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Last Chance, SPD

Oliver Nachtwey
Julia Damphouse

Only a left-wing revival can save Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) from political extinction. But leaders like Andrea Nahles and Olaf Scholz are not up to the task.

The SPD's front-runner-in-waiting, Olaf Scholz, sits after the first government declaration of the new government to outline the government's policy course for the next four years at the Bundestag on March 21, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. Michele Tantussi / Getty

Germany’s federal elections in September 2017 saw the Social Democrats, under the leadership of Martin Schulz, achieve their worst result since World War II. Before stepping down as party leader, Schulz (in an uncharacteristically bold move) commissioned a group of experts to assess the party’s crisis. Published in June, the report was one hundred pages long and surprisingly straightforward.

The report concluded that the SPD is no longer perceived as a credible voice on issues of social and economic justice. It argued that Martin Schulz’s election as leader had been a small step in the right direction, but that the many compromises among the party leadership (whose main goal seems to be avoiding having to distance themselves from the neoliberal reforms they imposed in government in the mid-2000s) meant that his election slogans about social justice rang hollow. Above all, the report emphasized a “collective failure of leadership” — not only were Schulz and his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel at fault, but the entire leadership which had set the party’s agenda for years. Despite these blunt truths, and earlier announcements that the party would be seeking to renew itself, the SPD has made an almost pathological choice to continue with more of the same.

For a while, SPD supporters hoped that the party could renew itself from the Left, mirroring the path of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn whose unabashedly left-wing platform was especially popular among young and newly politicized people. The energy around the campaign mounted by the Social Democrats’ youth wing (the “Jusos”) to encourage SPD members to vote against rejoining Angela Merkel’s CDU in a grand-coalition government fostered hopes that a shift to the Left was possible. But what actually took place was something else entirely: the party joined a new coalition with Merkel’s party, as failing to do so would have meant new elections.

The SPD’s Mission Impossible: Governing and Renewing

The SPD now promised to reinvent itself while in government and sent both Martin Schulz and Sigmar Gabriel into (temporary) political retirement. “Renewal,” however, meant that not a single member of the party’s left wing joined the new leadership: no one who campaigned against re-forming the grand coalition found themselves in a leading position. The only new face in the party leadership is the new general secretary, Lars Klingbeil. But Klingbeil is by no means a man of the Left; he is, in fact, a long-standing member of the Seeheimer Kreis (“Seeheim Circle”), an influential grouping on the right of the party.

Apart from new chairwoman Andrea Nahles, every member of the party executive comes from the Right. Nahles is the only leading figure capable of holding the party together, as she alone represents a more genuinely social-democratic position in the leadership. That said, she was more than happy to take a position in the government during the previous parliamentary term, when she served as the labor minister. In her own political self-understanding, Nahles is a domesticated former member of the SPD’s left wing, now capable of reaching across and brokering compromises between all wings of the party. Instead of the beginning of a break to the Left, we are more likely to see her continue to guide the party smoothly along its current path of decline.

After the election, when it initially seemed as if the SPD would take up a position in the opposition, Nahles told journalists that the party would attack the CDU head-on. Now, she is busy explaining that Germany “can’t take in all” of the refugees. Pragmatism veering into cynical opportunism is nothing new for SPD elites, but nonetheless never fails to amaze.

The most noticeable thing about the SPD under Nahles’s leadership in the grand coalition is precisely that there is nothing to notice: her SPD has played down key aspects of the special commission’s report, for instance regarding campaign management and the causes of its electoral failures. The party now plans to pursue more long-term and professional development of candidates in future parliamentary elections. Hallelujah: the Social Democrats will be out of their crisis in no time!

From Schulz to Scholz

The always-pragmatic SPD has also already selected their new potential front-runner, who would become its most prominent face in fresh elections should the grand-coalition agreement break down (for instance, due to the impasse between the SPD and the increasingly radicalized right wing of the Bavarian CSU).

The party’s new front-runner-in-waiting, Olaf Scholz, represents the concentrated form of every blunder and contradiction of twenty-first-century social democracy. After last year’s attempt to present Martin Schulz as an outsider proved a spectacular failure, the SPD leadership has chosen the establishment candidate par excellence to take his place. Scholz has served in the party executive since 2001 and even as vice-chair since 2009, as well as holding key positions in various SPD coalition governments as the party’s general secretary, labor minister and Minister of the Interior, and as mayor of Hamburg.

Scholz was so proud to have finally arrived in the establishment that in 2013 he boasted about having been able to wear a pinstripe suit even when addressing the assembled delegates at an SPD party congress. During his time as general secretary, his emotionless robotic style prompted the press to nickname him the “Scholz-o-mat.” A deeper look at Scholz’s political career, however, makes it clear that he is anything but a harmless bore.

Scholz’s first major task as labor minister in Merkel’s first CDU-SPD grand coalition (a role he occupied from 2007 to 2009) was to manage labor-market policy in the aftermath of the financial crisis. His solution was to extend short-time working allowances, which shielded the German labor market from the worst effects of the recession. But this decision was hardly radical — the move was not even a “reform” in the proper sense, but merely an extension of already existing provisions in German labor law allowing for the temporary cutting of workers’ hours in periods of economic crisis. This example is emblematic of Scholz’s governing logic in general: no daring choices, and certainly no grand visions. At most, gradual adjustments to what is already in place.

