Arnon Grunberg



A postscript on Merkel – Wolfgang Streeck in LRB:

“By and large, we know what we mean by technocracy: the delegation of public authority to an elite cadre with some sort of scientific expertise, their legitimacy derived from their superior knowledge. In a technocracy, decisions can be challenged only by other experts. Everyone else must sit back and watch.
It’s less clear what we mean by populism, since the term is used for so many different things. Most current definitions share the idea of a ‘people’ divided and short-changed by an ‘elite’, and who come to consciousness by pushing that elite aside, replacing it with a new leadership that has a relationship of something like mystical unity with ‘the people’. Populism, on the left and the right, promises a social unity achieved through politics and the state, overcoming division by eliminating the enemies of the common people – the capitalists in left populism, non-nationals of various sorts in the populism of the right. While elite rule divides the people into self-seeking factions, populism unites them, in a struggle against those who claim to know better than the masses what the masses need.”


“Technopopulism, Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti claim, is an emerging reality in several European countries where the failings of traditional party democracy have eroded its legitimacy. They analyse five such cases. Three of them – the UK under New Labour, France under Macron, and the Italian Five Star Movement – are classified as ‘pure’: leaders present themselves as neither left nor right, but separate from the politics of the past. The other two cases, Podemos in Spain and the Lega in Italy, are described as ‘hybrid’: Podemos fashions itself as a far left party and the Lega as a far right one.
A detailed discussion of the five cases must be left to specialists. To explain whether and how the technopopulist tendencies described by Bickerton and Invernizzi Accetti are present beyond France, the UK and Italy, it seems useful to consider the long rule of Angela Merkel, whose regime did have technopopulist traits, though what was presented as non-partisan problem-solving tended to be driven by quite traditional politics aimed at stabilising Merkel’s electoral base. Ultimately this project failed.”


“Merkel was always noted for her astonishing political flexibility – you could also call it a remarkable lack of principles or ideological commitment. It was often attributed to a deep-seated pragmatism. She never seemed to feel the need to explain herself, to rationalise decisions by fitting them into a coherent political project, and made no memorable speeches expressing her feelings or beliefs in her sixteen years in office. She didn’t waver from the fundamentals of the (West) German politics she inherited: membership of Nato, the EU and the EMU, alliance with France and the United States, a pursuit of open world markets for German manufacturing. But when it came to keeping her social and political bloc together, she was willing and able to live with stark contradictions that might have torn other governments apart.
When she was elected leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in 2000, Merkel aspired to be the German Thatcher, arguing for the full neoliberal programme, including the abolishment of free collective bargaining and worker participation in management. But when she almost lost her first election in 2005, and had to govern through a grand coalition – a coalition with Germany’s other major party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – she soon discovered that she could attract or, just as usefully, demobilise middle-class SPD voters by appropriating social democratic policies. Then, in 2011, the Atomkanzlerin – the ‘nuclear energy chancellor’ – who had invoked her authority as a physicist to tell voters that nuclear power plants were safe, reversed her position after the Fukushima disaster and decided to phase out nuclear energy, a policy of the SPD/Green government of Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer that she had fought tooth and nail.
Another volte face came in the summer of 2015. To repair several PR blunders over immigration policy, to woo the Greens, and perhaps to placate the Obama administration, which was annoyed by Germany’s refusal to send ground troops to Syria or Libya, Merkel opened Germany’s borders to roughly one million migrants, mostly from Syria. While this met with enthusiastic support among the middle class, it caused a profound split in her party and both saved and radicalised the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which had seemed about to decline into insignificance. Without a formal mandate from the other EU states, Merkel then negotiated a deal with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, under which Turkey would receive billions of euros for preventing Syrian and other migrants crossing into Europe.”


“Merkel turned out to be a godsend to the ailing CDU. Helmut Kohl had resigned as leader after his defeat by Schröder in the 1998 federal election. Indebted to none of the CDU cliques, Merkel was profoundly indifferent to attempts to define a new programme for a party overrun by economic, social and cultural change. She realised more quickly than everyone else that the old politics had had its day and that the time had come to try something new, responding to particular events rather than taking an ideological position, oriented to the present instead of a hoped-for future, dealing with one crisis at a time, unencumbered by principle or precedent.
Eventist politics of this kind suit a society that has lost its sense of location in a historical movement from past to present, and present to future.”


