke (the Left Party) in 2007.

But it also had economic effects. In the years since 2010 Germany has developed a huge precariat sector, the biggest in Europe. The workforce in many companies is divided into a core workforce covered by collective bargaining agreements and so on and on the other side a growing number of insecure, precarious jobs in the form of temporary work.

This has especially affected the export industry in Germany, which is quite important. These attacks on the working class have given German capitalism a competitive advantage within the EU, and German capital has exploited this position to compete against neighbouring countries.

Another factor was the way the grand coalition (CDU/CSU and SPD coalition governments of 2005-2009 and 2013-now) prevented mass job cuts after 2007-8 through Keynesian measures such as state investments, subsidies and so on, and an extension of the short time working allowance.

But now the crisis has hit home. Germany is very dependent on its export industry and vulnerable to external factors such as the downturn in the global economy, and in China, the trade war with the US, dangers in the Eurozone such as the confrontation between the government in Rome and Brussels, Brexit. In the face of all these risks, major factions of the capitalist class in Germany are increasingly dissatisfied with the grand coalition and think that in it’s miserable condition right now it is unable to carry out the attacks on the working class that they think will be necessary in the next few years.

At the same time there’s growing dissatisfaction in large sections of the population. Precariousness affects not only those directly concerned but also those who are still relatively well off.

There was an interesting study among employees of Daimler, the car manufacturer in Baden-Württemberg in the south-west of Germany. The study revealed that many employees in recent years have developed the attitude that there is not enough for everybody, that collective bargaining standards and good pay can only be ensured by the exclusion of part of the workforce. Racist campaigns led by forces from federal minister of the interior Horst Seehofer to the AfD can encourage this consciousness.

So the demise of Merkel has much deeper roots than her refugee policy — but it would also be wrong to claim that the rise of the right, the AfD particularly, is an inevitable result of crisis. The growing social dissatisfaction is the breeding ground for this racism and the right, but racism is not an automatic reaction to migration.

The reason that the radical and neo-fascist right profits from this crisis is above all because of the racism consciously stirred up from above. For example, in Germany there have been fear campaigns against Muslims in the mainstream media at least since the beginning of the war against Afghanistan. The best-selling book in 2010 was Germany Abolishes Itself by Thilo Sarrazin, an extreme right winger from the SPD who proposed that Germany was falling apart because of too many migrants and Muslims.

Bourgeois politicians and media stir up racism in order to have a scapegoat, as a means of distraction, as an instrument of division and legitimisation of their wars. But it’s like in the poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It has a line which is translated as “From the spirits that I called, Sir, deliver me!” This fits very well the relationship between the bourgeois racists and those middle class racists and neo-fascists we see in the AfD right now. The racism of a middle class plagued by fear of social relegation can take on a life of its own

The AfD has managed to use the growing dissatisfaction and the racism of the bourgeois centre, and it is now confronting the centre with completely new challenges because racism is growing out of control of the political class.

While Merkel insists that she occupies the political centre, parts of her party, especially the Bavarian CSU and Seehofer, have tried to outdo the AfD on the right. Of course this failed, because right wing voters preferred the original and still voted for the AfD.

At the same time, many others have been scared off by the rightward trajectory and have migrated to the left. The Greens gained more votes from the CDU/CSU than the AfD did in the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse.

The CDU/CSU was punished not only for Merkel’s course, but also for Seehofer’s course. Merkel’s weakness was revealed above all by the fact that she was no longer able to control the right wing of her own party.

What is the balance of forces at the moment?

The rise of the AfD has thrown the political parties into a mess. The balance of forces has shifted partly to the right because the AfD is growing and parts of the political centre are trying to challenge it by being even more racist and more right wing than it is. But there’s also a growing counter-movement because it has become clear that the AfD is more and more controlled by its neo-fascist wing.

There are still arguments in the AfD over the question of how openly it can show its Nazi face, how much they can seek the alliance of neo-fascist street mobilisations, and also about whether it should adopt a neoliberal agenda or more of a social or national socialist agenda. Not everyone in the AfD is a Nazi but it is setting the course at the moment. This is especially true in the east, the AfD’s stronghold. There the neo-fascist wing of the party has dominated for four years, and it has been able to show its power on the streets.

