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The Darker Shades of Green
This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue.
Post-war Germany has had its share of political scandals, from corruption and financial misconduct to treason and assassination. In comparison, the ‘scandal’ that derailed the Greens’ campaign for the 2021 Bundestagswahl (federal election) was relatively minor: the party’s candidate, Annalena Baerbock, stood accused of plagiarising large sections of her most recent book. The book – titled Jetzt (Now) to point to the immediacy of the challenges the country faces and the response required – was intended as an unofficial manifesto, outlining the policies her party would implement if given the mandate to form a government. Instead, controversy around the book foreshadowed electoral struggles to come. While the German public is usually quick to forget about financial, political or other kinds of transgression, the accusations against Baerbock stuck. (The sexist media discourse about her ‘inexperience’ and ‘incompetence’ certainly didn’t help.)
Even as she performed well in interviews and debates leading up to the September election, it became increasingly clear that the next chancellor of the Federal Republic would not, as many had thought only a few months before, be a Green.
In mid-June Baerbock and Greens co-leader Robert Habeck unveiled the party’s proposal for a ‘social, ecological reconstruction’ with a manifesto focused on the pressing issue of climate change. In her book, Baerbock had argued that Germany needed a fresh start after sixteen years of Merkel; and on the topic of climate change, Baerbock and her colleagues were ready to depart from grand coalition (CDU/CSU and SPD) orthodoxy with a call for an ecological transformation modelled on the Green New Deal. Curiously, the only coalition capable of turning the Greens’ ambitious climate programme into actual policy – a red-red-green coalition of the Greens, SPD and Die Linke – was ruled out before the election: in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Baerbock insisted that the Greens could not coalition with a party that threatened ‘transatlantic relations’ i.e., Germany’s NATO membership. Former Greens chairman Cem Özdemir went even further, accusing Die Linke of having an inconsistent approach to human rights; unlike Die Linke, he argued, the Greens would never support dictators. (He was referring, of course, to Die Linke’s foreign policy approach to Putin’s Russia.) Under pressure from the Greens, Die Linke backtracked and removed the requirement for a German NATO exit from its programme. But the damage had already been done. And the question of how a coalition that didn’t include the left would be capable of pressuring German industrialists into adopting a Green New Deal remained unanswered.
The Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) had predictably little to say about climate change. Armin Laschet, the lethargic and uncharismatic conservative candidate for chancellor, stubbornly refused to acknowledge that disasters like the recent floods, which killed over 180 people in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), are likely to become more frequent. (In 2021, flooding has already cost the German state over €30 billion.) Laschet’s handling of the flooding crisis as Ministerpräsident (prime minister) of NRW was symptomatic of how little the conservatives cared: Laschet was spotted in the background of a television broadcast laughing and joking while Bundespräsident (president) Frank-Walter Steinmeier solemnly addressed the victims of the floods and their families. But this wasn’t the first time Laschet had been under fire for his handling of climate politics. In 2018, Laschet and the state government of NRW deployed armed police to the Hambacher Forst, removing activists who were obstructing the opening of a new coal mine that was planned in the Rhineland forest, to appease the German multinational energy company RWE. To get permission to clear the site, the state government argued that the tree houses activists had built were a fire hazard and had to be removed to prevent forest fires. But a Cologne court later ruled that the eviction was illegal. To make matters worse, the Laschet-approved forest raid led to the death of journalist and filmmaker Steffen Meyn, who fell to his death from a tree house. Once again it was clear where the CDU/CSU stood on the climate crisis: with German capital and against leftist eco activists.
In the run up to the elections, the CDU/CSU wasn’t looking much like the party that Germans had come to know during the Merkel years. Factional infighting – Bavarian prime minister, Markus Söder, was convinced that Laschet was too unpopular to win the election, and many in the CSU felt that it was the party’s turn to field a candidate – ensured that there was little support for Laschet among his colleagues in the South-East. Yet even within his own party, Laschet was beginning to lose support due, in part, to his deteriorating public image. The same week a twenty-year-old petrol station clerk was shot dead by a customer (who was so angered by the clerk’s request to wear a mask that he went all the way back home to pick up his gun and return to the petrol station) Laschet’s team uploaded a campaign video showing him having a cordial conversation with a member of the Querdenker, the movement of ‘corona sceptic’ hippies, anti-vaxxers, far-right conspiracy theorists, AfD supporters and libertarian ideologues that has taken Germany by storm. When confronted about the video, Laschet brushed aside any criticism, arguing that the CDU was willing to reason with everyone, even those with a ‘critical attitude’ towards the country’s handling of the pandemic. Seemingly unbothered by the murder in Idar-Oberstein, Laschet continued to cosy up to the far-right in the hopes that the CDU/CSU could benefit from the AfD’s (Alternative for Germany) stagnation. But could the marriage of convenience between what Alberto Toscano has described as anti-democratic ‘fascisms of freedom’ with the ordoliberal politics of the conservatives really enable the CDU/CSU to lure voters away from the far-right?
