Publication State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses Looking Back, Looking Forward

Horst Kahrs reviews developments in German politics in 2018

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Horst Kahrs,

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December 2018

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Merkel auf dem CDU-Bundesparteitag in Hamburg, 7.12.2018
picture alliance/dpa (Kay Nietfeld)

Without a doubt, the most important political event in any retrospective of German politics in 2018 has to be the end of the “Merkel Era”—or, to be more precise, the political attempt to introduce a controlled end to it. The beginning of the end began in 2017 with the last federal election, and Angela Merkel’s chancellorship will continue (at least theoretically) until 2021. However, political cycles rarely correspond to calendar years. In this sense, reflecting on the political events of the past year means grumbling about political baggage chosen according to personal criteria, to be taken into the New Year along with a few good wishes.

Cultivating and Defending a Culture of Public Debate

The “Network Enforcement Act” intended to more effectively restrict hate crimes, prejudice, and fake news on the Internet reached full implementation and extent on 1 January 2018. The law has been largely ineffective so far. The hoped-for civilizing of public debate has not occurred. Social networks continue to function as mediums and accelerants of barbarization, lies, prejudice, hate, and threats of mental and physical destruction. Its click economy bears an authoritarian, dictatorial potential, posing the risk of subverting democratic civil society in the interests of authoritarian rule. Authoritarian rule builds on prejudice and resentment and lives off of the hate of the Other, not on facts, arguments, empathy, or compromise. In the meantime, exercising democratic rights appears to require an impressively courageous stance in some parts of the seemingly undemocratic corners of the world. An example of this is the American professor Christine Blasey Ford, who is still overwhelmed with hateful threats and cannot pursue her occupation after testifying against Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

The culture of public debate in democratically constituted societies in which different political positions are contested and plural, often opposing interests are formed into a “common good” is, to put it mildly, under enormous pressure from effusive passions and unhinged emotions. Cultivating and defending it will remain one of political education’s outstanding tasks in 2019. A critical evaluation of legal attempts to tame the environment such as the Network Enforcement Act are certainly part of this effort, but so is the obligation of democratic parties to not undermine the institutional security of representative democracy through their own recourse to emotions and affects. Parties participate in the will formation of the people—this is how the German Basic Law (the country’s constitution) justifies the “party privilege”, i.e. public funds for the parties and their related foundations. This democratic responsibility includes both the substance as well as form of will formation. 2018 was a year in which large segments of democratic civil society become aware that the instructions of liberal democracy are not something to be taken for granted. The #unteilbar demonstration in Berlin with nearly a quarter-million participants as well as prior democratic civil society mobilizations against police repression and xenophobia gave expression to this realization.

A Coarsening Not Only of Language

The conflict between positions of “cosmopolitan society” and “migration is the mother of all problems” (represented by Horst Seehofer and the Alternative für Deutschland) continued to form a central axis of political struggle in Germany and Europe in 2018. Several European governments revoked their initial acceptance of the UN Global Compact on Refugees, fearing populist mobilizations. Italy’s right-wing government prohibited sea rescuers carrying refugees saved from drowning on board from docking at Italian ports. The commonalities between nation-states in European refugee policy seem to consist more and more of the agreement that refugees should drown in the Mediterranean, be herded into hotspots under inhumane conditions on several Greek islands to scare away future refugees, or remain in new camps established in the North African states. The humanitarian barbarization of European societies is not only accepted in this arrangement, but even forced. The once so important “special German responsibility” in light of the country’s historical crimes was done away with. The slogan “Fluchtursachen bekämpfen” (combating the causes of flight) became an empty cross-party political slogan in 2018. Parties quickly agreed that fighting the causes was actually a good thing. Many mean it seriously, while others see it as an alibi for fighting migration as a whole.

The Grand Delusion of Politics in 2018: Combating Causes of Flight

What has happened since “combating causes of flight” became so popular? Not a single military conflict was resolved. Not a single programme was established to combat the destruction of peasant agriculture south of the Sahara (not least through European agriculture policies) and thus limit the rural exodus. Not a single European or national programme has reached the interested public that could provide the educated young generation in Africa’s large cities with economic prospects—not to mention the looming devastation due to climate change. A new interest in African social and political relations has not emerged in German politics or media. Who on this continent, for example, even knows who Cyril Ramaphosa is? Who can say whether and what Germany contributes to making the peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia a success? Without increased European interest in political and social relations in Africa, “combating causes of flight” simply obscures the forward displacement of the front lines against migrants.

