Stand by for action

France, unusually among developed nations, maintains a mechanised infantry regiment among its internal security forces. Technically, they are not police as the gendarmerie jealously maintains its military status. In any case, they are there, based in a weird Paris suburb whose only inhabitants are various uniformed organisations and, once a year, the arms fair. The vehicles themselves are in the protected-mobility class familiar from Iraq, not that it will stop anyone calling them tanks. The mission is, well, to defend the republic against its citizens in the supreme moment. Really. And, well, here’s Johnny!

While we’re all waiting, here’s one of several things claiming to be a list of demands or a policy agenda from the gilets jaunes.

This may have been fed into the movement by failed Frexit presidential candidate François Asselineau but it bears comparison with previous statements from supposed spokespeople, and even the point that it’s something an ultra-fringe party came up with is interesting.

What it reminds me of, most of all, is one of UKIP’s manifestos from, say, 2010. These tended to contain pretty much everything, tout et rien, a bucket of individual resentments, pet projects, and want-wants. Obviously, leaving the EU would be in there, as were some recognisably reactionary proposals about immigration. But there would also be proposals for the construction of 20 new nuclear power stations and a third aircraft carrier, massive social spending, and a mandatory uniform for taxi drivers. This is just like that, including a whole string of enormous social spending commitments, an immediate default on the national debt, withdrawal from NATO, the EU, and French treaty commitments in Africa, the strict observation of all treaties, and the abolition of speed cameras.

Populism is the repoliticisation of the sovereign plus the rejection of method. And the wider culture is defined by the vulgar postmodernist doctrine that it’s all tropes and you can remix them as you wish and it’s all good. As Adam Elkus says:

Or as I say, it’s all about those cat blindfolds. But there is a unifying theme here, and as with the UKIP manifestos, it’s a kind of non-specific, generalized extremism. A politics of interchangeable tropes must end up here. If the tropes truly are interchangeable, the only way they can get selected is salience, and that’s going to be what you get. It probably wouldn’t matter if the available pool of the discontented hadn’t been filling up for years, but then there’s this.

The lesson from the UKIP experience is that the swirling pool of the resentful could cohere, around some selection pulled out of the bucket and some leader who addressed them. However, they would not necessarily do it in any way predictable in advance.

UKIP and Nigel Farage played a much lesser role in the referendum campaign than the newly established and purely Brexit-focused Vote Leave, centred around politicians with measurable name recognition. The money went to Vote Leave, too. On the other side, although the UKIP manifesto went up to massive Keynesian reflation and technocratic construction projects and down to cabbies’ dress standards, it all faded away.

The coherence doesn’t have to be on the Right. The very incoherence of the trope bucket means almost anything can be carved out of its contents. A little later, Britain’s pool of discontent spilled across into Labour. Which makes me wonder about Manu Saadia’s theory here:

There’s a while to go – plenty of time to drop embarrassing fantasies about ruling the Spanish Main in alliance with Cuba and Venezuela and make that stuff about Frexit not-happen. If you hold that 50% of the French won’t ever vote FN, your mission is to beat the best remaining political party candidate into the second round. And the evidence that this can be done today is, of course, none other than Emmanuel Macron.

In a weird way the best thing that could happen for a potential candidature coup de poing like Macron’s own would be for tomorrow to pass off only as badly as last week. Nothing would be resolved but the peak would clearly have passed. An even bigger eruption might bring about parliamentary elections, which would bring back the traditional parties in force and set up a Mitterrandian turn to the centre for the president.

Be careful with that VAB, though.

Germany: What if the coalition breaks?

One obvious question, now the CDU succession is open, is whether an already creaky coalition government can go on with both constituent parties suffering in the polls. Gerhard Schröder has already suggested that Merkel should call a vote of confidence in herself, while many SPD voices (notably its deputy leader Ralf Stegner) are calling for the party to walk out of the coalition.

This Der Tagesspiegel piece is therefore really useful. The Green co-leaders rule out the idea of using a confidence vote to replace the CDU/SPD coalition like the Liberals did in 1982. On the other hand, they leave open what might happen if the SPD walks out. The question would really be whether to try another attempt at the so-called Jamaican option, a CDU/Green/Liberal coalition, or to push for new elections.

It’s a good problem to have, being a choice between getting back into office or cashing in their surge in the polls into seats in the Bundestag. However, the surge makes it more complicated – the original Jamaica concept was one of rallying minor parties to put a CDU-dominated government over the top, but an election today would have the CDU and the Greens as near-equal partners. A major motivation for the Jamaica talks was also the fear that the AFD would win big if there was another election, but the Bavarian and Hessen elections have provided a well-defined estimate of the AFD threat. If they had made it over 20 per cent, nobody would dream of risking new elections, but instead it was the Greens who broke through. The whole thing also speaks to the tension between their pride in civic responsibility, the mayor’s chain in every activist’s Fjallraven rucksack, and the risk of looking like a bunch of unprincipled office-seekers.

