10. Welcome to Europe

Page 3

Left populism

While one would think the return to the nation during the pandemic would benefit Germany’s populist movements, it seems to have stolen their momentum instead.

A Tale of Two Ordos: German Nationalism in Brown and Red

Illustration by
Mirko Rastić

The Eurozone crisis birthed two nationalist tendencies in Germany, one from the right and one from the left. Both began in opposition to the common European currency and grew to reject “open borders” as well as certain kinds of immigration. Both criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel and “the establishment” for abandoning “left behind” German voters for a deracinated cosmopolitan class whom they variously condemned as “postmodern,” “neoliberal,” “moralizing,” and “politically correct.” And both expressed nostalgia for the “golden years” of economic growth in postwar West Germany.

Both will be challenged by the current crisis as the turn to the nation in the time of COVID-19 undercuts their claim on a distinct political brand.

Of the two formations, the one on the right has been far more successful. As of early 2020, the AfD (Alternative for Germany) is the largest opposition party in parliament. Founded by anti-Euro economists in 2013, the AfD has transformed into a political force with disproportionate influence on national discourse, as seen in early 2020 when their cooperation with right-liberal and Christian democratic parties in Thüringen breached the historical “fire wall” of mainstream parties against working with the far right.

The “left gathering movement” called Aufstehen (Stand Up), by contrast, drew national interest and media coverage during its September 2018 launch but suffered from internal controversies and dwindling prospects before being effectively dissolved in the summer of 2019. The founders of this pop-up populist movement include politicians Sahra Wagenknecht and Oskar Lafontaine; dramaturge Bernd Stegemann; and sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, as well as other lifetime politicos, academics, artists and activists. Although most of its program was indistinguishable from Die Linke (The Left) party platform — sensibly as Wagenknecht remained the party’s parliamentary chairperson throughout — Aufstehen’s demand for harder borders and hostility to the European Union arguably constituted its distinguishing features.

While the partial symmetry between new would-be populist movements on the left and right is often observed — and the similarities often exaggerated — the curious fact that both AfD and Aufstehen drew on the heritage of the German form of neoliberalism, better known as “ordoliberalism,” is often overlooked. As co-founders of the Mont Pelerin Society and members of the so-called Freiburg School, Ludwig Erhard, Walter Eucken, Wilhelm Röpke, Alexander Rüstow and other mid-century ordoliberals contended that a competitive market order could only be secured by a “strong state,” a rule-bound “economic constitution,” and a technocratic approach to anti-inflationary monetary policy. For nearly a century, the ordoliberal tradition has proven both durable and influential for German practitioners of law, economics and politics.

Welfare-state capitalism with a human face

The AfD’s connections to ordoliberalism are many and well-known. The expert commission of the AfD at its origins included Mont Pelerin Society members and ordoliberals Roland Vaubel, Joachim Starbatty and Charles Blankart, and the party program articulated traditional demands for balanced budgets and global economic competitiveness. While these particular intellectuals have since left the party, the leadership and party program remains a fusion of opposition to inflation and state spending with ethnonationalist pronatalism and Islamophobia, the so-called “blue” and “brown” wings of the party.

Aufstehen’s links to ordoliberalism are more surprising. Wagenknecht, the most important thinker and leader in Aufstehen, began appealing to ordoliberalism in the wake of the global financial crisis, when she was elected to the Linke leadership in 2011; the same year she defended her dissertation and published a book, Freiheit statt Kapitalismus (Freedom Not Capitalism). In these, and other writings, Wagenknecht praised the Freiburg School architects of the “social market economy” and embraced Germany’s foundational myth about the postwar “economic miracle” created by the ordoliberals themselves. She argued that Erhard, Eucken, Röpke and Rüstow offered a middle way between neoliberal laissez-faire capitalism and GDR-style centralized state planning. While she used the term “creative socialism,” one might also dub it “ordo-socialism”: an attempt to rehabilitate and repurpose German neoliberal thought for the left.

