Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Locusts

Ray D. on Medienkritik has a useful resumé of SPD Chairman Franz Müntefering’s attempt to gain electoral advantage through so-called “Kapitalismus-Kritik” or “criticizing capitalism” – an attempt, it should be noted, that did not prevent Müntefering from being roundly booed and pelted with eggs at a May Day celebration in Duisburg over the weekend.

In order to avoid a misleading polarity that tends to influence such discussions, it should also be noted that when Müntefering and his SPD colleagues engage in “Kapitalismus-Kritik”, they are most definitely not criticizing capitalism per se. In effect, they are criticizing “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism – the SPD President of Nordrhein Westfalen Peer Steinbrück spoke daintily of “Raubtier-” or “predator” capitalism – against which their own preferred form of capitalism – the so-called “social market economy” or what could also be called a “corporatist” as opposed to liberal model of capitalism – allegedly needs to be protected. For a somewhat dated (1990), though still relevant academic discussion of the difference, see, for instance, Simon Reich’s The Fruits of Fascism: Postwar Prosperity in Historical Perspective. It occurs to me that another way to draw the contrast would be between a decentralized capitalism – with financial power largely dispersed and exercised via the stock market and the state limited to a regulatory function – and a centralized capitalism: with financial power largely concentrated in banks and the state playing either a direct role as owner (see Deutsche Telekom and Deutsche Post/DHL or, on the provincial level, Volkswagen) or an active managerial role in the otherwise private economy.

Incidentally, the term “social market economy” is taken over wholesale from the German Constitution or “Grundgesetz” in the proposed EU “Constitution” (Article I-3, §3). In a remarkable and revealing bit of pomposity, Jacques Chirac, in a speech given last week in the presence of Gerhard Schröder [link in French], suggested that it was largely France’s achievement to have had this typically German expression, and thereby the model it implies, “inscribed” in the “Constitution”. If it had not been thus “inscribed”, Mr. Chirac said, “I would not have signed the text....And the Chancellor...he would not have signed it either.”

Returning to Müntefering, the SPD Party Chair – drawing on much the same rhetorical register as his colleague Steinbrück – compared “some financial investors” to a “swarm of locusts” that “descend upon enterprises, strip them, and move on” [link in German]. In the meanwhile, the SPD parliamentary group helpfully put together a study paper including a list of private equity firms meant to illustrate Müntefering’s charge. According to a report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung [link in German], the SPD paper reads: “the names of the take-over firms are KKR, Apax, Carlyle, BC Partners, Advent, CVC, Permira, Saban Capital or Blackstone.” All of these firms, n.B., are either American or British. Saban Capital, incidentally, is the US-based investment firm of the Israeli-American investor Haim Saban, who is well-known in Germany for his acquisition of the television broadcaster ProSieben.

Elsewhere in the SPD paper, Goldman Sachs, a German private equity firm named BC Partners, and, bizarrely – since it is not per se an investment firm at all, but rather Germany’s largest private bank – Deutsche Bank are apparently added to the list. The choice to add Deutsche Bank may have had something to do with the fact that its Swiss CEO Josef Ackermann has lately stood accused of self-enrichment at the cost of shareholders in connection with the so-called “managers’ case”. I strongly suspect, however, that it is purely and simply a diversionary tactic meant to pre-empt the accusations of xenophobia that would otherwise be attracted by the predominantly “Anglo-Saxon” character - fused, moreover, in the cases of Saban and Goldman Sachs with what will be for the German public a distinct whiff of "Jewishness" - of the rest of the list. And in this report from the characteristically compliant Financial Times, the trick works like a charm.

Ulrich Speck on Kosmoblog points out the Müntefering’s “locust” comparison is, whether he was aware of it or not, something of a classic of xenophobic and, more particularly, anti-Semitic discourse in German and Germano-maniac (Chamberlain) traditions. Here are some examples from Ulrich’s post (click through for the original sources for #1 and #3, which I've translated):

1. From the “Hep-Hep” Disturbances, Baden, 1818-19:

These Jews, that live here among us and that spread out like rapacious locusts [verzehrende Heuschrecken] and that threaten to overthrow all of Prussian Christianity, they are the children of those who screamed: “Crucify! Crucify!”

2. From Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s The Foundations of the 19th Century:

[If] the Jews have exercised a great and historically baneful influence, it is to no small degree due to the complicity of these Princes and nobles who so shamefully persecuted and at the same time utilised the Jews. And in fact this lasts until the nineteenth century: …Napoleon protected them, when after such a short time bitter complaints and entreaties for protection against them were sent in to the Government from all France, and he did so although he himself had exclaimed in the Council of State, “These Jews are locusts and caterpillars, they devour my France!“ — he needed their money.

3. “Sturm” from the Nazi propaganda film “Jud Süss” (The Jew Süss) on the arrival of Jews in Stuttgart:

They descend upon our country like locusts!