Arrr!

Remember the Pirate Party?

Back in September 2011, they boarded the Berlin city-state legislature, winning 8.9 percent of the vote. That put five parties in the legislature and complicated the coalition math. They highlighted the Greens’ generational challenges, put digital issues on leaders’ radar screens, and showed that discontent among Berlin voters was not limited to the eastern parts of the city.

After that breakthrough, they won seats in the state legislatures of Saarland (in March 2012), in Schleswig-Holstein (in May 2012), and in North Rhine-Wesphalia, Germany’s most populous state (also in May 2012). Looking forward to national elections in the fall of 2013, they polled as much as 13%. A fleet of black and orange sails was visible on the horizon.

Then what happened?

Scandals, splits, sinking. They were chronically short on money, early leaders proved unable to grow or govern the organization (sometimes the leaders were unable even to govern themselves), and then some things just got weird. They also had problems with rightist extremists in their ranks.

After their rise in 2012, in 2013 the Pirates just barely cleared 2 percent in Lower Saxony (January), fell below that in Bavaria (July) and hovered near that figure in the national elections in September. In the years that followed, the Pirates sailed away from the state legislatures they had so brazenly boarded in the heady days that followed their Berlin success.

In the national election in September 2017, they polled less than one half of 1 percent.

The tale of the Pirates is unlikely to be instructive for AfD, its leaders, or its voters. It should be. It is very similar to the tale of the Republikaner, which won seats in Baden-Württemburg, Berlin and Bremen. It is similar to the tale of the “Schill Party,” which won nearly 20 percent of the vote in Hamburg in 2001 and entered the legislature as the third strongest party. The NPD and DVU had similar trajectories with lower peaks.

The AfD has done what no party since the Greens has done: win enough votes in a national election to enter the Bundestag. And yet, at their first press conference after the election, one of their most prominent members, Frauke Petry, announced that she would not be part of the party caucus and walked out on live television. It’s unlikely to be the last division.

Dead parties tell their tales, even if no one in the latest sensation is inclined to listen.

Reds Got the Blues? No.

Over on social media, a friend-of-a-friend said that the strong showing of the far-right AfD in Sunday’s German election was “further erosion of the neoliberal left.” Yeah, no.

Here’s what the main public broadcaster in Germany has from their polling about voter changes from 2013 to 2017.

(The link is here, you’ll have to scroll down a bit to Wählerwanderung, and it obviously helps to read a bit of German, although it’s not strictly necessary for that particular graphic.)

AfD’s sources of voters, in ranked order:
1. Previous non-voters (1.47M)
2. People who voted AfD in 2013 (1.43M)
3. CDU -> AfD (1.04M)
4. People who voted for parties that did not clear the 5% threshold in 2013; my suspicion would be NPD (0.73M)
5. SPD -> AfD (0.51M)
6. Left -> AfD (0.42M)
7. First-time voters (0.13M)
8. FDP -> AfD (0.12M)
9. Green -> AfD (0.05M)

Each of the first two is an order of magnitude greater than any one of the last three.

You’ve got to have a pretty heavy prior commitment for “erosion of the neoliberal left” to be your takeaway. “Protest party draws in 1.5 million previous non-voters,” “Rightist party draws votes away from center-right party” or even “Extreme right puts on new clothes, finally clears 5% hurdle” are all more accurate descriptions. (And I don’t see how you can characterize the Left party as “neoliberal,” but that’s another story.)

Further, the biggest party-to-party move of SPD voters was SPD -> CDU. That makes “Left-of-center voters reward Chancellor’s party for immigration stance” a greater factor than “Social Democrats turn to anti-immigrant party.” We’ll see what happens with the SPD in opposition, but looking at where SPD voters went, it’s clear that we have another chapter in the basic poli sci book, Voters Frustrated With Junior Partner in Grand Coalition, which should surprise precisely nobody.

German Elections on Sunday

Some thoughts about Germany’s election this Sunday, hoisted from comments over on Facebook. They’re more about personal preferences, and maybe not anything new for the three readers Fistful still has after Brexit broke the blog. (By the way, there’s still a media niche that could be filled by Brexit Jones Diary, if anyone has the stomach for that task.)

Martin Schulz [the Social Democrat] is not bad. I’m of several minds. Merkel absolutely did the right thing with refugees in 2015, against the trend of her party, and it made a huge difference for Germany and for Europe. And I want to see that kind of choice rewarded. Certainly, if Germany has to have a government led by the conservative party, having a female scientist from the East, who is also a pastor’s daughter, as the head of that party is the way to go. On the other hand, an additional term of office would be years 12-16 of a Merkel chancellorship. Governments get to be long in the tooth; the people in them forget that they have ever not been in power; scandals accumulate; stagnation can set in. Maybe Merkel’s next government (she is likely to be the head of the largest party still after Sunday) will beat those odds, I don’t know.

