Listen to some of Germany's most powerful politicians these days, and it's as if Karl Marx had risen from the grave. "The growing power of international capital" with its "unbridled greed for profit" represents nothing less than a 'threat to democracy'," the chairman of the ruling Social Democrats, Franz Muntefering, railed at a recent party conclave in Berlin. Days later Chancellor Gerhard Schroder himself thundered against the evils of an "unrestrained neo-liberal system." Other SPD leaders have warned of "predator capitalists" waging an "undeclared war" on Germany. The "asocial" and "faceless" foreign investors were descending on Germany "like swarms of locusts," Muntefering warned darkly."
Schroder's rediscovery of Marxist rhetoric is more than a sign of political desperation. True, the SPD is turning up the heat ahead of a crucial May 22 election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state and traditional socialist power base. With the opposition Christian Democrats ahead by 11 points in the polls, SPD leaders hope to rally the state's heavily working-class voters with a harsh antibusiness campaign. Those workers, especially, have been upset by Schroder's welfare cutbacks and tax breaks for business, which have so far failed to put a dent into Germany's 12 percent jobless rate. Indeed, just last week the economic clouds darkened again, as the government's Council of Economic Advisers cut back its 2005 growth forecast from 1.5 to just 0.7 percent--the lowest in Europe. With reforms not producing quick results, SPD strategists now hope to shift the blame to business for not creating sufficient jobs.
Crude as their rhetoric might be, Germany's leaders are tapping into a growing angst among Germans that they are at the mercy of faceless economic powers, says Karl-Peter Schoppner, head of the Infratest polling institute in Essen. "Never have Germans been more concerned about their jobs and their personal future." They feel besieged--by a globalization that shifts jobs to China and Eastern Europe, a stock market that pressures companies to cut costs by firing workers and an EU bureaucracy that wants to open protected national markets to continentwide competition.
Nor are Germans alone in blaming their capitalists. In Paris last week, French President Jacques Chirac stood shoulder to shoulder with Schroder in calling for Europe to take swift steps to restrict soaring Chinese textile imports and lashing out against free-market "neoliberalists" in Brussels for failing to protect French jobs. At the same time, in urging French voters to approve the draft EU constitution in the May 29 referendum, Chirac insisted the document is the only way to protect Europe's welfare system from the evils of the "ultraliberals" and their "Anglo-Saxon" economic model of excessive openness to global competition.
The question, of course, is which kinds of policies follow from such populist outbursts. Questioned by the German press last week, Schroder and Muntefering insisted they would stay the course of German reform. But already, SPD activists are clamoring for legislation to tax financial "speculation" or to put a regulatory cap on executive salaries, to be discussed by SPD legislators in the Bundestag this week. They can count on widespread support among Germans, a solid majority of whom agree with Muntefering that capitalism is inherently evil and that the pursuit of profit "threatens German democracy," according to a fresh poll by ZDF Television.
More than anything, what the German media have dubbed "the locust debate" is setting the stage for Schroder's battle for re-election in 2006. Just as he overcame all but certain defeat in 2002 by appealing to Germans' deep antiwar (and, some say, anti-American) convictions, Schroder this time may be tempted to tap into the majority of Germans' deep-seated aversion to capitalism. "Just like Iraq and peace were in 2002, social justice and solidarity are emotional topics that move Germans at the core," says Stefanie Wahl, political scientist at the Institute for the Economy and Society in Bonn.
Already more conservative Christian Democrats have muted their calls for economic reform in an attempt to avoid being identified too closely with business or "economic liberals," anathema even to conservative voters. Trouble is, the debate's momentum threatens to take it far beyond election tactics. By raising expectations that Germany can "stop" capitalism and globalization, warns Wahl, it will be even harder to get Europe's biggest economy back on a course toward growth and jobs. "If we don't keep changing, we'll decline even faster," she says. For Germany and Europe, that is the real danger of the German government's renewed infatuation with Marx.