“A Farewell to Oskar”

Noam Chomsky

ZNet, March 17, 1999

On March 11, Oskar Lafontaine resigned his position as German Finance Minister and chair of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). His resignation elicited “euphoria” in “jubilant” financial markets, editorial offices, and news rooms.[1]

Bidding him its editorial farewell, the London Financial Times heralded the “angry revolt” that had “unquestionably changed…the relationship between government and business” in Europe’s major economy.[2] The background is the electoral victory of the SPD-Green coalition in the last elections. Lafontaine led the SPD and was the link to the Greens. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder replaces Lafontaine as chair of the SPD, though he “has never been as warmly embraced by the party rank-and-file as Mr Lafontaine,” not to speak of the Greens. The “angry revolt” was not by the public, but by “the European Central Bank and German businesses threatening to relocate abroad.”[3]

The Central Bank has been granted extraordinary independence and authority in the European Union, a “sinister” threat to democracy, the lead article in the journal of the Council of Foreign Relations warns, noting accurately that the goal is to “reassure financial and business elites that…Europe’s economic policy will be appropriately insulated from the demands of labor and other domestic interest groups.”[4] And as is well understood, the threat to relocate is also a powerful weapon against democracy and human rights — specifically, against the socioeconomic rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but derided as a “letter to Santa Claus” and “preposterous” by the leaders of the relativist challenge to the UD, in Washington.[5]

The world’s leading business daily is right about the significance of this dramatic change in “the relationship between government and business” — that is, the relationship between the institutional framework that suffers from the fatal flaw of susceptibility to public influence, at least in principle and sometimes in fact, and unaccountable private power, much safer hands.

Lafontaine was an “unreconstructed Keynesian,” the FT observes, an “old-style taxer and spender” — not a “new-style” borrower and spender of the preferred Reaganite variety. And his priorities for taxing and spending were completely intolerable to “financial and business elites.” His crime, the editors explain, was the goal of “redistributing large sums from the corporate to the personal sector.” His tax legislation “closes many loopholes enjoyed by industry without compensating cuts in the main rates” for corporations, which “protested fiercely” against this outrage. The more “business friendly” Chancellor Schroeder was planning a sharp cut in corporate taxes, but “it was unclear whether Mr Lafontaine would agree [to] such a move — at least without raising funds from elsewhere.” Lafontaine’s policies were “business-hostile” in other ways as well, benefiting small and medium-sized family businesses. He also “incensed industry with his `socially just’ changes pitched largely at workers and families,” leading to the threat by “several of Germany’s largest companies…to transfer activities overseas” where they are protected from “`socially just’ changes.” Lafontaine’s initiatives “had caused Germany to lose its good reputation abroad,” according to the president of the German industry association, who wasted no time identifying the circles that define “good reputation.” But with his resignation under the transfer threat, “Mr Lafontaine’s orthodox macroenomic ideas have died once and for all,” the industry association president declared.[6]

“US economic policymakers are unlikely to mourn the loss of Oskar Lafontaine from the international monetary landscape,” the FT reports further, even though they agreed with many of his initiatives, including his efforts to induce “the European Central Bank to cut interest rates to get the European economy moving.” But “Lafontaine’s approach looked to Americans like a throwback to the inflexible, statist, welfare-dominated European past,” which deviates from the modern, up-to-date US approach of enriching a tiny sector of the population while the typical family puts in 15 more weeks of work a year than 20 years ago while their incomes have stagnated or declined, average wage for non-supervisory workers is 14% below 1973, and even the second decile lost net worth (assets minus debt) during the anemic current recovery, which breaks new records in that the majority has just now barely recovered the level of the last business cycle peak of 1989.[7]

US policymakers had hoped that the SPD might be a “useful and constructive partner in the moderate centre-left politics of which US President Bill Clinton has been such an enthusiastic champion,” but they were disappointed when he showed his true colors as an “unreconstructed Keynesian” advocating “orthodox macroeconomic ideas.” Clinton’s “moderate center-left policies” have not lacked praise. Clinton was “likened to Martin Luther King Jr. and generally celebrated at a Wall Street conference” in mid-January 1999, where the president of the New York Stock Exchange “told Mr. Clinton that Dr. King was surely smiling down on the gathering” at the annual King memorial, recognizing how Clinton had benefited “my little corner of southern Manhattan.”[8]

Other little corners may have fared somewhat differently, but “business and financial elites” and their advocates have only contempt for such “old-style” sentimentality.

The “euphoria” and “jubilation” elicited by the victory of private power was not confined to markets, or editorials. As is often the case on matters of real importance, the news pages of the elite press joined the “thunderous approval” of the business and financial elites, abandoning even a pretense of objectivity, and staking out a position well to the right of the Clinton Administration. In the New York Times, correspondent Edmund Andrews depicted the orthodox Keynesian as “one of Europe’s most combative and ideological leaders,” who sought to move Germany “toward a sharply left-wing direction that frequently clashed with Mr. Schroeder’s more pragmatic and pro-business instincts.” He is “an outspoken and ideological passionate left-wing traditionalist who had enraged central bankers with blustery demands for lower interest rates” (as advocated by Washington, the news report failed to mention in its “pragmatic pro-business moderate” exuberance).

