SPD and the German Election 2021: Cementing the Social Market beyond Political Binaries

Photo by JENS SCHLUETER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

By Subhayu Bhattacharjee

The German elections to the Bundestag that concluded in September this year saw the centre-left SPD come to power. While this is not a major overhaul of political positions, given the earlier CDU-SPD alliance, it actually presents a strong case for understanding the goals of what Germans are wont to calling the ‘social market economy’ and its implications for the new century. There are aspects of such a socio-political discourse which have deeper relevance for India in a variety of fields ranging from the sense of nationalism, the question of migration and multinational collaboration, to the political economy in general. This article will seek to cover all these aspects and attempt in the process to create a definition of the term ‘social market economy’ as it stands in the twenty-first century and with respect to agendas of global significance.

Although the Christian Democratic Union led by Angela Merkel theoretically distinguishes itself from leftist brand of politics (Merkel’s own dalliance with communism in her youth is somewhat significant, though), it fashioned an understanding of social discourse that sought to integrate humanist aspects of the Christian faith with the already existing social welfare model that dates back to the times of Bismarck. As a significant departure from the earlier forms of classical faiths, Christianity’s approach to the Other involved the question of purification and integration within its ambit, as is testified by Hayden White in his work, Tropics of Discourse. Looking at Merkel’s approach to the refugee question, we are tempted to ask if this is not a refashioning of the ancient practice in the twenty-first century modern political sphere. A report by Philip Oltermann in The Guardian (Aug 30, 2020) states that more than 10,000 people who arrived in Germany as refugees since 2015 have mastered the German language with more than half working and paying taxes. The Right-wing political discourse of the times have often tended to use cultural difference and the lack of cultural integration as key points for justifying a zero-tolerance policy towards refugees. However, Merkel’s so-called ‘conservative’ politics has been able to achieve cultural integration not through top-down enforcement of socio-legal austerities but through material conditions conducive to a voluntary willingness to be socio-culturally integrated as the issue of employment and tax-paying goes on to suggest. In a sense, therefore, the tradition of integration pursued by the coalition of CDU-SPD achieves the conditions of ‘social market’ by concentrating on the social issue of integrating those who could function as important agents in the market through taxes and productivity. The electoral mandate in favour of the SPD led by Scholz (long held to be Merkel’s natural successor) is a clear indication that this form of integration has occurred with little social friction proving the Right-wing narrative of social conflicts in integrative attempts to be limited.

Let us turn our attention to the next question in focus: the issue of nationalism and its synergy with international collaborations and platforms. A recent development in global politics is predicated on the forceful assertion of national sentiments in tandem with castigation of international platforms. In almost all cases of Right-wing governments, the discourse of the nation being bogged down and unable to express itself fully is quite the trend and the ‘humiliation’ narrative sometimes tends to take the form of a conspiracy theory. Needless to say, certain blatant material and social inequities amongst countries on a global scale do tend to justify special provisions for certain nations such as in the case of contribution to mitigating climate change. However, diplomatic capability has helped may Third World nations gain a significant leverage in these platforms without having to de-link itself from them and transform into hermit kingdoms. The election manifestos of all major political contenders in Germany for the elections in question had integration within the European Union as a major point of concern except that of the AfD (Alternative Fur Deutschland) which is a self-professed far-Right political entity. The issue of multinational action is, in the case of the refugee question, also an expression of realpolitik as it signals the urgency of a coordinated solution to a pressing problem. In this manner it becomes easier to convince German citizens of the practical nature of the regime’s solution. This only buttresses popular consent to an issue that stokes the fire of polarization in other states. Closer integration has also benefitted German trade and economy in the past and helps sustain the welfare measures such as hands-on skill development for labour that is even given to migrant labourers. Thus the balance of national goals with multinational agendas in the German context is a balance struck between social consent for a not-so-popular issue and its economic sustainability without which the former would fall apart. The election of Scholz is a popular verdict in favor of the status-quo.

Coming to the specific economic and social points raised by the SPD in its manifesto, we find the re-emergence of the definition of the social in the term ‘social market economy’ as identifiable with the notion of ‘people-centric perspectives’. In the context of rapid automation and its corollaries such as developments in the sphere of Artificial Intelligence, this tends to be pertinent in our times. Works by renowned economists such as Luigi Zingales and Raghuram Rajan’s Saving Capitalism from Capitalists highlight the importance of restoring popular confidence in a free market system which cannot sustain itself otherwise. The SPD had specifically hinted at the need for increasing minimum wages and progressive taxation measures as part of its goals. Even the accommodative practices with respect to immigrants during the tenure of Merkel rested on the premise that in an aging country with low birth rate labour was a priority. The fact that the solution to this problem was sought in the addition of human labour to the workforce, coupled with the aforesaid aspects of people-centric economic plans helps Germans repose confidence in the presumption that the government still relied on the people as the main agents of the market economy whose confidence was prerequisite for its market-oriented success. Although the issue of looking upon the refugee population through the utilitarian lens is somewhat reductive, in the present context it achieves a smooth consolidation of the confidence in the ‘social market economy’ whose prevalence, up to this point since 1990, seems to transcend the rather parochial binary of the conservative and the liberal or the radical.

Therefore, it must be mentioned that while aspects of Merkel’s approach to social and economic integration could be problematized in terms of the inclination to annihilate the unique aspects of the identity of the Other, its involvement in a highly complex scenario of global politics prevents a corruption of the ideal of the social market and a full-fledged establishment of a parochial brand of hypernationalist politics. Merkel’s yielding place to Scholz therefore does not represent the Tennysonian declaration of the ‘old order yieldeth’ but a cementing of the roots of civic nationalism and practical strategies achieved through a conspicuous collaboration between the apparently ‘centre-left’ and the ‘centre-right’.

Subhayu Bhattacharjee
, Assistant Professor, Dept. of English, Mirik College, Darjeeling, West Bengal.


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