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German Ideological Revival Polarizes Western Politics

The crisis of the West is no longer purely economic as ideology increasingly matters.

“Now Europe speaks German,” declared Volker Kauder, a member of Germany’s ruling conservative party, in late 2011. Despite the scolding he earned for his remarks, he was only slightly off. Not only Europe, indeed the world speaks increasingly with a German voice. Not literally, of course, but philosophically. German ideas are emerging as powerful forces all around the globe, ringing the bell for the end of the Anglo-Saxon moment in history.

Critics and defenders of contemporary capitalism in the United States both speak the language of German history. Those who seek to emulate the European welfare state regularly invoke the German model while those who condemn these leftist ideas emphasize the necessity of self-reliance and labor as the fundamental glue of society and the indispensable source of individual dignity.

The irony of this debate is that while the former claim to be ideological descendants of Karl Marx, it is the latter who use his arguments in the truest sense. For Marx, labor was the essence of human existence. Men could only be men through work which enabled him to interact with nature and create a world according to his imagination.

Modern ideological concepts such as environmentalism or the creation of a stable dependency class would be anathema to Marx. He accused the bourgeois of dehumanizing the working class because they robbed it of the fruits of their own labor, thereby only granting them a limited potential to be fully human. A lifestyle consisting of barely working at all, to which a growing number of people in the United Kingdom and other Western nations subscribe, would be abhorrent to the socialist thinker. He would see it as tantamount to the deliberate renouncing of an individual’s humanity.

John Locke, one of the most important philosophical founders of Anglo-Saxon culture, argued that the individual should strive for material wealth and renounce nonmaterial aspirations like glory and pride which were viewed as major causes of war and violence. Indeed, the German tradition of preferring the metaphysical over the material played a central role in all the destruction it caused in the first half of the twentieth century.

Yet it also played a role in German reconstruction after World War II. The German self-perception of being an industrial nation and the lasting belief in the people as an organic community were the intellectual underpinnings for the creation of the Soziale Marktwirtschaft, Germany’s distinctive version of the mixed economy.

It is not a coincidence that up to the beginning of this century, German citizenship was defined by ancestry rather than one’s place of birth as is the case in the United States. These distinctively German features helped to keep a substantial part of industry within domestic borders while the Anglo-Saxon powers shipped more and more jobs overseas.

While the rediscovery of work not only as a means to survive but as a source of individual dignity might be a development worth approval, the German moment is spreading beyond this element. The recent election in Italy is just the latest expression of an increasingly populist anger on both the left and the right throughout the modern capitalist democracies.

Writing about the United States in his most recent book, The Origins of Political Order (2011), Francis Fukuyama observes that “for the first time in modern history, the most conservative Democrat in Congress is more liberal than the most liberal Republican,” reflecting an unprecedented ideological polarization.

The consequences of this reideologization of political decisionmaking are becoming more and more palpable. The differences between Germany and France are not simple policy disagreements but partly different worldviews that narrow the opportunity for compromise.

The idea of reforming the welfare state in order to create a globally competitive economy comes much more naturally to Germany that still prides itself on the legacy of the 1950s Wirtschaftswunder than to instinctively protectionist France. President François Hollande made clear that the French social system is a cornerstone of the state’s legitimacy and that he has no intention of becoming France’s Gerhard Schröder, Angela Merkel’s reform-minded Social Democratic predecessor.

Idealism can be a powerful force but clashing ideals can become dangerously destructive. For a long time, the core of Anglo-Saxon philosophical reasoning was a form of pragmatic utilitarianism that had a strong moral, albeit regularly denied, founding in the Protestant work ethic. Continental and German thinking, on the other hand, had a stronger inclination toward emphasizing the role of politics and economics as a collective endeavor. While the truth is to be found somewhere between the human desire for individualism and belonging to a group, the contemporary political discourse is once again defined by the juxtaposition of these two views.

The undertones of this debate, however, are strongly ideological in nature. Neither side claims that their main focus is materialistic. For the political right, individual dignity springs from economic independence while for the left, it arises from the avoidance of being viewed as economically disadvantaged by the rest of society.

These opposite views run currently through the American and European political landscapes and it remains to be seen if a compromise that satisfies both sides can be reached. A first step to do so will be to acknowledge the increasingly ideological character of the debate.