There Is No Alternativelessness

Now, when a politician or a public intellectual or a newspaper goes on a Rumspringa in the rightmost reaches of the political spectrum, or if the fine citizens of some small town decide to set fire to a house, there is less of a script by which they would be welcomed back into respectability. Certain ethnic Germans used to take it as their seigneurial right to shower cruelty on the vulnerable and return to the mainstream after a cooling-off period to be listened to and shaken hands with. They are beginning to feel deprived of that right.

What's been hiding Germany's hidden crisis?

Far-right rally, Chemnitz, Germany, August 2018.

Last fall, the conservative German newspaper Die Welt ran an odd essay about Max von Baden, the last chancellor of the German Empire. In 1918, von Baden had unilaterally forced the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II, ushering in the Weimar Republic. The author of the essay framed the incident as a “lesson about timing in politics.” If Max von Baden hadn’t hesitated as long as he had before ending the monarchy, he argued, the revolution of November 1918 might have been averted, and the Weimar Republic might have stood on far more solid, more legitimate feet.

This centennial commemoration of a statesman’s inactivity and its far-reaching consequences was itself a lesson about timing: Die Welt published it to coincide with an election in the state of Hesse, in central Germany. Seemingly innocuous, the article was in fact intended as a message to another politician who has demonstrated a mastery of sitting out problems, hoping they’ll simply solve themselves. Angela Merkel and her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), had been losing support in national and state elections, frequently to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Die Welt’s message would have been obvious to anyone paying close attention: step aside, or else reap the populist whirlwind.

The essay’s author, however, was not an upstart of a new post-Merkel party. It was Wolfgang Schäuble, the 76-year-old stalwart of the pre-Merkel CDU, someone who had been until recently her most visible minister. In the event, the CDU lost 11.3 percent of the vote share in Hesse, and the AfD and the Green Party once again overperformed. Merkel heeded the nudge. A few days after the election, she agreed to step aside as head of the CDU—step one of a slow-motion resignation.

For more than a decade, beginning with the crash of 2008 and on through the various monetary crises that followed, as well as the wave of right-wing populism that swept into office illiberal governments across Europe, Germany had functioned as an outlier—a beacon of stability in an uncertain world. It was widely regarded (and certainly regarded itself) as a buttress of the Eurozone’s economic health against irresponsible spending. The Brexit vote threw into relief Germany’s role as the main guarantor of the European Union’s political stability and bolstered its claim to being the center of Europe. After Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency the new German self-image seemed to find its ultimate embodiment in Merkel herself, the new “leader of the free world.”

Yet only two years later, as the German sociologist Oliver Nachtwey recently wrote in the New York Times, “the stability (and even monotony) associated with German politics under Ms. Merkel appears to be coming to an end.” That monotony has a name: Alternativlosigkeit, or alternativelessness. Although it was Merkel who would come to be associated with that word, Schäuble was the one who provided its affective and somatic underpinnings. Merkel was the prophet of alternativelessness; Schäuble was its embodiment.

Though—like many commentators in Europe and the US—Nachtwey links that end to the pressures brought to bear on centrist Merkel from the populist left and right, one of the remarkable things about the Merkeldämmerung is that it is largely forces within Schäuble’s and Merkel’s party that are threatening to undo the German exception. Those forces throw a light on how the exception emerged in the first place.

Most Germans remember that Angela Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian “sister party” the CSU are separate entities only when there are state elections in Bavaria—the only state in which the CSU fields candidates and in which the CDU fields none. This has been the arrangement since 1949: the CSU provides the CDU with a massive trove of votes and members, along with an effective and populist right wing. And in exchange the CDU provides the CSU with a direct line from local politics into the national centers of power (the CSU is, for instance, guaranteed a certain number of posts in any CDU/CSU-led government), as well as respectability and a dose of cosmopolitan credibility.