[comment from friend]

[Me again] Well, it’s proportional representation, so everybody is in the running. The Christian Democrats (Merkel’s party) are likely to come in first, with the Social Democrats (current coalition partners) also likely to come in second. One of the tricky parts comes afterward: putting together a coalition that can command a majority in the parliament. Right now, there’s a “grand coalition” of the two largest parties. They don’t really want to work together, but that’s how the math turned out last time.

Her main opponent, Martin Schulz, is the top candidate of the Social Democrats. Previously he was head of their faction in the European Parliament (Brussels and Strasbourg), and in fact president of the European Parliament. His candidacy is a good thing for a number of reasons, though I will be surprised if he and the Social Democrats win by becoming the largest part in Germany’s parliament.

The far-right party, AfD, also looks likely to get into the national parliament. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons; on the other hand, it’s not surprising that far-right voters make up something like 5%-10% of the German electorate. If anything, that’s pleasingly low. But! It will be the first time that a far-right party has made it into parliament (despite what some people say about the Bavarian part of the Christian Democrats), and that’s disappointing enough. It may also mean that there are six parties in parliament, which makes putting together a coalition challenging. Not least because the Social Democrats are still holding fast to their pledge not to work with The Left at the national level. (The Left are, several name changes later, the successors to East Germany’s Communists. Back in the old days in East Germany, the Communists went after Social Democrats with special vigor, sending some to Siberia and putting others in camps that had recently been vacated by the actual Nazis. So one can see why the Social Democrats would not want to work with them.)

That’s probably more than you wanted to know, isn’t it?

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Brexit and Airlines

About a week before the UK government triggers Article 50, and the stories are just rolling out about taking control how difficult untangling the UK from the EU is going to be, how much business is going to head across the Narrow Sea (and to a much lesser extent, across the Irish Sea), and how very little influence the UK government is going to have on the process.

EU chiefs have warned airlines including easyJet, Ryanair and British Airways that they will need to relocate their headquarters and sell off shares to European nationals if they want to continue flying routes within continental Europe after Brexit.

The Guardian adds a little British understatement, “The ability of companies such as easyJet to operate on routes across the EU has been a major part of their business models.” Indeed.

Some airlines have started to seek headquarters within the EU and to restructure their ownerships. EU holding requirements could include “the forced disinvesting of British shareholders.” At least some business leaders were hoping the problem would go away. Because reasons, I suppose. “EU officials in the meetings were clear, however, about the rigidity of the rules, amid concerns at a senior EU level that too many in the aviation industry are in denial about the consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the bloc.”

Getting a new agreement won’t be easy, either. At present, the European Court of Justice is the final arbiter of disputes that arise under the agreements that cover air travel within Europe. The current UK government has signaled that it wants to leave the ECJ’s jurisdiction entirely. And of course undoing a multilateral agreement opens the door for some states to assert their individual interests in negotiating a new one: Spanish diplomats have said that they will not sign on to any international accord that recognizes the airport in Gibraltar. Somebody might be taking back control.

This is shaping up to be a very good couple of years for corporate relocation businesses, and possibly for people looking to sign on at the new headquarters locations replacing folks who were unwilling or unable to leave the UK when their jobs picked up and went.

Brexit and Banks

With Prime Minister May due to trigger Article 50 eight days from now, shit’s about to get real the clock is about to start ticking, not least for the huge financial center in London. Nothing in the present UK government suggests that they will be able to negotiate an amicable separation in the twenty-four months before they are unceremoniously bounced from the European Union. (Less actually, as agreements will have to be finished early enough for the relevant bodies to vote on their approval.) Hard Brexit, here we come.

Likewise, I don’t see any reason for the 27 to let London continue to have the same access to EU financial markets that it had when the UK was a member of the Union. Prudent bankers came to similar conclusions long ago, and indeed Bloomberg finds that plans to move people and capabilities into the remaining EU are taking concrete shape. Frankfurt and Dublin are the likeliest winners: Frankfurt is the largest financial hub on the continent, and home to the European Central Bank; Dublin is the only English-speaking alternative. (At least until Scotland joins the Union.) This was always the way to bet, and reporters’ talks at individual banks are adding micro details to the macro framework.