“Combating causes of flight” was the grand delusion of politics in 2018, failing to mention what changes could bring forth serious “combat” in economic relations and thus also at home; ignoring that—according to all historical knowledge that migration is rooted in a lack of life perspectives at home—the effects of counter-measures will only really become palpable after a generation. In other words, it ignores the fact that “migration pressure” continues to exist—and that an increasingly radicalized political mobilization along the alleged “mother of all problems” on one hand, and the silent acceptance of increasingly brutal European “border security measures” on the other, remains on the agenda. Breaking out of this spiral of escalation only seems possible if Germany changes its stance towards Europe and begins to seriously negotiate a European social solidarity and transfer union.

Insecurity, Disorientation, and Declining Trust

The nationalization following Brexit, regionalism, and failed solidarity with the Southern European states in refugee policy could potentially receive such a powerful push in the European Parliament elections this May that the “point of no return” will already be reached. Merkel’s era played a role here. She remained uninterested in refugee policy for years and allowed Italy, Greece, and Spain to shoulder the responsibility alone. She implemented a strict course of nationalizing state debts and restricting European solidarity to a minimum in the banking and euro crisis.

The empty slogan “combating the causes of flight” is characteristic of a deeper insecurity in Germany and indeed all of the Western industrialized societies. This is best captured by the emotions triggered by notions of “open borders”. Those who fear that “everyone” would come to Germany know and imply that life is better here, and acknowledge that they would also go to a place where life is better if they had to. Emotions against open borders are based on the knowledge that grave global inequality and knowledge of this inequality on the part of “the Others” exists. Xeno- and Islamophobia is only half of the story. The other half—the bridge between authoritarian radical nationalists and wider circles of society—is the defence of national economic prosperity. “Us first”, however, is not an attitude with which global problems can be solved. One of the greatest failures in German politics is the absence of an open debate about these fundamental questions of “our” relationship to the world and its problems, instead leaving the question to the nationalists.

German climate policy underlines the political system’s failure to talk to society about how important accomplishing the “climate shift” is. It is not only the case that the coalition agreement failed to make plans to reach agreed upon “climate goals” only several years after after climate policy was pushed into the centre of political attention. More generally, the reason why political parties have an ongoing problem with trustworthiness is best exemplified when, on the one hand, unavoidable planetary problems of survival are invoked while, on the other, no progress is made on solving them and, on the contrary, carbon dioxide emissions even begin to rise again. The diesel scandal as well as Germany’s failure to phase-out coal energy shows that peace with big industry is more important than planetary problems.

Jobs, such as ones tied to coal extraction, are usually cited as the excuse. It is indeed the case that not only jobs as such but also self-confidence and the pride in being a miner that has grown over generations are also tied to this occupation. This conflict constellation between environmentalists and coal workers has existed for over 20 years without any substantial steps towards its resolution being taken. What would have been the problem with a participation-oriented conversion policy motivating the coalminers, provided with adequate financial compensation from the state, to “invent” new jobs in cooperation with technical universities researching innovative solutions to reduce CO2 emissions? A number of start-ups like Climeworks, Gensoric, Covertis and Ineratic developing processes and products to recycle or reuse CO2 have emerged not only in Germany. The window of opportunity for these kinds of pathways may have already been missed because innovation relied too much on “market forces”, and on the other hand because coalminers were not entrusted with enough creative potential. At the very least, these kinds of considerations prompt the question as to whether the left can afford to continue its weaknesses in technology policy.

Failed Privatization Policies: A Breeding Ground for Political Distrust

The years-long “restraint” in dealing with the German automobile industry’s various swindles, ultimately provoking a court-ordered vehicle ban and leaving the diesel drivers who trusted car manufacturers in the lurch, underscores the inability of “politics” to properly solve everyday problems—and not only in the eyes of those affected. Suddenly, an acute teacher shortage becomes a political issue, although the children now affected by it were already born six or more years ago. The shortage of care workers has been a topic of debate for over a decade, the wearing down of infrastructure was observed without doing anything for years, overhauls are rarely planned in a practical manner, and Germany’s mobile phone and broadband networks are some of the worst in Europe. Privatization has failed but its erstwhile protagonists refuse to acknowledge this fact, thereby turning the basic democratic scepticism vis-à-vis political representatives into open distrust. Moreover, various polls since the 2008 banking crisis suggest a popular mood in which a large majority of the population no longer expects general improvements to the standard of living and hopes for the future are reduced to one’s children at least not being worse-off. The prevailing attitude in society appears not to expect improvements, but in turn condemns the failure of “politics” all the more harshly when already achieved standards cannot be maintained.

