Reforming Germany. Just A Little Harder.

On February 6th, just when I thought it was actually possible to escape the ?German reform debate? for only a couple of days, on the way from the slopes to the fireplace, Gerhard Schroeder hit back through the airwaves. A coalition of campaigning regional party establishment and the inevitable loony lefties had apparently won their war of attrition against the Chancellor. Reforming Germany is not just hard. It is harder.

Three days earlier I attended a speech about this year?s legislative agenda given by Friedrich Merz, deputy chairman of the Christian Democratic Union?s Parliamentary party and speaker on economic and fiscal issues, who, among others, had – a few months ago – floated a proposal to radically simplify the German tax system; a proposal that was acclaimed across party lines mostly because there never was too much risk of it ever being codified. Reforming Germany is not just hard. It is actually harder.

Mr Merz was speaking to a collection of regional business and CDU dignitaries whose demographic composition already looked like the German pension system?s nightmare predictions for 2050. But it was not the strange lack of people under 40 that I found most impressive ? it was the people?s demanding, uncompromising discursive attitude.

To most observers it is truly puzzling why it is so difficult to push through badly needed incentive-enticing economic policy reforms in Germany even when almost everybody, including the vast majority of citizens, agrees on the kind of change needed. Most explanatory attempts therefore focus on the evolution of institutional deficiencies in the German ?consensus democracy?. I doubt corporatist Germany was what the political scientist Giovanni Sartori had in mind when he once called ?consensus democracy? a ?one way slope to self-reinforcing minority interests?. But this country is certainly proving his point rather well. But even agreeing that most German problems are caused by institutions – I believe there is an additional, a purely cultural layer that makes reforming Germany ? and its institutions ? just a little bit harder than it would be somewhere else

In some sense, exceptionalisms appear to be to political science what management techniques are to business administration: fashion, with a grain of truth. After all, creative scholars have discovered or sometimes simply dreamed up some ?exceptionalism? for almost every country with sufficient pages of written history to quote from. However, to my knowledge, only in the case of Germany a non-English term is commonly employed in English to emphasize the difference ? the German ?Sonderweg?, the country?s special path.

The term ?Sonderweg? usually refers to the historical consequences of a particularly German concept of the nation, and the state, at the time modern European nation states began to form. In a politically and religiously fragmented Holy Roman Empire ethnic Germans turned to themselves, to religion, or to culture, not to the political, as was the case in England or in France, the two most prominent contrasting cases.

“If there is anything like a German ideology, it consists in playing off Romanticism against the Enlightenment, the Middle Ages against the modern world, culture against civilization, and Gemeinschaft against Gesellschaft?

writes Wolf Lepenies, director of the Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin, and currently a visiting scholar at Institute of Advanced Study?s School of Social Science in an interesting recent occasional paper, dealing with the importance of culture, and philosophy, for German, European, and even American politics, called ?Exile and Emigration: The Survival of ?German Culture?” . And he continues ?

?? This attitude has involved a considerable weakening of politics and of the public sphere. At times, it could seem as if Germany was a state without politics. Yet it never aimed at being a state without culture. ? Culture was the arena of the absolute, a realm without compromise. (emphasis added) Its exaltation led to the illusion that culture could be a substitute for power and therefore a substitute for politics. Let me repeat: whenever I speak of ?German Culture?, I use the term in exactly this sense. Unlike ?civilization?, ?culture? has remained a term that, in the German language, is almost naturally distant from, if not contrary to, politics. The connotation of culture is as positive, warm, and promising as that of politics is ambivalent, cold, and suspicious.?

Of course, Lepenies is speaking of Fichte?s Germany, a fragmented, out-of-balance nation feeling deprived of a state and thus overemphasizing its cultural substitutes. Moreover, a country long gone.

?First the Federal Republic and then all of Germany became part of the West. The ?Sonderweg?, German exceptionalism, has finally flowed into the mainstream of parliamentary democracy, the market, and the rule of law. The revolt of culture against civilization is over. It no longer makes sense to think of culture as a compensation for politics. Today, we are witnessing the end of German Culture.?

Indeed, it is probably safe to assume that ?German Culture? as the abstract realm of anything absolute has come to an end. Where it was once Goethe who exclaimed ?What do Germans want? Have they not me?? it is now Dieter Bohlen, a successful, semi-talented songwriter featuring semi-talented singers, wondering why Germany would be looking for an idol, had they not him. Nothing dangerous ever hides in shallow water. But, abstracting from Endemol Entertainment?s lack of depth for the moment, I can?t help but wonder if maybe the water is still just a little deeper than it seems.

I don?t quite agree with Lepenies understanding that there is no longer a uniquely German perception of the common good that is inspired by the spirit of ?German Culture?. And I believe this still goes hand in hand with a profound disrespect for politics. And it is this combination that makes it not just hard, but a little harder, to reform Germany.

If my understanding is correct, socialized Germans (to be slightly generalising?) are still culturally bound to be more demanding ? as well as more disappointed by the performance of their political system.

I agree that this argument might seem slightly uncommon for a polity known for excessive corporatist negotiating, but I do believe many, if not most, Germans have a tendency to perceive the common good as something absolute, determinable in a scientifically justifiable, valid way – and not just something finally agreed on after breaking down eighty million opinions into one public policy through a process of ignorant, unworthy, professionalized bargaining.

After all, in a way, last week?s death-day boy, Immanuel Kant, said all there is about the common good in the universal law formulation of his categorical imperative ? ?act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law?. Then throw in a spoonful of Habermas? ideal speech and what you?ll get is an entirely inappropriate, overly demanding description of politics. By applying such a measure, it becomes evident that any political process must be structurally incapable of defining anything even remotely resembling any imagined ?common good?.

Yet I believe an all too common tendency to apply such high measures to politics as well as policies may well be the last remnant of Lepenies? ?German culture? ? whether people are themselves aware of the concepts or not. And in doing so, the discrepancy between the real-life political experience and the theoretical ideal is larger than elsewhere and makes it harder to govern Germany, particularly when reforms are actually becoming tangible.

So maybe there is really no other way than this ? let’s have Dieter Bohlen for Chancellor in 2006!

2 thoughts on “Reforming Germany. Just A Little Harder.

  1. Tobias,

    I responded somewhat haphazardly on the ChicagoBoyz blog with a link to C.S. Peirce explaining the confusion that can arise between languages over terminology (the original exchange begins in French but is translated).

    The first distinction that modern “Germans” should clarify is what exactly is meant by “German” culture (or language, for that matter). Tacitus’ wrote on culture in Germania, as did a lengthy succession of well regarded thinkers across thousands of years and dozens of tribal migrations ( Alcuin, anyone?). In this sense, “German” has about as much meaning as “Celtic”… it’s a vague liguistic label, not a cultural one. In fact, it’s worth asking just which culture in Europe ISN’T “German” to an indistinguishable degree?

    So is the dividing line the Reformation? The Holy Roman Empire? The French Enlightenment? The English Enlightenment? The post-FRENCH Revolutionary era (i.e. Romantic) that’s typically meant when we speak of “Modern”. Perhaps the dividing line is Bismarck? Or the popularization of the Victorian English catch-all term, “Anglo-Saxon” (which the French especially seem to like).

    Is it possible that Germans are so busy worrying over their place in Europe that it hasn’t occured to them that the rest of Europe might be worrying about their relation to Germany?

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