The CSU has been central to the CDU juggernaut, and that juggernaut, in turn, has been central to the sometimes reassuring, often soul-killing, sameness of German politics. But in 2018 the dynamic shifted. In the lead-up to the Bavarian elections, which took place in July of that year, the CSU suddenly seemed ready to abandon the governing coalition in Berlin. At issue were the refugees arriving at the German border (albeit in smaller numbers than before). Perhaps emboldened by the rhetoric of the AfD, the head of the CSU, Horst Seehofer, demanded that some of the new arrivals be turned away. It was a largely symbolic demand: Seehofer wanted Merkel to show a little bit of cruelty to brown people, but the chancellor refused his pressure. All at once, Germany’s steadiness was under threat—and not only under threat from within, but from within the within. Here was the spectacle of a parliamentary democracy, conceived with an extraordinary degree of autoimmune response to authoritarian takeovers, turning on itself.

Recent European history suggests that the rise of far-right parties, and the mainstream’s response to it, plays out in one of two ways. The first we might call the French model: as the right wing makes more and more inroads, left and center-right band together to defend the liberal order, even if each has serious misgivings about that order. As a result the parties defending some version of the status quo become faceless and interchangeable, and the only “true” alternative becomes the far right. The other is the Austrian model: alarmed by the rise of the far right, the nominal center moves sharply to the right in hopes of “winning back” lost voters. Those voters unsurprisingly prefer the genuine article. So the old guard enters into an alliance with the far right, hoping either to demystify the fringe, or simply to be eaten last.

Merkel ended up winning in July, but her victory was mostly Pyrrhic: while the Bavarian election seemed to bear out her instincts over Seehofer’s, her party still lost votes. The disagreement between Merkel and Seehofer came down to the French model versus the Austrian one. More fundamentally, however, both politicians were in tacit agreement that Germany, which had made it its mission to be different from other countries—which had taken it as a point of pride to be the exception—was no longer unique. It was neither imbued with terrible historical memories that rendered it constitutively immune to the seductions of right-wing populism, nor blessed with institutions uniquely unsusceptible to a takeover. Germany was, in the end, either France or Austria—that was all.

Nachtwey and others have argued that the end of what he calls “social modernity”—which has resulted in the rise of precarious and ad hoc labor and the decline of unions—creates a downward pressure that allows for the rise of protest movements on the left and the right. In his book Germany’s Hidden Crisis, Nachtwey writes that the problems that have torn apart the social consensus in France and Austria, as well as Spain and Italy, have been smoldering underneath in Germany as well—the titular hidden crisis. “The conflicts in our country have largely remained latent,” he writes, “which is no doubt due to the present economic and institutional stability.” Between the book’s German publication in 2016 and the American release last fall, the latter began to give way. The former, however, did not, even though it is now looking more and more likely that Germany is sliding into recession.

Yet as Nachtwey puts it in his afterword, Germany likely would have remained “a bastion of political stability” had “the so-called refugee crisis not abruptly exposed the social tensions that had accumulated over decades.” This diagnosis seems immediately plausible. But in a way Nachtwey’s conditional formulation is in itself quite interesting—it isn’t immediately clear how a crisis that, as he correctly notes, was at best so-called, and one which at least initially unleashed a wave of solidarity with the new arrivals across the country, ultimately ended up containing this explosive potential.

The question, then, is what has been hiding Germany’s hidden crisis. Nachtwey was once an associate researcher at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School). No less a predecessor than Adorno proposed, when reflecting on the rise of neo-Nazi groups, that “even in the midst of prosperity . . . the majority of people probably feel secretly that they are potentially unemployed, recipients of charity, and hence really objects, not subjects of society: this is the fully legitimate and reasonable cause of their discomfort.” Adorno made this observation in 1959. It may have been as true then as it was when Nachtwey made it in 2016. But it seems for that very reason unlikely to fully explain what has happened over the last few years. As the political scientist Philip Manow has put it, the idea that right-wing populism succeeds mostly among those left behind by neoliberalism “is not wrong in general, but it does not suffice as a general explanation.” Between Adorno and Nachtwey we could ask: since their answer has long been the correct one, why did it take so long for that fact to reveal itself?

