vrijdag, september 16, 2005

There-is-no-alternative-ism and the German election

It is disappointing that so often otherwise intelligent people regularly serve up as commentary such a floppy salmagundi of received ideas, bounded logic and economic platitudes. James Meek, long-time Guardian foreign correspondent and resident Mr. Clever-Trousers whose The People's Act of Love was long-listed but not short-listed for this year's Booker, and which by all accounts is supposed to be v. good, has written in the aforementioned Berliner about, well, Berlin, as it happens, or, rather, the entirety of Germany for which the capital metonymises, and the inevitability of 'reform' in the wake of the upcoming elections there.

Margaret Thatcher's fiat, 'There is no alternative', has become so inarguable to the array of mainstream commentators who set the boundaries of debate that even the manifest economic destruction neo-liberalism has wrought in the heart of Europe becomes not an argument against the project but, irrationally, one for a tightening of the reins. The rational prescriptions of the Naomi Kleins and George Monbiots that find their way into such liberal publications remain decidedly beyond the pale; They are permitted to be published, of course, but no one should ever be so impolite as actually to vote in an election for those parties that actually propose the implementation of such measures (such as the Linkspartei in Germany, the LCR in France, or Respect in the UK) however - frankly - softly Keynesian they in fact are. No, no. They are 'Extremists', no matter that the manifestoes of any post-war Labour or Tory, Social Democrat or Christian Democrat party proposed at a minimum a bouquet of nationalisations and that this New New Left, though opposing any further privatisation, does not dare to imagine an expanded economic role for the state. And heaven forbid that anyone might even strike to defend their class's social patrimony.

Meek tours pre-election Germany, interviewing managers, executives and publishers soliciting their prescriptions for the country's afflicted economy. You'll be as shocked as a professional magician at a five-year-old's neighbourhood magic show to learn that such a strata of society uniformly calls for tough love, a period of what will certainly be quite painful reforms - cutbacks to the social contract and a loosening of labour regulations - similar to that which the UK and US went through in the eighties, but one which will have similar, copacetic results.

'The spirit of Margaret Thatcher is abroad in Germany, wafting in from the sink-or-swim business cauldron of neighbouring Poland as much as from Britain. Dirk Grosse-Leege, the corporate voice of Volkswagen, told me about the book he had on his desk: Margaret Thatcher's Shock Cure - A Recipe for Germany, by the German writer Dominik Geppert. It makes a comparison of the former British prime minister and Angela Merkel, leader of the centre-right CDU, who faces Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the SPD in Sunday's election. "As an individual, I just love this book, because it's totally right," said Grosse-Leege.'

Not that any of these gilded ninnies will ever have to swallow so much as a spoonful of the medicine they prescribe.

Meek does visit the wretched towns of Wolfsburg and Weisswasser to speak to The Poor, but not to remark on what results neo-liberal globalisation and the concomitant structural adjustment have had on their regions, but to argue that the 'reforms' go further lest such economic dislocation continue. To be fair, Meek does not himself make the arguments; the weasel lets the words of others, fellow members of his class, to make them for him.

You will have heard it all before, but let's run through the argument briefly, shall we everyone? Repeat in sing-song voice like rote times tables: In a global economy we simply cannot afford such luxurious public provision, high wages and strong worker protection. We will not attract any investment so long as it is so expensive to do business here. We have to cut back in order to compete with eleven-year-old, productive-as-bunnies-on-Viagra Surinamese seamstresses. Blah, blah, blah...

All of which is true in its way, but once we have cut back, as prescribed, if we follow the original logic of competitiveness, then there will be some other country that cuts back still further with whom we must compete. Then we undercut them again in turn. Then they undercut us again, making the same arguments Meek's managers make but to their own populations, and it is a vicious, nay, animalistic, race to the bottom.

The Big Idea sweeping in from the East already law in the Balkans and the centre-piece of the CDU's platform is the flat tax - a gross fatty dinner of philanthropy from the poor to the rich. Bush is probably now too mired in the swamps of Iraq and New Orleans to dare attempt its introduction in his final term, despite the plans of his anti-New-Deal libertarian fundamentalist puppetmasters, but a Cheney government, or a reinvigorated post-9/11-Mark-II Bush, or even a future severe-recession-mired Democrat administration would certainly be able to find the political capital to do so, and the current conservatives ruling Greece have said they intend to introduce a flat tax, and Britain's Tories are also toying with the idea. Indeed, it is the flat tax that the right believes will go some distance toward righting the crisis of the rate of profit the West across-the-board has experienced since the early 1970's.

But do not believe that it will end there. The bourgeoisie demands, requires, has no choice but to force the post-war social contract be torn up. The uneven social provision of the welfare state was only ever introduced to begin with so that the bolshy post-war working classes of Europe not overthrow capitalism. Believing themselves now safe from the threat of communism, and greedy for a return to 1950's/1960's profit rates, there is no need any longer to 'offer social reforms, lest the working classes offer social revolution', as there acutely was in the immediate post-war period.

West Germany in particular, the advanced industrial society on the frontier of both Stalinist state capitalism and European capitalism needed to be the very model of a social democracy in order to show that capitalism could offer at least the illusion of social advancement. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, capitalism's show room could be safely packed away.

Do not believe that the neo-liberals do not have a plan. The introduction of the flat tax, far from flooding government accounts with new revenues as the economy expands (Reaganite economist Arthur Laffer's humbug economic theory that lower tax rates produce increased tax revenues), will instead produce a crisis of funding so severe it would require the wholesale dismantling of the welfare state and the remnants of labour protections and union rights. This is in fact is their aim. They are not merely anti-New-Dealers: They are Victorians.

