After the bitter defeat suffered by the SPD at the May 21 provincial elections in North-Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) – the so-called “bastion of Social Democracy” – the German Chancellor Schröder and the SPD party leader Müntefering countered with the announcement that the next general elections would take place a year ahead of schedule, in autumn 2005. After recovering from the surprise of this announcement, the German political scene reacted very positively to it. Instead of criticising, as was expected, the left wing of the party reacted to the announcement with aredent pledges of loyalty. The Christian Democratic and Liberal party opposition was unanimous in greeting Schröders decision, declaring: “every day less, in which Germany is ruled by the red-green coalition, is a good day for the country”. The employers’ federations and the trade unions expressed their “relief” that “the Germans” were now themselves going to show, in the electoral booths, whether or not they still supported the “painful, but necessary economic reforms”. At the Frankfurt stock exchange there was talk of a “new optimism” which the elections in autumn would supposedly release – independently of their political outcome.
How to explain this unanimous enthusiasm of the ruling class for new elections now? Did the red-green coalition of the SPD with the Green party, from the point of view of the bourgeoisie, govern so badly that it can no longer bear to wait another whole year to get rid of it? Will the replacement of the present government, which appears likely, lead to a change of course, for instance concerning social and economic policies, such as the opposition is presently boastfully announcing?
It is not difficult to figure out why the Chancellor wants new elections. Already, in the last issue of Weltrevolution, we wrote: “The coming elections in North-Rhine-Wesphalia are already being considered to pre-determine the outcome of the national elections in 2006. Indeed: since access to the sources of power, influence and wealth is obtainable not only at the national, but also at the municipal and provincial level, parts of the SPD could lose interest in ruling in Berlin, if the price to be paid for this is the loss of dominance over the most important province.”
The SPD has now, in NRW, had to give up power in a province which, until then, it had governed without interruption for 39 years. It was the ninth consecutive Länder election which it lost. In Düsseldorf, the last remaining provincial red-green coalition has had to leave office. In the face of such an electoral decline of Social Democracy, unparalleled in recent German history, new elections are the last resort for the Chancellor to prevent the outbreak of open power struggles within his party. Indeed, Schröder sees in early elections his only chance of staying in office. If the Christian Democrats win the next provincial elections in Rhineland-Palatinate, thus obtaining a two-thirds majority in the second chamber, the Bundesrat, they would be able to block most of the legislative initiatives of the federal government, thus condemning the latter to leave a fatal impression of idleness in its last months in government.
Moreover, since even a passionate and tricky electoral combatant like Schröder is enough of a realist to know how slight his chances of being re-elected this time are, he is of course also preoccupied with how he wants to jump ship. When, in the early 1980s, in the face of a dramatic increase in mass unemployment and growing unrest within the working class, the SPD sought its salvation by going into opposition, it was the left wing of the SPD which assumed the task of delivering the knife in the back. The way in which the Social Democratic Chancellor at the time, Helmut Schmidt, was chased out of office by his own “comrades” has gone down in history with the mark of disgrace. If he does have to go, Schröder would prefer, like his predecessor Kohl, to be democratically and “honourably” voted out.
As for the opposition, it is not difficult to see why it is happy about the prospect of early elections. The prospects for the Christian Democrats and Liberals to replace the present government appear to be particularly favourable. Above all, it is the growing unpopularity of the left government – not least among the traditional Social Democratic electorate – which gives them cause for optimism. But this optimism is also based on the realisation that, in the past months, powerful parts of the German bourgeoisie have been giving the demise of the left government a helping hand. In particular, they have been making sure that the ecological party, the Greens, and their figurehead, foreign minister Fischer, are also caught up in this demise. This has been achieved above all via the so-called “Visa Affair”, blaming the foreign office for being too “liberal” about the granting of visas, above all to Ukrainian citizens, thus opening the borders to a “flood of criminals”. Of course this affair has a foreign policy dimension, with powerful voices, echoed within the CDU/CSU and FDP opposition parties, accusing Schröder of having shown too much consideration for the interests of Russia in the Ukraine and elsewhere. These voices accuse Schröder of sticking too rigidly to the coalition constellation with France and Russia which arose at the time of the last Iraq War. They call for a more pragmatic policy of alliances, which adopts more rapidly to each change in the situation.
