Berlin, government district: August 2009. On the field in front of the Reichstag, immigrant kids are playing football, journalists lie sprawled out on deckchairs, backpackers are dozing in the shade of the chancellery. An allegory of peace and quiet: an idyllic image of an age of prosperity transplanted from the early Italian Renaissance into the present day. A fresco, sanguine and serene, like Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Effects of Good Government on Town and Country in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.
One year after the financial crisis set in, Germany remains one of the richest countries in the world and one of the most peaceful – notwithstanding the war in Afghanistan. The banks are making money again. The poverty rate has risen, to be sure, but everything is relative.
Merkel is vague, and so is the electorate
Now it’s election time. According to a poll, a mere 36 per cent of Germans think our democracy is functioning “well by and large”. This figure has presumably never been lower in the history of the country. And that in spite of a political class endlessly striving on camera, day in, day out, not only to be respected by the electorate, but also to be liked.
In fact they want so badly to be liked that they’d rather not commit to anything anymore. No more “freedom instead of socialism” from the Christian Democrats, who have just passed the biggest wave of subsidies since Willy Brandt. And no derision of the Social Democrats either, whom no-one really considers capable of socialism anymore. Posters without substance, a nation without qualities. So why should we reprove Angela Merkel for having no political angle on her election posters? The voters don’t have any either.
Greed, the number one value
The sovereign, the populace, is not looking for Weltanschauungen anyway, but at most for a reliable rating agency to safeguard their life prospects. Parties play a subordinate role in that regard. Yet the people whom the state encourages not to entrust it with their old-age provisions any more, who no longer entrust their aches and pains to “statutory” health insurance and who send their children to private schools, don’t trust the state an inch any more in any other respect either. Only the socially deprived trust in the state – because they have to.
The ramifications of privatising life’s safeguards are still underestimated. The upshot is the grumbling voter, disenchanted with politics and discontent, egged on by the dangerous illusion that he hardly needs the state any more. The dearth of solidarity is the result of good governance. A brand-based market economy does not produce a sense of belonging, but a society of casual workers without any moral ties to their community. We are no longer citizens, but our own investment bankers.
From this angle, even the irresponsible way bankers acted during the financial crisis does not seem like a social canker. How many people in Germany or elsewhere would have acted just as greedily? Those who wring every last cent from the state in their tax returns, who skim the market for the best cell phone rates and drive across the border to tank up – they (just might) feel a qualm or two about taking the grandmasters of profligacy to task for their money-grubbing mentality. And that is why Die Linke (the most left-wing party in the Bundestag) has hardly benefited at all from the maxima amoralia of the stock market crash.
The relation between social and market norms is out of whack. The desire to have outweighs the desire to be and is accepted by every party to boot. While they used to want to serve as mouthpieces for a certain clientele, all we have left nowadays is big-tent catch-all parties, in other words: discounters. Citizens have become users, and voters customers. And there is no mistaking the state’s hand in that. The Federal Labour Office served for decades till it had to be morphed into an “Agency for Employment” – the better to suit our capitalist souls.
We buy things we don’t need
The credo of our age is that man is by nature a capitalist. Nobody hears Adam Smith, founding father of the national economy, pounding away at his coffin. To his mind, the pursuit of profit was only a practical second-rate incentive. Nowadays, however, the belief in the capitalist constitution of our souls is eroding society. Beyond the friend-or-foe dividing line between left and right, it poisons the conservatives’ patriotic biotope every bit as much as it exposes the liberals’ abstract solidarities.
Are such amoralised citizens governable? Is there a politics for people who consider the cash-for-scrap bonus economically wrongheaded – but cash in on it anyway? Does anyone ever ask conversely what a kick our politicos actually get out of winning the favour of premium customers?
Good governance results in the loss of virtue. Yet easy as it may be to diagnose, our whole economic system is based on buying things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like. If each of us made do with what we actually need, on the other hand, everything would fall apart. This paradox is the stigma of our age. The suffocating shellac laid over unruly colours. The curse of good governance.
How to tackle abstentionism?
“Idiot”, “daft”, “recommend transfer to North Korea” – such were the gut reactions of German voters to an MP’s proposal that voting be made compulsory. With record abstention rates of 22.3% in the 2005 parliamentary polls and 57% in the last European elections, the idea is understandable, opines the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Abstentionism has hit a new generation – and above all, a new social stratum. Relieved of the postwar dictum “if you don’t vote, you vote for Hitler”, young people in our day, backed up by a goodly number of intellectuals, refuse to vote in an effort to give the political elite a powerful message: “They’re fed up with the parties. They want strong, independent politicians who won’t let themselves be corrupted by lobbyists,” writes the Munich daily. The proposed remedies are legion, e.g. show how many non-voters there are by leaving vacant the number of seats in the Bundestag corresponding to the abstention rate; fund the parties according to voter turnout etc. But it seems difficult to drive the message home. Perhaps, suggests the SZ, because we are not making the link between voter participation and political legitimacy.