Germany’s Hidden Crisis

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Germany dominates Europe, so news in April that German business confidence had fallen for a seventh month in eight and that the government had halved its growth forecast for 2019 to 0.5 percent suggests there is more than Brexit weighing on Europe’s economic prospects.

The German working class remains Europe’s most powerful. Yet Germany’s equivalent of the Labour Party, the SPD, is in spectacular decline after entering one coalition after another with conservative chancellor Merkel and, between time, making a wholesale attack on welfare provision.

Most abjectly, by allying with Merkel again last year, the SPD allowed the far right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) and the 30-odd Nazis among its members of the German parliament, to present themselves as the main opposition party.

How this came about and what happens next matters hugely, so I approached Oliver Nachtwey’s book, Germany’s Hidden Crisis: Social Decline in the Heart of Europe, eager to learn more.

Nachtwey is a professor of sociology at the University of Basel, and the German edition of his book, published in 2016, was a bestseller.

It charts Germany’s trajectory from booming 1960s and 1970s to relative economic stagnation. Unfortunately, it reads very much as the work of a sociology professor. Nachtwey explains: “The procedure I shall adopt is one influenced by critical theory . . . with the paradoxical formula of ‘regressive modernisation’.”

The professor is clearly on the left and presents a class analysis of sorts. He briefly explains Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall but suggests “it is irrelevant whether this is correct” and suggests of the working class: “No one still sees them as the universal subject of social emancipation.”

There is no mention of the German Revolution or the Nazis’ role in smashing the labour movement. Instead, Nachtwey summarises the first half of the 20th century thus: “The politically polarised society of the Weimer Republic, riven by class conflict, had been followed by the Nazi dictatorship. After its collapse a relatively stable democracy arose.”

Similarly, he moves through the 1980s and 1990s without referring to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The book seems detached from what it describes. The success of neoliberalism, Nachtwey writes, was “secured from below and from inside, by the creation of incentives for people to see themselves as naturally autonomous and entrepreneurial subjects”.

He accepts the notion of the “precariat” as a new class of workers. Yet the few illustrations he provides barely fit his analysis. In 2014, he notes: “Only 28 percent of West German employees still worked in private firms with both an industry-wide wage scale and a works committee.” That represents a decline but also retention of a sizeable, organised private sector.

Nachtwey cites his own 2015 study of an unidentified car plant where, of 4,000 workers, “about half were employees of the company”. These “enjoyed comparatively good terms, their pay is collectively negotiated . . . they are represented by a strong works committee”.

He contrasts this to “the more than 1,000 agency workers”. Yet he notes: “After years of struggle by the trade union and works committees, [these] had recently received formally equal conditions to the core staff.”

The book would have benefited from more descriptions of workplaces.

Nachtwey describes “a society of downward mobility . . . leading to a renewed class society in Germany”. But the book lacks any sense of struggle despite a chapter entitled “Revolt”.

The Afterword, dated June 2018, is much better. But rather than read the main text, I recommend the chapter on “The Ascendency of Germany” in Costas Lapavitsas’ excellent “The Left Case Against the EU” which says more in five pages on the defeat of German labour in the 1990s than Nachtwey’s entire book.