The state of Baden-Württemberg lies just west of Bavaria. Home to corporations like Mercedes Benz, the software company SAP, and Bosch, the state is immensely prosperous. Its population is about ten million, and the unemployment rate is 3.1 percent. If there’s a hidden crisis in Germany, it’s particularly hidden here. And yet in 2017 about 12 percent of the population voted for the AfD. (In 2017 the AfD’s national numbers were 12.6 percent.) Like the post-election coverage of the American rust belt, accounts of the AfD’s rise tend to talk about anomie in East Germany, Merkel’s home turf. But Baden-Württemberg doesn’t lend itself to those kinds of narratives. To understand why the far right might resonate in such a rich and successful state, it is instructive to look to Schäuble, Baden-Württemberg’s native son.

At the national level, the AfD’s success is without precedent. In Baden-Württemberg, however, it is not. In 1968, the neo-Nazi NPD won 9.8 percent of the vote there. In 1992 the far-right Republicans (REP) won 10.9 percent, and in 1996 they received 9.1 percent. In a 2014 interview Schäuble pointed out exactly this trend: “The Republicans were history rather quickly, I think it’ll be the same with the AfD.” Many commentators at the time were outraged at this business-as-usual response, but it represented a sound structural grasp of German politics. One of the features of the crises Germany faces is that they have always been with us. As the historian Reinhart Koselleck once pointed out, the concept of “crisis” has long been used to impose a demand. What is striking about the German crises of recent years—the one surrounding the refugees as much as the political one precipitated by it, the rise of the AfD as much as the wave of cruelty attending its rise—is that they are neither sudden nor truly disruptive. They have been built into the way Germany has functioned for the last thirty years.

The spike in refugees arriving in 2015 created administrative challenges across Europe, but the only crisis worthy of the name concerned the relentless politicization of the sudden influx, both among EU-member countries and by political parties within them. While Merkel focused on the logistical nature of the problem—“we can do this,” she said in a soundbite that has been thrown in her face ever since—others were intent on making the crisis something it was not: a clash of cultures. This tactical retreat from feasibility politics was a beat-by-beat replay of earlier confrontations. The angry protestors and politicians screaming about the danger posed by refugees were reading from an old script.

The so-called “asylum debate” that now buoys the fortunes of the AfD first entered German politics in the mid-1980s. It was conjured into existence by the CDU itself, as a convenient election strategy. In response to an uptick in the number of asylum seekers, CSU politicians like Edmund Stoiber and Franz Josef Strauß fantasized about the possibility of “one hundred million potential refugees.” Just like Seehofer in 2018, they threatened to leave the partnership with the CDU unless they were allowed to turn refugees away at the border. Lead articles in the German press blared about “waves” of Muslims coming to rape Germany’s daughters and election posters declared the boat full.

Schäuble, then Kohl’s secretary of the interior (the department responsible for security and immigration), took a sort of middle tack. A conservative himself, he nonetheless steered clear of the rhetorical excesses of Stoiber and the CSU. But at the same time he sought to signal that limiting the number of asylum seekers was of paramount importance. His reasoning was vintage Schäuble: fifty thousand refugees, he said, “wouldn’t be a problem,” but “one hundred thousand is the magic threshold which would activate certain political sensibilities.”

You might think Schäuble was talking about what numbers the state’s bureaucracy could deal with. But no, the number has to do with “certain political sensibilities.” Exceeding it would by some strange magic anger “the people”—the kinds of people who set fire to kebab stands, one supposes. At the time Germany was accepting between 120,000 and 200,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. The economy was strong, the Deutschmark dominant in Europe. The convulsions brought about by unification were still in the future. What Schäuble was really saying was: unless there is some suffering inflicted on some of these new arrivals, the people will revolt.

Schäuble got his wish, but the people, or a subset of them, revolted anyway. The inevitable wave of racist violence started in West Germany well before the Iron Curtain came down, but it asserted itself most spectacularly in post-unification East Germany, a more homogeneous society undergoing rapid changes. In August 1992, for instance, residents of Rostock-Lichtenhagen laid siege to apartment buildings housing refugees and legal Vietnamese guest workers. For four days and nights neo-Nazis hurled Molotov cocktails and bricks into the buildings to the cheers of onlookers, who flashed Hitler salutes for the cameras. The police withdrew at first, but finally returned—to deport the residents of the besieged houses. (Their neighbors got a month of free rent.)

