Germany’s Centre Cannot Hold

Author: Alban Werner

With the government stumbling from one crisis to the next, will the Left be able to regain momentum?

At the beginning of 2024, millions of people in Germany began protesting against the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). There had been demonstrations against the far right before, but never at this scale and breadth. It was not just the “usual suspects” from the political Left, Antifa, and social movements who were involved in the actions — Christian Democrats (CDU) and economic liberals also expressed their disgust at the AfD and their concerns about the future of democracy in Germany.

The cause of the protests were revelations by the Correctiv research network about a secret meeting in Potsdam at which AfD functionaries met with the head ideologue of the Identitarian Movement in Austria, Martin Sellner, and discussed his plans for an ethnic cleansing of Germany after the far right took power. But the reasons for the uproar and demonstrations run deeper.

“The oppositional ‘movement’ that is now coming together in the streets”, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung aptly noted, “expresses the anxieties of a new time, in which the old certainties of the Federal Republic’s golden years no longer exist. Being ‘against the Right’ can paradoxically be interpreted as a conservative protest against the demise of a trusted party system”.

The background to this is that at the AfD is threatening to win in a landslide in the European elections in June and in three state elections in Germany’s east in autumn. That raises the spectre of the far right taking part in a coalition government, and that is what is on people’s minds. It’s no accident that people with migrant backgrounds are increasingly expressing their concerns and feelings of alienation, and doing so in a country that has or should have long been — often from birth and irrevocably — their home.

Many commentators concur in arguing that the AfD’s success cannot be understood without an analysis of the policies of the federal government, which is composed of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Yet its policies can only be explained by considering the conditions under which it operates.

Germany’s Restless Centre

Doubtless the so-called traffic-light coalition (red for the SPD, yellow for the FDP, and the Greens) has not exactly covered itself in glory regarding many of its policy proposals. For example, the amendment of the building energy law (Gebäudeenergiegesetz), by means of which the fraction of fossil fuel energy used is to be reduced and a transition to climate-friendly heating methods introduced, will go down in the political textbooks as a lesson in how not to do climate policy. For while the proposal should be welcomed in principle, it was badly done and badly communicated. As a result it was severely weakened and it led to a stark loss of confidence in the government.

Yet there are even bigger problems in the general political climate, in the self-imposed fetters of politics and in an inauspicious party-political constellation. The general political climate, particularly the international situation since Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, marks a harsh wake-up call from the deceptive calm of the Merkel era — with serious consequences, including for the working population.

The self-imposed fetters are a direct result of the decades-long dominance of neoliberalism. But the worst phase of neoliberal impositions had already ended before the global financial crisis — and after the introduction of Agenda 2010, a “reform” of the German welfare system and labour market passed in 2004–5, which ultimately amounted to a massive expropriation of the working classes.

Since the traffic light coalition took office, Germany’s cushy situation has definitively come to an end.

Governed by Angela Merkel since 2005, the Germans long felt they were in a living in a world surrounded by upheavals and crises, as if on the isles of the blessed. Ultimately Germany profited from increased demand for its exports following the 2008–9 global financial crisis and from a weaker euro caused by the European debt crisis, which also favoured the export economy. There was also the full 440 billion euro in interest savings for the federal budget until 2019, which resulted from the fact that investors considered Germany a “save haven” and lent it money under conditions too good to be true.

In hindsight, the 2015–6 refugee crisis, during which over 1 million people entered the country seeking asylum, was well-handled despite a lack of preparation. Economically even the Coronavirus pandemic turned out to be a stroke of luck: current chancellor Olaf Scholz, then finance minister, was forced to give up his austerity policies in order to stave off total economic collapse. In light of the limitations imposed by the pandemic, the federal government then gave out exactly as much as it had previously set aside when benefiting from previous crises.

Yet the erosion of a long stint of socio-political calm already began under the Merkel government. Since the traffic light coalition took office, Germany’s cushy situation has definitively come to an end. The long-successful strategy of staying in power by avoiding if possible all political conflict was over. The deal between the chancellery and population, which followed the maxim “you let me govern and I’ll leave you in peace”, was over. The time of low expectations, in which working people were happy about the mere fact that the neoliberal attacks had ended, was over, as was the discursive dominance of a diffuse social liberalism, which — largely under a wave of increased attention — generated social possibilities to move toward a migration-based society and more gender equality.