But today, foreign policy is not the determining factor either of the decision to advance the date of general elections, nor in determining which government the German bourgeoisie would prefer to emerge from those elections. It has now become clear that the “Visa Affair” has above all an electoral dimension. For instance, it permits the Christian Democrats to present themselves as vigilant “protectors of the country from foreign criminals” and thus to take away votes from the Neo-Nazis. But above all, it greatly contributed to sealing the fate of the present red-green coalition, thus giving Schröder the necessary hint to call for general elections.
The return of the social question
But as we said at the beginning, what is striking today is that not only the directly implicated political parties, but all the main forces of the German bourgeoisie, have warmly greeted the prospect of new elections. And although it is easy to explain the behaviour of the politicians on the basis of their power interests, this can hardly be said of the captains of industry, the trade union bosses, Church leaders or the stock exchange jobbers. After all, the power of these elites (not to mention military or secret service leaders who do not give their opinions in public) within the state does not at all depend on whether there is a red-green or a black-yellow government in Berlin. It is thus evident that new elections have become an affair of the heart of the central parts of the German bourgeoisie as a whole, and that we cannot explain this through party political calculations.
Of course the new political situation is connected to the economic situation, to the sharpening of the capitalist crisis. What is partly at stake is maintaining or capturing the confidence of investors. The German bourgeoisie wants to demonstrate to the world that the “economic reforms” (i.e. the massive attacks against the working class) are going to continue unabated, indeed in an accelerated manner. There is to be no “lost year” and no “mutual blockage” of the political forces until 2006.
But the very fact that no doubt is being left that the “reform course” will continue – independent of the electoral outcome - shows us that what is at stake is not at all a political change of course. If the red-green coalition does end up being chased out of office, this would certainly not be because the bourgeoisie is dissatisfied with its economic policies, or because the opposition would have an alternative policy to offer! What the Christian Democrats and the FDP have to offer is nothing but the continuation of what the Schröder-Fischer government has been doing over the past seven years, what every government in the world is presently doing.
So why all the fuss and the sudden hurry? The German bourgeoisie today really is reacting to a new and significant factor of social development. This new factor is not the economic crisis as such. This chronic, unceasingly developing, world-wide crisis, which is insolvable within capitalism, has been spreading and deepening for decades now. What is new is that the social question, the issue of the consequences of this crisis for the wage labourers, for the producing and exploited class within capitalism, has returned to the heart of the life of society. This highly significant social question was pushed to the sidelines through the events of 1989, when the demise of Stalinism lent credence to the lie that capitalism had gained a final victory, thus burying the class struggle forever. The delusive appearance of the 1990s – new economy, stock exchange boom, IT revolution – contributed to extending the life of this foam of illusion. But the growing sufferings of the working population, in particular the growing development of mass unemployment, have more and more cleared these illusions away. Today, not only on the periphery of the capitalist system, but in the heartlands of the system, in alleged bastions of the welfare state like Germany, France or Italy, ever broader layers of the working population feel themselves immediately threatened by unemployment and pauperisation. In Germany, even the official unemployment has surpassed the 5 million threshold. These multitudes of the unemployed are re-awakening memories of the economic crisis of 1929. In this process, layers of the population who until now had counted as well paid and highly qualified, are being touched by this unrest. When, as in recent weeks, the hospital doctors in Germany take to the streets, and the staff of Agfa discover that the company has gone bankrupt overnight, we can get an indication of the degree to which, today, the proletariat is confronted with the insecurity of its existence under the sway of wage labour, with the perils, the humiliations and the misery of dependency on capital. Before the eyes of the world, in the consciousness of the proletarians themselves, the social question is making its come back. This obliges the ruling class to react.
The significance of mass unemployment
In a country like Germany, where a particularly brutal increase of mass unemployment is just taking place, the ruling class must try to prevent even the beginnings of the impression that there is no solution for this problem within capitalism. It must do all in its power to create the contrary impression. It must pretend that there is another party available with better recipes for overcoming the problem.
