On December 7, 2018 the New York Times published an op-ed by Oliver Nachtwey titled
It Doesn’t Matter Who Replaces Merkel. Germany Is Broken
The author, a professor of sociology at the University of Basel, sees Germany doomed (and with it Europe) after Ms. Merkel’s departure from the position of head of the Christian Democrat Party and the approaching end of her chancellorship. He cites a number of reasons for his claim – all well known. Growing job insecurity, expanding minimum wage sector, the middle class increasingly divided between upper deciles getting richer and a majority feeling menaced by social decline. These changes resulting in the loss of the traditional two-party politics, the backbone of Germany’s stability and resilience.
However, for a country considered doomed, Germany is doing exceedingly well. “Happy Germany”(Glückliches Deutschland) was the headline of a recent newspaper article on a 2018 Nielsen report which measured peoples’ satisfaction with their living and job conditions, across countries. Germans are expecting a bright future, the report says; with an index of 106 their expectations range well above the European average of 87. The economy is booming, the labor market is governed by almost full employment and is close to emptying the migrant labor reserves of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In many villages of Bulgaria and Romania only old people and children are left because adults have migrated to Germany and beyond.
It is true that Germany has developed a large and growing low wage sector characterized by volatility of employment, exploitation and poverty, especially among single mothers or fathers. It is also true that immigrants, perhaps more accustomed to hardscrabble life, are increasingly competing with Germans for simple jobs in construction, transport, crafts and services.
However, low wage part time employment is also popular among married women working to make some pocket money or finance the family’s premium automobile which they proudly use for hauling groceries and schooling children. Many retail stores are run by part time women who allow the employer to avoid hiring costly regular full time staff.
Despite or because of the sprawling low wage sector, there is still plenty of hidden unemployment in Germany not shown by official statistics. The continuing trend toward fixed term employment and other precarious forms of employment is keeping workers and employees insecure and cautious. As a result, trade unions appear weak and the level of wages and salaries in Germany has stagnated in recent years.
Since in France, Britain and Italy, wages have risen in line with productivity increases, Germany has therefore gained a relative advantage at the expense of its labor force. Still, Germans are expressing themselves satisfied with their job situation and showing optimism as regards the future.
When West Germany got a new (undeserved?) lease on life after World War II, there existed no “middle class”, because nearly everybody was poor. During the following few decades, a new middle class took shape based on individual ability to survive hardship, not on social status, property or education. This new class appeared somewhat rough and ruthless, forming the image of the new Germany and its economic vigor.
Since then normalization took its toll. A new upper crust formed fancying style and education, which pushed its offspring through university into posh jobs. As in prewar Germany, the scions of status, class and education again grabbed the opportunities at the expense of those not in a favorable starting position. The once fairly homogeneous middle class began to fall apart with the lower-income bracket sliding toward poverty, with their children not being able to afford enough education to qualify for and get access to top jobs. The class-less Germany of 1945 has thus moved all the way back to a highly stratified society, although not as fully class dominated as some other countries, e.g. France or Britain.
This social transformation is reflected in German politics. After many decades of unchallenged rule by a mix of conservatives, socialists and liberals, Germans became weary of these old parties and their musical chairs game. First the liberals were ditched, then the socialists. The only survivors are now the conservatives of Ms Merkel and her potential successor (the lady with the complicated name).
Still, it is wrong to assume that Germany will be going down the trash chute. Surprisingly, the Greens have survived Ms Merkel’s persistent efforts to groom her Conservatives to look greener than the Greens. The Greens managed to survive Merkel's cunning not because they succeeded to appear still greener than thou but because they became the party of the lower middle class. The Greens represent a credible answer to the desires and dislikes of this powerful group. They present themselves as located left of center without being aggressively socialist. They abhor liberalism without lacking economic reasoning. Their green agenda does not frighten the lower middle class and offers an antidote to the environmental and climate pessimism popular among half- and fully educated groups.
According to a new poll conducted by Hamburg University, over two thirds of Germans are considering climate change an important issue which concerns them personally and directly and requires them to take action. Against this backdrop it is hardly surprising that the Greens succeeded in occupying the rank once enjoyed by the socialists and offering Germany again a stable, reliable middle class force to supplement the conservatives.
Ms Merkel not only tried to make her CDU conservatives become greener than the Greens but also to look redder than the Socialists. Here she succeeded: the Social Democrats in Germany have become as hopelessly obsolete as they appear in France and Italy, leaving their end of the political spectrum to be absorbed by a radical left. Unintentionally however, Ms Merkel’s efforts to paint her conservatives in green and red camouflage dots opened up a gap at the right hand side of the spectrum. This gap was promptly filled by a new right wing party, Action for Germany (AfD), whose success is eating away at the conservative base of the electorate, especially in the eternally frustrated eastern part of Germany. .
When in Italy the reformist center politician Matteo Renzi failed, he was succeeded by a firebrand rightwinger, Matteo Salvini, who is currently the de facto head of government. A recent poll in France indicated that the centrist Emmanuel Macron, if he fails, would be succeeded by the crypto-fascist Marine Le Pen. Germany seems to follow this trend by moving toward a center-right coalition government with the new AfD party, unless the Greens succeed in mustering enough strength to coalesce with the conservatives and keep the new right in opposition.
For the time being, Germany appears pretty stable. Any CDU-Greens government without Ms Merkel is not likely to distinguish itself very much from its predecessors. For the AfD to enter government, two changes woukl have to take place. First, the party would have to rid itself of its powerful neo-Nazi wing and become more palatable to the critical German electorate. If the Nazis prevail, the party is likely to wither and eventually lose its grip on power. Another change, however, could boost the AfD: a global economic crisis. Any financial meltdown like in 2009 would turn the limelight on the economy and cast a shadow on the Green's enfatuation with climate. The AfD would rediscover its anti-Euro origins and travel on the souverainist ticket so successfully used by populist politicians in numerous countries, including the U.S. and Britain.
Heinrich von Loesch