Petra Rethmann: The German question: Solidarity, Lexit, nation

On 14 May 2017, in North Rhine-Westphalia’s (NRW) state (Bundesland) election, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won in emphatic fashion. Emphatic, here, does not express itself in numbers—33 percent for the CDU—but in the fact that the party won at all. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), which from 1966 to 2005, and then from 2010 to 2017, had governed North Rhine-Westphalia, crashed with roughly 31 percent. Party leader Hannelore Kraft resigned within 30 minutes of the polls closing. After a lengthy hiatus, the anti-statist and centre-right right Free Democratic Party (FDP) reached more than 12 percent, and the xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) eased with more than 7 percent into NRW’s parliament. More left-leaning parties that ran on platforms arguing for greater social and economically distributive justice, including the Pirates and The Left, failed to clear the 5 percent threshold required by Germany’s electoral system. The one Land that in Germany had always been regarded as the center of Social Democracy went conservative.

By all indications, Germany has deepened its turn of what Claus Leggewie in 1980 identified as a “turn to the right.” Then this turn indicated intellectuals’ uncritical enthusiasm for a conservative reformism. Now it also means that most certainly CDU leader Angela Merkel will be handed her fourth term as Germany’s chancellor in September 2017, and that in the current political climate there simply seems to exist no alternative to German-driven Eurozone politics, based on market competitiveness, contractions of the welfare state, and the sanctity of fiscal rules. As Merkel and Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble made, for example, very clear at the height of the Eurozone crisis, Germany spoke as a hegemon, insisting that Greece should save more, work harder, and put an end to monetary extravagance and corruption. Its mantra that Greece should not be allowed to escape fulfillment of its debt obligations was supported by all parties in Germany, save for The Left (Die Linke).[1]

It did not take long for a number of left voices to pick up the challenge and respond. At the forefront of the German debate were two thinkers closely associated with the SPD but situated in almost antithetical relation: Jürgen Habermas—by most accounts more a temperate than a radical thinker, whose political cosmopolitanism can appear as impractical, romantic, or naïve—and Wolfgang Streeck, a Marxist sociologist who has taught at a number of prestigious US universities and was the former head of the Max Planck Institute in Cologne. Unlike Habermas, whom Streeck sees as being stuck in normative and unrealistic thinking, Streeck advocates the dissolution of the Eurozone in favor of a retreat to what Habermas has called a “national fortress” (see Streeck 2014c). Responding to two anti-austerity manifestos that originated in Germany—Founding Europe Anew! and We are Europe! Manifesto for a New Foundation for a Europe from Below—of which Habermas was a signee, together with two colleagues Streeck issued a manifesto entitled Europa braucht die Nation (Europe needs the nation). In contrast to a Habermasian emphasis on social solidarity and political values that transcend the nation, including peace, Streeck argued for a “responsible nationalism,” a focus away from the EU’s almost unilateral focus on monetary stability and the possible replacement of the euro with a revamped version of the 1979–1998 European Monetary System.

In Germany, both Habermas’s and Streeck’s interventions did strike a chord, although for different reasons. For Habermas, his comments were largely seen as a welcome reminder that solidarity and institution building, especially if situated within the framework of an ethical left, continue to be important projects. For Streeck, his proposal came as a shock. Euroscepticism—unlike in the United Kingdom and France—has never been a vocal strand on the German Left. But as incommensurate as they are—the illusionary idealism of Habermas against the disillusioned realism of Streeck—both positions hold certain ideological temptations, feeding dreamy fantasies of unproblematic commonality or a pessimistic fatalism. Let me explain.

Solidarity à la Habermas

On 22 June 2015, at the height of the Eurozone crisis, Jürgen Habermas published an article in the widely read newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, entitled “Why Merkel’s politics is a mistake.”[2] He vehemently criticized Germany’s Sparpolitik—a politics based on an almost neurotic obsession with sparen, sparen, und nochmals sparen (saving, saving and saving again)—or, in other words, austerity. What’s more, Habermas strongly advocated for debt relief or another equivalent regulation to help realize “the Greek demand [for] a new start for the economy.” In addition, he asked for a lessening of the European Union’s (EU) technocratic character, reform of European Institutions, a democracy that is “more than decorative,” and the EU’s shift from an economic to a political and social union. To the annoyance of leading German politicians, he described the January 2015 Greek election results as a vote that signaled “a standing up against the humiliating as well as oppressive misery of austerity politics.” In doing so, he also called for a critical evaluation of Germany’s role within the context of the European Union, including its national(istic) and institutional underpinnings.