The ideological fanatic Lafontaine was adding “extra taxes on corporations while giving a slew of new breaks to lower- and middle-income families.” With his resignation, “the leftists were clearly on the run and the pragmatists were on the rise,” a wonderful victory for “pro-business modernizers” over “left-wing traditionalists.” “A major barrier to corporate profits has left today,” an economist at Warburg Dillon Read exulted, along with the news columns, which were as “happy” as the “co-publisher of the liberal weekly Die Zeit” who understood that Lafontaine was “far too ideological, far too left-wing, and too removed from the economic realities of the country.”[9]

Andrews recognized that the “more pragmatic and pro-business” Schroeder now faced a problem: “in Germany, politics is based on political parties.” “The nature of power in Germany requires control of the major political parties, and it was the much more left-wing Mr. Lafontaine who could muster discipline on that level” — Times-speak for the observation of the Financial Times that Lafontaine is “warmly embraced by the [SPD] rank-and-file,” unlike Schroeder, and is of course far more popular among the coalition partner of the SPD, the Greens. The Greens have “capitulated on all of their top priorities,” Andrews reports, but it is unclear today whether they “would be willing to concede even more to industrial interests.” The problem is the usual one: too much democracy — though Andrews comforts the reader with the thought that Lafontaine “could never match Mr. Schroeder’s popularity with voters.”[10]

Further good news for the “pro-business moderates” and “pragmatists” is that the “blustery, bumptious political boss” Lafontaine is being replaced by Hans Eichel, who is particularly attractive because of his “experience in working with conservative bankers.” Joining in the euphoria, the Washington Post news columns hail Eichel as “the business-friendly governor of Hesse, Germany’s richest state.” Germany can now face the “tough choices” that Margaret Thatcher made for Britain, with the “painful free-market restructuring” that made possible “the market-oriented pragmatism” of Tony Blair. Germany too will be able to “prune an elaborate social welfare state” and enact “pro-business proposals,” ridding itself of the “traditional socialist base” of the SPD, which was concerned with workers, families, and small business, and handing power over to “more pragmatic moderates.” Then Germany may be become the kind of paradise enjoyed by the majority of the population of England and the United States under “free-market restructuring” — which does resemble “free-markets” in Britain somewhat more than here, consistent with the usual relation between markets and power.[11]

Andrews recognizes another potential problem: Eichel has a dubious past. “He campaigned against nuclear proliferation and for environmental causes.” But “his politics have moderated since then.” He is now “generally considered a business ally,” so perhaps the immoderation of his youth will not interfere too much with the stunning defeat of democracy and human rights.[12]

The events are significant, the interpretation of them as well. The lessons for the general population of the richer countries are clear enough, for those less fortunate still more so.

  1. Edmund Andrews, “German Finance Aide Quits: European Markets Jubilant,” _NYT_, March 12; Andrews, “German Stock Market Soars As Leftist Fiscal Chief Quits,” _NYT_ March 13, 1999.
  2. Editorial, “A farewell to Oskar,” _FT_, March 13.
  3. Ralph Atkins, “Clash of Thunder Gods leads to opportunity to start afresh,” _FT_, March 13/14.
  4. Sheri Berman and Kathleen McNamara, “On Central Banks and Democracy,” _Foreign Affairs_, March/April 1999.
  5. UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick; Ambassador Morris Abram, explaining the US veto of the Right to Development, which closely paraphrased the UD. See my article “The United States and the challenge of relativity” (in Tony Evans, ed., _Human Rights Fifty Years On, U. of Manchester, 1998), reprinted as _The Umbrella of U.S. Power,” _Open Media Pamphlet Series_ (Seven Stories, 1999).
  6. [Editorial, _FT_, _op.cit_; Ralph Atkins, _FT_, March 15; Atkins and Frederick Stuedemann, _FT_ March 13/14; Uta Harnischfeger, _FT_, March 13/14.
  7. Gerald Baker, “US policymakers relieved at departure,” _FT_, March 15. Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, John Schmitt, _The State of Working America 1998-99_ (Cornell, 1999); Robert Pollin and Stephanie Luce, _The Living Wage_ (New Press, 1998); Edward Wolff’s research, cited by Aaron Bernstein, _Business Week_, Sept. 14, 1998.
  8. Baker, _op. cit._. James Bennet, “At a Conference on Wall Street Diversity, the President Finds His Own Stock Soaring,” _NYT_, Jan. 16, 1999.
  9. Andrews, _NYT_, March 12, 13, 15.
  10. .  _Ibid._
  11. . Andrews, “From Wealthy Hesse, an Ally of Business,” _NYT_, March 13; William Drozdiak, _WP_, March 13.
  12. Andrews, “From Wealthy Hesse.”