In the end, the first run-through of the “asylum debate” vindicated Schäuble’s instinct: the German state exacted its pound of flesh, sent back asylum seekers, and caused the newcomers untold suffering and frustration. The result represented a sort of compact between respectable conservatives and the crueler instincts of their base. Faced with an outpouring of cruelty and violence, political leaders moved to placate the victimizers and punish their victims. Live out your worst impulses, the compact says, and we will spend speech upon speech and talk show upon talk show telling you it isn’t really your fault. More importantly, we will take your verbal and physical violence to stand in for how “Germans” really feel. It is this reversal of thrust that Angela Merkel refused in the summer of 2015.

Schäuble’s suggestion that the AfD would go the way of all their far-right predecessors has come to be regarded as a serious misdiagnosis, yet this was how the system had worked for nearly a half-century. After neo-Nazis won almost 10 percent of the vote in the sixties, they threw their support for the next election, in 1972, behind the CDU’s candidate, a former Nazi with not entirely former-Nazi views. In the mid-1990s, Oskar Lafontaine, then head of the SPD, tried to score points by fulminating against immigrants and was seen as giving the REP an unexpected bounce. Today the voluble mayor of the university town of Tübingen, a member of the Green Party, worries aloud about refugees in tones that, while definitely miles away from the AfD, seem designed to resonate with its voters.

Schäuble’s interview is now five years old. In the interim it has become clear that the major parties can no longer swallow the politics of cruelty they have habitually seeded and then reabsorbed. German conservatism had long colonized a swamp on its right flank, a swamp consisting of things you couldn’t say or talk about, but to which you could point and be understood. Now their connection to that swamp has become tenuous. When mainstream politicians stray into it they either get lost or don’t find what they’re looking for. The CSU in particular understands the AfD’s codes, having deployed them themselves for decades. But by last summer the CSU’s populism was a knock-off, while voters had gotten a taste for the real thing.

Why have voters refused to be reabsorbed by parties like the CSU this time around? Many have proposed a generational explanation for this transformation: younger people, farther from Nazism and the Holocaust, have reclaimed territory onto which their elders dared not venture. But the AfD is not a youth movement—it is most popular among those 45 and older. Others have blamed the legitimating function of social media. There is certainly something to that idea, but the AfD seems less dependent on fake Facebook content and email forwards than, say, its Trumpist equivalents. The party’s evangelists publish books, give public readings, and organize foundations, boring hard boards like everyone else.

Perhaps the answer is that it isn’t the right that has changed; it’s the mainstream that would have to reabsorb it. The “asylum debate” of the 1980s and ’90s was conducted among ethnic Germans over the heads of second- and third-generation immigrants: people who had German passports, spoke German, and considered themselves German, but were not admitted to be authentically so. When buildings were burned it was often their houses, not those of the asylum seekers the supposed debate was about.

This has changed, though not nearly quickly enough. Germans with immigrant backgrounds are present throughout the political party system (with the exception of the AfD), as well as in the media, and they are starting to make their influence felt electorally. In 2013, they made up nearly 10 percent of eligible voters. By the same token, the group of Germans that in the 1980s considered themselves simply “Germans” are now forced to understand themselves as one group of Germans: white Germans are now Biodeutsche (in the parlance of the right wing), Almans, or simply “potatoes” (a mocking term preferred by German youths of “migratory background”).

They are these things precisely because there are other Germans who call them these things and have the means to be heard calling them that. The self-evident sense that certain Germans retained of who is a voter and what a fellow citizen looks like has disappeared. An imagined space of impunity, of assumed homogeneity, is in the process of vanishing. There is a small town in Bavaria that dresses up in yellowface once a year for a “Chinese carnival”—in 2018 they had to do it with one visibly perplexed Asian-German reporter in their midst, who was covering their rituals for VICE Germany.