Described by the center-left newsmagazine Der Spiegel as an “archliberal manifesto” that at times plays loose with ordoliberal policy commitments, Wagenknecht argued in her book that “Erhard’s promise” of “prosperity for all” had been broken, thus requiring what she called an “Erhard Reloaded” and a new economic order. Five years later, in another book called Reichtum ohne Gier (Wealth without Greed), she elaborated on this vision for a “strong state” that would not abolish markets, but rather save untethered capitalism from itself: “We need that which the neoliberals write on their flags but destroy in reality: freedom, initiative, competition, performance-based payment, and the protection of self-acquired property.”

A new economic constitution is needed to “reform capitalism,” Wagenknecht argued. Framed by new principles, it would foster “real competition” through aggressive anti-monopoly regulation, incentivize new business creation with minimum quotas for bank lending to small and medium-sized enterprises, reel in the power of speculative financial markets, establish a progressive wealth inheritance tax, require worker representation on corporate boards, and raise the minimum wage. With her earlier language of class antagonism largely absent, Wagenknecht now prescribed welfare-state capitalism with a human face.

At the same time, Wagenknecht increasingly made the case for a return to the nation-state in her political and intellectual interventions. In 2016, the same year she made political headlines for suggesting to rescind immigrant rights in criminal cases, she argued: “The larger, more non-homogeneous and confusing a political unit is, the less well it functions. If differences in languages ​​and cultures are added to that, it is a hopeless undertaking… Democracy and the welfare state were fought for good reason within the framework of individual nation states, and they disappear with the loss of power in their parliaments and governments… [thanks to] the Brussels institutions.”

The “virus of the globalists”

Wagenknecht at a political rally for Die Linke in 2014. Photo by Irina Neszeri / Die Linke

While later generations of ordoliberals like Ernst-Joachim Mestmäcker and Ernst-Ulrich Petersmann seized on international institutions to restructure economic order from the European Economic Community to the World Trade Organization, ordo-socialism — like the AfD — returned to the primacy of the nation, the “strong state,” and tightly regulated borders.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 seems to have pushed much of the world in a similar direction: reaffirming the nation as the base for political action and, at least for the moment, delivering, through emergency containment, the demand of “the two Ordos” for an end to freedom of movement within the EU’s Schengen Area. “In a few days,” the right-wing political commentator Patrick Buchanan wrote in April, “the Europe of open borders has become history.”

How have the two formations responded? The AfD did not immediately adopt the “open the economy” mantra or denialism commonly heard on the far right, most loudly in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. They proceeded with caution: at first calling for a grab bag of measures to supposedly cut social spending, including the abolition of gender studies professorships, ending the transition away from coal, and deporting refugees. One of the AfD party co-chairs even posted a “how to” guide for self-knit facemasks.

This mainstream concern for public health guidelines upset the vast online network of online conspiracy theorists which the AfD spent years cultivating and which then turned against it in search of “alternative” truths. Identitarian leader Martin Sellner dubbed COVID-19 the “virus of the globalists” and observed scornfully that the AfD along with the right-wing libertarian Austrian Freedom Party “fled to the crisis managers” during the pandemic, thus risking support from the nativist online movements.

Nervously watching as their poll numbers fell by more than half, AfD leaders Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel soon shifted course and demanded a swift end to the lockdown. While attacking the ECB for policies that “impoverish large sections of the population,” they issued an ordoliberal warning that the government is “entering a de facto state-run economy that will permanently destroy the foundations of our prosperity.” In an ominous turn, the centrist FDP joined far right’s calls to open the economy, making once unimaginable yellow-brown or blue-brown alliances conceivable in the future.

A new opening for monetary politics on the right?

With Aufstehen now a shell of its once aspirational social movement, Wagenknecht has stepped away from the parliamentary leadership of the Linke party she failed to bring under her wing. Amidst the pandemic she has taken a softer tone on national talk shows and her new weekly Youtube channel “Better Times.” While empathizing with her viewers, she has urged respect for the lockdown and called for the expansion of state spending to cover workers’ lost wages. As before, her criticism targets the Grand Coalition in government and the Greens in equal measure.

Prior to the pandemic the Greens hit 30 percent in the polls, doubling the SPD’s numbers and briefly overtaking the CDU. This drew the scorn of the “two Ordos,” both of which castigate the Greens as a “postmodern lifestyle party” of young urbanites who supposedly look down on “left behind” German workers and only widen the social divisions of the nation.

