Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Of Deadbeats and Deutschland

Pat Buchanan has an interesting piece on Europe’s current problems. Unfortunately, like many current commentators on Europe, Buchanan characterizes countries like Greece and Portugal as “deadbeat nations” in need of bailouts from the disciplined Germans. However, as Marshall Auerback wrote back in early November, Germany has actually benefitted from the profligacy of its neighbors whose supposed drunken sailor ways have allowed Germany to maintain its export-driven economy. Auerback even goes so far as to argue that the European Monetary Union “…locked Germany’s main export competitors into the monetary union at hopelessly uncompetitive exchange rates, thereby entrenching Germany’s export dominance, and its selfish, mercantilist model.”  Clearly, Germany is no fair-haired angel in this mess either.

It is unfortunate that so many paleoconservatives like Buchanan can’t shake their antipathy to social democracy. Social democracy isn’t a perfect system, but compared to neoliberalism, it is certainly the superior option, even from a conservative standpoint. Social democracy meant high-wage jobs that often allowed even factory workers to raise a family in comfortable circumstances on one income. Social democracy meant strong local economies not ravaged by globalization, which meant that there was less need to be become a rootless nomad in search of work.  Social democracy meant more access to high culture for working-class people. All of these things are conservative in the real sense of wanting to preserve and nurture the best aspects of human civilization.

Neoliberalism, on the other hand, has placed families on an economic treadmill of debt and long working hours in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. This in turn means less time at home for all family members, more stress as both working parents bring home the misery of wage slavery which has increasingly invaded the home thought the spread of cell phones, e-mail, and other methods by which employers keep their employees tied to the workplace. Less employment security has led to more rootlessness as people search all over the country, sometimes all over the globe, for jobs. Finally, the decline of free time and real income has meant more working-class people have sunk into the mire of junk pop culture as exhausted bodies flop in front of the television to seek escapism in the latest celebrity follies or violent and lascivious television programs or movies that do nothing but serve as the bread and circuses of modern capitalism.

While the issue of bloated welfare states may be valid, it is important not to fall for the morality plays that are being used to convince working people to accept austerity to pay for a crisis that is not really of their making. A systemic critique of the structure of modern neoliberal capitalism is long overdue.


  1. So true... kind of sad just thinking about it...

    As for welfare... yes it is true that welfare states exist, my Golden State being a good example. However, these are merely symptoms of growing poverty and social inequality, which themselves are symptoms of... neoliberalism. Many politicians have this misguided belief in their minds (one of them ran for governor in my Golden State) that the way to solve the problems of the "welfare state" is to make cuts to welfare! Is that supposed to motivate people to look for jobs (that don't exist)? Or to go back to college (which is almost impossible without financial aid these days)? There is never an examination of the structure causing all the symptoms, and no matter how well the symptoms are treated, the disease will not be cured unless it is treated directly.

    Instead of criticizing neoliberalism and offering alternatives, our politicians simply force society to adapt to the damage caused by it.

  2. Very good post. I think that Buchanan's article was one of his poorer pieces. Firstly, Germany does have more of a welfare state than Greece. Greek welfare is almost exclusively left to the Orthodox Church, which sets to loose very, very badly from the economic crisis as papandreou's government is going to vastly raise its tax on church property.

    In Germany the state has to pay someone who becomes unemployed the same wages that they would be paid in work for several months. Whilst I'm a leftist I do think that is a lot.

    As for Ireland, that is far more free market than Germany: which is exactly why I think they have failed. They have little infrastructure, little manufacturing, little to fall back on. Greece at least will have tourism and shipyards. Portugal also has one of the highest wealth disparities in the developed world but again, at least it has a good climate and a fishing industry.

    Furthermore, given that Buchanan writes from a traditional conservative perspective, what does he have to say about the weakening of Greece given that it is bordered by unstable Islamic nations? Does he think that Germany pulling the plug will be good in that regard? Does he think that the free market will help the Mediterranean nations out of their demographic death spirals or exacerbate the process?

    As you say, it is sad that there has been such little paleo-con critique of capitalism itself.

  3. @CA Constantian: Good points. Most of what is called “big government” in the United States and in other industrialized countries was developed as a response to the failures of laissez-faire capitalism. It is reformist capitalism, really, not “socialism,” at least not in the sense of a socialism that seeks to completely supplant capitalism.

    This is, of course, different from the Tea Party/libertarian narrative that evil Statists in a dungeon somewhere plotted to replace wonderful laissez-faire capitalism in a bid to enforce a tyranny of the mediocre.
    With Obama’s election, many people seemed to think that we would have a new reformist movement to supplant neoliberalism, as Keynesian capitalism supplanted laissez-faire capitalism in the 1930s, but this seems unlikely now, since wealthy interests have a stranglehold on the Federal government and there are few powerful populist institutions fighting in the other direction.

    @Gregor: Thank you, Gregor. Your analysis is very enlightening. That is an interesting fact about the Orthodox Church in Greece handling welfare. I am always impressed by the dedication of the Greeks to their faith. As for Ireland, it is it interesting to see how the neoliberals are now treating the country they once hailed as a model for all other countries to emulate.

    As for paleocons like Pat Buchanan, I agree that they often fail to critique capitalism as a system. They are very good at critiquing certain concepts like free trade, globalization, etc., and they do sometimes write about how capitalism harms traditional culture. However, I think paleocons fail to develop systemic critiques of capitalism itself because: (1) they don’t want to be associated with the Left and all that most conservatives associate with it (social liberalism, multiculturalism, antipathy towards religion), (2) many paleocons are strongly anti-state except when it comes to enforcing traditional cultural mores and the Left is usually associated with using State power to restrain or replace capitalism, and (3) many paleocons are strongly anti-egalitarian and seem to view most systemic critiques of capitalism with suspicion, thinking that it is all “Marxism.”