A follow-up piece asks the co-leaders themselves. These say that they can’t imagine why Greens would want to involve themselves in this chaos. However, they have also been scenario-planning various possibilities. If Merkel was to call a confidence vote, they would vote against, being after all in opposition. Before going to new elections, though, they would be willing to consider joining the existing coalition or forming a new one with the CDU and SPD. Jamaica, however, is out. This reminds me that the Greens’ internal consensus rests on a realist leadership swinging to a more radical position on social and economic policy. The SPD is important to the legitimacy of any coalition, within the Greens. It’s a pretty sad role for the SPD, but it is a role.

At the same time, the whole thing interacts with the CDU leadership transition. Everyone is at pains to deny that individual names are important, but Spahn is harder for the Greens, who say they expect European policy and immigration to be the most difficult issues. Friedrich Merz has never had any ideas about the environment, and his idea of Leitkultur now seems a bit quaint. AKK would be the easiest.

Merkxit Rollup!

We repeatedly warned you about believing people who said Merkel was finished, but on the 30th of September, it was time to sound the alarm:

However, the interesting bit is precisely that the challenge came from the perfectly normal, EU-and-NATO Christian Democrats of northern and western Germany, Angela Merkel’s bedrock support. Had it come from ultra-conservatism, Saxony, or Bavaria, you would expect this classical CDU to rally round Merkel, just as it did unanimously against Horst Seehofer back in June. This time, the call is coming from inside the Ludwig-Erhard Haus. This is a bigger threat and one different in kind.

It was, and the point that the Hessen state elections might be more significant than the Bavarian ones also stands up rather well. On the other hand, my Twitter summary of Hessen’s election night was that the river came up to the top of the dyke, but no further. As in Bavaria, the Greens surged, the AFD hit their mark from the general, and both the SPD and CDU suffered. As in Bavaria, it wasn’t quite enough to flip the statehouse, and in fact it wasn’t even enough to change the coalition.

Unless, of course, it was. Incredibly, the state of Hessen didn’t manage to organise a proper election within its own capital. Not only are they having a recount, but urgent talks are going on between the parties in case it becomes possible to put together a traffic-light coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals.

You might wonder if the CDU had a good idea from canvassing data or exit polling that Hessen was going wrong, but on the other hand, this Der Spiegel story says that Angela Merkel consulted with her old political buddy Annette Schavan as far back as the summer about quitting after the Hessen elections.

At the end of the day, though, even if the river didn’t quite get over the dyke, the key issue is that the core CDU vote is eroding and it’s doing it across the centre. The polling data is clear – the most recent poll puts the Greens only three points behind the combined CDU/CSU. As we pointed out here, the effect is worse for the CDU as such ex the CSU. My rough estimate is that the Greens are gaining half a million votes a poll, which puts a potential crossover weeks away.

So it’s absolutely no surprise she pressed the button to initiate an orderly succession.

The bells are ringing in the CSU, too – here’s the federal minister responsible for international aid calling for Horst Seehofer to resign and specifically demanding a turn to the centre. Müller says that the CSU has become obsessed with refugees and law-and-order and needs to remember it has a broader mission, notably the protection of God’s creation, the fight against hunger, and the question of social justice in Germany and the world. (I told you the Greens manage to speak to the churches; here’s an example of the opposite.) Seehofer himself is unwisely congratulating himself on not being in Merkel’s cemetery of men; there’s plenty of time for that.

The party rules require a special congress to be held on the 7th of December in Hamburg. Before then, they have agreed to stage a succession of regional conferences, to which all members are invited. Big halls are suddenly in demand. Deutsche Welle has English-language profiles of the candidates here, but they have already sorted themselves into the following three:

Friedrich Merz. This is the guy Merkel beat to get the party leadership. That’s his best selling point but also his worst; he’s been out of politics for more than a decade. The audience he wants is the business world, and what he will offer them is a tax gimme. Back in the day he was famous for wanting to get the tax code on a beermat, but who now believes in that early 2ks/late 90s shiny stuff?

Also, his business career isn’t necessarily an asset. The Marxist blog Nachdenkseiten offers a profile of it that’s savagely hostile but not inaccurate; they share much of their critique with the German finance ministry, which sent policemen to search his employer BlackRock’s offices this week for evidence of tax evasion. It’s really not what you want in the middle of a campaign.

He’s widely seen as Wolfgang Schäuble’s candidate (see here) but Schäuble denies this, offering praise for all the candidates and saying very clearly that there’s no going back on the Merkel era’s changes.

Jens Spahn. The current federal health minister, he speaks to the desire to swing to the populist right and win back the AFD voters, in so far as they ever voted CDU. In case anyone wanted a new Pim Fortuyn, he’s gay and he really hates refugees and people who speak English, yes, really. His biggest problem is simple: nobody actually wants him to be party leader and still less chancellor, on 9 per cent in the polls.

Annegret Krampf-Karrenbauer. Would it astonish anyone that Angela Merkel planned carefully for the succession? Having been picked out herself by Helmut Kohl, she picked out a succession of successors. As in all the best successions, though, they failed to live up to her standards or indeed anyone else’s.

