Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

German Labour Experiences since World War Two: A Suggested Interpretation

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

German Labour Experiences since World War Two: A Suggested Interpretation

Article excerpt


ABOUT A CENTURY AGO Werner Sombart, who then considered himself a socialist, published his book Why is there No Socialism in the United States? (1) He argued that capitalist advancement in the us would trigger the development of a socialist movement in the same way this had occurred in Europe. If, for whatever reasons, this did not happen, Sombart argued that the absence of an American branch of international socialism would impede the socialist movements in other countries.

About two decades ago, just after the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had imploded, Francis Fukuyama, who was never considered a socialist, triumphantly pronounced the superiority of the American variety of liberal democracy and capitalism. (2) Every other form of political and economic organization that had been tried in the 20th century, i.e., Western European welfare capitalism, Eastern European state socialism and developmental states in the Global South had, according to Fukuyama, failed. Therefore, he concluded, in order to survive in the global market place all countries had to turn to the capitalist road, which was represented by the US.

However, Sombart's original idea that there is at least some sort of socialism in Europe but no such thing in America has regained unexpected prominence since the 1990s, partly as a response to the American triumphalism expressed by Fukuyama and others. Intellectuals with leanings towards social democracy and organized labour maintained that Europe had found a way to reconcile capital's quest for efficiency (a euphemism for profit) with labour's demands for equality. (3) Unlike the inefficient regimes of state socialism or developmental states, they went on to argue, Europe could avoid convergence to the American model of unfettered markets thanks to high levels of productivity that were, and continued to be, achieved through the cooperation between capital, labour and the state. Such claims are echoed by conservative intellectuals who criticize Europe for clinging to outdated ideas of equality and redistribution. (4)

Academics validate the distinction between "social Europe" and "liberal America" with enormous data sets and sophisticated concepts to compare industrial relations, market structures, innovation systems, fiscal regimes etc. Politicians can pick those facts and arguments from this academic work that support their respective agendas. However, in the arenas of electoral politics and public debate, perceptions matter more than empirical facts or theoretical concepts. An increasing number of people in Europe are afraid of losing even more of the social security and standards that they achieved in the past. At the same time, many people in Canada and the us think of Europe as a land of milk and honey, something nice but also disturbingly socialist. Such fears and aspirations can be conveniently interpreted in the "social Europe" vs. "liberal America" framework, no matter whether this represents actually existing economic, social and political systems on either side of the North Atlantic properly or not. However, some of the nuances that aren't captured within this framework should be mentioned.

First of all, until and during the 1970s, the showcases for neoliberalism, Britain and the us, were as much shaped by pro-welfare state forces as were other capitalist centres. Second, EU-parlance about a European Social Model is a poor cover for the continued existence of institutional diversity across EU-member states and the neoliberal design of EU-integration. Third, the EU is more than a free trade area. Together with their American partners, the ruling classes of EU member states actively promote and enforce neoliberal policies all around the world. Fourth, modern European social democrats, such as Britain's Tony Blair and Germany's Gerhard Schroder, rebuilt their parties following the model of the Clinton Democrats in the US. Finally, eastern enlargement of the EU did not create western-style welfare states but rather a periphery for the western European centres. …

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