No one credits the German people or press with having a sense of humor, but from time to time even the Fatherland’s driest, most moralizing publications are not without a certain wit. A salient example cropped up in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung this May, when the conservative newspaper ran a feature on Giorgio Agamben’s recent proposal for a Southern European Union. One month earlier, Agamben had revived Alexandre Kojève’s 1945 call, made in anticipation of a polarized cold-war world, for a bloc of “Latin” states bound together by their appreciation for “the sweetness of living.” As usual, the Zeitung’s article was all condemnation, wondering with barely contained sarcasm what would keep Northern Italy or South Tyrol from demanding the foundation of an Alpine state. The real rebuke was served by the attached photo—a large, full-color shot of Silvio Berlusconi fast asleep at an outdoor event in Dallas, with the caption: “Luxuriating in the ‘sweetness of living’?”
Following economic news can be fairly boring, so it’s little surprise that the European press has doubled down so heavily on a Clash of Civilizations: Angela Merkel rapping a ruler across the knuckles of the fish-eating, wine-drinking, sex-having, tax-avoiding South. Das Bild, the sort of “populist” paper one usually sees purchased in Berlin along with a pack of Marlboro Ultralights, seems to take a Rush Limbaugh-like pleasure in chiding Greece for having the gall to riot when Berlin demands that the Athens parliament slash social benefits. Meanwhile, the Greek and Spanish dailies have spilled their share of ink decrying the heartlessness of the uptight German bankers in Brussels, with their rimless glasses and thickly knotted pink ties, unable, as the French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon recently put it, to feel any “zest for life.” Hardly a week goes by on the Mediterranean without some economist or politician comparing Merkel to Hitler and the Euro Zone to modern-day Lebensraum.
Which is not to say that anxiety about Germany’s emergent role as the de facto leader of Europe is unwarranted. For all intents and purposes, Germany is Europe, and Berlin is its capital—which is something of a dramatic irony, when one recalls that the formation of the Euro Zone was intended to subordinate the German economy to that of France. Strong unions have allowed Germany to keep high-skill manufacturing at home; a weak Euro (weaker, at any rate, than the Deutschmark would be) keeps its exports affordable and trading partners in economic lockstep, offsetting the higher production costs. Germany was the only European nation to post a surplus in 2013. And since economic might makes right, it follows that Germany sets the terms of the European discussion on labor law, “entitlements,” hiring and firing practices—on all matters economic.
At the height of his powers, Napoleon dragged Europe into the 19th century; soon after, the Industrial Revolution swiftly anglicized it. Twenty-first century Germany prefers to lead by the quiet rectitude of its own example. “Historically momentous” is not a term one would use to describe the quiet pragmatism that runs the Berlin of today. Even the worst parts of the city, like Marzahn, a housing block in the former east known for its neo-Nazi activity, receive reliable public services. The buildings are well-maintained and surrounded by greenery. Rescue services come when called. The people there seem not so much disgruntled as bored. By the same token, there is a sobriety and a modesty—a dullness, one might say—to even the poshest streets in Mitte. Rents are rising, true, but that only means they are not practically free; in any case, rent control laws overwhelmingly favor the tenant. Prostitution is legal and marijuana is decriminalized. Without extreme income inequality to corrode civic engagement, voter turnout is at 70 percent. No smashed ATMs, no protesters outside the Reichstag. Alles in Ordnung.
Nonetheless, when the carrot of quiet rectitude proves ineffective, Germany does not shy away from the stick. The terms of Germany’s €22.4 billion loan to Greece in 2011 called for a 35 percent reduction in the wages of civil servants, including university professors, judges, and hospital doctors. Pensioners receiving less than €1,000 took a 5 percent cut in their monthly payout. Initially, the loan was to be repaid in two years, though after a fresh wave of market unrest, the term was relaxed to four. The inefficacy of the measures taken to stabilize Greece’s economy or reassure investors would seem to bear out Agamben’s caricature of a culture obsessed with taking the hard line at all costs—that is, if they weren’t more easily explicable as simple electioneering. Stringency lets Merkel play “tough on debt.” It also sets Merkel apart from the doomsayers in her party predicting the failure of the Euro and the newspapers printing up “fake” CDU placards that read, “Not one cent more for Greece. That’s how Germany stays strong.”
What Merkel’s populism and Agamben’s equally pandering political fantasia both overlook (or willfully obscure) is that despite all the talk of a new German Wirtschaftswunder, the last decade has hardly been a wunder for most Germans. The elites, of course, have done quite well for themselves; the workers and the middle class less so. Half of all new jobs created in Germany have been in the temp sector, where workers earn as much as 40 percent less than their permanent counterparts and often work through weekends without overtime or sick pay. In the public sector, an increasing number of teachers are hired as substitutes, leaving them dependent on social assistance during the summer months and without a guaranteed position in the fall. One eighth of the country lives below the poverty line; a quarter of the workforce is in the low-wage sector, even with a completed apprenticeship or university education. It is presumably to this part of the population that Merkel has promised increases in wages and child benefits, though, as the CDU has admitted, neither program is likely to be actually pushed through any time soon.