First there was Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the aristocratic defence minister disgraced as a plagiarist. Then she turned to a woman, education and research minister, personal friend, and CDU apparatchik Annette Schavan. She also turned out to be an academic fraud, despite a huge and deeply embarrassing effort by the chancellor and a range of academic establishment figures to make it not happen. Merkel lined up her new defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, who is still there despite being yet another plagiarist. Tellingly, she isn’t a candidate.

At the fourth attempt, Merkel eventually picked out the Saarland minister-president, dipped her in a ministry, and sent her to be the CDU general secretary. AKK is the blindingly obvious candidate of continuity and that rare bird, a CDU leader from a working-class background. She is either slightly more popular than Merz or in a tie with him, and in any case much more popular than Spahn. And she is considerably more popular with Germans than the party. She also opened the door to Merz, either as a minister or to head a major project.

There is just the faintest crack of light for another candidate, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung points out. Anyone who wants to take part in the regional congresses has to be put forward by a local CDU branch or one of its national, vertical organizations. But this doesn’t hold for the final, decisive congress. Any delegate on the day in Hamburg can nominate any other delegate or indeed any party member, so the possibility of a coup de theatre exists up to the whistle.

Flip It And Reverse it: CDU vs Greens Beyond Bavaria

Here’s some more interesting Bavarian elections data. What if we looked at this the other way up?

The parties of the Left, broadly defined, have been on about 30% in Bavaria since the dawn or rather rebirth of democracy in 1946. The CSU hegemony is a thing! Even if the Right is down to only a two-thirds majority depending how you cut it.

If we hoist this in, though, it leads to another thought. Bavaria’s conservative majority has been both reduced and reshuffled. This switches the balance between concentrated strength in direct mandates and distributed strength in the proportional ones. The CDU can’t count on the CSU to deliver 50-odd direct mandates come what may any more, so how’s the CDU itself doing?

Current federal opinion polling puts the CDU/CSU – it is always polled as a unit – on between 26% and 28%, down 10 percentage points from election day. The Greens’ score has more than doubled, from 8% to 18%. How much of this is down to the CSU’s crisis in Bavaria? How much is a wider phenomenon between the Greens, the SPD, and the CDU on the wider federal level?

Well, we know that the Bundeswahlleiter counted in 30.2% of valid votes for the CDU and 7% for the CSU, total 37.2%. We know that the polling is ~27% for both combined. And we further know that the CSU won 36.7% of a Bavarian first-ballot electorate that represents 14.6% of the 2017 federal first-ballot electorate, hence the CSU is 5.4% ((0.367*0.146)*100) of the federal poll. If the total CDU/CSU is 27% of the national vote and the CSU is 5.4%, the CDU alone must be 21-22%.

What of the Greens? Well, their score in Bavaria represents 2.5% ((0.1753*0.146)*100) of the federal electorate, while the party is polling 17 to 19% federally. This can only mean that the Greens outside Bavaria are about 15.5% (18-2.5) federally, or only a startling six points behind the mainline CDU. This might well explain why Brinkhaus went for it. Further, nine points of their 10 point gain since election day 2017 are from outside Bavaria, which matches the CDU’s net loss precisely.

Not the October Revolution, but a Revolution in October

Bavarian elections! The short news is that the CSU hit that concrete abutment, but maybe only going 90 rather than 120 kilometres an hour. The Greens won big. The AfD got in, but underperformed their result at the general election. The SPD did badly even in a state where they always do badly.

Who’s going to be in charge? Well. The CSU has a choice between a coalition with the Greens and one with the third-placed Freien Wähler or Independent Voters.

This last is yet another Bavarian exception, a protest movement against the CSU itself that’s strong where the CSU was back in the day, in the countryside and away from Munich to the north. The FAZ covers their conditions here: they’d like a tax cut to look after old Mittelständler, some complicated things about schools, and they’d like to NIMBY some projects that the CSU love and some projects that the Greens love.

The main argument for picking the FWs is that they’re very like the CSU and it might not hurt as much. The main argument against is that they would offer less of a majority, that they are defined by rebelling against the CSU, and they don’t offer any federal perspective. The Greens, on the other hand, could offer a stronger majority and important future opportunities in Berlin. Going into coalition with the CSU, though, would be a highly symbolic event for them and they would set a high price in policy and in heads, probably demanding the party repudiate Horst Seehofer and his policy on refugees. It’s a tough decision.

How did it happen? Like this:

The CSU lost 180,000 voters to the AfD. It lost exactly as many to the Greens. It lost 170,000 to the FWs, and interestingly, 40,000 to the Liberals, who are hanging out to know if they made the 5% mark. Its slightly less bad performance comes down to picking up 100,000 from the SPD, and above all, a last minute drive for turnout, getting an extra 200,000 from nonvoters.