In late July, Oliver Nachtwey joked that the federal election would be decided by which party ran the more disastrous campaign. And as the Greens and the CDU/CSU duked it out over whose campaign would take the title, the SPD stood back and watched. By doing absolutely nothing, the party regained its momentum and surged in the polls. Earlier in the year, when the SPD was polling at a dismal 15 per cent, the conversation around who would succeed Merkel focused on two names: Armin Laschet and Annalena Baerbock. By late August, however, the SPD had gained 10 per cent in the polls and 53 per cent of Germans said they could imagine Olaf Scholz as their next chancellor. Considering the very un-Social Democratic behaviour Scholz had become known for – supporting the Hartz IV labour market reforms under the SPD government of Gerhard Schröder, his role in the Cum-Ex tax avoidance scandal as mayor of Hamburg, or his failure in handling the Wirecard fiasco (arguably the most high-profile financial scandal in the country’s post-war history) – this was somewhat surprising. But for many, Scholz was the man who had saved millions of jobs by placing workers on short-time work allowance programmes during the financial crisis of 2008 and approved a stimulus package of over €1 trillion during the coronavirus crisis. In other words, Scholz was a reliable Social Democrat, an image that was reinforced by his reserved civil servant demeanour. (The Süddeutsche Zeitung described Scholz as a ‘man who leaves nothing up to chance and would rather say nothing than say something wrong’.) And by mid-September, it looked likely that this was enough to convince German voters that he was the right man for the job.
As the final results came in there were few surprises: the SPD narrowly claimed victory, coming in at 25.7 per cent, only 1.6 per cent above the CDU and around 10 per cent ahead of the Greens, who slipped just below 15 per cent. Of course, the CDU’s strategy of outflanking the AfD on the right failed miserably. The example of Hans-Georg Maaßen, the ultra-conservative former president of the Verfassungsschutz (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) was symptomatic: Maaßen only finished second in his constituency, losing out to SPD candidate Frank Ullrich and coming in only a few percentage points before the AfD. Maaßen, an AfD-clone who counted far-right extremists and Neo Nazis among his closest supporters, ran in the Thuringia constituency of Suhl-Schmalkalden-Meiningen-Hildburghausen-Sonneberg to show that the CDU shared the concerns of the besorgte Bürger (concerned citizens, as far-right conspiracy theorists like to refer to themselves). The fact that Maaßen has previously been under fire for denying that the death of a German man in Chemnitz had led to increased violence against ‘foreigners’ in the city, made him seem like the perfect candidate; but instead it was the SPD who emerged victorious in the CDU (and AfD) bastion. In fact, the SPD was the strongest party in three of the five Neue Bundesländer (the federal states that became part of the BRD after reunification) – a surprising result considering the party’s sobering performance in the East in 2017. But in 2021, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Saxony-Anhalt looked surprisingly red.
For the moment, the forward march of the AfD in the East has been halted. But the other two states are still dominated by the AfD: in Saxony and Thuringia, the party captured 24.6 per cent and 24 per cent of the votes, respectively. Still, the SPD came in at a close second with 19.3 per cent and 23.4 per cent, respectively, which was an astonishing improvement on 8.7 and 10.2 per cent in 2017, and compared well to the AfD’s sober ‘gains’ of -2.4 and 11.3 per cent. The AfD’s (relative) weakness can partly be attributed to infighting between a far-right faction led by Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupella, and a national conservative wing led by Jörg Meuthen who bitterly disagreed on whether members with close ties to neo Nazis should be excluded. (The case of Matthias Heinrich – an AfD politician who shared photos of himself with description: ‘the friendly face of the NS [national socialism]’ – is yet to be resolved.) But there have also been some discrepancies between the AfD’s public profile and its candidates’ personal lives. As Richard Seymour points out, ‘the new far right is particularly galvanised by a conspiracy theory which believes […] “gender ideology” is destroying civilisation’. For proponents of such theories, he argues, deviant sexual relationships threaten the reproduction of European societies through the traditional family; thus LGBT people are to blame for Europe’s low birth rates and the process of ‘white extinction’. But, despite the AfD’s vow to protect the traditional European family of mother, father and children from the threat of ‘gender ideology’, its top candidate, Alice Weidel, lives openly with her partner – a Swiss woman of Sri-Lankan descent – in a gay relationship.
Yet this hasn’t prevented the AfD from increasing its share of the youth vote in the East. In Saxony-Anhalt, for example, the party only finished in third place, behind both SPD and CDU; but it still managed to gain votes among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds. Die Zeit argued that the AfD’s large share of the youth vote could be explained by the party’s ability to speak to the social and economic anxieties that have only gotten worse during the coronavirus crisis. (Almost three quarters of AfD voters in Saxony-Anhalt see themselves as economically stable but downwardly mobile, and believe they are witnessing a deterioration of living standards both in their area and in Germany more broadly. According to a study by the Institut für Demoskopie in Allensbach, 42 per cent of young people polled in the East felt this way compared to a much lower 19 per cent in the West.) But the AfD cannot be easily dismissed as a protest party. In local campaigns in rural areas, the party toned down some of its neoliberal and anti-immigration rhetoric to focus on issues such as preserving sports clubs or local libraries and making public transport more affordable. To young people outside of cities these aren’t fringe concerns: as Kerstin Völkl of the University of Halle in Saxony argues, ‘right-wing parties know how to capitalise on the fact that the bus only comes once or twice a day and that the internet doesn’t work’. Such social alienation thus allows far-right organisations to mobilise young people through sports and youth clubs, and to show that they take their concerns seriously.