And yet, much as Merkel’s hardball is at fault for the current state of affairs, she is not the problem. After all, it was Gerhard Schröder and the Social Democrats who ten years ago introduced Agenda 2010, a package of spending cuts that slashed into pensions, health care, and unemployment payments while deregulating the labor market. (Soon after, they raised the retirement age to 67.) The real culprit is not party politics but the willingness of austerity’s supporters to renounce before any renunciation has been asked of them. In affirming the gradual degradation of the quality of everyday life, the German populace—much like the American one—hopes to recover the political and economic agency taken from them by the runaway forces of capitalism. In speech after speech affirming the necessity of sacrifice, one encounters a strong whiff of nostalgia for the economic upheavals and cataclysms of the early 20th century, when history—a sense of each person’s interconnectedness in a single, forward-moving, purpose-giving force—made itself manifest in privation and catastrophe.
The gradual unraveling of the situation at home tends to pale beside the Euro Crisis, which, though distant for most Germans, gives them the sense that things at home are hunky-dory. And that, no doubt, is why the recent elections could not help but be a referendum on Merkel’s handling of Greece, and why even with all the shake-ups (from the pro-business Free Democrats’ failure to clear the 5 percent mark for representation in Parliament, to the discovery that Jürgen Trittin, the Green Party’s candidate, had advocated abolishing the age of consent in a thirty-year-old election platform, to the emergence of the anti-Euro Alternative for Germany Party), Merkel’s victory felt foregone. The SPD tried to shift the focus by promising that they would tax the wealthy and institute a proper minimum wage, and for a moment, it looked as though Steinbrück, who took unstaged questions during campaign stops and was photographed giving a camera the middle finger, might prove less tepid than the press had made him out to be. But at no point in the campaign did Steinbrück—or the Greens, or Die Linke, both of whom had dismal showings—successfully challenge the notion that Berlin must force Greece to manage its economy properly. The loss of the FDP, Merkel’s former coalition partners, means that in all likelihood some concessions, possibly the minimum wage raise, are headed toward the Social Democrats. But why rock the boat when things are going so well, even if they’re not? Tellingly, the only other issue that rated was the NSA’s surveillance of German citizens’ internet activity and private correspondence, a frustrating reminder that, financial dominance or no, seventy years later Germany is still an occupied power.
One particularly irritating aspect of the campaigns this summer was the continued use of the term solidarity for the European loans to Greece. Throughout the Crisis, the word has also been made to mean tolerance for an increasingly bleak situation. “Germany is showing solidarity so that in the end the crisis countries have a future,” said Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger of the FDP, in 2010. “So I would ask that the people at the top—the president [of the European Commission] and the [European] Council president—demonstrate solidarity with us and defend the Germans against accusations.” In their inverted way, these comments highlight the real issue: whether the victims of the Brussels consensus can stand together across national lines. None of the critics of the neues Reich—certainly not Agamben—seem willing to consider that the BMW-Leipzig employee sent off to a “daughter” company so that BMW does not have to pay him overtime has more in common with the laid-off Fiat worker in Turin than that Fiat worker has with the economic elites of Italy, let alone the elites of Greece or Spain.
Still, a promising development in this direction took place last November, when unions in Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Cyprus were able to organize a general strike against the austerity measures in those countries. At that point in the crisis, the international press had had their fill of demonstrations, so news coverage was limited; what’s more, the strike was less a self-directed expression of rank-and-file worker outrage than an attempt by the organizing unions to secure a seat for themselves at the bargaining table in Brussels. So far, the unrest has not reached into the Netherlands or Austria, let alone Germany. It’s surprising, considering the EU’s political aims, how little international consciousness there actually is in Europe. Most Germans had relatively little awareness of the day-to-day in Greece before the crisis; conversely, most Greeks have enough to contend with without worrying about Germany. It goes without saying that neither nation’s press is particularly interested in remedying this problem, not when intractable cultural difference and nationalist appeals move so many newspapers.
And there is a problem to be remedied, despite the worrying assertions in the German press that, now that the Euro’s existence has been assured, the worst has passed. Youth unemployment in Greece is in the high sixties and hardly better in the other crisis countries. Politically, the crisis has concentrated power in the hands of a small number of conservative bankers with little interest in the financial or political sovereignty of the nations under their control. A recent memo from J. P. Morgan-Chase expressing annoyance with the “socialist” constitutions of the “the Southern periphery” made that abundantly clear, with refreshingly bare-faced cynicism. But beyond The Crisis is the no less urgent crisis of everyday life in the Western world, in which the fundamental social contract of capitalist society—work and ye shall receive—frays more and more with each passing year. The Clash of Civilizations, as the Bild and Agamben and Kojève tell it, is big history, with big emotions. The truth, unfortunately, is not big. It is small, and rather glum. It doesn’t want to be told as an epic. The lives in the balance need boring, human scale.
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