The point that strikes me here is that for every vote lost to the far-right, they lost 2.2 across the centre ground. The FAZ‘s data analysis makes an important related point. 75% of voters who switched away from the CSU gave their “obsession with asylum-seekers” as a reason. 65% accused Horst Seehofer of acting out of personal ambition. 60% of all electors were dissatisfied with the CSU’s performance in government and half of them thought minister-president Markus Söder was untrustworthy.

The SZ has an interview with the Green parliamentary chairman who points out that precisely Bavarian local governments, churches, and civic institutions looked after huge numbers of refugees, and that this Vereinsleben responded to the party’s appeal. If this is so it promises seismic change across the former west Germany.

The Greens picked up the 180k from the CSU, 210k from the SPD, mobilised 120k non-voters, gained 10k from the Liberals and lost 10k to the AfD. The main point to note here is that they are gaining from all directions that have scale – the centre-left, the centre-right, and the disenchanted. The SPD lost people in every direction, in size.

The AfD’s biggest single source of voters was previous voters for “others”, in size 220k, bigger even than the CSU. Across the other political parties, overwhelming majorities think the AfD is infested with Nazis, suggesting that the potential in their direction has its limits:

A crucial issue within the CSU is what impact this has on their federal role. The votes cast yesterday account for 14.64% of the federal electorate in 2017. At the 2017 elections, the CSU’s performance in Bavaria got it 7% of the federal vote. Yesterday’s showing puts it on 5.38% federally – agonizingly close to the 5% mark that would wipe out its federal representation and end its usefulness to the CDU. This may explain why they are arguing about Söder, Seehofer, and company – if it had been closer there would be no arguing.

As for the K-frage, well. On one hand, another enemy floats past down the river, the CSU pays the price for getting caught on the wrong side of the new organizing diagonal between Europeans/cosmopolitans and nationalists/provincialists.

On the other hand, the long term deal between the CDU and the CSU was that the CSU could be Bavarian particularists in a way that had gone from the rest of Germany, and more conservative and Catholic than was acceptable elsewhere, as long as they supported the republic and helped the broader conservative cause. Their super-hegemony in Bavaria helped a lot as they delivered a big block of seats that they held with direct mandates, i.e. with an absolute majority of votes cast. This made them very safe seats, a reliable factor in events.

If this block is now cut down to size it could have big consequences.

German Links

I have decided to up our coverage of Germany. I was talking in the previous post about the potential for a Green breakthrough in this month’s state elections, and I mentioned that the conditions for this seem to be everywhere but the former East Germany. In fact, although east-west tension has been a theme for as long as there hasn’t been a wall in the way, it has been a huge force this year.

This is a really excellent piece on Sachsen’s history since reunification. In many ways, if you’re looking for a reason why the province (sorry, free state) is the centre of German populism, a short answer is that it’s a microcosm of reunification with the intensity turned up to 11. Was it governed by carpet-bagger elites who swept in from the West? Why yes. Did the new elite set up a patronage network and rule in a way that fostered an insider-outsider culture and Untertanmentalität? Well, they took to calling the minister president the king, and the main way to interact with the authorities was to petition him via the chancellery run by…his wife. But I thought the economy did relatively well and it attracted a lot of foreign direct investment? Yes, it did, but in important ways this was allowed to create a hard division between the new economy and the old. All the elements are there, and they’re not things you only find in Germany.

Chemnitz’s populist leader seems to be more a Saxon separatist than anything else and claims to feel more in common with Poland and the Czechs than the rest of Germany. He is also, weirdly, a lawyer who makes most of his money fighting immigrants’ cases, a Russophile, and surrounded by Germans who migrated from the Soviet Union (more here).

For comparison, here’s polling on what exercises people in Hessen. CDU minister president Volker Bouffier may be in trouble, but the choices are gloriously normal.

Ned Richardson-Little discusses the rise and fall of the SPD in the East. Schröder’s triumph came with a surge of both SPD voting and electoral participation in the ex-DDR, but the let-down was already noticeable by 2005 (you could have said the same thing about New Labour) and the postcrisis elections of 2009 saw a collapse in turnout. This left the CDU as the hegemonic party, and may have resulted in the AfD breakthrough out east.

Gerhard Schröder, you say? What’s he been up to?

Der Tagesspiegel covers his fifth wedding, a small and intimate ceremony for 150 guests in the Hotel Adlon’s Palaissaal. Technically it was a private function because it didn’t appear on the President’s diary, but Frank-Walter Steinmeier did show up in a private capacity. The Russian and Turkish foreign ministers were invited but didn’t show. Russian state oil company Rosneft, however, congratulated the happy couple by commissioning a life-sized portrait of supervisory director, Gerhard Schröder.

Merkel’s Diagonal Politics and the Green Revival

The CSU’s horrible autumn goes on. The party is now down to 33% in the polls, and its leaders are deep into the blame game. Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder is blaming “Berlin”, when he is not pretending to be Buzz Lightyear, and when he says it he means party leader and federal interior minister Horst Seehofer, who for his part announced that he is satisfied with his work in the job.