In general, Habermas’s intervention was well received.[3] One reason it was appreciated was that he reminded the SPD of some of its better traditions: solidarity with the working-class and poor that it had seemingly forgotten.[4] Another reason was that he framed the EU as a Friedensgemeinschaft (community of peace), a work in progress but still a community marked by a politics of dialogue and mutual understanding. In turning against Germany’s trade in cultural chauvinism and stereotypes—Germany signifying a land of industriousness and responsibility, and Greece a zone of idleness and profligacy—he also turned against the country’s baring teeth at its European neighbor: the “hard-working German” versus the “pleasure-driven and lazy Greek.”

Much of Habermas’s thinking has been set against the background of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, which for him marks the defining moment of postwar German political identity, as both memory and responsibility. For example, instead of going on the defensive in relation to Greece’s renewed demand for war reparations, he sought to legitimize them by pointing out that Germany’s hegemonic position within the EU could not but awaken memories of the German occupation. Germany can and should never lose sight of its history and the political responsibilities that grow out of it, Habermas claimed. It was also for this reason that, borrowing from Walter Benjamin, he spoke of an “anamnestic solidarity,” meaning not only that the living need to achieve mnemotic justice in relation to the dead, but also that a specific consciousness of atonement needs to articulate itself in concrete political and economic ways.

While even Habermas’s opponents treat him with respect, they tend to consider his normative cosmopolitanism as Schwärmerei, as romantic rapture and zeal that simply is no match for the insights critical historiography and political economy has to offer: that money is not a neutral sign of exchange but a medium shot through with power, that practices of solidarity cannot be disentangled from material forms of inequity and exploitation, and that the financial dynamics of Europe’s currency union do not exist outside the laws of monetary profit and gain but are projections of social power relations. Habermas, of course, knows that money marks not simply numerical value but also political interests and social relations, yet his push toward more solidarity and—on the European level—democratic institution building cannot conceal the fact that in the Eurozone, money tends to speak with a German accent.

Lexit, or the nationalism of the left

At times it can seem as if not only liberal internationalism has ended but also as if left internationalism is endangered. This, at least, is the implication of Wolfgang Streeck’s thesis that the dissolution of the Eurozone would help to generate democracies in which nations could—once again—become sovereign. Against Habermas’s Euroidealism, Streeck argues that the European Union, in its shape of a currency union, is not a vehicle for “closer union” among the peoples of Europe, but rather a divisive force.[5] Pace Streeck, there exists no compelling reason to equate the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) with “Europe” and even the “European ideal.” The European currency union has superimposed on neighboring yet very different forms of national economic organization a universal monetary order with which not all countries can live equally well. One way to do deal with this is to de-globalize or dissolve the EMU, and draw capitalism back into the domain of national and/or democratic government. According to Streeck, capitalism should be cut back to the scale of the nation-state, because it is at this level that Europeans have over the past two centuries been able to establish social cohesion, solidarity, and governability.

Like Habermas’s, Streeck’s ideas, too, could be read as romantic, conservative, or, as Habermas himself has claimed, “nostalgic” (see Streeck 2014c). As welcome as Streeck’s critiques of the EMU are, implicit in them is a rather unproblematic conceptualization of the nation. But no nation is as tidy as Streeck suggests, and—as has been aptly demonstrated by anthropologists and others—in Germany the nation marks a profoundly ambivalent concept (see, e.g., Boyer 2006; Confino 2011; Müller 2000; Shoshan 2016). Especially since 1945, ontologically the concept has been burdened with emotional and political connotations to the breaking point: encompassing sentiment, kitsch, false consciousness, emotional need, and hate. There are other unsettling implications. Streeck is certainly not a supporter of the Germany’s right-wing populist and anti-Islamist party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland). But given Streeck’s evocation of the metaphor of Volk—a term that many Germans correlate with right-wing ethnonationalism and the Nazis—in some of his key writings conjure up association of nationalist mobilization (Streeck 2016). Especially at a time when AfD leaders like Frauke Petry and Beatrix von Storch draw on the same metaphor to openly think about if refugees could be shot at the German border.[6] Under these conditions, the nation is and cannot be a point of return.

What is it about the configuration of social forces that leads Streeck to believe a move back to the national level would enable more democracy and better economies? On 23 January 2014, Streeck delivered a lecture to the British Academy with the ominous title “How Will Capitalism End?” (see also Streeck 2014b) The basic message he provided was that—as current events in Europe and the United States seemed to demonstrate—capitalism had broken free from its constraints, and visions of an ever closer European Union were out of touch with reality. Instead, Europeans and their world fellow citizens should be bracing themselves for an agonizing and long decomposition of the globe’s social fabric. Capitalism would and will not end because of opposition to it, but because over the course of a coming longue durée it can be relied on to consume and destroy its own foundations. What all of us should expect is intensifying inequality and stagnation, plundering of public spheres and domains, and escalating risks of wars: in other words, the pervasive erosion of social orders. Life will become increasingly ungovernable, and individuals and societies will need to cope with conditions of increasing uncertainty. Putting national societies back in charge of their economies may not change this larger picture, but perhaps it would put “society”—and not technocrats, banks, and cynical policy makers—back in control.