Surprisingly, the Free Democrats (FDP) were the most popular party among first-time voters nationally, ahead of even the Greens and the AfD. This was unexpected for a party that notoriously doesn’t give a shit about young people: as a party of high earners and the professional classes, there aren’t many young Germans who stand to benefit from the FDP’s dogmatic neoliberalism. But through its effective use of social media – there is a whole genre of pro-FDP memes on Instagram – and by positioning itself as a party of the future, the FDP won over young voters in the West. Young Germans, it seems, were all too aware of the limits of Merkel’s moderate politics and believed that another grand coalition government would be ill-equipped to deal with the economic and social challenges the country faces. Moreover, a Financial Times profile of young voters from early September showed that the lockdown and Merkel’s handling of the coronavirus crisis was an important factor: many felt let down by her lacklustre response to their – quite serious – concerns. The fact that the FDP was the only party apart from the AfD and the Querdenken-affiliated Die Basis to directly oppose the coronavirus lockdowns – and the only one that did without drifting into the realm of conspiracy theory – further shows how well the anti-Merkel strategy worked to mobilise the youth. For a generation of Merkelkinder (young people who have not experienced any government other than Merkel’s grand coalition in their lifetime) a vote for the FDP was a rejection of continuity.
The FDP’s electoral success also meant that Christian Lindner, the free-market tech enthusiast who famously torpedoed coalition talks with the Greens and the CDU/CSU in 2017, emerged as a crucial power broker and front runner for the office of finance minister. As inequality continues to rise – both between East and West and low and high incomes – Lindner has called for the abolition of the Solidaritätszuschlag (a tax levied to finance the economic reconstruction of the East) claiming that it breaches the constitution. But abolishing the Soli would not provide any significant tax relief for the lowest 90 per cent of the population; only the top 10 per cent would truly benefit. As Lukas Scholle and Ines Schwerdtner explain in Jacobin, the Soli has effectively been (part) abolished for incomes up to €74,000 and only applies in full for incomes upwards of €110,000. But this isn’t the most worrying aspect of Lidner’s politics; far more concerning is his support for the Schuldenbremse (debt brake) – an instrument of ordoliberal economic control written into the German constitution, which limits deficit spending to 0.35 per cent of GDP. Federal states were exempted from the Schuldenbremse during the coronavirus crisis, which allowed for much-needed public spending. But Lidner wants to bring the Schuldenbremse back into effect as quickly as possible while simultaneously cutting tax rates for high earners. In absence of steady economic growth, this would mean that federal states have less tax income to invest in basic services while having to impose austerity to meet the requirements of balanced budgets. This isn’t very reassuring for cash-strapped communities struggling with crumbling social infrastructure.
In early September, Wolfgang Streeck described the 2021 election as ‘more uncertain than ever in the history of the Federal Republic’. One thing, however, is certain: the coalition that will govern a post-pandemic Germany will not include the left. Or, as Loren Balhorn succinctly put it, ‘the centre will hold’. The motto of all three contenders – Greens, SPD and CDU/CSU – seemed to be linksruck verhindern (the conservative and far-right slogan calling on voters to prevent a leftward shift). Thirty-one years after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the spectre of communism still haunts the Federal Republic (BRD) – or at least those who intend to further the project of Merkelism, that ‘disastrously successful ruling class project’ to borrow a phrase from Seymour, which has been a masterclass in the subtle brutalities of ‘ordoliberal praxis’. In the right’s red-baiting narrative – mainly propagated by the CDU/CSU and AfD, but bolstered by the Greens’ demand that any viable coalition partner must express unequivocal support for NATO – communism still served as, in Seymour’s words again, ‘the name of the abyss, the pulpy mass of shit’ which ‘destroys hierarchies that are precious to social being, under the cover of democracy republicanism or “gender ideology”’. In other words, communism had to be prevented by any means necessary if continuity with Merkelism was to be achieved. But in what sense a red-red-green coalition could really be described as a gateway to communism – apart from Die Linke’s roots in the ruling party of the GDR, a formation that could more accurately be described, following Steffen Mau, as a ‘proletarian petit bourgeois society’ – was never truly addressed. But this didn’t stop the right from crying (communist) wolf.
But it didn’t really take a coordinated right-wing effort to make the only party left of the SPD irrelevant; Die Linke managed that all by themselves. On 27 February, the party elected a new leadership at its party conference, ending the nine-year tenure of Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger as party leaders. Their tenure had, of course, been marked by intense battles with a ‘left-conservative’ faction led by Sahra Wagenknecht (see ‘Aufstehen’s Populist Revolt’ in Salvage #8). Could the new leadership of Janine Wissler, whom Loren Balhorn has described as a ‘rising star on the party’s left wing’ and Susanne Hennig-Wellsow reinvigorate the party and finally move it beyond the 9 per cent it had stabilised, or rather stagnated, at in the last decade? Unfortunately, the change in leadership hasn’t paid off: on a national level the party’s share of votes declined by 4.3 per cent to a dismal 4.9 per cent. In fact, the party didn’t even pass the 5 per cent hurdle (the electoral mechanism which prevents parties who gain fewer than 5 per cent of the vote from participating in the national government). But a technicality – three members of Die Linke won a direct mandate in their respective constituencies enabling the party to be represented in the Bundestag: Gregor Gysi, Gesine Lötzsch and Sören Pellman all managed to win their constituencies in the East – ensured that the party could be part of the opposition. In any case, Die Linke was no longer a viable coalition partner: due to the party’s poor performance, Greens, SPD and Die Linke only combined for 363 of the 368 seats required to form a governing coalition.