The beneficiary, though, looks to be the Greens. They are now on 18 per cent in Bavaria, overtaking the SPD. In Hessen, where they are in government and where elections are coming up this month, their co-leader and deputy minister-president, Tarek Al-Wazir, has the best personal rating of any politician. Der Tagesspiegel‘s Cordula Eubel puts forward five reasons for this.

The first is quite simply that they are the absolute opposite of the AfD. This is an important and interesting point. Since 2016, I have the impression that the only politicians who have successfully opposed populism are the ones who have chosen full-throated confrontation rather than compromise. Unlike the CDU, CSU, SPD, or the Left party, the Greens have never tried to compromise on migration or Europe.

A while ago I wrote this piece for POLITICO about Merkel’s choice to draw a new dividing line between globalists or Europeans on one side and nationalists or provincial particularists on the other and how it had both disoriented her opponents and put the Greens in the centre of politics. I wanted to situate this in a history of so-called diagonal politics going back to Bismarck, but oddly, the Pol editors chose to keep the modern dance references and cut the ones to Fritz Stern’s Gold and Iron. (The raw version is here.)

Defining the party landscape around this new organizing division has had interesting consequences for the Greens in particular. Where they were once undeniably part of the Left, competing with the SPD, they are now part of the broader European camp and as a result they can now compete with all the parties whose voters they would actually want. This is expressed in practice by the Greens’ willingness to operate in a wide variety of coalitions. Even though the 2017 federal elections were a poor showing, the party is represented in no fewer than nine state governments. An uncharitable reading of this would be that they would sign up with nearly anyone to get into office, but a more positive one would be that one of today’s most important divides is between the wonks and the trolls, and one side of that divide deeply values the willingness to take on responsibility and the capacity to exercise it.

Part of the story here is that the Liberals have vacated the centre and morphed into a populist movement for rich people. This isn’t going too well for them; at the federal level they are around 10 per cent, but in Bavaria and Hessen they are only just scraping over the 5% mark to get any representation at all. Richel, Stauss sums up the problem: the FDP core electorate is in many ways even more conservative than the conservatives, but it’s a tiny and shrinking group, and the party’s efforts to appeal to its conservatism are crassly incoherent with its tragic efforts to seem hip.

But there’s more here than mere centrism. Rather, successful centrism requires an awareness of where the centre actually is, rather than just behaving like either big party with 50% of the intensity. Historically, the party has been contained by a cultural barrier to its right and an economic barrier to its left. The cultural one was defined by its social policy and even more so by its style and tone. A major part of its 1968 heritage was its critique of bourgeois ways in general, while the CDU often seemed to be a positive temple of all things bougie. The problem for the CDU here is first of all that the Greens won the culture wars. Everyone who can afford to lives roughly like that, even if they consume media that endlessly mocks them for doing so. The FDP’s lame efforts at hipstership are a comic homage to this. Tellingly, this is not much different anywhere in the developed world.

The second problem for the CDU and CSU, which arises out of this, is that a lot of critics of the Greens always said their critique of the bourgeoisie was itself rather bourgeois. Wanting a less materialist, more culture-bearing way of life, respectful of children, concerned for the development of personal integrity and full citizenship, seeking a better relationship between women and men – all these things were themes of German intellectual, bildungsbürgerlich culture since the Romantic Era. Like a lot of things people denounce as terribly middle-class, there are good reasons why anyone who can afford to adopts them. The turn-of-the-century life-reform movements would have agreed in spades, and they deeply informed the American counterculture the Greens mined for inspiration. Ironically, in as far as this detracts from their radical pretensions it also lets them speak to values that resonate with a lot of middle-class Germans and especially with the Church.

The economic one was quite simply that it didn’t have much of an offer to workers as such, and occasionally it seemed to think they should be happy if their wages fell because they’d have to sing round the piano rather than buy stuff. Another important point Eubel picks up is that neither of the Green co-leaders has become involved in internal faction fighting. Although they both originate from the so-called realist tendency, they have avoided defining themselves by the fundamentalist side’s hostility, and in fact they have sought unity by adopting a more redistributionist economic and social policy. If this sticks it could be very threatening indeed to the rest of German politics.

Ironically, rather than creating a new docile junior partner for the CDU, Merkel’s redrawing of the lines may have unleashed a powerful competitor to both of the big parties – at least in the West. The next coalition might well be a black/green one, but its terms will be very different than anyone imagined in 2016.

On The Brinkhaus

There is a habit in English-speaking media of trying to force all political developments in Germany into the frame of whether this is the long promised end of Angela Merkel and the rise of the populists, or not. As with anything Merkel, “not” is the way to bet. This week’s election of Ralph Brinkhaus as the CDU and CSU’s joint parliamentary leader, though, is a significant moment.

