“Who’s done us in?” This ambiguous, and yet telling, interrogative was said to’ve stood on Karl Liebknecht’s desk in Berlin. Marc Uwe Kling, a contemporary political singer, comments that “a poster of the slogan is also over Oskar Lafontaine’s desk”. The saying, of course, then and now, pointed indelibly to the SPD: in the first case, for its acts of aggression leading up to Germany’s participation – and defeat – during the First World War, which caused Liebknecht and Co. to start the Spartacist movement within the SPD.
Certainly, peace would have been desirable and a stronger resistance to the imperial war effort by the social democrats would have been good. Let us ignore, however, the support for the war declaration, and the subsequent murder of Liebknecht – son of the founder of the SPD – and Luxemburg at the hands of a social democratic government.. Indeed, let us ignore for the sake of pragmatics the refusal under Ernst Thälmann to form an adequate anti-fascist front (which could have warded off Hitler, or perhaps, slowed his ascension), and its departure from its core values at Godesberg after WWII: New Labour, too, has stalwartly championed capitalism for the sake of working class interests. Ignoring all of these historical blunders and intrigues, let’s study a bit the dynamics of the more recent political arena in Germany to understand why Lafontaine, like Liebknecht, propounds the classic interrogative. Let’s take the approach of limiting our critical memory to the past fifteen years. Doing so might simplify our analysis of what to expect of the present electoral cycle, and, additionally, might offer some strategic considerations with respect to the political situation in the Federal Republic in general.
It is not a controversial statement to draw comparisons between the Greek PASOK and the SPD: both have recently hemorrhaged support from their base. And, while the loss for PASOK has been greater, that of the SPD is perhaps more harmful: it leaves Europe’s largest country and biggest economy without a reasonable left-of-center alternative, a scenario with worrying consequences. If Liebknecht and Lafontaine are right in their suspicions, we have no further to look than the SPD for this predicament, but let’s not leave the fact at the simple interrogative. Between its high point and the most recent election, the SPD has lost slightly less than half of its electoral support (44%), and the projections aren’t much better this electoral cycle. The centrist Frankfurter Rundschau quotes one SPD politician as describing the “Hartz” labor market reforms, undertaken under the SPD-Green coalition government early this century as “a stone around the SPD’s neck”. And, while it is probable that the Hartz reforms, at best, deeply divisive,1 are to blame for some of the electoral backlash in 2005 and 2009, they likely can’t explain the entirety of the loss of support for the party of Willy Brandt and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Likely much more the culprit of the dismal electoral returns of the most recent cycles is what in Germany is referred to as “Glaubwürdigkeitsverlust” (“loss of credibility”). This found its most vehement expression in the dissolution of the Parliament in 2005, which saw early elections and the eventual election of the “Grand Coalition” led by Merkel. What role precisely Hartz IV, neoliberal tax reforms and similar policies had to do with the meltdown of the SPD during this time is hard to say. A recent documentary placed some blame on the 2009 defeat on the inner political subterfuge that saw Beck, a favored candidate for chancellor, replaced by Steinmeier, but it’s unlikely that this “personnel exchange” had as drastic an effect as the consequences of Hartz IV, and similar reforms.
One of the main problems of the SPD is captured by Timo Grunden, a political consultant, who claims that “people don’t know what the SPD stands for”. Add to this the effects of a diffuse force of political radicals from East and West, coagulated from parties including the successor of the DDR’s SED to form the Left Party (“Die Linke”), which in the Eastern states has since its founding tended to poll stronger than the SPD in several provinces, and you get a political whirlwind – a crisis – of which the SPD are the comic relief; the general populace, the victim. Certainly, the circumstance is similar to that which faced Liebknecht and Luxemburg a hundred years ago, except for being more stylized and farcical – no mysterious gunshot-strewn victims in the Landwehrkanal, no militant fascists growing in popularity thanks to Kriegsschuld, but the dynamics are cannily similar, and an understanding of these reveals there isn’t much practical difference between Liebknecht’s inquiry and Lafontaine’s. In both cases, a powerful and bureaucratic social democratic monolith stands at the door of potentially radical political configurations, and in each case, they choose the stalwart answer: namely, the status quo. In the Nineteen-tweens, it was fear of “communist agitation”, whilst contemporaneously, the problem is the shadow of the SED: “DIE LINKE is two parties: one pragmatic in the East, and one full of SPD-Haters in the West” is a bon-mot repeated almost in mantra form by SPD politicians from Sigmar Gabriel on down. Likewise, “DIE LINKE is not fit to govern” is parsed to reporters on demand, when the issue of SPD electoral strategy, its abysmal results according to surveys, and the dim (read: non-existent) prospect of a repeated “Red-Green” coalition are discussed.
