On Attempts to Fend off Locusts by Shouting: Social Democracy and the (Verbal) Critique of Capitalism

Article excerpt

In recent years, in particular since the financial crisis, forthright verbal attacks upon particular forms of capitalism (or capitalists) have become commonplace. Labour leader Ed Miliband, in his 2011 speech to the Labour Party conference, referred to 'predators ... just interested in the fast buck', and attacked a 'short-termist culture' (Miliband, 2011). In a strident speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, President Barack Obama attacked the 'breath-taking greed of a few', and '"You're on your own" economics' (Obama, 2011).

All this is a far cry from Peter Mandelson's intense relaxation about people getting filthy rich. Indeed, not only has the financial crisis shifted the rhetoric of the centre-left, but the language of politicians of the centre-right has also changed, with criticism of excess in the private sector in a manner unthinkable even five years ago.

An early contribution to this debate was made by the then leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), Franz Muntefering, in 2004 and 2005, when he compared particular companies to 'locusts', painting a provocative picture of capitalism's unacceptable face. This short, retrospective look at Muntefering's claims will set them in context and look at the response in Germany. It will argue that, although the shift in social democratic language was decisive, social democrats in Germany as elsewhere are some way from making the shift from strong rhetoric to having practical policy answers to capitalism's irresponsible face. The rhetoric may in fact be a sign of frustration at an inability to act, rather than an immediate intention to do so.

Franz Muntefering and the locusts

In December 2004, Franz Muntefering, who had succeeded Gerhard Schroder as leader of the SPD earlier in the year (although Schroder remained Chancellor), made a speech at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the social democratic think tank, on the subject of 'freedom and responsibility', concerning the development of the SPD's new party programme (a statement of the party's fundamental principles) (Muntefering, 2004; the following quotes are from this speech). The speech began with some statements characteristic of Muntefering, an exceptionally dry politician, not given to florid language: 'Better a short party programme than a long one. Definitely not too long. Truth is simple'. There followed the obligatory discussion of the need to rethink social democracy in the age of globalisation, Europeanisation, individualisation and new technology. Again, aficionados of Muntefering's dour style will have appreciated his desire to 'remove the value of freedom from the superficiality of the fun society and put it back in the place in our values that it belongs: first place'.

The most striking passage of the speech (although it did not, at the time, provoke much response in the media) came towards the end, when Muntefering said:

  We have to help those firms which are concerned with making their
  companies fit for the future and with the interests of their workers,
  against the irresponsible plagues of locusts which measure success
  every quarter, suck out capital assets, and then let companies go to
  the wall when they've stripped them down. Capitalism is not something
  out of a museum - it's a red-hot topic.

Muntefering repeated the metaphor in 2005, in an interview with the tabloid Bild am Sonntag:

  Some financial investors don't lose any thought on the people whose
  jobs they destroy: they stay anonymous, have no face, come down on
  companies like swarms of locusts, graze them up, and then move on. We
  are fighting against this form of capitalism. (Muntefering, 2005)

This time, there was a lively, if rather predictable, immediate reaction, in the public, the press and the party.

The left-leaning vice-chair of the SPD Parliamentary Group, Michael Muller, declared himself 'delighted' with the public response to Muntefering's thoughts, with which he claimed nine out of ten agreed; his colleague Ludwig Stiegler proclaimed that 'people are noticing that we're not infected by the market-radical way of thinking', and the left-wing Party Vice-Chair, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, congratulated Muntefering on finding 'the right tone' (Spiegel, 2005a). …