In Berlin, where a red-red-green coalition has governed at state level since 2016, there was another major vote on Election Day, as Berliners voted in a referendum on whether Deutsche Wohnen & Co, Vonovia and Akelius & Co, the city’s biggest landlords, should be expropriated. The Greens’ Berlin candidate Bettina Jarasch voiced her support for the expropriation of the housing companies whose large shareholder payouts had been funded by sharp increases in rental income. But at the national level, the Greens continued to rule out expropriation, arguing instead that a rent cap might be the better solution. Nonetheless, 56.4 per cent of Berliners said ‘Yes’ to the expropriation of up to 240,000 units that could finally be returned to public ownership. (Many flats were constructed and paid for by the city before coming into private ownership.) And while the referendum is not yet legally binding – it must first be passed as a bill by the city council – this is still a small victory. Yet it is also true that the bill will probably never be passed: the SPD’s Franziska Giffey – a staunch social conservative and favourite for the position of Berlin mayor – has already said that she would do everything in her power to prevent an expropriation of major landlords. The FDP, CDU/CSU and AfD hold the same position. Jarasch voted ‘yes’ in the referendum, but insists that expropriation is only a ‘last resort’. And, more concerning: more than half of Berliner’s voted for expropriation, but only 11.4 per cent voted for Die Linke.
Many Germans seem to have little faith in Die Linke. Despite a good programme and strong public performances by Kipping and Wissler – less so by Hennig-Wellsow who couldn’t name where the Bundeswehr (German troops) were stationed – in the run up to the election, the party was unable to mobilise voters. Even Kipping, whose campaign in Saxony’s Dresden 1 constituency sought to prevent a direct mandate for the AfD candidate, Jens Maier, only finished second behind the CDU’s Markus Reichel. And the party’s last-ditch attempt to pitch itself as a bulwark against a traffic light coalition of SPD, Greens and FDP wasn’t well received by either its traditional base or young leftists in Germany’s cities. It is difficult not to agree with Balhorn’s assessment that Die Linke has lost touch with both its traditional base in the East and younger voters across the country who perceive ‘the “hip” subcultural aesthetic the party has tried to lend its public image in recent years [as] forced’. Of course, paying lip service to social movements such as Fridays for Future or BlackLivesMatter is not enough to win an election; but it remains the case that the populist project of winning back voters by mimicking far-right rhetoric about immigration or a left-behind (left) working class – as Wagenknecht and Aufstehen attempted to do in 2018 – cannot be a desirable strategy for the left. In any case, Die Linke did not look like a party ready to govern; and it is unlikely that it will be anytime soon.
Instead, the SPD not only benefited from disappointed CDU voters who could no longer envision Laschet as a viable successor to Merkel, but also from Die Linke’s decline: since the last election in 2017, 820,000 voters have abandoned the left and given their support to the Social Democrats. While some have sought to explain this phenomenon by pointing to the SPD’s new leadership – Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans are situated considerably further left than Scholz – and the leftward push of the Jusos (Working Group of Youth Socialists in the SPD) led by the outspoken Kevin Kühnert, their impact has been limited: when the new leadership duo of Esken and Walter-Borjans was elected in December 2019, the SPD was still polling between 14 and 17 per cent. What, then, can explain the exodus of voters from the left? Of course, the SPD benefited significantly from Die Linke’s factional infighting and its inability to run a convincing campaign. But in the end, it was Scholz who made all the difference: the seasoned politician who has held the posts of General Secretary of the SPD, mayor of Hamburg, finance minister, labour minister and vice chancellor looked like the most reliable and stable candidate. Has the SPD, which has often been treated as a prime example of Pasokification (the decline of centre-left social democratic parties in Europe) finally found a way to avoid the fate of many of its European counterparts? And could a ‘social, ecological, liberal’ traffic light government of SPD, Greens and FDP really be a ‘Petri dish for progressivism’ as the New Statesman’s Jeremy Cliffe suggests?
The Darker Shades of Green
The idea that a traffic light coalition could lead to anything progressive seems far-fetched considering the last time the Greens and the SPD formed a national government. In an essay for analyse & kritik, writer and editor Sebastian Bähr explores the effects of the red-green coalition led by Gerhard Schröder on working people through an anecdote about a family holiday by the Baltic Sea. Throughout the holiday, Bähr’s father is tormented by chronic pain and fatigue, and opts to stay inside or smoke on the balcony when the others are going out for walks. Bähr later explains that the long shift at the local supermarket – his father started working at the supermarket after losing his job in a combine harvester factory after reunification, when the GDR’s struggling industrial sector finally collapsed – are to blame for his father’s deteriorating health. At first, the supermarket job provided the family with relative comfort and stability (at the expense of any kind of personal fulfilment, Bähr notes). But things took a turn for the worse under the red-green government (SPD and Greens) in the early 2000s: as part of the Agenda 2010, the Schröder government abolished collective bargaining agreements in the retail sector, encouraging supermarkets to lower wage costs in order to stay competitive. As working hours became less regulated, overtime became the norm and shifts became more and more exhausting. And without proper union representation or other forms of labour protection, retail workers were left to fend for themselves.
In ‘Dreams and Nightmares of the World’s Middle Classes’, Göran Therborn identifies two interrelated reasons for the end of the social-corporatist pact, explaining that
[the] end of the working-class century had an economic basis in the accelerating deindustrialization and financialization of the capitalist core; more obliquely, a sociological factor was the social dissolution stemming from the 1968 cultural movement.