New elections: this is part of the bourgeoisie’s answer to the danger that mass unemployment might enable the wage labourers to recognise, or even to begin to suspect the bankruptcy of the system. Here lies the essence of wage labour – distinguishing it radically from all the previous forms of exploitation. The exploited only have the chance to acquire the necessities of life as long as they can be profitably exploited. The wage labourers are not forced to work through the use of violence, but on the contrary are obliged to themselves go and look for someone who will exploit them, in order to survive. True enough, the bourgeoisie has learnt, in the course of the 20th century, in the face of a mass unemployment that has become more and more permanent, to set up state directed insurance systems, in order to liquidate the budding self-recognition of the situation of the wage labourers. But today, under the pressure of the crisis, the bourgeoisie is obliged to radically reduce these insurance systems precisely at a time when unemployment is becoming more massive and permanent. The crisis thus threatens to open the eyes of the exploited to the realities of class society.
However, it should not be overlooked that the exploiters through their electoral manoeuvres have won valuable time in order to attack the emerging class consciousness of the other main class of capitalist society. Should, against all expectations, the red-green coalition be re-elected, they will at least be able to claim that the majority of the population has itself “admitted” the necessity of “reforms”. Should the government be voted out of office, they can call for giving the more “consistent” reforms of the new government a fair chance. And in the meantime, Social Democracy (both the SPD and the trade unions) – more credibly than today as a government force – can come back to the recent “debate about capitalism” launched by its present party boss Franz Müntefering. Through this debate, we have seen the SPD renewing illusions in the possibility of limiting unemployment through the state limitation of what is called “globalisation” (i.e. through an autarky policy such as in the period of the preparation of World War II). And in the meantime, we can rely on the former SPD party boss Oskar Lafontaine, who has now left the SPD in order to initiate a new left wing electoral alliance with the PDS (the former GDR governing party) on an “anti-globalisation” ticket. This initiative, by the way, seems destined to further reduce the re-election hopes of Schröder.
Democracy, leading weapon of capital
But new elections mean, in addition, the full application of the weapon of democracy against the development of the consciousness, the combativity and the self-confidence of the working class. The bourgeoisie is aware of the growing dissatisfaction among the workers, employees and unemployed. It is also aware that the workers at present – lacking a clear feeling of belonging to one common class, lacking confidence in their own force, which they have not been able to use for a long time, feeling vulnerable in the face of the blackmail of unemployment – have considerable difficulties in entering into struggle.
Here, the bourgeoisie is happy to step in and offer its elections as an apparently more effective and easier means for the exploited to express their indignation and discontent. Instead of holding mass meetings, taking to the streets or going on strike, they want the proletarians to go and vote in order to “get their own back” on the government. That is how democracy works. The government, or a particular party, acts as a lightning conductor which deflects the anger of the population. In allowing it to “punish” one part of its enemy in this way, an independent workers’ struggle is prevented. Instead of worry and indignation maturing into class consciousness and solidarity, they want to convert it into a feeling of blind revenge, satisfied with having “paid back” a culprit. Instead of workers feeling their own force as a class, the bourgeoisie want to atomise the workers in the electoral cabins, where they feel and act as state citizens.
This function of “getting your own back” on the government, was recently fulfilled by the May 29 referendum in France about the EU Constitution. However, the French referendum was not called with the deliberate intention of deflecting the workers from their class terrain. The latter turned out, for the ruling class, to be a pleasant side effect of a rejection of the constitution, which was not at all what the French bourgeoisie wanted. In Germany, on the contrary, where the bourgeoisie usually operates in a politically more organised and effective manner, this effect is intentional. The ruling class wants to make us believe that it will serve workers interests to “punish” the SPD or the government. But democracy as the most powerful weapon of the bourgeoisie serves not least to ensure, via the periodic swapping of places between government and opposition, that this “punishment” does not damage the general interests of the state. Who is going to be bothered about Schröder or Fischer being voted out of office? Both can be sure of their place in history, and of their priveleges too. And the pensions and advantages of the water carriers of the SPD, the members of parliament voted out of the Bundestag or the Landtag, are also assured. This because their policy of defending the interests of a tiny minority against the interests of the working class population will be continued by their sucessors. For the working class, what is at issue can never be to “punish” this or that person or group, but to uncover and tear out the roots of its own exploitation, to liquidate the cause of the suffering and lack of perspective that weighs on the whole of humanity. What’s needed is not a fight against windmills, against single representatives or symptoms of the system, but a conscious struggle against capitalism.
This is a slightly abbreviated version of the article appearing in Weltrevolution 130, publication of the ICC in Gemany and Switzerland.