The dangers of Germany's new left populism

Submitted by SJW on 8 August, 2018 - 11:05 Author: Dale Street
Sahra Wagenknecht addresses a Die Linke rally

Sahra Wagenknecht, co-chair of the parliamentary fraction of the German left-wing Die Linke party, has announced the launch-date and name for a new extra-parliamentary “broad movement”.

It will be launched on 4 September, and it will be called #StandUp.

On one level #StandUp — targeted at members of Die Linke, the SPD (German Labour Party), the Greens and those not members of any party — is a response to last year’s general election results.

The CDU (German Conservative Party) and the CSU (regional Conservative Party, in Bavaria) saw their vote fall by eight percent but still won the highest percentage of votes (33%). The FDP (German Lib-Dems) increased its share of the vote by six percent and scored 11%.
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) won over 12% and emerged as the third-largest party in the Parliament, with 94 seats. In the 2013 general election it had not won a single seat.

The SPD, coalition partner of the CDU/CSU in the 2013-17 government, suffered its worst result since the Second World War: 20%. The SPD’s decision to re-enter a coalition government with the CDU/CSU condemns it to further decline.

The Greens secured a slight increase in their share of the vote (0.5%) as too did Die Linke (0.6%, an increase of half a million votes). This was the second-best result ever for Die Linke in parliamentary elections. But the headline figures concealed a more complex story.

Its vote increased in cities across former West Germany. But in former East Germany it lost 400,000 votes to the AfD. In Germany as a whole, only 11% of the unemployed and 10% of industrial workers voted for them — less than half the percentages in both categories who voted SPD, CDU/CSU or AfD.

Two months after the elections Oskar Lafontaine responded to the result by calling for “a new broad movement of the political left”:

“I’m thinking of Corbyn in Great Britain – a credible person and a programme for the many. Or Podemos and “La France insoumise” in Spain and France. The political left is increasingly losing influence. The SPD and Die Linke did not even pick up 30% (of the votes) together.”

Lafontaine was a former leading figure in the SPD and a left-wing breakaway (WASG). In 2007 the WASG merged with the PDS (post-German-unification successor to the ruling East German Communist Party) to create Die Linke, in which Lafontaine now plays a role akin to that of elder statesman.

Lafontaine repeated the call the following month: “We need a left broad movement, a kind of left-wing people’s party, in which left-wingers and sections of the Greens and the SPD come together.”

In January Wagenknecht took up the proposal. She cited Corbyn and Melanchon (figurehead of “La France insoumise”) as examples to be followed and described the new movement as one which would be “anchored in the internet.”

A founding statement and name (#fairland) for the new movement were leaked to the press in May, which was also the month in which the movement was to have been launched.

But the statement was only an initial draft, Wagenknecht explained, and the name had been deemed unsuitable. And in any case, by May only a small circle of names had been associated with the call for a new movement:

A 77-year-old ex-SDP-politician; a 75-year-old ex-Green-politician; a songwriter; a novelist; and Bernd Stegemann, author of “The Ghost of Populism”, in which he had argued for a left populism to counter right-wing and neo-liberal populism.

By this time the proposed new “broad left movement” had become… a new “broad movement”!

In early June an article by Wagenknecht and Stegemann cited Podemos, “La France insoumise” and Jeremy Corbyn (“with him the Labour Party has undergone a genuine renewal”) as examples of “successful left movements”. But what the article advocated was:

“A broad movement which stands above parties, a mixture of an unconventional style of politics, modern digital infrastructure, classic social demands, and faces which are not household names and who are not primarily politicians themselves.”

A fortnight later, in another newspaper article, Wagenknecht argued:
“We need a new broad movement: to win back democracy, for fairness in how we relate to each other, for distribution (of wealth) based on work, and for a politics of good-neighbourly relations with other countries.”

A succession of newsletters from “Team Sahra” (“Politics for the Majority, Not the Millionaires.”) in the following weeks likewise referred to a “broad movement”, as too does the movement’s now live website: “#StandUp — The Broad Movement — The Citizens Must Be Listened To.” (“No-one listens to us” is also the theme of the video clips on the website:

“I ask myself if there aren’t certain groups in Germany which we have been neglecting for a long time. … Workers feel that no-one has been listening to them for years. They don’t have a voice any more. … The only way it can function is: listen to people, take it in, work on it.”)

Although the launch of #StandUp has been hooked onto last year’s election results, the initiative is rooted in the much longer-term political evolution of Lafontaine and Wagenknecht.