The decline of traditional Social Democracy was accompanied by a corresponding loss of social status for traditional working and middle class Germans. But it also led to the emergence of a new middle class whose influence increased as industrial and physical work lost its social status and the knowledge economy began to emerge, bringing with it a low-wage service sector. This is all well-known. But Bähr’s essay doesn’t just rehash the story of the decline of Social Democracy, as many have already done. Instead, it points to the difficulty that he and his parents have communicating about the things that exhaust and oppress them. They are missing a shared vocabulary, and when it comes to figuring out who might best represent their interests on the left, both are at a loss. Bähr sees his own predicament as symptomatic of a cultural left that has lost touch with working-class concerns. His parents want organised structures of solidarity that could help them solve concrete problems, but Bähr and his generation cannot provide this. All die klugen Bücher helfen mir hier nicht weiter – all the clever, leftist books he knows and has read can’t help him now.
While the category of the middle class has never really been stable, there is a consensus that it is somehow threatened or in decline in the global north. This narrative of downward mobility was, of course, fuelled by fears of job losses through automation and rising inequality due to the bourgeoisie’s appropriation of ever larger shares of national income. But in purely economic terms, the middle class isn’t as threatened as it is made out to be: since the mid-1980s, their share of national income in OECD countries has only decreased by 5 per cent. Rather, anxieties around cultural decline have played a more important role in furthering this narrative. As Therborn shows, the belief in a ‘class being abandoned, left behind by a previously admired economic leadership and lifestyle model’ is shared by most of what Andreas Reckwitz calls the ‘old middle class’: relatively well-off workers with mid-level education who tend to be socially conservative and live outside of Germany’s major cities. After the disastrous 2017 elections, many had predicted that there would be an exodus of old middle class (and working class) voters from the SPD. But the 2021 election has shown that the party is still capable of recapturing parts of its base, especially those who had drifted left to Die Like or right to the AfD. Parts of ‘new middle class’ – urban, educated and (self-identifyingly) progressive – have instead found a home in the Greens, whose MPs have represented their interests since the party’s inception.
When the Greens formed a coalition with the SPD in 1998, there was little left of the anti-nuclear power and anti-war party that had emerged on the political scene in the wake of 1968. As Joachim Jachnow explains in ‘What’s Become of the German Greens’ – perhaps the best summary of the party’s history available in English – the Greens started out as a loose umbrella organisation for citizen’s action groups (Bürgerinitiativen) who opposed the SPD’s nuclear power programme and the social conservatism of the Helmut Schmidt government. At first, there was little need to participate in the sort of parliamentarism that many of the groups rejected. Moreover, the decentralised and anti-authoritarian character of the action groups had made it difficult to form a coherent party. Soon, however, Greens were standing in local elections and the party grew rapidly in numbers. And as the party grew, so did the different factions that were united under its banner: at one point, the Greens included Maoists, pacifists, individual anarchists and squatters, eco-libertarians and socially conservative environmentalists. But a commitment to environmental and anti-nuclear energy activism could not hold the party together: as Realos (reformists) like Fisher and Daniel Cohn-Bendit – former comrades in Frankfurt’s squatting milieu – increasingly drifted to the right and positioned themselves as establishment politicians, other factions emerged including the radical ecologists (Fundis), eco-socialists and eco-libertarians, all of whom vehemently disagreed on the question of parliamentary strategy.
As the Greens steadily improved their electoral results – owing to the success of its reformist politics – the Realos continued to gain strength, and eco-socialists and other radicals were sidelined. When the party was finally forced to address the question of governing with the SPD following the state election in Hesse in 1983, conflicts that had been brewing for years finally came to the surface. For the radical left Fundis, the coalition agreement was nothing less than a betrayal of the party’s anti-establishment principles; but for Fisher and Cohn-Bendit a coalition with the SPD was an opportunity to change the system from within. The Realos eventually managed to sideline the Fundis, and force prominent leftists such as Rainer Trampert, Thomas Ebermann and Julia Ditfurth out of the party in the late 1980s. With Fischer as the first state minister for the environment, Jachnow writes:
The party proceeded to break every pledge it had ever made, including allowing nuclear plants to continue at full blast after the explosion at Chernobyl, flatly against the Greens’ official position.
While Fischer was eventually sacked by the SPD’s Holger Börner, the Greens continued to gain electoral ground, winning 8.3 per cent at the next federal elections in 1987. And while most of the party membership ‘still voted for a radical agenda at Green assemblies, the parliamentary faction – dominated by reformists – tacitly ignored them, until the party finally gave way’.
When Realsozialismus (actually-existing socialism) began to collapse in the GDR, the West German Greens were already firmly embedded in the parliamentary system. And as reunification became more likely, the party was split over what position to take. While the party membership had initially opposed reunification because it would enable German military aggression abroad; have disastrous consequences for the East German economy; and lead to the re-emergence of the ethno-nationalist fantasy of a German Volk (peoples), underprepared West German Greens MPs eventually supported the move. As the party absorbed East German Greens and Bündnis 90 – a party made up of liberal civil and human rights groups who had opposed the rule of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) – its transformation into a national political party was complete. After reunification, the Greens shifted even further to the right, as the Realos formed an alliance with other eco-libertarians who shared their enthusiasm for market-based solutions to ecological issues. This was the final straw for many leftists, who finally decided to leave the party. Once the Greens joined the Schröder government, it became clear just how comfortable their MPs were as part of the political establishment. By now the Greens had become ‘the most reliably Atlanticist of Germany’s parties’, supporting the NATO bombing of Serbia and the deployment of German troops to Afghanistan.
