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Marx Rides High Again

At the beginning of the year, German bookshops listed Marx’s Das Kapital among their bestsellers. No surprise there, you might say: Marx has always sold well. Except this Marx was not Karl, but Reinhard, archbishop of Munich and formerly bishop of Trier, where, incidentally, Karl Marx was born – a sign, he writes, that God has a sense of humour.

Archbishop Marx makes full use of his namesake. As a preface to his book, (Das Kapital: Ein Pladoyer fur den Menschen, Pattloch Verlag), he writes a letter to “dear Karl Marx” to tell him that in some respects “he was not completely wrong”. In fact Reinhard wrote the book so that Karl would “rest in peace”. He wrote: “I am convinced that if we do not meet the challenges of our time, Karl Marx will return from the grave – and that must not happen.”

Marx (Karl) had already noted in the mid-19th century, while travelling in Rhineland, how much the Church flirted with the labor question. At the start of his Communist Manifesto he denounced the “holy alliance” of the pope, the tsar and others. At that time, Monsignor Marx’s predecessor, Bishop Von Ketteler, was one of the pioneers of Catholic social doctrine.

The archbishop’s book offers a glimpse of the dark underside of Germany’s growth, where poverty is now a serious and widespread problem. In the last two years, the number of free meals given to the poor has risen by 40 per cent. “If we don’t want those excluded from our society of plenty to take to the barricades, then we must fight the mechanisms of social exclusion,” he writes, referring to the civil unrest that took place across France in autumn 2005.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall was presented as the final farewell to Marxism. Those who believed in the triumph of the welfare state became disillusioned. But in reality, writes Mgr Marx, it was (global) capital that destroyed (local) labor: “Seventy three per cent of Germans believe the economic system is unjust.” So many gains have been lost, he says, that “the word reform, which has a positive connotation, no longer inspires confidence but fear”.

The greatest scandal, according to the archbishop, is the rise in the number of poor children. The needs of one in five are not being met. The Federal Social Court recently questioned whether children from poor families and the under-14s, should receive an allowance worth 60 per cent of adult unemployment benefit – some $270. The court’s judges thought this was a miscalculation, and passed the question up to the Constitutional Court. But the fact remains that in Berlin, 40 per cent of under-15s live in families on benefits.

Mgr Marx may be critical of the consequences of capitalism, but he is more cautious when it comes to its actual principle. Take the relocation of companies. He rails against Nokia for receiving huge government subsidies and then moving out of Germany to Hungary and Romania, but says nothing about Volkswagen’s relocation to Bratislava in Slovakia. He blames everything on the “Anglo-American financial system” and the model of the social market economy, which has lost its social element. But he fails to mention that it is this Anglo-American financial system, now disparaged, which allowed exports, mainly to the United States, to fuel Germany’s recent growth.

For the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, it’s hypocrisy to expect capitalism to become more ethical: “Financial speculators acted legally, pursuing their goal of maximum profit with society’s approval. It is ridiculous for the political class to moralize instead of applying the laws of democratically elected government. It is up to politicians not businessmen to ensure society’s welfare”.

The German sociologist Max Weber explored the influence of religion on the development of capitalism, and the importance of the “spirit of capitalism” . But this spirit was already flagging in his day, and is now even shakier, even if some remnant of it persists in the notion of the “honest businessman”. Here, Mgr Marx makes a detour via Kant and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. He writes: “No system can regulate for everything, nor ignore individual responsibility and morality. Without an ethos of the honest businessman, we will be going down a dangerous road.” But capitalism has exhausted the last remains of this ethos, as witnessed by the collapse of two of Germany’s biggest family businesses – those of Adolf Merckle and the Schaeffler family.

In Germany the word Gier has become a buzzword. It means avarice, one of the seven deadly sins (although it’s not clear if it refers to bonuses or to financial speculation). Mgr Marx takes issue with financial journalists who use this term positively, “in praise of greed”. He says: “That is when we must stand up and say enough is enough. We will not allow sin to hide behind the mask of liberty.”

The liberal sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf believes personal responsibility has become sidelined. He says we have gone from a “Protestant ethic to the pleasure of consumption on credit”. And that we shudder at the thought of choosing between the two. Germany’s senior Protestant bishop, Wolfgang Huber, even had to apologize to the chief executive of Deutsche Bank for accusing him of “idolatry”. The bishop denied any personal attack, but maintained that “setting a profit goal of 25 per cent” amounted to idolatry since money had become a god.

The philosopher Ernst Bloch was the first to put forward the hypothesis of “capitalism as religion” and this concept has been taken up by the sociologist Christoph Deutschmann. In his seminars on the sociology of capitalist dynamics, he suggests that capital and labor exist not only as economic or social categories but also as religious ones.