“She did, however, have herself described by her communications team, and sometimes described herself, as privy to knowledge of a special kind: that of a scientist trained to solve problems by analysing them from the desired outcome backwards.
In this way, Merkel presented herself as the embodiment of the hard-to-translate German concept of Sachlichkeit. The closest English equivalents are objectivity and matter-of-factness, to the extent that they imply an emotional detachment from the problem at hand, and a concentration on its specific demands and internal logic. But, looking at Merkel’s years in office, it’s clear that her dominant concern wasn’t with finding the optimal solutions to specific issues, but with the age-old basics of governance: the building and maintenance of a sustainable governing majority – a technical approach, yes, that addressed problems as they arose, but which saw them as problems of politics rather than policy. Post-ideological, but certainly not post-political.”


“In the German collective consciousness, Europe has long taken the place of Germany, which is seen as an outdated and outgrown political shell, an embarrassing historical legacy. Populist appeals to the ‘German people’ are rarely made in Germany, except of course by the AfD, while Europe is frequently invoked as both the ultimate objective and the legitimate location of (post-)German (post-)national policy. Merkel herself may have preferred Europe for more than just historical reasons. The kind of political decision-making she favours closely resembles that characteristic of the EU: decontextualized, event-driven, legitimised by expert opinion rather than agreed through public debate and negotiation, with deep structural problems treated as superficial political ones. The politics of Sachlichkeit allow potentially democratic nation-states to be replaced by a technocratic superstate, and class conflict to be replaced by international macroeconomic management.
Merkel’s record, and that of her brand of technopopulism, was far from impressive when it mattered most to her. In three of the four elections in which she stood as party leader (2005, 2009 and 2017), the CDU/CSU did worse than it had at the previous election; its vote also declined in 2021. Only in 2013 did the CDU vote go up, from 33.8 per cent to 41.5 per cent. Four years later, it was down to 32.9 per cent, and four years after that to 24.1 per cent. If the hidden agenda of Merkel’s technopopulism was to establish a new bourgeois centre, extending the CDU/CSU vote by adding recruits from the Greens, it failed spectacularly. In 2009 Merkel broke with her marriage of convenience with the SPD to form a government with the liberal FDP, which had had its best ever election result, winning 14.5 per cent of the vote. Marginalised and humiliated by Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who came to see the FDP as competing for rather than adding to their voter base, the FDP was voted out of the Bundestag four years later, winning less than 5 per cent of the vote. The Fukushima incident – which took place towards the middle of Merkel’s second term, in March 2011 – then offered an ideal opportunity for reorganising the political centre. Merkel’s Energiewende (‘energy turn’) paid off in the 2013 election. But while the SPD vote also increased (though only by 2.7 per cent), the Green vote dropped, from 10.7 to 8.4 per cent, with Merkel getting almost all the credit for a policy change that was high on the Green agenda. As a result of all this, Merkel found herself forced into another grand coalition.
Her next opportunity to rebuild Germany’s political centre came in 2015, with the opening of Germany’s borders, to the applause of German Willkommenskultur. This, too, backfired. Two years later, in 2017, the CDU/CSU and the SPD vote dropped dramatically, while the Greens stagnated. The FDP, which had kept silent in 2015, rebounded, and the AfD, fiercely opposed to immigration in any form, entered the Bundestag for the first time at 12.6 per cent. Merkel’s overture to the Greens had caused her party to do badly enough that the coalition for the sake of which she had made this move was once again impossible. When she tried to put together a three-party coalition by adding the FDP, its leaders remembered how she had treated them before and bowed out at the last minute. It was only after heavy pressure from the federal president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an SPD foreign minister in an earlier grand coalition, that the SPD could be convinced to join a government under Merkel for the third time.
The 2017 election was the beginning of the end for Merkel.”


“Merkel’s unhappy ending shows that technopopulism is not necessarily any more durable than old-fashioned centrist conservatism. Realising that the centrism of the postwar era was collapsing, Merkel had been grooming the Greens as a next-generation bourgeois centre party, but she couldn’t overcome the logic of popular politics. There is no insurance in politics against bad luck, unanticipated side effects, or strategic miscalculation. Technopopulism seems to have a succession problem – and a smooth succession is essential to the stability of a regime. Armin Laschet, the candidate for chancellor on whom the CDU/CSU agreed after a long battle, had nothing in his favour other than his loyalty to her and his promise to be exactly the same kind of leader. Anything else would have drawn her ire, as her initial favourite, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, could confirm, and would also have caused still more divisions inside the party. Even if we ignore the possibility that some centrist voters may have wanted at least a degree of change, Laschet had no way of proving himself. Without being chancellor, he couldn’t demonstrate the problem-solving pragmatism, the skills of technopopulist post-democratic leadership, that had been the hallmark of Merkel’s rule, or at least its public façade. The only person who could do this at all was Scholz, who made a point during the campaign of presenting himself to the voters as Merkel’s legitimate heir, even adopting some of her characteristic hand gestures.”