The list of Scholz’s political achievements is long but give the list to someone with no knowledge of the man, and they may be shocked to find out that he claims to be a social democrat. This is not to say that he could have been from the right-wing extremist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), but simply that Scholz largely embodies the archetype of a bourgeois rather than Social Democratic politician. In 2001, as the Hamburg city-state’s Senator of the Interior, he passed a law that allowed police to forcibly administer emetics to drug dealers — a measure the European Court of Human Rights later labelled a human rights violation. This, from a man who began his career as a left-wing Juso.

While serving as the mayor of Hamburg, he was instrumental in establishing so-called “danger zones” in the districts of the city known for left-wing political activity. After weeks of (sometimes violent) clashes between social movements and police, followed by an alleged attack on a police station, Scholz decided to suspend local residents’ civil rights. Police were authorized to stop and search anyone and order them to leave the area — of course, in practice the measure was used almost exclusively against leftists and migrants.

During last year’s G20 summit in Hamburg, when even mainstream and conservative media were shocked by the German police’s disproportionate use of force against protesters, Scholz trotted out “alternative facts”, denying that there was any police brutality at all. One would think that this would have meant the end of his chances of becoming the SPD’s front-runner candidate in the future. Yet Scholz proved the doubters wrong with his recent move to Berlin (his popularity had fallen surprisingly low in Hamburg).

As one of his last official acts in Hamburg, he announced that the city’s shares in the state-owned HSH Nordbank — the world’s largest provider of financial credit to maritime companies, and heavily indebted since the financial crisis — would now be sold. More precisely, the still-profitable components would be sold off to a US hedge fund, while the remaining billions in debt would remain the city’s problem.

But Scholz’s ambition to go down in history as the greatest Social Democrat since Gustav Noske, Gerhard Schröder, and Peer Steinbrück was not yet satisfied. In his new position as Minister of Finance, he inherited his predecessor Wolfgang Schäuble’s state secretary, Thomas Steffen, the man partly responsible for Germany’s refusal to change course on austerity even by an inch. The partial collapse of the Greek health care system and the drop in life expectancy apparently convinced Scholz to stick with European austerity policies. The “black zero” — German political slang for maintaining a strictly balanced budget — will of course be maintained at home as well. In light of all this, it must have been terribly difficult for Merkel to cede the post of minister of finance during coalition negotiations.

A little over a century ago, the man who would later become Germany’s first Social Democratic finance minister, Rudolf Hilferding, dreamed of introducing democratic socialism by nationalizing Berlin’s major banks. Scholz would fulfill this old Social Democratic dream, but as a nightmare: after socializing the HSH Nordbank’s debts, he appointed the head of Goldman Sachs Germany, Jörg Kukies, as another state secretary in the finance ministry. This constitutes, essentially, a nationalization of the financial sector. Now the bankers can officially co-govern.

What’s Next?

When future historians reflect on the final decline of Germany’s oldest political party, the decisions made during this lackluster renewal process will play an important role. It is, indeed, quite a feat to earnestly claim that the party is being renewed while actually changing practically nothing. The party executive’s continuation of a neoliberal approach is to be retained at all costs. Even now, when national polls show the party neck-and-neck with the right-populist AfD, no alarm bells seem to be ringing in the SPD’s headquarters.

We can try to understand and explain the recent developments using the vocabulary of political science: the decades-long erosion of the classic working-class base — the SPD’s traditional power base — as a component of the social fabric led party strategists to seek sources of power primarily within the state and its institutions (hoping to secure key positions in the state apparatus through corporatism and participation in government). Frankly, sometimes it seems like the only plausible explanation for the SPD leadership’s actions is Freudian in nature: namely, as a death drive.

The same week the SPD decided to continue the grand coalition, an Oxfam study concluded that the richest 1 percent own more wealth than half of the world’s population. The same study also suggested that as wealth inequality increases, so does political inequality. Yet there was hardly any mention of these realities at the SPD party congress. Instead, the guiding principle was a radical incrementalism, i.e., small steps forward, the most minimal kind of reformism.

It is already decades since the SPD’s guiding political and economic model shifted from democratic socialism to a social market economy. But recent events have made their complete abandonment of the struggle for an alternative social order painfully clear. For the SPD leadership, politics is no longer about social mobilization but purely about securing propaganda coups for the party from its position in government. Political wins in recent years include getting the CDU to support their candidate for the presidency of the Federal Republic, forcing through marriage equality in the final week of the legislative term, and passing a measure stating that the refugee camps being erected along the border should no longer be called “camps.” Taken in isolation, these are measures suited to a liberal reformist party. In the end, the SPD has resigned itself to politics without politics, maneuvering entirely within the framework determined by the Christian Democrats.

The Social Democratic Party is now functionally the left wing of the CDU. If it persists on its current course, it risks sharing the same fate as its Greek, French, and Italian sister parties, who have descended from governing their respective countries into political irrelevance.