The parliamentary group leaders – Fraktionsführer – are an important institution in German politics, in British terms combining the roles of chief whip and leader or shadow-leader of the House. As such they are crucial in managing the daily business of politics, organizing the work of the Bundestag, and representing parliament and the chancellorship to each other. It is no accident that they tend to be major personalities. On the conservative side, the office has been held by Helmut Kohl, Wolfgang Schäuble, and of course Angela Merkel. On the side of social democracy you could count Kurt Schumacher and Helmut Schmidt. Spilling one, as the Aussies say, is a big deal.

Volker Kauder, the incumbent, looked like to join that list, having held the job since 2005 as one of Merkel’s closest associates. As ARD reports here as part of a useful profile, it was a considerable surprise that anyone even ran. Not even Brinkhaus’ own regional party would support him openly. Yet he won, by 125 to 112, earning a classically Merkel-ish remark that “in democracy, sometimes you lose, and there’s no point trying to pretty that up”.

It would be traditional here to start talking about refugees, the EU, and the like. It would also be hopelessly wrong. Brinkhaus’ triumph is interesting precisely for what he is not.

He is not a candidate of the Bavarian CSU or an intimate of Horst Seehofer. In fact, Seehofer and the CSU campaigned for Kauder’s election, so it is as much a slap in the face for the CSU leadership as it is for anyone. He is not a southerner, an ex-East German, or a Saxon. Instead he represents his home town, Gütersloh, up in the north-west. He is an economist, a Bosch executive turned tax-adviser, and came to politics through the Roman Catholic youth movement after serving in the cold war Bundeswehr as an anti-tank gunner. This is as perfectly standard a CDU career as it is possible to imagine. He is not a Eurosceptic or a Russophile. His previous political office was as chair of the Bundestag budget committee, in which he had an important role in coping with the Eurozone crisis. Even his Twitter feed, when I last looked, showed him with representatives of the German Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of German Industries, saying that he understood their case for lower taxes but it was in the good times that a budget gets ruined. If you want to feel the sheer spießbürgerlichkeit for yourself, his parliamentary dance card is here and here is a Der Tagesspiegel profile.

One conclusion you could draw here is that this is a non-event. One perfectly normal Christian Democrat is replaced by another. However, the interesting bit is precisely that the challenge came from the perfectly normal, EU-and-NATO Christian Democrats of northern and western Germany, Angela Merkel’s bedrock support. Had it come from ultra-conservatism, Saxony, or Bavaria, you would expect this classical CDU to rally round Merkel, just as it did unanimously against Horst Seehofer back in June. This time, the call is coming from inside the Ludwig-Erhard Haus. This is a bigger threat and one different in kind.

A twist, interestingly, is that journalists at the count reported the CSU members seemed delighted to spill Kauder. This should remind us, again, that Kauder was the candidate of party leader Seehofer, Bavarian minister-president Markus Söder, and the head of the Bavarian caucus in parliament, Alexander Dobrindt. You cannot therefore understand this as a Bavarian rebellion against Merkel. Instead, Brinkhaus seems to have appealed as much to CSU members at odds with Seehofer, watching their poll numbers deteriorate steadily ahead of October 14th’s state election. Not so long ago they were on 50%, but the latest survey puts them down to 35%. As Seehofer is now defined by his failed effort to topple Merkel, you could make a case that Brinkhaus has won partly on the back of outrage at Seehofer’s disloyalty. This Der Tagesspiegel piece makes the interesting point that a week before the vote, Hessen’s Christian Democrats voted out their chief partly because of a clumsy effort he made to support Kauder, and replaced him with a human rights campaigner and vigorous supporter of #refugeeswelcome. The spill was possible precisely because the replacement, Michael Brand, stood for continuity rather than change.

That said, everyone in German politics is now talking succession. The Hessen issue is important, as the state elections there are coming up on the 28th October while Bavaria consumes most of the attention. This excellent blog post points out that state-level elections commonly show dramatic late swings, as most voters only turn their attention to regional politics late in the day. As a result, the conservative-green coalition there might be in trouble, and losing a showpiece statehouse might trigger all sorts of things. By then, though, the CSU might have lost power in Bavaria, an October revolution that would put anything in Hessen into the shade.

Instrumentality (in architecture)

A repeated message in current architectural writing is to warn against ‘means-end thinking’, or ‘instrumental thinking’. For example, we might decide that we want to live in a home that has a constant temperature of 22 degrees centigrade, or that ‘has a view to the south-east’, and with these ends in mind, we go about arranging them; we find the means, whatever those are. And this—it’s said—is a bad way of doing things. The warning extends to architectural types; to think of whole buildings as objects serving our purposes—a research facility, a learning resource centre, a shopping mall—is also to practice ‘means-end thinking’. The cost—it’s said—is twofold; the resulting construction will not be worthy of its inhabitants, and worse, we risk “spoliation” of the environment. Instead, architects should aim at a simpler, more direct relationship with places, with people and with customs of inhabitation. Not housing, schools, factories, but dwellings, and gathering places of the community. Not needs met, but people addressed—so to speak—‘in their fullest being’ (my phrasing). Here’s an example of the message, from Dalibor Vesely:

“Architecture has probably never abandoned completely its humanistic role, though in modern times this role has mostly been improvised. That approach may no longer suffice in a changing world increasingly dominated by instrumentally oriented expectations. To preserve its primary identity and humanistic role in the future, architecture must establish credentials on the same level of intelligibility as instrumental thinking, while at the same time it must integrate and subordinate the instrumental knowledge and the technical potential of human beings to their praxis. This is, in essence, my aim in broad outline …” (Vesely, ‘Architecture in an Age of Divided Representation’ (2004), p. 5)

We got here, as I hinted at before, via Heidegger. How? Heidegger’s core project is to provide an alternative to the traditions of metaphysics. Most people—and, you’ll be reassured to learn, four out of five living philosophy specialists, by their own self-reports—believe that there is a world of things with independent existence outside of the mind that experiences and recognises these things: this is realism; the world is real. Most people, but not all people. There is an alternate view, which is that the things of experience are things of the mind, and we should be sceptical of the existence of—or at least of the appearance of—what some might take to be a mind-independent world. There are several variations of this line of thinking in philosophy, sometimes termed idealism, or anti-realism, depending on the version, and all of them tending to have a sophistication which I can’t tackle here.

And there are complications. We also like to predicate of objects that we encounter in experience; for example, we say ‘I see the roof is shiny’ or ‘you’ll find the path is bumpy’ in the confidence that many things are shiny or bumpy: that those things are alike in those ways; they have properties. There is then a range of views about what properties are. When we predicate, do we refer to something somehow in the object, to something mental that groups objects together, or do we invoke something we might call a universal; something external to the mind, and whose location cannot be given?

Heidegger’s approach is to suggest that there is a difference between things existing—mere existence, we might say—and those same things having a certain graspable or connectable kind of being. Things—for Heidegger—have this special kind of being only when experienced by us with purposive engagement; he collectively terms such things ‘equipment’ and describes the special kind of being as ‘readiness-to-hand’ (zuhandenheit). As examples, Heidegger determinedly points to everyday objects, when we use a hammer—when we engage purposively with a hammer—the hammer is ‘equipment’ and has zuhandenheit. As a metaphysical position, this is not realism—in this picture the existence of things is in a certain way conditional on our experiencing them—but it is not idealism either; things retain a mind-independent mere existence. To put it in Heidegger’s terms, beyond our engagement with them, things continue to have ‘presence-at-hand’ (vorhandenheit) as things ‘in’ the world (as the desk is ‘in’ the room, and the room is ‘in’ the university). We may still relate to such things that are only ‘present-at-hand’, but our doing so is a sort of reduction; we come to consider such things, in our detachment, as objects, and ourselves as subjects. When we treat things as ‘present-at-hand’—as only objects of our curiosity—we achieve for ourselves only a less authentic way of being; full authenticity is only found in engagement, in connection with the ‘ready-at-hand’.

Which is all fine. In a way. The philosopher Rudolf Carnap, in a sharply critical piece of 1932 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’), argues for much tighter control of expression in philosophical writing than he sees in Heidegger (whom he names). For Carnap, a term such as ‘being’, in philosophical writing at least, must be understood only through its role as an ‘existence quantifier’; a thing x is (or is not)—this is the quantifier—and has property F (or does not have it). Existence is not to be predicated of something; there are not kinds of existence, or kinds of being. My intent is not to try to come to a judgement on this. For my purposes, what is more interesting in Carnap’s essay is what he follows with:

“The metaphysician believes that he travels in territory in which truth and falsehood are at stake. In reality, however, he has not asserted anything, but only expressed something, like an artist. [But] Lyrical poets … do not try to refute in their poem the statements in a poem by some other lyrical poet.”

And I think the implication of egotism in Heidegger is right. Heidegger takes himself to be getting at something of crucial importance. His metaphysical picture is to give a foundation to sciences: “basic concepts determine the way in which we get an understanding beforehand of the area of subject-matter underlying all the objects a science takes as its theme, and all positive investigation is guided by this understanding”. Indeed, his metaphysics is meant to overturn wrong thinking generally; an incredible ambition. In a jarring passage in Being and Time he writes (my emphasis):

“It would be unintelligible for Being-in-the-world to remain totally veiled from view, especially since Dasein has at its disposal an understanding of its own Being, no matter how indefinitely this understanding may function. But no sooner was the ‘phenomenon of knowing the world’ grasped than it got interpreted in a ‘superficial’, formal manner. The evidence for this is the procedure (still customary today) of setting up knowing as a ‘relation between subject and Object’—a procedure in which there lurks as much ‘truth’ as vacuity. But subject and Object do not coincide with Dasein and the world.”

The construction “no sooner was … than it got interpreted” (admittedly here in translation) is surprisingly flat footed in the context of the—mostly—spare and measured aesthetic of Heidegger’s prose; I think it reveals a competitive motivation to his project. A big mistake has been made, Heidegger seems to say; it must not only be commented on, it must be reversed.