Both were once seen as icons of the hard left. Lafontaine even had the honour of being denounced by the Sun as “the most dangerous man in Europe”. But in more recent years both have struck out in a much more right-wing and distinctly populist direction.

The core of their politics (which has been articulated more by Wagenknecht than by Lafontaine) is the contradiction between (bad) globalisation and finance capital and (good) national states and small-scale private enterprise.

According to the article by Wagenknecht and Stegemann, globalisation is the mechanism through which multinational concerns “circumvent democratic rights, avoid taxes and put pressure on indigenous labour markets.”

Globalisation, writes Wagenknecht, has benefited the few and disadvantaged the many:
“Globalisation benefits above all the elites. The overwhelming majority is the loser. … There is a small layer of the population which benefits from unbridled global capitalism. And there is a majority which would live better in a strong social state with job security.”

Wagenknecht’s hostility to globalisation feeds into hostility to the European Union, with an added xenophobic twist:
“The larger, the more complex, and the less homogenous a political unit is, the less it is capable of functioning. If there are also differences in language and culture, then it is a hopeless undertaking.”

But Wagenknecht does not propose an EU-wide campaign for democratisation of EU structures, nor EU-wide co-ordination by trade unions to defend and level up workers’ rights and rates of pay.

Instead, she proposes a return to sovereign national states — as if they had ceased to exist within the framework of the EU.

Ironically, while British Lexiters argue that the EU is a front for the dictates of Germany, Wagenknecht portrays Germany as a victim of the EU. (But that’s the thing about populists the world over: it’s always the fault of someone else somewhere else.)

Wagenknecht writes: “If we want to live again in genuinely democratic communities, there is there only the opposite road (away from globalisation). It is not production which must be internationalised, but the economic structures which must be decentralised and reduced in size.”

And again: “For the foreseeable future there is above all one instance in which genuine democracy can exist and the re-democratisation of which we must champion: the state with its various levels (of government) as it has developed historically.”

The Eurozone is also incapable of reform. Instead, “a better idea would be to restore to the democratic states their own currency and to introduce controls on the movement of capital in currency exchanges.”

Wagenknecht’s writings are peppered with references to “the finance lobby”, “the elite”, “the establishment”, “the money aristocracy”, “the top ten thousand”, “economic feudalism”, “international finance capital”, “predatory investors”, and “monopolists who produce nothing” but have “unearned incomes of millions”.

Bankers, speculators, casino-economy spivs — for Wagenknecht these are, so to speak, the real enemy, not capitalism per se. Economic wealth and political power are both concentrated in the hands of this one percent.

In support of this argument Wagenknecht repeats a quote popularly but not necessarily accurately attributed to “the legendary founder of the Rothschild banking dynasty”, Mayer Amschel Rothschild: “Give me control over the money of a nation, and I don’t care who makes its laws.”

Wagenknecht’s solution is not class struggle against the power of (all forms of) capital but the creation of a functioning competitive market economy, freed from the predations of finance capital, coupled with support for small and medium enterprises:

“In left-wing discourse, just as much as in right-wing discourse, capitalism is readily equated with a market economy. This is fundamentally wrong. … Markets are not to be abolished. On the contrary, they must be saved from capitalism [by which Wagenknecht means: finance capital].”

“An entrepreneur is someone who leads and builds up a business with their own ideas, power and creativity. Any reasonable economy needs good entrepreneurs. But it does not need capitalists [by which Wagenknecht means: finance capitalists].”

“If we overcome today’s economic feudalism … then the ground would be taken away from under the feet of capitalism [read: finance capital], but genuine entrepreneurs would encounter far better conditions. … To put it particularly sharply: We must save not just democracy but basically also the market economy from capitalism.”

In a thriving market economy, “the goals would no longer be maximising short-term profits but: long-term business growth, solid profits in order to finance investments, and no increase in profits by means of precarious jobs or relocation to low-wage countries.”

Wagenknecht “marries up” her arguments in support of sovereign national states and a market economy, and also gives a particularly German twist to them, by portraying the economically dynamic but socially conservative post-war Germany as a veritable Golden Age:
“For the first time in industrial states personal standards of living for all sections of the population increased. Inequality declined, as did poverty, and a broad middle class emerged.”

“Between 1945 and 1971 there was not a single serious banking crisis. No-one missed all those derivatives, securities and other financial innovations, the existential economic importance of which is now the topic of dishonest fairy tales by the finance lobby.”
It would be ridiculous to accuse Wagenknecht, as some German commentators have, of peddling classic 1930s National Socialism.
But it would be equally ridiculous to deny that her distinction between (good) productive entrepreneurship and (bad) finance capital smacks uncomfortably of the Nazi distinction between schaffendes Kapital (productive capital) and raffendes Kapital (predatory capital), with its inbuilt antisemitic component.

