Ger­many af­ter Merkel could be less tol­er­ant

Ris­ing in­equal­ity has con­trib­uted to frag­men­ta­tion in so­ci­ety, fu­elling right-wing pop­ulism

Khaleej Times - - NATION - Oliver Nachtwey —NYT Syn­di­cate Oliver Nachtwey is pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Basel

fter 18 years, An­gela Merkel stepped down as chair­woman of the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union, Ger­many’s main rul­ing party since 2005. And An­negret Kramp-Kar­ren­bauer who fol­lows Merkel will in­herit a frac­tious party.

The sta­bil­ity (and even monotony) as­so­ci­ated with Ger­man pol­i­tics un­der Merkel is com­ing to an end. Her re­tire­ment marks a deep­en­ing cri­sis of the Ger­man po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that threat­ens not just the fu­ture of the coun­try, but of the Euro­pean Union.Ex­pla­na­tions for this shake-up of­ten be­gin and end with Merkel. Her han­dling of the so-called refugee cri­sis and her down­beat, aloof style alien­ated large chunks of the elec­torate. The grad­ual weak­en­ing of the cen­trist par­ties has in turn fed po­lar­i­sa­tion and the frag­men­ta­tion of the elec­torate.

But Merkel, for all her power and in­flu­ence, is just one politi­cian. Ger­many’s new po­lit­i­cal cri­sis runs much deeper. It stems from an eco­nomic sys­tem that has re­sulted in stag­nant wages and inse­cure jobs. The ero­sion of Ger­many’s post­war set­tle­ment — a strong wel­fare state, full-time em­ploy­ment, the op­por­tu­nity to move up in the world — has cre­ated a pop­u­lace open to mes­sages and move­ments pre­vi­ously ban­ished to the fringes.

As with its pol­i­tics, on the sur­face Ger­many ap­pears to be an eco­nomic suc­cess story. Its GDP has grown con­sis­tently for nearly a decade; un­em­ploy­ment is at its low­est since re­uni­fi­ca­tion in 1989. In amass­ing trade sur­pluses, Ger­many has en­joyed sev­eral ad­van­tages: an ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor; the abil­ity to get pri­mary prod­ucts and ser­vices from other mem­bers of the Euro­pean Union; and be­ing in the eu­ro­zone, which ef­fec­tively gives the coun­try a devalued cur­rency, mak­ing its ex­ports more at­trac­tive.

But the sys­tem has come at a cost. To main­tain their com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage in the global mar­ket, com­pa­nies held down wages. Though for skilled work­ers in the ex­port-ori­ented man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor pay re­mained sta­ble, or even rose, less-skilled and low-wage work­ers suf­fered. This was made pos­si­ble by de­cen­tral­is­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing in the 1990s, which greatly weak­ened the power of unions.

The other, more alarming rea­son un­der­ly­ing the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal cri­sis — con­nected to, but dis­tinct from, the econ­omy — is the ero­sion of the Ger­man so­cial model in re­cent decades. Though never as so­cially in­clu­sive as the Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, post­war Ger­many had a com­pre­hen­sive wel­fare state and ro­bust labour unions, en­sur­ing that citizens from the lower strata could achieve a de­cent liv­ing stan­dard.

Thirty years later, this so­ci­ety has van­ished. Av­er­age real in­comes de­clined for nearly 20 years be­gin­ning in 1993. Ger­many not only grew more un­equal, but the stan­dard of liv­ing for the lower strata stag­nated or even fell. The low­est 40 per cent of house­holds have faced an­nual net in­come losses for around 25 years now, while the kinds of jobs that promised long-term sta­bil­ity dwin­dled.

The num­ber of pre­car­i­ous jobs like temp po­si­tions has ex­ploded. At the height of post­war pros­per­ity, al­most 90 per cent of jobs of­fered permanent em­ploy­ment with pro­tec­tions. By 2014, the fig­ure had fallen to 68.3 per cent. In other words, nearly one-third of all work­ers have inse­cure or short-term jobs. More­over, a low-wage sec­tor emerged em­ploy­ing mil­lions of work­ers who can barely af­ford ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties and of­ten need two jobs to get by.

The Ger­man mid­dle-class is shrink­ing and no longer func­tions as a co­he­sive bloc. Though the up­per-mid­dle class still en­joys a high level of se­cu­rity, the lower mid­dle con­tends with a very real risk of down­ward mo­bil­ity. The rel­a­tively new phe­nom­e­non of a con­tract­ing — and in­ter­nally di­vided — mid­dle class has set off wide­spread anx­i­ety.

In­stead of a sin­gle el­e­va­tor, Ger­many to­day now re­sem­bles a bank of es­ca­la­tors in a de­part­ment store: one es­ca­la­tor has al­ready taken some well-to-do cus­tomers to the up­per floor, while for those be­low them, the di­rec­tion of travel be­gins to re­verse. The daily ex­pe­ri­ence of many is char­ac­terised by con­stant run­ning up a down­ward es­ca­la­tor. Even when peo­ple work hard and stick to the rules, they of­ten make lit­tle progress.

These fears of so­cial decline also ac­cel­er­ate xeno­pho­bia. There can be no doubt that a ma­jor­ity of Ger­mans wel­comed the new im­mi­grants, just over two mil­lion in num­ber, who ar­rived in 2015. But sig­nif­i­cant sec­tions of the lower mid­dle and the work­ing class dis­ap­proved. When as­cent no longer seems pos­si­ble and col­lec­tive so­cial protest is al­most nonex­is­tent or in­ef­fec­tive, peo­ple tend to grow re­sent­ful. This has led to ac­cu­mu­lated dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the old ma­jor par­ties, the Chris­tian Democrats and So­cial Democrats.

West Ger­many’s three-party sys­tem of the post­war era is now a six-party sys­tem, mak­ing the for­ma­tion of sta­ble coali­tions much more dif­fi­cult, a con­di­tion ex­ac­er­bated by the de­clin­ing vote shares for the ma­jor par­ties. The right­pop­ulist Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many, whose lead­ing fig­ures flirt with racist lan­guage and tol­er­ate fas­cists among their ranks, has en­tered ev­ery state par­lia­ment. Formed in 2013, it is now one of the loud­est voices in na­tional pol­i­tics, ef­fec­tively the op­po­si­tion.

The Greens too ap­pear to be prof­it­ing from dis­en­chant­ment with the main par­ties, at­tract­ing vot­ers who pre­fer cen­trist pol­i­tics but no longer trust the So­cial Democrats and Chris­tian Democrats to stand up to the far right, or to im­prove liv­ing stan­dards. Tra­di­tional loyalties no longer hold. As Merkel’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer nears its end it seems clear that the eco­nomic and so­cial regime over which she presided is break­ing down. Ris­ing in­equal­ity has con­trib­uted to frag­men­ta­tion in Ger­man so­ci­ety, fu­el­ing right-wing pop­ulism and fun­da­men­tally re­order­ing the coun­try’s pol­i­tics. What comes next is any­one’s guess.

In­stead of a sin­gle el­e­va­tor, Ger­many to­day now re­sem­bles a bank of es­ca­la­tors in a de­part­ment store: one es­ca­la­tor has al­ready taken some well-to-do cus­tomers to the up­per floor

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