“Bank of America Corp., Standard Chartered Plc and Barclays Plc are considering Ireland’s capital for their EU base to ensure continued access to the single market, said people familiar with the plans, asking not to be named because the plans aren’t public. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc. are among banks eyeing Frankfurt, other people said.”

Two Japanese institutions Bloomberg spoke with are considering Amsterdam; Morgan Stanley, local patriots, insisted that New York would gain as they and other institutions re-allocated resources away from Europe entirely. Brexit is going to put a huge dent into one of the UK’s most important economic sectors. Taking back control!

The Populist Papers: 29 Years of Populism

Thinking about Brexit, the Donald, Austria having a presidential election replay, and other things, it struck me that in a sense I’ve lived through a Populist Era, a parallel history to the official narrative of ever-closer European union and what we might call ever-closer Western union. The starting point is hard to place. Jörg Haider’s party joined the Austrian government at the end of 2000. Silvio Berlusconi was first elected as Italian prime minister in 1994. In the same year, the BNP won and lost its first local council seat. But we’d be fools to ignore what was happening further east – Vladimir Meciar’s third term as Slovak prime minister from 1994-1998 is an example, and some people argue Slobodan Milosevic from 1989 onwards was the very first. Then you have to deal with the FN’s electoral breakthrough, at the French parliamentary election of 1987. Jean-Marie Le Pen achieved a score that time his party wouldn’t equal until 2015.

Since then, they’ve come thick and fast and all over the world, in societies as various as Thailand and Australia, or Bradford and Dresden. They are as diverse as the societies that gave rise to them, and the degree of success they have achieved varies enormously. It is commonly said that the word “populist” just means a political party others don’t want to accept, but I disagree with this. It is true that they differ dramatically in their content. Leaving the European Union is obviously not a priority for the newly elected bishop-mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella. Yet Crivella is recognisably a populist and would fit nicely on a platform with Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Beppe Grillo, or Donald Trump.

Instead, I think, what unites them is a way of doing rather than a way of seeing. You can look at this as an aesthetic style, or as a technology for winning elections. It doesn’t matter; style, after all, is founded on technique. But looking at it as a set of style tropes and technical solutions has the advantage that we can understand it as such. Technology diffuses. Once it is invented, sooner or later, it spreads, and it spreads the faster the more people feel able to try it out and to adapt it to their own aims, aims which are themselves changed by the process of trial. We know quite a lot about the sociology of innovation diffusion.

So I want to pick out the minimal common elements of the technology here. So far I’ve got:

Politics against method

Most types of state have some form of universal ideology, a body of ideas that are meant to guide the citizenry in all they do. Conservatism in Burke’s sense claims this is embodied in old institutions, which must be defended. It therefore aligns the power of the state with the authority of those institutions. Liberalism demands that the institutions get out of the way of the citizenry in the name of liberty, and therefore sets up the power of the state as a sort of depoliticised referee whose mission is to guarantee that liberty. In this sense, socialism or at least social democracy is the sturdy child of liberalism – rather than merely asserting the equality of citizens and sitting back to let them get on with it, the state aims to actively ensure their equality in the name of positive liberty. Even beyond this, most states also believe in some form of technocracy, in economic or administrative principles and techniques that represent the state of the art and can be rolled out around the territory for the greater good.

One of the most interesting features of populism is that it rejects method. This goes well beyond the now quaint idea that what matters is what works. Method is both a source of power, and a constraint on power. If it doesn’t work, you can’t do it. On the other side, it is entirely acceptable to argue that you are pursuing “politics for the little man” and immediately offer a massive tax cut to the richest, justifying this on libertarian grounds, and then demand that the state subsidises petrol prices. I remember Jörg Haider doing all these things in the same speech. Method is a construct of the boring, and a tiresome constraint on rhetorical creativity. Instrumental rationality is subordinated to expressiveness. This is one of the reasons why populism is often described as “post-modern”.

Method is also a force against one of populism’s most important aims, which I am about to discuss.

Repoliticising the state

Liberalism, very broadly defined, likes to see the state as a neutral force, hanging “above the parties” as the Germans say. Conservatism and socialism both see it as a force for universal good, differently defined. They all, however, believe that it is different from partisan politics. This does not mean that it is apolitical, just that it is different. Parties and interest groups come and go, but the state endures, and at least claims to serve the public good. One way to look at this is as a depoliticisation of the state. Rather than being defined by opposition to an enemy, it is defined by the inclusion of its citizens.

Carl Schmitt argued that the fundamental political act was to define friends and enemies. He is an example of a long-running counter-tradition in Western political thought that fears this depoliticisation and wishes for a partisan state. Populists demand that the government takes sides among its citizens, that it acts in an explicitly partisan manner. They want to feel that the state is on their side, not because it serves the public good, but because they personally get took care of. Following any particular method obstructs the state in doing this, as it requires that the state acts in accordance with rules.