The foundations of Merkelism were consumed from within and from without. Externally it was undermined by geopolitical upheavals, primarily Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. By putting a stop to Russian gas deliveries, it hit Germany where it hurt. The German public sphere was also polarized by the debate about supplying Ukraine with weapons.

Numerous concurrent trends are ensuring that not a reduction of inequality, but even just the maintenance of the status quo requires increased redistribution and regulation.

Internally, German politics was overcome by its self-delusions. The “centre”, which in Germany is a sought-after position and a supposedly reliable locus of political rationality, has long pulled through by aiming to agree upon what can’t be agreed upon. It wanted (and wants) more modern public infrastructure, effective climate change mitigation, digitalization, and much more — but since the so-called debt brake was anchored in the constitution in 2009, even these proposals have been made much more difficult. For the debt brake stipulates binding limits on the spending of federal and state governments, regardless of the state of the economy.

In the Merkel era and at the beginning of the Scholz government this drew little attention, as the government wasn’t investing much and was able to suspend the debt brake due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Since the end of low interest rates and a Federal Constitutional Court judgement declaring the federal budget’s spending, justified by emergency, null and void, the federal government lost its political capital. It blew a 60 billion euro hole in the budget, and the buffer that made the traffic light coalition possible in the first place also vanished. Since then, the government has followed a strict policy of budget cuts, and has de facto given up on its climate change targets.

This unexpected development has made the current coalition government more vulnerable than the previous one between Christian and Social Democrats. The FDP refuses not only any bypassing of the debt brake, but also any tax increases. Higher incomes and wealth cannot be drawn on to contribute to financing a social-ecological transformation of the economy and society or other proposals. This assures additional conflicts will arise in future.

Numerous concurrent trends are ensuring that not a reduction of inequality, but even just the maintenance of the status quo requires increased redistribution and regulation. Without them, rents in growth regions will continue to rise rapidly and putting a CO2 price on basic consumer goods will massively reduce citizens’ purchasing power.

If Germany wants to maintain its comparatively high degree of industrial activity in its economy, a more ambitious industrial policy is also needed. Then there is the social spending necessitated by demographic change. The ageing of the population is leading to increased demand for staff-intensive healthcare services, which many people cannot afford to pay for privately. Childcare is already shockingly understaffed and underfunded, and immigration requires investment in integration and housing.

Rhetorical Arms Races and Growing Street Mobilizations

Yet one searches for a culture of debate and agenda setting in terms of these issues in vain. The shift toward budget cuts, the de facto giving up on the 1.5-degree climate change target, and the increase of the minimum wage to only 12.41 euro, which is too small given currently high inflation, all face criticism, but so far they’ve not led to a broader mobilization. The governing parties have hit a low point in the polls, but they can count on significant reserves of support in unions, associations, and broad swathes of civil society. Additionally, in the current Bundestag, a re-run of the last Merkel coalition of the CDU/CSU and SPD, or an alliance between CDU/CSU, the Greens, and the FDP appear to be the only possible alternatives.

But instead of addressing these problems, social debate circulates around morally charged issues. Researchers are divided over how much German society as a whole is polarized. Yet the pitch has doubtlessly sharpened. Political statements are often motivated by bogeymen and clashes are dominated by caricatures: on the one side are cargo-bike-riding, higher-earning, “woke”, cosmopolitan and arrogant Greens voters, on the other are AfD voters, driven by conspiracy theories and racism. Here NATO’s useful idiots, there the peace-flag-waving friends of Putin. Here the car-hating fanatics calling for bans, there the irresponsible old white men in SUVs, and so on.

The growing significance of social media for political communication has considerably exacerbated this trend, as its typical representational elements such as viral images, short videos, and emotional headlines are primarily suited to the kind of agitation that works with one-sidedness, exaggeration, and moral outrage — all grist for the mill for far-right groups.

The partially successful farmers’ protests have underscored how distinct social conflicts can be. While the farmers managed to have some of the budget cuts that affected them overturned, there has been a serious backlash at the lower end of the social hierarchy.

Beyond the digital sphere, the public sphere is engaged in a contradictory double movement. On the one hand, it is currently dominated by demonstrations about publicly effective “consensus issues”, from which only the far right is excluded. This is the case for the basic concerns of Fridays for Future for example. The antifascist and anti-racist protests meanwhile encompass the entire democratic spectrum. They don’t actually ever address a “class enemy”, but the national political system instead. Thus an observer speaks of “conflicts over how demands are implemented”: “The street is a site for an ersatz politics that replaces the non-functioning communication between politics and parts of society.”