The German Party System in Flux

The state of social infrastructure, unresolved ecological-planetary questions, and the obvious coarsening of democratic-bourgeois etiquette comprise the backdrop of the Green Party’s success in polls and elections in Bavaria and Hessia. They are perceived as a left-liberal antithesis to the nationalists of the AfD and other parties, although the term “bourgeois” here expressly denotes not the bourgeoisie as such, but rather the citoyen.

At the outset of 2019 the AfD is represented in the Bundestag and all 16 state parliaments, usually with double-digit results. The AfD differentiates and pluralizes the right-wing political camp by combining conservative dissatisfaction and outrage over government policies with a radical nationalization, and by portraying itself as a political outsider through constant provocative discursive transgressions. While the widespread authoritarian attitudes and patterns of group-oriented misanthropy found in Germany once remained in the semi-public spaces of pubs and everyday conversations, the AfD now facilitates their public articulation and gathers together the authoritarian and nationalist potentials previously constrained by the other parties. This is all framed by the invocation of a great external threat to the “people’s health”, the “Fatherland” and the “welfare state” posed by the “mother of all problems” and “Islam”.

The German party system finds itself in rapid transformation. In 2018 it became increasingly obvious that the two once-dominant major parties had lost their stable connections to their traditional social milieus. These connections must be continuously renewed much more so than before. The differentiation and pluralization of living conditions and interests, the accelerated social change with which individuals, families, and milieus must contend simultaneously makes it more difficult to formulate common political-ideological interests between different “target groups” or between core and peripheral living environments. It proves particularly difficult for Social Democracy, which in the meantime is threatened by political irrelevance in some parts of the country. Its fate reveals a dilemma liberal democracy manoeuvred itself into by accepting the dominance of the economy over society—privatization and market logics in the social sector—and democracy, making it “market-conforming”. Voters were discursively cut back from sovereign citizens to customers of political propositions distinguished less by their substance than their marketing and personnel packaging. The parties’ identity politics takes absolute priority over the common good in this new world of political advertising. 2017 ended with the FDP’s running away from governing, and 2018 began with the SPD in its own self-imposed political dead-end: either stick to their too-hastily-given word and truly become the opposition, or accept the meta-mandate the people’s electoral decision delivered primarily to the other parties, namely to form a government.

Politics Is More Than Sober Administration

Often appearing in the form of personal animosities, the fragmented party battles of 2018 have given us yet another empty political slogan. “Get back to business!” is thought to have magical powers of political healing and is thus invoked by the Christian Democrats, the SPD and Die Linke alike whenever conflicts between individuals and political currents erupt. Politics, however, is rarely a question of “issues”, but rather always of how relations between people and institutions are configured in a society, how the respective rights and relationships between capital and labour are negotiated, how and whom the welfare state protects from existential dependency, and how fundamental needs are fulfilled or where what kind of refugee accommodations are built. It is always a question of interests, different interpretations, and the power to assert one’s own position fully or at least partially through compromise. For that reason, it is always also a question of emotions and affects and not only of pure material logic or reason. “Getting back to business” declares the mode of technocratic experts as the political ideal: depoliticization through delegation to experts. Yet “politics” has disenchanted itself in recent years precisely through this expert role. Citizens are in fact everyday experts on many matters. What is lacking is the working out of political principles of order according to which an “issue” could be decided, the formulation of grand objectives that society ought to pursue at home as well as abroad. Politics is much more than good, sober administration. Invoking “business” strengthens technocratic-authoritarian tendencies: the citizen is not treated as an expert, and the failure of the parties to politically address problems in such a way that the citizen can reach a political decision is obscured.

Democracy Cannot Be Taken for Granted

The Merkel Era was characterized by the mode of calm, usually calculating administration. Passions, including passion for the democratic common good, were dimmed. Political emotions and passions are returning with a vengeance at the end of this era, and threaten to destabilize the very foundations of conflict resolution and republican-democratic society itself.  2019 could mark the beginning of a new era in which what we take for granted no longer can be, but rather must be fought for. No one is born a democrat; the survival of a democratic society depends heavily upon how much time and resources it invests in the constant reproduction of its own prerequisites: schools, universities, workplaces, time for political education. This integrating mission is not a question of one’s background or duration of belonging.

Horst Kahrs is a Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung fellow specializing in the analysis of class and social structure. Translation by Loren Balhorn.