Now, when a politician or a public intellectual or a newspaper goes on a Rumspringa in the rightmost reaches of the political spectrum, or if the fine citizens of some small town decide to set fire to a house, there is less of a script by which they would be welcomed back into respectability. Certain ethnic Germans used to take it as their seigneurial right to shower cruelty on the vulnerable and return to the mainstream after a cooling-off period to be listened to and shaken hands with. They are beginning to feel deprived of that right.

For decades, purveyors of the rhetoric of technocratic stability have outsourced their and their voters’ most sadistic and unpalatable beliefs and impulses to the far right. But Schäuble’s career suggests that, while technocratic governance has countless mechanisms to repress its own inherent cruelty and outsource them to the fringes, there is a kind of cruelty that comes from, and is enjoyed at, the center rather than the fringes. To many of its subjects—refugees being told that persecution without torture isn’t enough to win them asylum, unemployed workers being forced to provide all their rejection letters to prove they’re actively looking for work, Greek politicians being told to cut loose the country’s pensioners in the order to reassure investors—this inherent cruelty is wholly self-evident.

Schäuble himself understood early on that technocracy has its sadistic side, and he has embraced it. Both major German parties have in the last thirty years occasionally lapsed into a politics of administered cruelty. The Treuhandanstalt (Trust Agency) that privatized the state-owned companies in East Germany, the safety-net cuts of “Agenda 2010,” and the draconian austerity measures after the financial crisis of 2008—all of these were approached by serious old men in smart suits in boardrooms with a kind of resigned shrug. We don’t like it either, they seemed to say, but this is what needs to happen. Schäuble, however, didn’t shrug at all—he seemed to feel genuine glee at the dictates that everyone else pretended to accept only reluctantly. Politicians of his type have been adept at making sound quantitative and objective what ultimately boils down to a demand for suffering, for mortification.

The success of the AfD suggests that Schäuble shares the recognition that alternativelessness has its religious, sacrificial dimension with a growing segment of voters in Germany. These voters have long recognized the carefully sublimated cruelty of alternativelessness; in many cases they’ve been at the receiving end of it. They accepted some of that cruelty for themselves, although very little—nothing more than a light paddle and an available safe word. But above all they demanded that, whatever cruelty the system meted out to them or people like them, it visit ten times that onto the Other. The AfD began as a party of technocrats, and its founders frequently seem surprised by how it sleepwalked from deficits and Euroskepticism to overt racism and illiberalism. One of the movement’s forerunners was Thilo Sarrazin, once an economist at Germany’s central bank, who at some point went from prognosticating that runaway deficits would spell Germany’s doom to prognosticating that runaway procreation by “hijab-girls” would spell Germany’s doom.

It’s a trajectory that isn’t actually all that surprising. Thanks to politicians like Schäuble, for decades now these voters have become used to being applauded for this perspective. Their coldness was reconceptualized as maturity, realism, steeliness of resolve. As the refugees arrived in 2015, CSU’s Secretary General worried that society would “implode” and “the people” would rise up. “Anyone who doesn’t recognize this,” he added about his bit of apocalyptic fan fiction, “ignores reality.” Pragmatic positions were recast as “political correctness,” as “failed multiculturalism,” while bizarre fantasies about racial civil war could stake a claim to being the “realistic” or “serious” position. This is how documents like the German Basic Law, with its talk about “the dignity of man,” or international asylum conventions, could seem to them like softhearted hippie tracts. The only realistic way of looking at the world was looking to make it hurt.

Adorno once spoke of the “categorical imperative of ‘never again’,” and the anxiety with which people watch unemployment figures in Germany is all about this “again”—about fascism as relapse, as repetition. It is against this background that the 12.6 percent of the vote the AfD won nationally in last year’s elections constitutes an incredible shock. Against the easy sociology and the old stories, what the result actually highlights is that Germany now specializes in a fascism in the midst of satiety. Perhaps even a fascism of satiety. And that this, rather than some vague revival of Nazism, is the shape that far-right populism has long taken in the country. As the historian Birte Förster put it on Twitter: “It’s not like Weimar, it’s not like 1933, it’s like Germany, 2018.”