Jachnow concludes his New Left Review essay from 2013 by arguing that the ‘Greens have paid strikingly little for their political mutation’; and despite the party’s relatively disappointing performance in the election, this is still true today. For the first time since 2005 – the end of the Schröder government and the beginning of the Merkel era – the Greens will be part of a national government. And the party, which has done little to distance itself from its metropolitan, neoliberal image, has achieved this without appealing to voters outside of its urban middle class base in West German cities. Like the FDP, the Greens positioned themselves as a future-oriented party of the new middle class. And considering the relative strength and influence of this class, it is likely that both parties will continue to play key roles as power brokers in future elections. But what next for the Greens? As Baerbock has moved out of the spotlight, Robert Habeck – Fischer’s preferred candidate – has stepped up to handle coalition negotiations. How many of their campaign pledges the Greens will have to sacrifice remains to be seen; but it is certain that dealing with the social, economic and ecological crises that Merkel leaves behind will be difficult for any coalition government.
The Limits of Eco-Merkelism
A week before the election, the Economist ran an editorial titled ’The mess Merkel leaves behind’ unfavourably comparing Merkel’s tenure as chancellor with that of Germany’s longest-running head of state, Otto von Bismarck, and its longest-running chancellor, Helmut Kohl. (Merkel started her career in the CDU as Kohl’s protégé). While Bismarck is, of course, best known for masterminding the unification of Germany and implementing the first embryonic welfare state, Kohl’s legacy is a little shakier: while he did oversee the reunification of East and West Germany, he also led Germany into the Euro, which has so far been to the country’s benefit but which might no longer continue to be so. What will Merkel’s legacy be? In her sixteen-year tenure as chancellor, Merkel has solidified Germany’s role within the EU, overseen a period of continuous growth – enabled by Schröder’s labour market reforms – and crafted an image as a liberal, open and truly European leader. As the Financial Times put it, ‘Merkel has established herself as Europe’s pre-eminent stateswoman, a rock of stability in a world convulsed by economic crises, political populism and the fracturing of old alliances’. But stability has come at the cost of complacency; and the elections confirmed just how little imagination Germans have when choosing their next government. What most are looking for, really, is more of the same.
But as industry declines, economic growth stagnates and inflation rises, cracks in the state (and society) that Merkel is leaving behind are starting to show. According to the 2021 Annual Economic Report by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, the German economy has ‘entered its most severe recession for decades. With GDP falling by over 5 per cent in 2020 and massive public spending required to bolster the long-term fallout from the pandemic, the country’s next government is backed into a corner on the question of the debt brake. While the coronavirus crisis has pushed Germany towards its first fiscal deficit in nearly a decade – the Federal Office for Statistics estimates that the government spent €139.6 billion more than its revenue during 2020, which amounts to a deficit of 4.2 per cent of GDP – it would be wrong to conclude that Germany’s next finance minister should once again insist on the Schwarze Null (balanced budgets) and the debt brake. The Kfw, a state-owned investment and development bank, has warned that there is an investment backlog of €149 billion. Yet as social infrastructure crumbles, politicians continue to promote orthodox ordoliberal fiscal policy. It would take a two-thirds majority in parliament to change the constitution, so it will be difficult for the Greens, for example, to push through their proposed €500 billion digital and climate focused public investment programme.
Keeping the debt brake will also have knock on effects for Germany’s role in Europe. As Streeck points out in ‘Will it Be Enough?’
German national debt [has] increased in 2020 from 60 per cent to 70 per cent of GDP, and is likely to increase at the same pace, to about 80 per cent. There are no indications that Germany’s next government, regardless of its composition, would be able, or indeed willing, to abolish the so called ‘debt brake’ written into the constitution in 2009, meaning that fiscal policy in coming years will still have to observe narrow limits on borrowing. […] Moreover, already before the pandemic, German public infrastructure – roads, bridges, the railway system – had noticeably decayed over the past two decades, due not least to the self-imposed austerity, intended to teach other EU member states that saving must precede spending. Now Corona has drawn attention to further deficiencies in healthcare, nursing homes, schools and universities, all of which will be expensive to re-dress.
What this means, is that there is little space in the budget for further payments to weaker EU member states. (Germany accounts for over 20 per cent of the bloc’s GDP and contributes around €17.2 billion more than it receives). If payments continue, Streeck argues, this could lead to discontent at home, which neither the SPD, Greens or FDP are equipped to deal with. Under Merkel, Germany has suppressed domestic demand and forced austerity in weaker member states, while maintaining the Euro as a sort of devalued Deutschmark. (Without the Euro, a strong Deutschmark would undermine Germany’s trade advantage and make it more difficult to maintain a surplus). Whether the joint borrowing scheme for the post-pandemic recovery fund and the offer of grants instead of loans to indebted Southern states means that the ‘ordoliberalisation of the EU has stalled’ as Boris Frankel suggests remains to be seen. But it is certain that Germany will continue to pursue its national interest in the Union.