In all of these situations, the SPD reveals itself as a brittle, power-hungry, opportunistic entity devoid of an effective strategic base or pragmatic approach to politicking sufficient to convince the voter and institute a political reform in the upcoming election. It is doubtful that any government besides another “Grand Coalition” is possible (and, as such, voter turnout will likely not exceed expectations), unless the FDP does better than expected or the impossible becomes possible and the SPD decides to govern with DIE LINKE. Repeated rapprochements have been attempted by the two heads of DIE LINKE, Katja Kipping and Bernd Riexinger, as well as their chancellery candidate, Gregor Gysi, who happens to be one of the most respected and highly regarded rhetoricians in Germany, and who, in his own way, has managed to showcase the embarrassing hypocrisies in the SPD’s electoral strategy. Certainly, a more forward looking and pragmatic SPD would seek compromises with DIE LINKE, who it is clear is not “disappearing”, as was hoped by some in the SPD. As it is, this compromising humility is the only means of facilitating a left-of-center government that might take a different stance on the Eurozone crisis, as well as questions of the general welfare of the working masses in Germany and Europe. Sadly, the SPD does not hear the bell tolling, and is “whistling by a graveyard”, as it seems, a lugubrious giant, promenading and posturing falsely before an embarrassed and disaffected electorate increasingly disinterested in its antics. The only people who have to lose from this strategy are the majority living for a wage, who are being rallied as pawns in an embarrassing and vitriolic in-fighting full of more bathos and farce than an old Spaghetti Western flick. One might ask the SPD to “get its act together” so that we don’t “turn the car around”, but the natural response, it seems would be “he [Lafontaine] started it!” When asked “Who’s sold us up the river” this Sunday, though, the answer should be pretty clear: the bigwigs at the Willy-Brandt Haus in Berlin.
DIE LINKE has waged an honest campaign this year (as it always does), and – to its honor – SPD has kept in lockstep, stealing and pilfering platforms and proposals wherever possible, to get back above its dismal 23% in 2009. The best message the European left can give it come Sunday, is a vote for DIE LINKE, to show it that its policies, platforms, stances and behavior are not commensurable with the reality most seek.The message should further be clear: without compromise with the real voice of the German left – at present, DIE LINKE – it’s not going to govern on its own terms. If it seeks to be the passive underdog of the other neoliberal party, let it be so, but it should stop dressing up in terms of “social justice” and “equality”, terms and principles of a solid left front, and not stooges of private industry.
Postscript: I will say a few words to my expectations of the outcome of the Sunday election and my reasons for exacting these conclusions: I’m not too optimistic for the prospect of a political reform, though it’s certainly possible. The problem is the dynamics are not yet such that the “Left alliance” is the dominant strategy. That is to say, the SPD finds itself in new terrain. Certainly, if its electoral results on Sunday are not but marginally better than those of 2009 (23%), then somewhere down the line, one may imagine a – shamed and humiliated – weakened SPD approaching the true representatives of working class interests in order to satisfise (to use Herbert Simon’s terminology) their desire for power and influence. Short of this result, that is to say, if the SPD winds up stronger than in 2009 and interprets this to mean its electoral charading worked, then it will likely face different prospects. Namely, it will continue to posture itself as the “true democratic” alternative to Merkel’s cadre and continue bad-mouthing DIE LINKE (or whomever else might deign to trudge along the way). This shouldn’t be allowed to happen, and this is why a strong result for DIE LINKE, and, conversely, a poor showing for the SPD is ideal. I do not expect this, however, as I suspect many will – out of desperation and desire for short term reform – vote SPD. This is why I am not too hopeful for this electoral cycle (but also the campaign itself was, of course aside from DIE LINKE’s stubborn antics quite inconsequential).
I will add the additional by-note that DIE LINKE has received tremendous press in recent weeks, mostly speculations of the, objectively real, possibility of a majority “left-of-center” (given polling data, this is more than possible: it’s, in fact, likely). This can only spell well for DIE LINKE in future elections, as its strategy of stubbornly organizing from the bottom up continues. I will say one more thing of the worrying trend of youth conservatism. In a recent poll of underage teens, the results are quite startling: young teens are much more conservative than one might assume, with the supported parties not significantly diverging from the national numbers.2 Certainly, a fact to keep in mind, whatever its causes (probably a combination of parental pressure, media bias, and a general antipathy – in the West – towards the party “of the former East”). Certainly, the latter of these is easier to combat than the other two, but, of course, the summation is just speculative.