No End to Neoliberalism in Germany

What can be expected of Germany’s “traffic light” coalition? More (eco-)austerity, more privatization, more disciplining of the Eurozone, and more disciplining of the working class.

No End to Neoliberalism in Germany

The contours of the coming “traffic-light coalition”—consisting of the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the market-liberal Free Democrats (FDP)—point towards a neoliberal restoration with a vengeance. The incoming minister of finance, the FDP’s Christian Lindner, will probably give the dreaded Wolfgang Schäuble a run for his money when it comes to enforcing austerity at home and abroad.

The formation of the government has been accompanied by remarkable public displays of unity, which stand in marked contrast to the hostile culture wars between the different milieus during the election. This is probably due in part to the arch-German desire for compromise and pacification, especially in times of escalating social contradictions.

But it also points to a deep consensus as to the principles of success of the Federal Republic. As the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz observed, there was a clear winner amidst a fragmented party landscape marked by the decline of the mass parties of old, the SPD and the Christian Democrats: the urban professional-managerial class (PMC), with its left and right political wings in the Greens and the FDP, respectively. The rancor of today’s culture wars proved ultimately to be nothing more than the narcissism of small differences. What the antagonism concealed is, in fact, a shared commitment to fundamentally (petit-)bourgeois values, such as meritocracy and educational aspiration; a political outlook dedicated to the European Project; an embrace of technological solutions to social issues, be they the sorry state of education or climate change; and, ex negativo, neglect of—if not outright hostility towards—redistribution.

But the PMC is also the motive force behind another party, one overwhelmingly representing and represented by academics: Die Linke. The party experienced a humiliating defeat and was only able to maintain its representation in parliament by a hair. How should we understand the disappointing performance of a self-avowed democratic socialist party in times of increasing social antagonism and popular support for economic redistribution (see, for example, the tremendous support for socializing the real estate juggernaut Deutsche Wohnen in a local referendum in Berlin)?

Some blame this electoral bankruptcy on Die Linke’s perennial enfant terrible, Sahra Wagenknecht, a politician with maverick positions regarding Covid and wokeness. It may not have been her divisiveness, however, but rather her party’s conciliatory attitude towards the center-left (for example, on the question of NATO) that was the problem. There’s no courting this constituency—mostly interested in identity politics and the environment, and less so in bread-and-butter issues—which already has its party: the Greens. It turns out the latter were simply unbeatable on this playing field.

As with many bourgeois democracies, voter turnout is generally lowest in the poorest areas. Welfare recipients probably have little more to expect from the state than a euphemistic rebranding of the extremely punitive Hartz IV system as “Bürgergeld” (citizen money). So far, these changes amount to little more than a meager increase in monthly payments—which most likely will be wiped out by inflation—plus a vague commitment to making the application process less bureaucratic.

Whatever manifestations of “anti-politics”, or of rebellions against the establishment, that Germany may have witnessed in the years leading up to the elections have been successfully recuperated by the managerial center. For example, the massive, youth-driven Fridays for Future movement was wooed by and incorporated into the Green Party. If the high turnout of young, first-time voters is any indication, the move was massively successful. However, the fairly unambitious agreements on decarbonization in the coalition treaty will probably prove a rude awakening for at least a significant part of this idealistic, morality-driven constituency.

On the other wing of the managerial center, the FDP appears to have been able to capitalize on widespread discontent with the increasingly erratic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by posing as the champions of civil liberties, especially when it comes to education. The party strongly opposed school closures and seems to have been rewarded by many first-time voters.

In this channeling of free-floating political affects—for instance, popular opposition to rising rents, worries about environmental collapse, discontent with public health measures, etc.—into centrist managerialism, what is on display is the remarkable stability of German parliamentary democracy. This is so despite recent transformations of the party system—that is, the relative decline of the SPD and CDU/CSU, and the rise of the Greens and the FDP. In a 1968 book once known as the “bible of the extra-parliamentary opposition,” Die Transformation der Demokratie (The Transformation of Democracy, in a free translation), the German-Italian Marxist political scientist Johannes Agnoli described what he saw as the couching of elite interests in terms of popular sovereignty, precisely by way of the spectacle of pluralist agonism. This Agnoli called “involution”.

In Agnoli’s time, this mechanism was still characterized by rival mass parties pursuing a common objective: the pacification of social antagonism by means of its transformation into a formal, constitutional procedure, in which the means become the ends. Today, bitter electoral rivals representing much smaller milieus can come together in coalition governments toward common ends. But no matter their fierce competition in the culture wars, their similar class interests ensure that business as usual can continue. Reckwitz praises this as a gain of plurality instead of acknowledging that pluralism and agonism in Agnoli’s sense are exactly how change towards more of the same is organized. After all, it was a red-green government from 1998 to 2005 that thoroughly dismantled the fabled German welfare state and sent troops abroad for the first time since World War II. The SPD and the Greens’ electoral success was arguably driven by a desire for change similar to today’s: Helmut Kohl’s (CDU) chancellorship lasted 16 years (the same number as Angela Merkel’s term) and was regarded as increasingly sclerotic and unable to deal with what had been considered pressing issues, among them the economic lag of the newly integrated East German federal states. It took a center-left government to modernize German capitalism and strengthen its grip on the Eurozone.

If anyone in German politics has meticulously and ingeniously cultivated their image to respond to these desires, it is the newly appointed Vice Chancellor, Robert Habeck of the Green Party—rivaled only by his bumbling yet successful Green colleague and foreign policy hawk, Annalena Baerbock. Habeck presents as an “intellectual” and underappreciated playwright, though he evidently had no other objective in life than to become the archetype of the German “collective capitalist” (Engels). Indeed, the new Vice Chancellor once wrote a play about one of the most fateful figures in German history, the Weimar politician Gustav Noske (who sent in the army to suppress the Communists), in which the difficult choices Noske faced are explored with great empathy. The self-branding is clear: here is a sensitive intellectual who sees the bigger picture but is not afraid to make brutal decisions—as long as they are in line with the interests of the ruling class. And brutal decisions of the latter variety Habeck will absolutely support, as he openly announced upon concluding the coalition negotiations.

What is to be expected, then, from the coming “progressive neoliberal” (Nancy Fraser’s phrase) regime is more of the same: more (eco-)austerity, more privatization (as in the case for further dismantling the Deutsche Bahn railways), more disciplining of the Eurozone, and more disciplining of the working class—all of which follows in the tradition of the reforms brought about by the red-green Schröder government, and which have been gladly inherited and pragmatically managed by Angela Merkel, with her trademark unpretentiousness.

Given the prominent role the youth have played in the election campaign and the media discourse in recent years, it is probably worth recalling the opening pages of Capitalist Realism, in which Mark Fisher discusses Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men, and it interprets the motif of sterility as a cultural anxiety which can be condensed into the question: “what if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?” If the German case is representative, “the future harbors only reiteration and re-permutation.”

Bernhard Pirkl is a translator, educator and writer based in Munich.