On the other hand, social imbalances are being exacerbated by the nature of the conflicts. The partially successful farmers’ protests have underscored how distinct social conflicts can be. While the farmers managed to have some of the budget cuts that affected them overturned, there has been a serious backlash at the lower end of the social hierarchy.

Regarding unemployment benefits (Bürgergeld), there is a risk of returning to repressive measures — with the government’s explicit goal being to cause such anxiety among recipients that they will take on the most wretched jobs. This attack is accompanied by relentless criticism in the media based on the objectively false claim that unemployment benefits mean getting a job is no longer worth it for those at the lower end of the labour market.

Moreover, various phenomena testify to the fact that the political spectrum is fraying internally and at the edges. This can be seen for example in the internal FDP vote on remaining in government, which — despite huge efforts by the party leadership — was won by those in favour by an extremely narrow margin. It can also be seen in the founding of new parties on the left and right: former president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution Hans-Georg Maaßen recently created a party from the right wing of the CDU, while at the end of last year, a group of ten federal MPs split from Die Linke to found the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht).

It remains to be seen whether these new formations will be successful. But the development is certainly problematic, particularly from a left-wing perspective. The implementation of many progressive concerns necessitates conflicts that do not fit into the well-rehearsed schema of Germany’s “consensus society”. The increased complexity makes unifying around progressive projects more difficult.

The AfD Profits, Die Linke Flounders?

The main beneficiary of such splits is the AfD. Voting for it was long paradoxical, as no other party wants to work with it, and the implementation of its policy programme would do substantial economic harm to many of its own voters. Yet to date, the AfD has never had its economic and social demands politically challenged.

Alongside the open resentment and racism among its voters, the AfD was also always an outlet for expressing mistrust toward and disgust for those in government. Meanwhile increasingly those voting for them could somewhat rightly claim that doing so is worthwhile: when an eastern German district such as Sonneberg votes in an AfD member as chief administrative officer, the whole country talks about it for two weeks.

Add to this the fact that in the meantime the whole political spectrum (save Die Linke) has followed in the wake of the AfD and pivoted toward restrictive immigration policies. Interestingly, the left-liberal supporters of the Greens have gone along with all of the dirty deals the party has done as part of the government, be it the liquid petroleum gas deal with Qatar, the (implicit) giving up on the climate change targets, or recently passed common European asylum system (CEAS). The party’s polling remains largely stable at around 15 percent.

Die Linke seems to be undergoing the inverse movement: a vicious cycle of decreasing attention, disappearing perceptions of competence and effectiveness, and bad election results.

The AfD by contrast seems to have come away largely unscathed from the attention generated by the above-mentioned meeting with far-right figures such as Sellner, which included demands for mass deportations according to ethnic criteria. This is due not least to the fact that its successes have worked like a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the AfD does well in polling (or in elections) then it receives more attention, more media reporting, and more attacks from democratic parties. That is precisely what confirms voters in their choices.

The core promise of the AfD is to cause massive disruption to the political establishment, from which its voters no longer expect anything in any case. Yet it will be interesting to observe the impacts of the mass demonstrations against the AfD in the medium term. That they are having an impact can be seen by the far right’s exceedingly nervous reactions to the protests.

Die Linke by contrast seems to be undergoing the inverse movement, a vicious cycle of decreasing attention, disappearing perceptions of competence and effectiveness, and bad election results. Due to the departure of the MPs associated with Wagenknecht, the party has lost its status as a parliamentary “fraction” and in the future will only be active in parliament as a group, with fewer rights.

Its heartlands in the federal states of former East Germany —(still) with the exception of Thuringia, where Die Linke member Bodo Ramelow is Minister-President — have been eroded. In the west of the country, it has largely lost its reputation as a pariah, but the welcome influx of many new, primarily young members can for now not counterbalance the fact that the party seems largely irrelevant. If the party wants to survive, it must turn this trend around. That demands no less than pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.

Die Linke also cannot get around the fact that it must rebuild its own ship while it is running in emergency mode. The 2011 Erfurt Programme largely pertains to a society that no longer exists: a world without a pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and massive movements of refugees. If it is to have a future, Die Linke must re-establish its reason for being, and provide an orientation for how it will achieve its stated aims. The time for delays is over — the clock is ticking.

Originally posted on Rosalux.de

Translated by Marty Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Photo: IMAGO / Müller-Stauffenberg