Michael Roberts has argued that German capitalism has been successful for three reasons. First, it was able to use the ‘expansion of the European Union to relocate its key sectors into cheaper wage areas’ in Southern and Eastern Europe. Second, Germany benefited from the introduction of the Euro through which it gained trade advantages. And third, the Hartz labour market reforms ‘created a dual wage system that kept millions of workers on low pay as part-time temporary employees’. While Merkel has done much to build on these pillars, they are not of her own making: she inherited the European Monetary Union from Kohl; the Hartz labour-market reforms from Schröder; and the ‘German system of industrial relations’ (Sozialpartnerschaft) from earlier post-war governments. While the SPD paid dearly for the Agenda 2010 at the ballots – its vote share in the 2009 election fell from 34.2 to 23 per cent – Merkel continued to thrive, owing largely to the economic boost from trade advantages made possible by what, for Germany, is an undervalued Euro. But the pillars of the economy do not look as robust as they have in the past. Scholz’s electoral success was built on the promise of lower inequality, higher wages, improvements in public services and infrastructure and higher taxes on the wealthiest Germans. This means that the Hartz labour market reforms cannot continue in their current form (though Lindner and the FDP will want to keep them in place). Moreover, the EU is beginning to look shakier than ever, as countries such as Poland – a major benefactor of EU transfers – retreat into a narrow nationalism, questioning how much they really benefit from the current arrangement. Holding the Union together while maintaining Germany’s privileged role within it now seems like an impossible task.
In early September, the automobile industry gathered in Munich to attend the international mobility show, IAA (Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung). Under the banner of ‘what will move us next?’, executives and automobile enthusiasts discussed the future of global mobility focusing, of course, on auto-mobility alone and not on the expansion of public transport or the phasing out of private car ownership. During the week-long expo, there was a constant sound of helicopters and police sirens in the usually quiet city, as protests by environmental activists were violently broken up by police. And all this was taking place in the very city where the Greens achieved some of their best results (around 26 per cent in all three constituencies). In the end, it seems, the automobile industry still had the final say. This is not surprising considering the role it plays in the German economy: carmakers and their suppliers make up almost 10 per cent of GDP and over 930,000 people are employed in the sector. In 2020, cars or car parts made up 15.6 per cent of exports with an estimated value of over €187.5 billion. The general decline in industry has been much slower in Germany than in other European countries, with manufacturing still accounting for 23 per cent of Germany’s national output (compared to a much lower 12 per cent in the United States and 10 per cent in the United Kingdom). So, with a crisis on the horizon, Germany is looking to its most prominent and reliable industrial sector as a lifeline.
Yet the sector has been hard hit by the coronavirus crisis and technological changes in car manufacturing which have seen US companies like Tesla surpass BMW and VW in the realm of electro mobility. Car-part manufacturers are being forced to shut their doors as their parts are no longer needed for battery-powered cars: as Deutsche Welle reports, Bosch will cut thousands of jobs while Continental will try to save €1 billion each year by laying off 13,000 workers. Though the Boston Consulting Group estimates that there will be no net job losses by 2030, there will have to be significant (and expensive) reskilling of workers and a switch to lithium-ion battery production which will require building several new plants in the next eight years. It is no wonder, then, that even the Greens are cautious in their assessment of how long it will take to phase out the internal combustion engine. Moreover, an acute shortage of raw materials in Germany’s industrial sector has shed light on the supply chains the auto industry relies on to keep production going. As bottlenecks plague global supply chains and energy prices continue to rise – the current shortage in semiconductors is an example – Germany is becoming more and more aware of how vulnerable it is to such disruptions. And with rising energy prices leading to inflation, workers and unions have started to demand higher wages – a problem for an economy that relies on keeping wages relatively low to maintain export competitiveness.
International trade might also prove more difficult for German manufacturers moving forward. For the past five years, Germany’s main trade partner has been China. (While Germany still exports most of its goods to the US, the overall trade volume with China is much larger: in 2020, traded goods amounted to €212.9 billion, compared to €171.5 with the United States.) As the Chinese economy slows down and the US and other strategic (NATO) partners impose further sanctions as part of a hawkish geopolitical approach to the ‘threat of China’ this is likely to cause problems. Last year’s EU-China investment treaty is yet to be ratified by the European Parliament and the Greens, who subscribe to the NATO stance on China, are unlikely to help push through the deal Merkel put in place. Moreover, Chinese electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers are considering building assembly plants in Europe and seeking export markets abroad. While none of the Chinese manufacturers can really compete with the likes of VW, this is still an important shift: China is the world’s largest car market and any loss of market share could hurt Germany’s economy. (VW has unveiled plans to cut 30,000 jobs and argued that the company needed to ‘address the competitiveness […] in view of new market entrants’, though it has just paid out €2.4 billion in dividends and made a profit of around €8.8 billion). Germany’s export-oriented industrial sector isn’t looking quite as robust as it did during Merkel’s tenure.
So what role will, or can, Germany’s next government play in enabling the social and economic transformation so desperately needed to address the climate crisis? Above all, the Merkel era provided a bulwark against any sort of social-ecological transformation. And the eco-Merkelism proposed by a traffic light coalition will surely mean more of the same, as Germany continues to externalise socio-ecological costs of increased production and capital accumulation. As Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen argue in The Imperial Mode of Living, the fact that the demand for SUVs has gone up among more ‘environmentally conscious’ sections of the middle and upper-middle class points to contradictions in the ‘green capitalism’ that the Greens championed in their manifesto. Sure, there are ecological advantages offered by the operation of electric cars; but we must also take the ecological cost of their production into account.