“Capitalism produces winners and losers, and democracy under capitalism must offer the losers a chance to make up through politics something of what they have to yield to the market – to correct market justice through something like social justice. This requires a political space that provides a society not only with alternatives to argue about, but with a real choice between them. If that space is too narrow or restrictive, politics is likely to be diverted to issues of moral rectitude about which one cannot disagree without bringing into question people’s right to exist in society. This, too, is something that populism and left liberalism seem to have in common.
It is important to remember that almost no such political space exists for EU member states, which may be the most important reason that European politics, more than any national politics, tries to be populist and technocratic at the same time. Under the single market, debates on limits to the free movement of goods, services, labour and capital are pointless. The treaties between member states preclude any such limits and are enforced by a supranational court against whose rulings there is no recourse. If a country is also a member of the EMU, its fiscal policies have to observe strict guidelines and its yearly budgets must be inspected. Again, all this is excluded from public debate because it has already been decided by the treaties, which rule out any control of capital movements – even across the external borders of the EU itself.
In the politics of a rapidly modernising capitalist society, while progress may be sought through Schumpeterian creative destruction of modes of production and ways of life, tradition may call for paternalistic protection and socialistic solidarity. This may cause a recombination of the factions of the sunken party systems of the postwar era: capitalist modernisers and the former working class, who now make up a new, often ‘green’ middle class, on the one hand, and the old working class, the new precariat and cultural protectionists suspicious of modernisation, on the other. Bringing about this realignment may appear easier than it really is. Merkel’s technopopulism was a front behind which she tried to build a political bloc in which a renewed conservative party would play a dominant role – a conservatism capable of getting a new bourgeois progressivism to join it around a policy of, as Merkel once put it, ‘market-conforming democracy’. But this required credible ideological content, which didn’t materialise, presumably because a marriage of conservatism, turbocapitalism and democracy is so difficult to conceive.”


“Merkel’s project of building a new conservative-progressive centre for German politics that would politically neutralise the class-conflicted core of capitalist society was always bound to fail. More than anything else, it failed because she was unable to keep the right – the reactionary answer to turbocapitalist modernisation – on her side, as she lost up to 10 per cent of the electorate to the AfD, a party she had to declare untouchable in order to keep her constituency together. But all her new political formula had to offer was technical competence, the appearance of Sachlichkeit vested in her as a person. It wasn’t enough.”

Read the review here.

Rather strange that a review on a book that is not about Merkel consists mainly of an essay on Merkel. Speaking of an obsession.

According to Streeck Merkel failed. She failed because the CDU-CSU under her reign got smaller and smaller. Streeck fails to acknowledge that elsewhere in Europe Christian democracy almost completely disappeared.
She failed because Scholz won the last elections and not Laschet, but Streeck mentions that Scholz ran by claiming to be Merkel’s heir. So where is the failure? That she was more pragmatic than some of her admirers are willing to admit is clear, but Streeck likes to reduce Merkel to a caricature. She opened the border because she wanted to get rid of her ice-cold image, according to Streeck. Merkel as the Sun Queen of Germany.

It has all do to with his sense of history.
Streeck writes: “Eventist politics of this kind suit a society that has lost its sense of location in a historical movement from past to present, and present to future.”

I read this as a very Hegelian remark, a nation has a sense of location and there is such a thing has a historical movement.

He cannot stand the fact that Germany had become a nation-state postmortem and he cannot stand that history doesn’t move in the direction he likes.

So he blames Merkel for a crisis that’s not quite as big as his rhetoric suggests. I’m not sure that he is unhappy about the fact that he is carrying ammunition for those who want to end the status quo. They might not know Streeck, but he knows them.

This is not to say that all his arguments are equally absurd, for example he is right about the fact that the marginalization of trade unions is problematic. Whether this is all because of Merkel and the victory march of so-called neoliberalism is a whole different question.

Streeck has a messianic idea bout society, we can overcome the darkness and the crisis.

We can mitigate the darkness, and mitigate the crisis, but we will wander from crisis to crisis, Merkel was not a saint, but she mitigated a lot. The unwillingness to see this is ahistorical, for a German that is not a minor sin.

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