Even if it is not her intention, her emphasis on defence of German national sovereignty against encroachments by the “EU gang of technocrats” likewise chimes in with far-right demagogy about Germany’s lack of ‘real’ independence.

(The far-right “Engaged Democrats Against the Americanisation of Europe”, for example, call for: “… a sovereign and neutral Germany, peace treaties and withdrawal of occupation forces; direct democracy, referendum, and regionalisation; adherence to the German Basic Law and a genuine German constitution.”)

Wagenknecht also claims that her promotion of a market economy amounts to a “Third Way” between capitalism and the Stalinism of which she was once a fervent admirer. She admits to feeling uncomfortable with the term, and with good reason.

The genealogy of the notion of a market economy being a “Third Way” between capitalism and communism can be traced back to antisemites in Imperial Germany through the Nazis to contemporary fascism.

Although presented as a way to challenge the rise of the AfD, the core political ideas espoused by Wagenknecht (and Lafontaine) are positively dangerous. They incorporate and express right-populist ways of thinking and legitimise the politics of the AfD.

Applied to day-to-day political issues they become even more dangerous, in that they shift the ground of political debate onto that occupied by the AfD as well as opening the door to conspiracy theories:

“People have a right to expect that the state protects them from competition in the form of dumping. The right to asylum for the politically persecuted must remain. But labour migration is a problem, especially in the low-pay sector.” (Wagenknecht)
“Whoever crosses the border illegally should be offered the chance to return voluntarily. If he refuses this offer, the only option left is deportation.” (Lafontaine)

“Taking in and integrating a large number of refugees and immigrants is linked to substantial problems. … The state must now do everything to make sure that people in our country can again feel safe. That presupposes that we know who is in our country.” (Wagenknecht)

“Whoever misuses their rights as a guest has also lost those rights.” (Wagenknecht, speaking after an outbreak of criminal activities in Cologne’s 2016 New Year celebrations.)

“Behind the supposed government there stands an invisible government. Then as now we have an invisible government which, in reality, determines the fate of this world.” (Lafontaine)

“(Chancellor Merkel) shares responsibility (for a terrorist attack in Ansbach in July 2016). Alongside of the uncontrolled opening of borders, spending on the police has been cut to breaking point.” (Wagenknecht)

“Cosmopolitanism, anti-racism and the protection of minorities are the feel-good label which conceals a brutal redistribution (of wealth) from the bottom to the top.” (Wagenknecht)

In essence, the politics of Wagenknecht and Lafontaine amount to a jumble of various forms of economic and political regression.
Back to national currencies. Back to the national borders lowered by European integration. Back to the ‘social market economy’ of Ludwig Erhardt (CDU Minister of the Economy and then Chancellor, 1949-66). And back to an economy based on small-scale capitalist production.

The populism of that political and economic regression was reflected in the #fairland statement leaked to the press in May:
“We stand up for fairness and social cohesion, for peace and disarmament. For not a few, internal European freedom of movement and immigration mean above all: more competition and badly paid jobs.”

“If politics looks on as hate-preachers of a radicalised Islam inculcate on five-year-olds a worldview which makes integration almost impossible, then the social climate is poisoned.”

“Back to the peace politics of Willy Brandt (German Chancellor, 1969-74). For a renewed strong social state. Lift the tax burden on small and medium incomes, and increase taxes on big fortunes and big concerns. Security in everyday life: more police and better-equipped police.”

“A European Germany in a united Europe of sovereign democracies, while maintaining cultural independence and with respect for tradition and identity.”

According to Die Tageszeitung, a more recent draft of the broad movement’s founding statement amends or removes a lot of such excesses and has “a more left-social-democratic tone”.

But even if the tone has changed – the newspaper has not published the latest draft — there is no reason to suppose a change in the underlying politics. In fact, there would be no point in launching #StandUp if there had been any substantial change in the underlying politics.

The fact that #StandUp has a website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account but not yet a founding political statement is also symptomatic of the kind of movement Wagenknecht is trying to build. As Die Tageszeitung puts it:

“Similar movements — Momentum in Britain, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece — were successful only because they had active and energetic young people at their core. That will not work with elderly academics and ex-politicians. #StandUp is a paradox – a movement which is being founded from above.”

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