An important concept here is victimhood. I covered this in a previous post on my own blog. In an important way, populism democratises access to the category of people who feel justified in demanding state help. This is a consequence of the rejection of method; if there is no determinate standard of victimhood, then everyone can feel justified in wallowing enjoyably in it.

Many other writers on populism, from Richard Hofstader onwards, have observed that it arrogates to itself the right to define the people. This is primarily important, though, because it permits them to use the state in the manner that great political thinker, the Salford Machiavelli, Dominic Noonan advised: Look after those that look after you, fuck off those that fuck off you. It shouldn’t need saying that the EU is a prize example of an institution built on method that tends to depoliticise the state, as is NATO, NAFTA, and the WTO. Interestingly, the German ultraconservatives of the 1920s thought the same about the League of Nations.

I’ll make you a deal

It follows that the response to a problem or an injustice is not necessarily to solve it, but rather to make an exception. Schmitt, again, held that this was precisely the attribute that defined sovereignty, and perhaps that is why populists are so attached to the idea of sovereignty. Populism is a system of exceptions. If you do not believe it is possible to get anything right systematically, and you do not believe in the institutions, you can still hope you might be able to get special treatment for yourself. As such, it is something of an indicator-species for a low trust society. Soviet citizens were constantly trying to get treated “po chelovek”, on a personal basis.

Donald Trump, of course, tries to cope with literally everything this way. The F-35 project is far too complicated and is costing too much? If you yell at Lockheed-Martin hard enough, they might give you a discount for the sake of quiet, and of course you can also take care of them by ordering more airframes down the line when everyone will have forgotten. You can’t compete with German exporters? Jump the counter and yell until they offer you a deal. But it’s not just him. Haider offered cheap Libyan diesel around come election time; Theresa May has taken to distributing cash whenever a charismatic exporter threatens to leave the UK. This can also be done in a negative sense, by calling someone in and publicly humiliating them.

It is worth noting that a problem, in this view, is an opportunity to make yourself indispensable. There’s a reason why low-trust societies don’t function well.

Bullshit, and the rejection of constraint

If you reject method, and reduce politics to a system of individual customer-retention gimmes and theatrical humiliations, it follows that you don’t have much use for facts. In some sense, a fact arises because of a method. I think this may explain why the rejection of constraint is so important to populists. Nigel Farage affects to believe that cigarettes are good for you. Donald Trump grabs ’em by the pussy. I asked a Brazilian friend of mine who voted for Crivella, and she thought for a moment and said “People with big white trucks who live in Zona Oeste”. This remark needs a bit of unpacking; the socio-cultural references packed in there are meant to evoke a petty bourgeois or nouveau riche aesthetic, but I’d like to focus on the truck.

If there’s a constraint they like to reject above all others it’s anything to do with energy, the climate, and hence transport. In part this is explained by the fact there are major funders available who hand out cash to people who reject this constraint. Beyond cynicism, though, is it too impressionistic to imagine that some people feel experts in general just want to take their trucks and make them listen to the doctor and stop smoking? I think this is interesting, because the populist target market tends to be the same around the world – rather well-off but not particularly educated fifty-somethings, not coincidentally also a demographic that likes to jump the counter and demand a deal, and that consumes a lot of ambient media.

That said, I also don’t believe Farage really thinks Craven “A” don’t affect your throat. Instead I think this is a performative statement. Harry Frankfurt famously defined bullshit as speech that doesn’t bear any relationship with truth, not even the negative one lies do. The great thing about bullshit, in Frankfurt’s telling, is that it offers so much creative freedom to the bullshitter to come up with what his audience would enjoy hearing. Populist bullshit arises because it’s fun and it gets the desired audience on your side. Farage’s audience would like to feel, for a while, that cigarettes are good for you and that they might get a special offer.

Made it through another month

Now that Trump has outlasted William Henry Harrison as president of the United States, perhaps it’s time to publish here something I wrote elsewhere just a few days after the American election.

Germany’s next.

If there is any major leader who has Putin’s number, it is Merkel. A Clinton-Merkel tandem at the world’s top table would have made things exceptionally difficult for him. Half of that tandem is out of the picture, and Putin would clearly like to see off the other half as well. National elections here are next year (probably in mid- to late September).

We’re about to see a stress-test of Germany’s democratic institutions, and of the values that the postwar era has strengthened.

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Well then.

