Leftward Swing to the Right

Deutsche Version

Ernst Lohoff

Euro-skeptics are not the only ones who believe that Europe should say goodbye to the euro – some social liberals do as well. And instead of an anti-capitalist critique, there is a kind of economic neo-nationalism with traces of cultural bigotry spreading on the left.

After the elections in Greece and France, many commentators in Germany were agreed: Europe is swinging leftward. They claimed that European austerity, which primarily bestows social impositions on people in the southern part of the eurozone, unleashed a rebellion against “practical economic constraints.” Its greatest hope, they reason, is pinned on François Hollande.

What may sound like good news at first blush, however, has a catch. That is because the “leftward swing” at the voting booth goes hand in hand with a Renaissance in nationalist ideas. In light of the failure of the shared currency, there is something else that could actually be offered: European solidarity based on a shared struggle against the insanity of crisis management, a genuinely anti-capitalist redefinition of European thought. Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen, but in any case it is certain that, meanwhile, left neo-nationalism is going through a period of much greater influence. French intellectual Emanuel Todd, who was recently interviewed by der Spiegel, is among its leading thinkers. Todd is an Hollande supporter and his views document just the kind of crisis management ideology that is currently being concocted.

Todd characterizes the euro as the “dominant insanity of the ruling elites” and a “zombie” from which they do not want to be released. He believes not only that Europe must free itself from the shared currency but also that six decades of German-French rapprochement will prove to be an illusion that must be relinquished. “An amicable separation of the German-French twosome,” he says, is “essential.” It is the only way to end the misery in Europe resulting from the “clash of two cultures.” France and the southern European countries will then only have an economic future if they distance themselves from the unspeakable, authoritarian German economic culture “that contradicts the French republican ideal, with its universalist image of human equality for all.”

Todd did not invent the idea of ascribing the internal contradictions of the global capitalist system to culture. In Europe alone there is a long tradition of that, going far beyond the conservative camp. On the left as well it is a popular substitute for a serious critique of capitalism. Previously, the role of culturally defined evil that purportedly gets in the way of the realization of a market economy with a human face was always played by the United States or the Anglo-Saxon culture of the total market. Germany, by contrast, was considered part of the Axis of Market-Economic Good with its tradition of Rhenish capitalism.

The fact that the hated Germans have replaced the US of late strangely reflects the course that the crisis has taken in the past three years. Ten years after euro coins and notes were first issued, the eurozone is facing a crucial test. The internal contradictions of the global capitalist system that Greece, Germany, France and other countries fled with a single currency has destroyed their foundation in the meantime. Worldwide, sovereign debt increased faster than ever before in 2009. Refinancing became a problem for more and more countries – including in Europe. This general development is hurting different eurozone countries is vastly different ways. Greece and Spain had profited considerably from the introduction of the single currency until 2007. Thanks to the euro, private businesses as well as public authorities were able to secure monetary capital far more favorably in those countries than had been possible with their own currencies, which were threatened with devaluation. Things have changed since then. In the face of skyrocketing rates of increased indebtedness, the international financial markets are only granting states like Greece and Spain credit at tolerable interest rates when their European partners lend them credit standing and gradually de facto assume part of their sovereign debt.

That is precisely the point of the various “rescue packages” that have been passed since 2010. And even this transmission of creditworthiness only works if the European Central Bank simultaneously buys up maligned government securities from the financial markets on a grand scale, thereby acting as a bad bank.

Germany has developed in a peculiar way since 2009. After the crash in the fall of 2008 hit the German economy particularly hard due to its extreme dependence on exports (its 2009 gross domestic product fell by 5%), Germany then began to profit like no other country from the economic programs that were launched worldwide and the general appetite for debt. Even China’s trade surplus has greatly diminished since 2009. Germany has been able to expand its surplus and, for the time being, make itself into a kind of Island of the Blessed in a sea of crisis. That export economy based on the accelerating indebtedness of its partner countries has even put Angela Merkel’s government in a position to considerably reduce new debt in the short term and pose as the guardian of stability. Moreover, the combination of a generalized crisis and the special German economy has made Germany into the new darling of the financial markets, which has spurred further growth.

This particular constellation will disappear again as the crisis progresses. Upon closer examination, it is breaking up already, namely from two sides. The first is the long term austerity policies imposed on the European partner countries, which is cutting off Germany’s exports to precisely its most important market. The German GDP grew at a record 5% in the first quarter of 2011; last quarter it was only 1.5%. And even Germany’s previously comfortable position in the financial and capital markets is in no way etched in stone. The de facto collectivization of partner countries’ debt alone will impact on Germany’s creditworthiness at least as soon as when a haircut becomes necessary not only for a relatively small country like Greece but also for Italy and Spain.

Todd holds “the German culture of competition and pressure to perform” responsible for the crisis while he labors under the delusion that “the French culture of equality” is appointed to save the world. Although this “explanation” only looks at a brief period of about two years of the crisis, it brings a clash of cultures, a collision of irreconcilable economic systems that are fundamentally anchored in their populations, to a head.

But there is another aspect that is more important than this discrepancy. The intra-European fractures are not the product of nebulous economic cultures, even though conservative and left ideologues continually rattle off various signs of them. The conflicts arise much more from the division of tasks within an insane crisis management system. That applies to the strange mixture of austerity politics on one hand and “growth policies” based on accelerated debt on the other, which forms the actual economic point of reference for today’s Germany bashing in Europe.

Since the fall of 2008, international crisis management has been faced with an extremely paradoxical task. Each state has to borrow more because it is the only way to postpone the great devaluation of fictive capital and keep the capitalist businesses functioning. At the same time, the core capitalist countries are forced to simulate their willingness to impose austerity to ensure their creditworthiness. These incompatible handicaps that were set up through the total capitalist system were provisionally used as collateral in recent years through a naturally arising international division of labor. The United States assumed an expansive distribution policy while Angela Merkel, buoyed by Germany’s temporary special economy, was assigned the counterpart’s role. But even a simulation policy needs real sacrifices. As an incarnation of the willingness to impose austerity, Merkel’s Germany was significantly involved in linking the collectivization of Southern European indebtedness to those governments’ willingness to plunge their countries into mass misery for the purpose of maintaining collective creditworthiness.

The sheer foolishness of this policy calls for radical criticism and any social resistance is justified in the face of the impoverishment of the southern eurozone countries. That is precisely why playing down this systemic madness as a kind of specifically German madness is so atrocious. Germany’s fate as an economic center is not suffering from the polemics against it. But for developing an anti-capitalist perspective, that way of thinking is entirely counterproductive. Emancipation can only be conceived transnationally or not at all.

(Translated by Joe Keady)