This is not the case in most of west Germany. There are some AfD strongholds in the west, but when it has mobilised there have been huge counter-protests. In Bavaria for example, during the election campaign from August to October there were at least four demonstrations with tens of thousands of people against the AfD and against Seehofer’s racist agitation. They were the largest anti-racist mobilisations in Bavaria for many, many years. When the AfD called for rallies in Munich, a few dozen AfD supporters faced thousands of counter demonstrators.

It was the same in Hesse — the counter protests meant the AfD wasn’t able to hold public rallies at all in the whole election campaign. Where it tried to do so the picture was the same as in Munich. All of this demonstrates that we have a contradictory development with the right growing but also the resistance growing, and the political centre is in a downturn.

In the Hesse state elections the parties that gained most were the far-right AfD and the Greens, who are pro-refugee on the surface, rather than die Linke. Has the manoeuvring by Sahra Wagenknecht damaged die Linke’s appeal in this polarised situation?

First of all the Greens are not really pro-refugee. Inside die Linke there is an open conflict because of the agenda of Sahra Wagenknecht, and so it is true that in public perception die Linke is sometimes seen as less pro-refugee than the Greens. But in reality die Linke has voted against any stricter asylum laws — even Wagenknecht voted against every one of them — while the Greens actually supported them.

In addition die Linke plays an important role in the local anti-Nazi alliances as a reliable partner of the movement, and while the Greens are part of the big mobilisations and lots of Green voters join the protests, organisationally they are not generally involved. Die Linke gets a lot of credit in the movement for its principled politics.

The Greens’ success comes from them having positioned themselves as the counter-pole to the AfD and the shift to the right. They get votes from disappointed SPD voters, as well as CDU voters who are deterred by Seehofer and other right wing figures in the CDU/CSU. A second factor is the increasing public perception of the climate crisis.

The Greens are considered a progressive and left liberal but also moderate party. Not every Green voter is middle class but it is true that the neoliberal agenda of the SPD-Green coalition in the early 2000’s helped the SPD alienate its voting base in the working class. The Greens were also involved in this agenda but their middle class voters were less affected by those policies. Right now the Greens are on the road to success, but things are changing quickly.

On the question of how much damage Wagenknecht is causing, the conflict is certainly significant because die Linke has no clear position on the crucial issue of the day — the whole question about refugees, migration and borders — or rather, die Linke has a clear position but Wagenknecht is simply ignoring it. Die Linke ran an explicitly anti-racist election campaign in Bavaria and Hesse and was an organic part of all movements against the right. But the Greens were able to capture the protests in the media as an insurrection of the middle classes. Wagenknecht makes die Linke vulnerable with her criticism of the left immigration and refugee policy. Nevertheless, we also have to acknowledge that Wagenknecht has her fan base and it is difficult to say how many have voted or not voted for die Linke because of her or despite her.
Wagenknecht has no understanding of racism as an ideology of power and division but sees it as a pure reflex when social crisis and fears of falling living standards meet migration. She believes she can win back AfD voters for die Linke if die Linke sacrifices its anti-racism, its pro-refugee policy. But she ignores the fact that the vast majority of AfD voters never voted for die Linke at all but rather for the CDU or the SPD, or for a small Nazi party, or not at all.

Where die Linke has lost votes to the AfD has been in east Germany, where die Linke was a very popular party but it wasn’t particularly left wing in the state government or even in opposition, and is not really seen as a party of protest and resistance.

Meanwhile in the west and in some parts of the east where the left is anchored in social movements, such as in Leipzig and parts of east Berlin, die Linke has gained many young members in recent years who explicitly want to fight against the shift to the right. Wagenknecht and her followers caricature these new members as cosmopolitan-latte-macchiato-drinking Linke. The accusation is that die Linke is becoming a hipster party for social milieus and losing contact with the working class. Overlooked is the fact that our new members are also mainly working class and often have precarious jobs despite their high level of education.

And even in the industrial working class it is not true that everyone is accepting this growing racism. Instead of trying to create a left pole of attraction, the camp around Wagenknecht is tailing a segment of the workforce that has been moving to the right for years. This is not only opportunistic but deeply wrong. Unfortunately she does not seem to be willing to change her course. This conflict has been going on for two years now and my personal opinion is that these diametrically opposed strategies cannot exist side-by-side in the long run.

Martin Haller works on the German Marxist magazine Marx21.
Go to marx21.de