The next crisis—when, not if

We cannot ignore the recent election result in Germany. What happens in the most powerful and influential state in Europe west of Russia must interest us all, as inevitably it will have an impact in Ireland and elsewhere.

Moreover, while the electoral success of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) has to be a cause for concern, it is important to delve deeper into the outcome and in particular to ask why left-wing parties failed to do better.

It is always risky to speculate too much about voters’ intentions, but it appears likely that a greater proportion of AFD’s new votes came not through defectors from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union but from people who had previously voted for the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Of great significance in all this is the damaging role played by social democracy in undermining credibility in a genuine left alternative and therefore, in effect, creating space for fascism.

Such has been the presence and profiling of Angela Merkel that many people outside Germany are unaware that her deputy, before this election, was Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD, and that Merkel headed a grand coalition that included the German Social Democrats.

The SPD, now under the leadership of the hapless Martin Schulz, strongly supports NATO, advocates strengthening the euro zone, demands the implementation of trade deals such as CETA and TTIP, and is happy to endorse increased state surveillance. Not surprisingly, in the days before the latest election Berlin’s Guardian-like newspaper, Die Taz, stated that the rise in support for AFD was due not so much to the fact that it was offering an alternative as that the SPD was providing working people with no alternative at all.

There was, of course, the more radical Left Party, Die Linke, which managed to get less than 10 per cent of the vote. In itself that is worrying, although not impossible to explain. Parliamentary politics give a distinct advantage to incumbents from well-established parties, and Die Linke was formed a mere ten years ago.

There is also the influence, whether directly or indirectly, of powerful and well-resourced free-market agencies designed to influence and manage public opinion. This is often a subtle process aimed at defining and regulating the left-leaning opposition as much as promoting their choice for government. We are familiar in Ireland, for example, with the process of promoting the so-called acceptable face of social democracy, as represented by the Labour Party, over the disparaged if not actually demonised street-level political activists.

Nevertheless, weaknesses of the left cannot be attributed entirely to right-wing machinations. Nor indeed can their failings be easily rectified by rewriting a programme or churning out more strident left-wing rhetoric. It is equally dangerous to fall into the position now apparently being adopted by Angela Merkel of “listening to the concerns of those who voted for the far right.” Undoubtedly migration was an issue in this election, but on the other hand there have been several waves of migration to Germany over recent decades without causing the far right to surge in such numbers.

The point about the German election is not that the working class did not have a choice of opting for a left-of-centre programme. Die Linke at least provided an option, but the ruling class has still been able to hold a majority within the electorate. To an extent this is due to the fact that 20 per cent of working people in Germany continue to vote for the social democrats. Whether they do so through tradition or in the vain hope that they might improve is impossible to ascertain, but what their vote certainly does is undermine the possibility of forging a powerful workers’ movement.

There are echoes of this phenomenon throughout Europe and in the United States. At the moment, capitalism is neither in full-blown crisis nor, on the other hand, sufficiently vibrant to provide the type of productivity gains that allow it to maintain, much less improve, conditions for the entire population. The working out of this is often a fractured working class with significant disparities in income and prospects between various sections.

Politically, this has allowed conservative parties, under various labels, to maintain control over the administrative apparatus of government in many states. Typically their message is the same: things may be tough, they say, but the situation is gradually improving, and don’t rock the boat or conditions will get much worse.

For many people who have seen how rapidly economies throughout Europe and the United States went into turmoil after 2008 there is understandably a reluctance to ignore the seductively crafted propaganda from the right-wing media and risk their precarious position. This is especially so for those who have modestly paying work and dread the thought of being without a job. It is, after all, almost two centuries since Frederick Engels identified the role played by the fear of unemployment in containing working-class radicalism.¹

However, this situation of relative stability cannot continue indefinitely. Marxists have long identified the cyclical nature of crisis within capitalism. Now, however, they are joined by others. According to leading free-market economists, globalisation has not only made other economic crises inevitable but it is accelerating their regularity. Quoting (appropriately enough) from a report by Jim Reid of Deutsche Bank, John Authers of the Financial Times reported that the next crisis is coming and there is little that the capitalist world can do to prevent it.²

According to the bank’s experts, there are so many possible triggers for an economic crisis within capitalism that one of them is bound to cause a calamity. In their opinion, the only question now is when, not if, this happens.

Depending on the nature and severity of the anticipated downturn, there is every possibility that Germany will not escape the economic fall-out, as it did after 2008. This is not an issue of only academic interest to Ireland. With ever-increasing pressure from capital’s ruling elite for still greater EU integration, what happens in Germany has consequences for the rest of Europe.

There are few easy answers to this conundrum. We are aware of the response from the now emboldened far right and its cousins in the conservative parties. What, though, will the vacillating SPD do in such a situation? One thing we do know is that no answers are to be found in tinkering with capitalism through the politics of social democracy. The only sure method of ending capitalist crises and the dangerous reactionary elements it brings in its wake is to end capitalism definitively and replace it with a humane socialist society.

1. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845).

2. John Authers, “The next crisis is coming and investors need to prepare,” Financial Times, 23 September 2017.