And so we get to building. There is also wrong thinking—Heidegger comes to say after an interval that includes a world war and the rise and fall of fascism in Germany—in the way which we build. And there is a better way to build; it can be done, he says:

“Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and which, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the “tree of the dead”—for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum—and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time. A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse.”

By ‘dwelling’ and ‘entering in simple oneness into things’ Heidegger intends his own metaphysic of zuhandenheit: purposive engagement, craft; not our habitual subject-object, or means-end thinking. We may doubt the accuracy of Heidegger’s description; it seems touristic, we may say. What are these houses really like? What has been left out? But it’s the phrase “by the dwelling of peasants” that strikes. Are these real people? Who were they? How does he know of them? What does he know of them? What reports do we have of their thinking? Is the house itself taken to be evidence of that? If not, then what is?

Let’s say that such a house, either as Heidegger describes it, or as we might find one, is evidence of the thinking—of the way of being, to put it in Heidegger’s terms—of its builders. If this is right, then it seems that to do as they did will be to be as they were, at least to a degree. Yet to do as they did asks us to take note of features of the house; these gables, those windows, those beams, etc. But which features are the correct ones to take note of? Are we sure that none of what we see was put into place by means-end thinking? The real history of Black Forest houses suggests that earlier examples were built with living rooms facing the hillside, and not facing out, over the valley, as we might naturally expect. At some time, a switch was made and later examples do have valley-facing living rooms. But why was this done? Can we be sure that no Black Forest farmers simply had the thought that it would be nice to look out at the valley and asked themselves what would have to happen to bring that about? I suggest that we cannot. (And, if this is what happened, I can see no way to respectably denigrate the motivation of those people: if it seemed good to them to have that end in mind, in a very similar way to how it might seem good to us to have it, then all power to them.)

Heidegger, of course, presents his example and then immediately disavows it:

“Our reference to the Black Forest farm in no way means that we should or could go back to building such houses; rather, it illustrates by a dwelling that has been, how it was able to build.”

So what should we build? We stand outside the craft tradition attributed to the Black Forest farmers. What is our own craft tradition supposed to consist of? We will know, Heidegger suggests, if we adopt the metaphysic of zuhandenheit. But note that the farmhouse—Heidegger’s example—now has no real role to play here. We can understand the hammer easily enough; the farmhouse is a much more complex affair. It is probably unsafe to assume that any of its features will guide us; we are instead reliant on first principles: Heidegger’s metaphysics, if we choose to go that way. Some architectural writers seem to work back from ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’—finding the picture there attractive—to some of Heidegger’s other writing, coming to support his normative demand—i.e. we should reduce our tendency to means-end thinking—assigning that demand extra weight ‘because Heidegger’ (i.e. it comes from authority) and only perhaps as a last step internalising a Heideggerian metaphysics. It might be better to work forwards: is Heidegger’s metaphysics convincing to you (is it better than alternatives; is it worse, even, than anything; is it—as Carnap seems to think—somewhere between psychology and fiction); if it is convincing, does it give any weight at all to Heidegger’s normative demand as applied generally, and if so, what does this mean for building specifically? If you find his metaphysics unconvincing (or just of no moral consequence), it is still open to you, as a designer, to pursue something we could call a ‘mindfulness approach’, or even a ‘psychology of Heidegger’. In this, we would pay careful attention to things of the world on the grounds that (occasional) simple, direct engagement with things of the world is a good, happy and productive thing. But contra Heidegger, we needn’t think that our mindfulness signifies any great truth. Heidegger objects:

“… this characteristic [of zuhandenheit] is not to be understood as merely a way of taking [things], as if we were talking such ‘aspects’ into the ‘entities’ which we proximally encounter, or as if some world-stuff which is proximally present-at-hand in itself were ‘given subjective colouring’ …”

We are not to give things subjective colouring, he says, except that we can; this choice is open to us.

And we can go further, again without internalising any particular metaphysics; we can agree that means-end thinking is often unsatisfactory, and sometimes destructive. Here, though, I think much more caution is needed. We do not live and work in a world made only by us, or by those near to us; we live in enormous societies with many technical specialisms. Some of these (many of them, even) apply to building. For example, someone has researched the role of radon gas in health, and found out that it collects in basements, and can be mitigated in a certain way; it is very hard to see the ‘means-end thinking’ that has been done here as anything other than beneficial. Similarly, someone has researched the performance of materials as applied to structures, or to fire resistance, with lessons for the way we build. Beyond individual buildings, someone has researched the effects of certain approaches to town planning, to transport planning, also with lessons for the way we build. Even as we retain traditions—if we retain them—we may choose to modify them: rationally, instrumentally. Or we may choose to abandon them: again, rationally, instrumentally. It is a big stretch to call into question or demote  all ‘means-end thinking’ (and still more of a stretch to insist that we all pay serious attention to the phenomenologically-grounded world view of one twentieth century writer): it surely depends on the means, and on the end.

(Cross-posted from my architecture and planning blog: groupbuilding.net)