All this brings to mind the Geneva reformer Jean Calvin. “What a coincidence,” writes the editor of the daily Die Welt, “that it should be in this year of financial crisis that we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of the man whom Max Weber recognised as one of the motors of capitalism: Jean Calvin, who preached discipline, duty, religious zeal and sobriety.” Has all that disappeared? Weber recognised that even in Germany, the birthplace of Martin Luther, the influence of Calvinism had been strong.

What about discipline, duty, zeal and sobriety? Having failed to demand these of capital, the law now requires them of labor – even of those without work. The jobless are punished for their “anti-economic behavior” by a law known as Harz IV – named after its author, Peter Harz, Volkswagen’s personnel director, who was given the task of compiling this labyrinthine reform by the former chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, in 2002. It came into force in 2005 and has already been amended twice. It introduces a system of sanctions, ranging from reduction to temporary withdrawal of unemployment benefit, for anyone who does not comply with the orders of their job centre.

The law is, in short, about obliging job seekers to accept any old work. And it has succeeded: the numbers of insecure, badly paid jobs have greatly increased. Being careless, ignorant or making a mistake are not accepted as extenuating circumstances. Only the bravest challenge the law, with a good third winning: the Federal Social Court dealt with its 60,000th complaint in February. The court has become a kind of reparations agency for the damage caused by an incomprehensible and badly applied law.

At the beginning of January we learned that the German billionaire Adolf Merckle had committed suicide: he had lost control of his business following a failed bet on Volkswagen shares. Die Zeit considered the event a hazard of the system, but Der Spiegel classed it among the scandals that have compromised many leaders of flagship German industries: the discovery in early 2008 of tax evasion in Liechtenstein by big businesses; the head of Deutsche Telekom spying on his own board of directors; Siemens paying $1.7bn in bribes; Volkswagen using its funds to pay prostitutes. The German president became concerned that these scandals would have a negative effect on public opinion

In all of these cases one can’t completely disregard the role of morality in the gap between theory and practice. After all, the Merckle family openly displayed their piety. The pharmaceutical and cement company even had its own vicar. Günter Grass’s harsh reaction revealed a touch of Puritanism: “So a business tycoon, the fifth-wealthiest man in Germany, has thrown himself in front of a train. The prime minister of Baden-Württemberg has spoken of a tragedy. But it is not a tragedy. This was a man fleeing his responsibilities. His financial speculations affected a hundred thousand employees”.

Stasi mark two

In 2002, 2003 and 2005, the personal details of 173,000 employees of the German railway company Deutsche Bahn were checked against those of 80,000 suppliers (in what could have been a scene from The Lives of Others, the 2006 film about the East German secret police by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck). This was presented as a routine operation, to tackle corruption by uncovering possible links between buyers and suppliers. But there had been no evidence of such links, and no record was kept of the instructions given to the private detective agency in charge of the work. Given the social climate in the railway industry, the unions saw this as an attempt to intimidate staff.

The mistrust business leaders show their partners and workers is matched by the unprecedented level of mistrust workers feel towards the business elite and the system itself. Randolf Rodenstock, a Bavarian business leader, says: “There was already a crisis of confidence in the social market economy before current events. The majority of Germans no longer believe in it and consider it unjust. The risk is they will consider it to be ineffective too”.

The number of shareholders has gone down from 13 million in 2001 to 8.8 million today – a telling statistic. The unpopularity of this form of saving has not prevented the sociologist Christoph Deutschmann from describing investment as a mass sport. Those who go in for it think they have a natural right to a profit without worrying how it was made. Deutschmann believes the accumulated practical consequences of these individual expectations ruin the very pursuit of enrichment.

He talks of “the collective Buddenbrooks effect”, a reference to Thomas Mann’s novel, which recounts the rise of the bourgeois Buddenbrooks family in the 16th century, to its fall in the 19th century. Today’s equivalent would be the Schaeffler family, although it has only been around for the last hundred years or so – the period of “Fordist” capitalism. The Schaefflers run the second-biggest family business in the country, after the Merckles. The company, which specializes in the manufacture of ball bearings, is facing huge difficulties, having tried to take over the tyre manufacturer Continental. Mrs Schaeffler – who owns of one of the biggest fortunes in Germany – was even recently seen shedding an indecent tear in front of her employees, who were gathered around a sign which proclaimed: “We are Schaeffler’s people”.

At the time of reunification, Germans chanted: “We are one people”. The refrain became “We are the Pope” following the election of the current pope, Benedict XVI. Now it has changed to “We are Schaeffler’s people”. In the face of so much disenchantment, those in power are praying the sky does not fall in on them before the next elections. But it seems it already has.

BERNARD UMBRECHT is a journalist.  His article appears in the January edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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