Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Die Linke in the German Elections

Germany's genuinely left-wing party, "The Left" (Die Linke) did quite well in the Federal elections this week. 'Lenin' is calling it a breakthrough.

Before getting into why the election results might be good for the German Left, consider what a disaster it was for Germany's neoliberal 'center-Left' party, the traditionally strong SPD. The SPD suffered the worst losses in a general election since 1949. Between 2005 and this week they lost 11% of the vote. Why?

The SPD did all of the things that Obama and the Democrats have been praising since they trounced the GOP in the 2008 elections. In 2005 the SPD formed a "grand coalition" with the center-Right CDU, they spoke of compromise and gestured toward an electoral programme that pundits in the US would be quick to praise as "bipartisanship".

In 2005, the SPD's Schroder ceased to be chancellor because his party vehemently opposed forming a government with the support of the Left Party, Die Linke. Perry Anderson points out that "had the SPD and Greens been willing to do so, the three parties together would have enjoyed a robust parliamentary majority of 40." What followed was that the SPD "joined in arms with the CDU-CSU as a junior partner, unsurprisingly to its detriment".

Of course in Germany, unlike our putrid electoral situation here, the demise (or right-ward shift) of the mainstream center-left does not therefore mean more votes for the Right. Although Merkel's CDU has retained its control of government, her party received a little over a third of all the votes cast. She will form a government with the aid of the right-wing FDP (who made sizable gains since 2005), so its not the case that the CDU's victory depended on a shift of voters from SPD to CDU. The CDU didn't need a large net increase in votes to form a government.

Thus I agree with 'Lenin' that
"The media will tend to focus on the fact that Merkel can now run a right-wing tax-cutting administration in coalition with the FDP. This is hardly unimportant, but the biggest story that obtains here is the way in which the historic collapse of social democracy played out."
I think 'lenin' is absolutely right, as well, to say that the collapse of Second International social-democracy (all over Europe, from Italy, France to (soon) the UK) does not mean, necessarily, gains for the radical Left. But in Germany's case it did, and it will be important to understand why and what we can learn from their "breakthrough". It's remarkable that a party that declares it wants to overthrow capitalism is making impressive inroads and growing its ranks in one of Western Europe's wealthiest nations.

Consider how things are worlds apart in the US: should the Obama Administration shift ceaselessly to the Right and eventually lose power, Americans have at present no electoral means of challenging him from the Left. Pundits and other electioneering cretins always assume that any loss for one player in the American Duopoly necessarily entails a gain for the other. But while it's true that this does hold right now, it hardly follows that things must continue to be this way (although the assumptions of the pundits and 'experts' do a lot in the way of maintaining things as they are). I think this explains the endless apologetics from the liberal-Left about the Democrats; they feel that if they don't defend Obama at all costs that they'll therefore be aiding the Republicans.

But this need not be so. In fact, it's instructive to see, in recent cases, what many of these apologists do when there actually is a budding movement to challenge the Democrats from the Left: they balk and accuse the challengers of abetting the GOP.

Part of what's great about Die Linke's surge is that the neoliberals and compromisers in the SPD hate Die Linke, just as the Eric Alterman's of the world despise challengers like Ralph Nader. But rather than remain endlessly shackled within the tepid confines of the SPD, as do the 'progressives' in the Democratic Party, lefties in Germany are abandoning the SPD. And because many of them have voted for Die Linke, they've publicly repudiated the SPD's rightward tilt. The German Left has a means of putting pressure on the right-wing leadership of the SPD and they are using it. The SPD risks sinking into irrelevance.

Die Linke is already talkng of 'creating a broader left-wing camp', and they've got bargaining chips to make it happen. SPD will have to listen to them. There are legitimate questions about whether, tactically and politically, Die Linke should risk joining with the SPD in a coalition in the future. But, American readers, ask yourself this: what can the marginalized 'progressive caucus' in the Democratic Party do to make it's presence felt? What bargaining chips do they possess?

What's worst about the 'progressive Democrats' is that they don't even use the little clout they do have. Witness long-time supporters of single-payer like Henry Waxman repudiate his former beliefs and pull for whatever tepid bill Obama supports. Here it's always the dialectic of lesser evils. Despite the fact that the GOP was completely, totally demolished in the last 2 elections... the only licit criticisms of Obama according to the mainstream media are those that draw on the same dusty old rejoinders from the "teabag" Right. Why are they even a part of the discussion? There can be no doubt that the framing of electoral politics in the US media is consistently, fundamentally conservative, that is, in the broad sense of being preservative of existing political arrangements. With its head in the ground, mainstream media seems to always lag behind dynamic political realignments and tectonic shifts in the economy, perpetuating the same "discussions" we had about health care 'reform' in the 1990s into the present.

Yet if Obama was elected by talking about 'spreading the wealth' and fighting health insurance companies, why is his failure to accomplish these tasks immediately interpreted as a moment to consult Republicans or the Right? When Obama reneges on promises, the media suggests that there must be something wrong with the promises themselves. But why isn't the critical focus on his inability to fulfill these promises?

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