But what of the virtues of the robust 'Anglo-Saxon' economies? Their full employment and free-spending? There is an old saying - or maybe it's not old and some Keynesian prof whose name I can't remember told it me once: 'You only know who's not wearing their swimming trunks when the tide goes out.' Any decrease in taxation on elites or diminution of the social provision will certainly attract investment in the short term. Like the hypothermic man knocking back a jigger of brandy who has the illusion of being warmed while the hooch actually hastens his death of cold, when the tide of investment dries up with the inevitable turning of the 'business cycle', the cities of England and America will look even more threadbare than they do today.

At one point, one of Meek's interviewees, Gabor Steingart, the Berlin bureau chief of Der Spiegel, does come close to pointing this out:

'I asked [Steingart] about something that confused me. If Germany was doing so badly, and Britain was doing so well, how come Britain still looked so scruffy and run-down, while Germany looked so smart and prosperous?

'"I think the performance of the British economy is better than Germany's, but you can't see it on the streets," he said. "What you see here in Germany is the accumulated capital not of the past year but of our economic miracle. It's a snapshot of the miracle in the 50s, the 60s and the beginning of the 70s."'

In the depths of recession, this is what Germany looks like - unemployed, not wealthy - but at least not like New Orleans.

The Asian Tigers were held up as diligent disciples of the Anglo-Saxon model until the bottom of their economies fell out, as was neo-liberalised Argentina. Indeed for all the Americans' demands for others to liberalise their economies, the Bush administration has been a paragon of protectionism and militarist Keynesianism - vastly expanding government expenditure, easing the money supply, cutting taxes and racking up vertiginous debt. In terms of the economy, if not in any other area, Bush has been doing exactly what he should be doing. However, he only gets away with his profligacy because his is the largest economy in the world. The global economy would have foreclosed on the USA long ago were the country named El Salvador or Turkey or, heck, even France.

And this is where the neo-Keynesnian arguments of the New New Left distend and where the neo-liberals make a very good point. They are quite right: there simply is no room for the welfare state and worker protection any more. Companies cannot afford them, and they're not lying when they say this. In a global economy, though capital is nowhere near as mobile as its champions say it is, it remains master of any national parliament. Through investment flight and economic sabotage - as is happening in Germany today - capital commands all. It is not merely that German workers are saving too much, worried that they are about to lose their jobs and thus not spending and keeping the economy afloat, it is that German capital is consciously sitting on its hands, refusing to invest, when it could. It aims to discipline the SPD and the electorate.

Thus even if the Linkspartei were to form a government (which they cannot this election, but, as the third biggest party in the country now, it certainly is within their grasp within a handful of electoral cycles), as their plan is entirely dependent on 'priming the pump' - boosting demand as Bush has done, Germany would be the subject of the most ruinous economic sabotage on the part of both domestic and international capital that they would be tumbled out of office within one term.

It is worth remembering that the perfidious PT, the Brazilian Workers' Party, was not formed as a social democratic party, but a centrist (in the Marxian sense) coalition of both unreconstructed socialists and left social democrats, along with extra-parliamentary activists set up in contradistinction to the existing Brazilian social democrats who had proven to be model neo-liberals. The PT was a formation not unidentical to the Linkspartei, Respect and even the LCR (which may be named the League Communiste Revolutionaire but internally is a kaleidoscope of Marxists, anarcho-reformist altermondialiste youth, republicans and liberal NGOniks). Now the PT too bows down before the IMF, cuts pensions, attacks landless peasants and rounds on its left flank. It is not that when the party was founded, its leaders intended to betray their principles; it is that they have the simple choice of staying in power or being hounded out by capital. So long as the New New Left remains beholden to a national Keynesianism, it will only repeat the errors of the PT.

The solution is lies outside the domestic realm. Capital may be able to chasten even an economy as large as Germany, but it cannot abandon an entire continent. At the European level, theoretically, democracy could once again be at least an equal match for capital. Priming the German pump is no solution, but priming the European pump may yet be. A European Keysianism is both saleable to the electorate and achievable, and, conveniently, dovetails with the need to offer an alternative vision of Europe by the Gauche du Non in the wake of the defeat of the European Constitution.

For this to happen, the German and indeed European left needs to reorganise itself on international lines. A common party-political identity throughout Europe, at a minimum, is necessary. The weakest of baby steps towards this have been taken in the form of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament and its successor, the European Left Party, although this is largely top-down and currently far too oriented around the former Stalinist parties.

More importantly, the parties need to advance a common programme throughout Europe (tailored to local concerns and conditions, naturally).

A similar, cross-border project is happening in some form through the European Social Fora, although this too is far too ad hoc and its tyranny of structurelessness simply allows authoritarian tendencies to accrete power. Still, the instinctual internationalism of activists on the ground born in the hot summer of 2001's various European anti-globalisation protests is a good foundation from which to build.

And finally, most importantly, and, as always, most difficult, the trade unions need to begin to co-ordinate political strikes on a pan-European basis. Demonstrations are always enjoyable, and resolutions passed are important, but nothing has the power to stop capital in its be-white-spatted tracks but labour.

A continent-wide union is not desirable. The unwieldy bureaucracy would actually inhibit transnational actions rather than encourage them. But networks of rank and file trade unionists - that Holy Grail of the far left - have the ability to build industrial movements as strong or stronger than those we have seen in France and Italy, but on the level that is capable of winning permanent gains.

The Linkspartei is doing many of the right things, but it, together with the rest of the New New Left, must put into practical application the internationalism that is no longer a socialist platitude, a lyric sung once a year on 1 May, but in fact the last remaining tool in the left's tool box.

Maggie and the neo-liberals have repeatedly said there is no alternative to globalisation. The alternative is internationalism.

There is an alternative to Maggie, Meek.