While one would think the renewed turn to the nation in the “corona crisis” would benefit the two Ordos, it seems to have stolen their momentum instead. In a time when the EU seems more riven with divisions than ever — particularly over the uneven burden of funding recovery from the pandemic and the lockdowns — it no longer comes off as bold or taboo-breaking to criticize Brussels. The world converging with the nationalists blunts the urgency of their demands.

The question now is whether each formation will radicalize in the crisis. Björn Höcke, the chief representative of the nativist wing of the AfD, has recently praised the analysis of the Austrian School libertarian economist Markus Krall, who believes that the use of “fiat money” is a form of “monetary socialism” that will inevitably lead to worldwide economic collapse and that the only durable currency must be backed by precious metals. A Youtube interview with Krall, titled “the coronavirus will lead to the end of the Euro” uploaded by the right-wing media platform Compact at the end of March, has been viewed well over a half-million times.

By design, a return to gold would not only break the back of the European Monetary Union but also the possibility of an expanding domestic social state, introducing a kind of disaster austerity that is hard to square with the AfD’s promises of preserving welfare for native Germans. There are already gold bugs in the AfD including Peter Böhringer, their MP from Munich, currently Bundestag treasury secretary. A goldbug AfD would be a way to retain their radical edge — but would risk alienating more moderate voters. The success of one of the AfD’s founders, Bernd Lucke, in helping bring a German Constitutional Court case against the ECB’s policy of quantitative easing in May 2020 already suggests a new opening for monetary politics on the right.

A wasted opportunity for the populist left

On the left side, it would be interesting if the public health and climate crises led Wagenknecht to change the scale of her reflections on governance and follow the later ordoliberals to a reconception of continental and international order. In the late 1990s, Wagenknecht’s now husband and political partner Oskar Lafontaine advised against “fear of globalization.” Citing Ludwig Erhard, Alfred Müller-Armack and Walter Eucken on the need for a strong state, he argued with his co-author and ex-wife Christa Müller that the legal framework (Ordnungsrahmen) for the market must follow the scale of economic activity, from the nation up to the European and international level. This was a proposal for a European ordo-socialism — not often heard in recent years but one which Wagenknecht herself advocated at times during the first decade and a half of the 2000s, before her sharp turn to the nation.

“The bad thing is that the European idea has taken a back seat,” she remarked In a 2013 interview. “When we talk about Europe, we no longer mean the common values ​​that unite us — but rather debt, budget cuts, privatization. Today people see Europe as an attack on their living conditions. So the bad approval ratings, which are currently showing everywhere, are not surprising. I hope we can change and re-democratize Europe in such a way that the European idea finds acceptance and support again. What is currently happening is destroying Europe — socially and as a project.”

Even in 2015, while delivering a powerful speech at Blockupy Frankfurt, she observed: “We cannot have growing nationalism in Europe. We have to understand that… the people in Greece and Spain whose wages were cut and the people in Italy who just lost employment protection — these people all have the same interests, the same as we have in Germany with the Agenda 2010… We’re here to say that this is not our Europe. We’re here because we want another Europe, because we’ll fight for another Europe, and because we won’t be silenced in the coming years.”

In 2020, the EU’s most powerful member states seem hell-bent on repeating the “torturous” mistakes of the last Eurozone crisis, which itself paved the way to today’s distressed health-care systems and nationalist resurgence. As the pandemic rages, EU officials continue to chant the mantra of “moral hazard,” blocking the use of coronabonds to pool debt and share risk with more stricken countries like Italy and Spain.

With Spain’s left coalition issuing an EU ultimatum and with higher levels of domestic support for financial aid than during the Eurocrisis, now would be the time for Wagenknecht and her allies to make a radical move by shaking off the failed appeal to a left version of the German nation and concentrating on a politics of international solidarity with the working class.

Yet their instincts seem to be misfiring again, as Wagenknecht and Lafontaine flirt with conspiracist tropes about global institutions that echo the anti-corona “Querfront” protests across the country. This may soon represent another wasted opportunity for the populist left as the current crisis reminds us again of the need to rethink the basis of the European settlement anew.

Source URL — https://roarmag.org/magazine/a-tale-of-two-ordos-german-nationalism-in-brown-and-red/

Next Magazine article

Join the movement!



Read now

Magazine — Issue 11