Sunday, September 25, 2011

liberal losers

German liberals really want you to like them

The Free Democratic Party (FDP, Freie Demokratische Partei) has been a mainstay of German politics.  In my senior high in Bavaria, the kids voting for the FDP were the ones with preppy outfits and blow-dried hair.  They were into money and the market.  For them, consumerism rocked.

Liberals in Germany are how Republicans used to be before going insane.  No FDP-politician, simply no politician in Europe or Asia, for that matter, would be caught dead denying climate change or challenging evolutionary biology.  'Liberal' doesn't mean stupid; it means free, and in the case of the FDP it refers to freedom of the individual from too much state, freedom of the market from too much regulation, and freedom of the wealthy from too much taxation.  How much is 'too much' depends, of course, but among German parties, from the Greens (GrĂ¼nen) to the Socialists (Die Linke) to the Social Democrats (SPD) to the Christians (CDU/CSU), the FPD Liberals are at the conservative fringe: they want the least amount of government and the most coddling of big business.  Think Adam Smith with a little dash of Ayn Rand.

It is odd that European liberals are like U.S. conservatives without the extremism, since being liberal in the U.S. is the opposite of being conservative.  A U.S. liberal is on the left of the political spectrum; in Europe liberals are on the right. Still, all three positions, conservative, liberal here, & liberal there, are located in the same ideological framework: all join in a basic embrace of capitalism.  And in this way, Republicans, American Liberals, and FDP Liberals are one and the same.

This embrace is sustained by the faith in what Erich Fromm in his 1976 masterwork To Have or To Be called "The Great Promise": the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and of unimpeded personal freedom.  As he puts it (Continuum ed. 1996, p. 2), "the achievement of wealth and comfort for all was supposed to result in unrestricted happiness for all."  Only it did not.  Already a generation ago, Fromm argued that the Great Promise failed for three reasons: the economic contradictions of industrialism, the confusion of happiness with satisfaction of any desire, and the delusion "that egotism, selfishness, and greed, as the system needs to generate them in order to function, lead to harmony and peace."

Nearly half a century later, the failure of the Great Promise is becoming all too obvious.  The religion of capitalism, Progress, has not delivered.  Young people in the West, whether in Europe or in North America, are realizing that capitalism does not like them.  And now they are caught between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, their immediate future looks grim because the chaotic interplay of reckless banksters, greedy speculators, and scary austerity programs poses direct harm to them.  And as long as there is no economic recovery, this malevolent dance will only continue, driving them into debt, and pushing them into poverty.  On the other hand, their long-term future looks just as grim, if not more so.  For if an economic recovery happens and resource exploitation and commodity production resume at full steam, new jobs will be created at the expense of pushing the Earth System, which is already at the brink, over the edge.  So young Westerners will either wind up jobless and poor, or find work amidst surging food prices, bad harvests, environmental refuges, and failing states.  Climate change is the consequence of capitalism.  Trying to make it on a hot, crowded, and barren world, it slowly dawns on the young generation that their elders, trusting in the Great Promise, thereby wrecked the future. 

The Liberals in Germany had never garnered a majority but always got seven, eight percent of the vote, enough to act as kingmaker or coalition partner.  In 2009 this party of preppy business kids triumphed with the best election results ever, an unprecedented fifteen percent, and partnered up with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Party (CDU).  The downturn of the U.S. economy, which had begun in 2008, had little effect on European and Asian markets in 2009.  In 2010 the first clouds gathered at the global economic horizons, and since then, of course, things have gone from bad to worse.  Somehow capitalism does not look cool anymore.  In the September 2011 elections in Berlin, the FDP plummeted to an astounding low of 1.8 percent and failed to retain the minimum number of votes to stay in parliament.  Voters are running away, recognizing that the Great Promise had been a lie.

And this makes me curious about Plan B.  When I was a kid, there was a Plan B.  It was called Communism.  But the socialist economies all failed because the Soviet and East European bureaucrats at the center of power who were supposed to steer production and match demand with supply could never keep up.  They were too slow, too clumsy, too inefficient.  And so the iconic image we remember from the socialist experiment of centrally planning an economy was of people standing in long queues in half-empty stores.  Eastern Europeans and Russians impoverished while the capitalistic West prospered, until the socialist citizens had enough, toppled their governments, threw the bureaucrats out, and went to McDonald's.  Thus Communism died.  Its structure had made it inefficient, and so it won a Darwin Award.

But now I am wondering.  This happened when I was in high school.  That was before computers.  With modern information technology, how could a planned economy still be inefficient?

Sixty-three months left.

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