After World War II, German nationalism became an impossibility. It survived largely by being refracted through economics, above all exports. Affluence at home gave people the feeling that “we are somebody again,” as the saying went. The wave of German cars, wares and weapons washing over Europe and the world took the place of German troops. Germans have long moralized economics (not for nothing did Max Weber write The Protestant Ethic in Heidelberg), but after World War II economics to some extent replaced politics: it reconciled Germany with its neighbors and former victims, it finally integrated Germany in an interconnected Europe, and eventually it dismantled the Iron Curtain and unified the country.

But in hindsight it is hard to miss the fact that this economic system, for all its technocratic mousiness, was suffused with displaced affective energy. And not just pride in one’s own wealth, but also a sadistic glee over the misery of others, which is interpreted in similarly moral or theological terms as Germany’s postwar economic success. This was true both between Germany and its neighbors and within Germany itself. Nachtwey probably underplays the ethnic dimension of what he calls “social modernity.” Unlike the New Deal in the United States, postwar affluence in Germany was not explicitly premised on racial stratification. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to sense a connection between the kind of solidarity that underpinned the postwar system of “social market capitalism” and the fact that the massive amounts of wealth created never went to the new arrivals in the country—the Turks, Italians, Greeks, and Yugoslavs who were at any rate still referred to as “guest workers,” even after decades in the country, sometimes even after obtaining German citizenship.

The righteous fury with which Germans have voiced their suspicion that most immigrants aren’t “really” refugees, but are, horror horrorum, motivated by hopes for a better life, is of a piece with this moralization. Germans have become good at denying others what they take to be their own birthright: they are terrified of foreigners taking their jobs, and then inundate Austrian medical schools and Swiss hospitals. They demanded that Greece put its pension system on a sustainable footing, but managed no such thing themselves during decades of affluence. In an infamous 2009 interview that prefigured the rhetoric of the AfD, Sarrazin claimed that “70 percent of Turkish and 90 percent of the Arab population of Berlin . . . live off the state but reject that state.” The irony is that, from retirees via the underemployed rural voters to professionals getting rich off subventions and the dividends of the social safety net, this describes pretty much the average AfD voter.

In his memoir of the Greek debt crisis, Yanis Varoufakis describes the existential vise in which German policymakers held his country. He thinks they’re playing “politics,” but the story he tells is rather of policymakers playing theology. Schäuble, Varoufakis’s bête noire, is a Protestant from the most Calvinist part of Germany. His view of debt and obligation is religious. To him, the Greeks had sinned and now had to do penance. And penance for him, Varoufakis suggests, would mean expelling the Greeks from the EU, forcing them into indigence.

Angela Merkel, child of unification, queen of the center, meanwhile had decided that Greece would remain in the EU. Varoufakis points out that either course of action would have been preferable to a combination of both. He is understandably more interested in the existential dilemma into which German conservatives’ moralization of economics has plunged his country than their reasons for doing so. But those reasons are fascinating: The tag team of Merkel and Schäuble treated countries as autonomous (good or bad) actors, when in fact German wealth had always been premised on greater and greater interconnections.

Neoliberalism has inured people to viewing the world in fundamentally sadomasochistic terms: realistic is that point of view that looks to inflict suffering. And politician-administrators like Wolfgang Schäuble have given them a sense of how to take pleasure in it. While the AfD still commands a minor share of the electorate, this poisonous optic has taken hold of large portions of the German public. Splenetic about any reminders of a global interconnectedness of which they are the massive beneficiaries, these voters applaud themselves for a toughness they largely visit upon people they never have to meet.

It is true that the gig economy, widespread precariousness, and self-employment have made the economic lives of especially younger Germans extremely insecure compared to their elders. And yet it is not them but their elders who channel an economic anxiety that isn’t theirs into votes for the AfD. Maybe Adorno had it half-right. The fear among some ethnic Germans is that the vicissitudes of the world market could do to them what they habitually do to people who do not look like them.

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