An alternative?

Habermas or Streeck? Habermas and Streeck? At stake in these debates that I could only briefly outline here are understandings and memories associated with the German specter of the nation, but also capitalism, justice, class, and care—some of which are vectors that in current anthropological theory have been reduced to a somewhat subterranean life. At stake are also questions of organizing for the left, of strategy and possibility, and of political imaginations capable of puncturing, if not altogether change, an economic-political consensus that there exist no alternatives. In both Habermas’s and Streeck’s thoughts, collective approaches to political, social, and economic action play a minor role: it seems easier to build on solidarity as a pure ethic or to let one’s economic pessimism decide. Yet, as analysts and activists worth their salt know, building alternatives is messy. It requires more than stating one’s wish for hopeful horizons, including hopes for more just and sustainable futures, or moving beyond despair. It may just require the admission that currently the left is short on ideas (although this is changing), and that parts of it did simply quit. The work of coming up with practical and inevitably impure alternatives may not bear immediate rewards, but apart from this, what then could afford the slightest hope for alternatives and change.[7]

At this moment in time, not too many discussions take place in Germany in this regard. With the country’s current economic boom, which has returned the country to moderate growth and falling rates of unemployment—a certain Biedermeier seems to reign. To return to the issue of elections with which this piece began, ahead of the German election in 2017 there only seem to exist two options: another coalition—possibly with the newly rejuvenated FDP—with Angela Merkel as its still center, or a Red-Red-Green coalition of the SPD, The Left, and the Greens. The latter has been a possibility since the 1990s and a nuisance in the eyes of those determined to uphold the political status quo inherited from West Germany’s Federal Republic. Also, the history of the Cold War stands in its way, as well as a fear on the part of the SPD and the Greens of losing middle-class voters. Of course, it also offers no guarantee that Germany’s Eurozone and other fiscal politics would change. But for the time being, it might at least provide Germany with a more delicate politics and open the door to more refreshing discussions.

Petra Rethmann is professor of anthropology at McMaster University, where she teaches in the arenas of political anthropology, globalization, and art.


[1] Founded in 2007 in a merger between the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and the Electoral Alternative for Labour and Social Justice (WASG), on the heels of Cyprus’s banking crisis in 2013, The Left began to mount a principled critique of the euro as a major element of Europe’s institutional structure. Until then, its major line had been that it opposed euro austerity but not its currency. The Left remains divided over the question of whether the EU is irredeemably neoliberal to the core should be rejected, or if it is capable of institutional rejuvenation and reform.

[2] A somewhat rough translation in English can be accessed here.

[3] In Germany, Johanna Ueckermann as a representative of the Young Socialists favorably commented on Habermas’s social justice vision, as did several politicians from Die Linke. In France, Etienne Balibar expressed public support for Habermas’s critique of German nationalism and his push toward more solidarity.

[4] In 2003, Germany’s electoral Green-Red coalition passed Agenda 2010, a package of measures to break the much decried Reformstau—blockage of much-needed improvements—in the Federal Republic. Based on Agenda 2010, public funds were cut, the age of retirement raised, health insurance outsourced, welfare subsidies reduced, craft requirements abolished, and shopping hours extended. The package culminated in Hartz IV, a policy that supported severe cuts in unemployment benefits. In social democratic strongholds like the industrial Ruhr Valley in NRW, labor began to break away from the SPD, and the party lost the federal elections to the CDU in 2005.

[5] Streeck (2014a) has written about this in Buying Time and in a number of articles that have appeared in the New Left Review between 2014 and 2017.

[6] Following on the heels of 2015 New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Beatrix von Storch, a countess from Lower Saxony who is one of the AfD’s deputies to the European Parliament, went on record to say that border guards might have to use firearms against refugees trying illegally to cross the border—including women and children. After much criticism, she conceded that children might be exempted, but not women.

[7] I do thank Tony Porter for discussion on this point.


Boyer, Dominic. 2006. “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture 18 (2): 361–381.

Confino, Alon. 2011. Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Müller, Jan-Werner. 2000. Another Country: German Intellectuals, Unification, and National Identity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Shoshan, Nitzan. 2016. The Management of Hate: Nation, Affect, and the Governance of Right-Wing Extremism in Germany. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2014a. Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. London: Verso.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2014. “How Will Capitalism End?” New Left Review 87: 35–64.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2014c. Small-State Nostalgia? The Currency Union, Germany, and Europe: A Reply to Jürgen Habermas. Constellations 21 (2): 213–221.

Streeck, Wolfgang. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso.

Cite as: Rethmann, Petra. 2017. “The German question: Solidarity, Lexit, nation.” FocaalBlog, 7 July.