Looking back at posts from January 2009, I see a mix of hope and serious concern. Country after country was following the US into what has since become known as the Great Recession. It is reckoned by some as the largest global contraction since the 1930s; I’ve only been following such things for about 20 years, so I don’t know for sure (the Asian currency crisis of 1997 might give it a run for its money in terms of the number of people harmed), and Edward, who would likely have known off the top of his head, is no longer with us.

Still, for all that massive economic dislocation was bearing down on the developed world, new leadership in America gave cause for hope. Republican ideas had been tried, and had failed in the sands of Iraq and in the money markets on Wall Street that had turned into casinos where gains were privatized and sufficiently large losses offloaded onto the general public. With the Bush restoration in 2000, that party had claimed that the grown-ups were back in charge. But it was Democrats who did all of the adult things of putting America back together after the economic carnage of 2008, and they even managed to extend America’s promise to people who had been excluded, to take some of the fear out of American health economics, and to give regular folks more of a chance against plutocracy. In foreign policy, Obama’s most famous adage — “Don’t do stupid shit” — illustrates the low bar set by his predecessor, one unlikely to be cleared by his successor.

Here at the outset, the Trump administration (I still can’t believe I have to write that) looks set to do some very stupid shit indeed. Statements from the transition have not been particularly coherent, but they indicate that the incoming administration does not care whether NATO and the European Union continue to exist, and may in fact prefer it if they didn’t. This is foreign policy malpractice on the greatest scale imaginable. NATO and the EU are human institutions, and therefore imperfect, but blithely talking about doing without them indicates that the Trump people have not asked the third great policy question: “Compared to what?”

We’ve seen what Europe is like without institutions, in which Putin-style land grabs and subversion of neighboring governments are the order of the day. Every few months construction crews in Berlin dig up another unexploded bomb that’s a relic of the last time that kind of Europe was in vogue. Let’s just not.

Given that European policy and politics with Trump in the White House are likely to be a Gish gallop of ridiculous idiocy, it will be worth it to me to concentrate on a few things, in the hope that other people will pick up other threads. At the moment, I’m most interested in Kremlin subversion of the upcoming German election, further signs that Putin’s circle is testing Europe’s institutions, conflicts in the Caucasus, and some aspects of Brexit. In my working life, I have been doing a lot of things related to pharma and biotech in recent years, and so at a micro level I am interested in whether the European Medicines Agency stays in London (seems unlikely, post-Brexit) and if not, who will win the competition to host the agency. I’m sure other stuff will attract my attention, but that’s what I know I will be looking at.

Thanks, Obama. I hope we see your like again before too much time has passed.

4200

Thirteen years, and now 4200 posts.

Judging from the level of activity, Brexit broke the blog. Now with the election of Trump, we’ll get to see a lot of other stuff broken. When I first started writing here, I was still doing a fair amount of public speaking in cooperation with the US consulate in Munich. I often fielded questions about a multipolar world, and they often implied that such a world would be better than the unipolar moment following the end of the Cold War. We’re about to find out about that now, too, because the incoming administration is going to take the US out of a lot of global debates. The new political leadership may also render the government lame by personal corruption, chaos in the top echelons, deliberately gumming up the works, or some new way to fuck things up that I wasn’t previously aware of. (Needless to say, I won’t be doing any public speaking in cooperation with the embassy in Berlin for the next four years.)

Next year promises to be interesting. The Putin government is already working out ways to meddle in the German and French elections. I think Trump’s election put paid the idea that a president Le Pen is impossible; let’s hope that France nevertheless finds a way to avoid such an outcome. From current polling, it looks like the AfD will get into the German parliament. That means six parties in the Bundestag, assuming the FDP manages to come back from their drubbing last time around. Building a coalition will be difficult, and the larger the AfD delegation, the more difficult it will be. The SPD may finally have to work with the heirs of the Communists who so effectively persecuted their forbears in East Germany.

Thirteen years. 4200 entries. Onward.

The Eurozone bailouts: learning more

The Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) for the IMF released its evaluation of the Eurozone bailouts last week. Unfortunately, the excellent report was released on the Thursday of what was for Bureaucristan the last working week before September, and was released as a package with prebuttal of the recommendations by the Fund itself, which diluted its impact. And even in the financial pages of the newspapers, attention was more focused on the banking stress tests which came the following day [UPDATE: good attention to the IEO report from the New York Times]. Nevertheless, the report deserves a long shelf life; below the fold (direct quotes in italics), a selection from its more striking findings: note, these findings may have been documented elsewhere sporadically before, but one value of the report is collecting them all in one place and integrating them into a broader narrative.

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