As Brand and Wissen write:
Oil is the fuel of fossil fuel-based automobility, but it is far from the only prerequisite. Before oil is used in a combustion engine, the latter must be constructed. The same goes for the chassis, undercarriage, transmission, electronic system and interior of the vehicle. Raw materials are used in all of these components, materials that follow complex and destructive paths on their way to the final product, whose use they make possible. The most important raw materials such as iron, aluminium and copper.
Where does the auto industry source these materials? 56 per cent of iron ore imported into the country comes from Brazil, and the rest from China and Australia; no iron ore has been mined on German soil since 1987 and all demand is met by imports. Lithium for the batteries that Germany plans on producing locally, will most likely come from Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Chile, Australia or China. And while there are still enough lithium reserves to meet increased production of batteries, platinum and copper are much rarer and production might not be able to keep up with demand. Of course, the mining of both raw materials will have devastating ecological consequences.
IG Metall – Germany’s largest union with a membership of around 2.27 million – is an enthusiastic supporter of electro-mobility. Yet the union refuses to recognise that, in the long run, the transition to electric vehicles will not benefit German workers but rather car manufacturers, who can increase their profits as people are forced to scrap or sell their old cars and buy new ones. The EV transition doesn’t look too great for the environment either: as long-time VW worker Lars Hirsekorn points out, the production of a standard (electric) Golf, for example, emits 8.5 tonnes of CO2. Moreover, there is a dire need for reskilling workers to prepare them for a ‘greener’ economy, but IG Metall has done little to prepare its members. As layoffs become more frequent in the auto industry, the union has, of course, sought to protect the jobs of its members. The problem here, Hirsekorn argues, is that IG Metall didn’t support their comrades working in public transport (and represented by Germany’s second largest union, ver.di) when they were striking for better pay, even though this is precisely the kind of industry that might employ former automobile workers if there is a green transition.
Like most German unions, IG Metall represents only a limited section of what Lenin called the labour aristocracy. Unsurprisingly, it has continued to neglect the demands of migrant and agency workers – a large section of Germany’s working class. The post-war model of industrial citizenship relied on the notion of the white, male worker i.e., the family breadwinner whose interests (and by extension those of his family) were represented by the union. But women and migrant workers fell outside the remit of union bargaining. The result was a two-tiered labour system in which workers who perform the same tasks are paid vastly different wages under worse working conditions. Historically, this has had disastrous consequences for workplace organising: in 1973, for example, when migrant workers launched a wildcat strike to fight against the termination of 300 Turkish workers without notice, the union IG Metall refused to back the strike; and to make matters worse, most German workers didn’t join their comrades at the picket line. The practice of separating union-represented workers from migrant and agency workers has continued to define the German economy, with unions playing a major role in maintaining this system. There is little reason to have faith in the radical potential of the country’s exclusive and archaic union bureaucracy.
The wildcat strike at the grocery delivery service Gorillas is a case in point. In response to the unlawful firing of a colleague, the company’s riders united under the banner of the Gorillas Workers Collective (GWC) to demand better working conditions, higher wages and secure employment. But unions were reluctant to support strike action that could be illegal; and though the wildcat strike was the only method available to the riders, ver.di deemed it too radical to endorse. In many ways, ver.di’s response was characteristic of Germany’s outdated unions, who still seem to believe that their sole purpose is to negotiate collective bargaining agreements. But the traditional methods of industrial relations are not suited to the situation of precariously employed (and often migrant) workers. While the GWC has now elected a works council to arrange a collective bargaining agreement with their employer, many riders still fear that union involvement will mean a loss of control, as unions take over and de-radicalise the strike to further their own interests. At Gorillas, 350 workers lost their jobs and the unions did little to prevent this. Clearly, unions such as ver.di or IG Metall aren’t the unproblematic vehicles of the working class struggle they are sometimes made out to be.
As Germany enters the next phase of Merkelism (without Merkel) – it is likely that only a few will benefit from the limited transition to a greener economy. Migrant and agency workers will continue to be employed at below minimum wage; indigenous communities in mining towns will continue to shoulder the burden of the intensified mining required for the transition to electro-mobility; and emissions will continue to be externalised to countries (socially and economically) less able to meet the arbitrary climate targets that the developed economies of the global north have set themselves. But the ideals of social stability and economic growth that Germans have become attached to are coming up against their ecological limits. There is dire need for popular mobilisation for a radical ecological programme, a nationalisation of key industries and a concept of global worker’s solidarity. But the imperial mode of living is hard-wired into German society and change is unlikely to come from anywhere within the country’s parliamentary system. What next?
What is needed is the kind of change that the Salvage Collective has described as ‘farther reaching and deeper in its action, than the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment, or the bourgeois-democratic revolutions, or the colonial freedom movement’. In short, we need a new communism. Yet the best outcome we can currently hope for is the kind of ‘communism’ the right has conjured as a straw-man – a timid ‘communism’ which looks a lot like a ‘greener’ Social Democracy. This will not suffice to repair lives or salvage ecosystems that have been devastated by capital accumulation. There is much to be done to make the unthinkable real; the left still has a role to play.
Kevin Ochieng Okoth is a writer and researcher living in London. He is a corresponding editor at Salvage.