The Empress’s New Clothes

The following critical overview of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies was written by a German leftist and published earlier this month in FAZ. A surprising amount of his analysis agrees with my own views and those of other “right-wing extremists”.

JLH, who translated the piece for Gates of Vienna, includes this prefatory note:

As noted in the concluding biographical summary, Wolfgang Streeck is a dedicated leftist and academic. This results in a style characterized by sentences riddled with semi-necessary emphasis particles and adverbs, which envelop whole paragraphs and pages. My apologies in advance to anyone who feels strongly that the original style should always be preserved. I can only plead that Mark Twain would have sympathized. On the other hand, where I was unable to sectionalize a monster sentence, my apologizes to those who do not enjoy following grammatical bread crumbs.

The translated article:

Style of Governance

The Empress’s New Clothes

Madness. But is there a method in it? Angela Merkel relies on a public that accepts caprice and kitsch. Footnotes on a governing modus operandi that is becoming stranger and stranger. A guest essay

by Wolfgang Streeck
May 3, 2016

[Photo caption: Representing the interests of the state? Angela Merkel’s post-ideological turning maneuvers have the appearance of personal conversion experiences (note from the Baron: the FAZ photo has been digitally altered.)]

What if what is happening in Europe is about “Europa”? Anyone who has observed for a sufficient time is aware that every European country — depending on its national experiences and interests — has a different conception of “Europa” and what Germans in their idealism call the “European idea”. What was some time ago dubbed the “sacralization of Europa” goes hand-in-hand in Germany with the routine excommunication of those who have doubts about the EMU (European Monetary Union) and the EU and branding them as “euro-skeptics” or even “anti-Europeans”. The Geßler’s hat[1] that demands obeisance in this case is “the word of the chancellor”: “If the euro fails, Europe fails” — an attempt to retroactively sacralize the miscarried construction of the (partially) European currency.

Anyone who hesitates to salute is risking exclusion from the protections of the constitution, because he is “aiding and abetting the Right” — provided he is not simply relegated to it — and then, only in the most favorable instances to the AfD. And thus the government and opposition, organizations and media alike, make sure that the national Europa discourse recognizes no interests, certainly no German ones, but only ideas, and really only one idea — the “European” one. Believing in this idea is a moral duty of member states, even those whose economic blood is being sucked out by the euro in the interests of the German trade balance.

The Turning [Wende] Maneuver of the Trained Physicist[2]

Behind all this is an opaque, closed, political system, held together by a multiplicity of bans on speech, thought and questions, defended with “all democratic means” and come into its own in a ten-year maturity process, as “System Merkel”. Its centerpiece is the ruling technique of “asymmetrical demobilization” and the transformation of the office of chancellor into a kind of personal presidency. Asymmetrical demobilization is supposed to prevent voters of other parties from voting by avoiding public confrontation with their goals. Personalized governance depends on the post-ideological turning maneuver experienced as a personal conversion, which the citizens may follow and discuss, guided by government’s PR machine and aided by the more or less government-friendly media

Personalization provides the legitimacy lacking in a rudderless policy created by successive, power politics-driven changes of programs and coalitions, by presenting them as a personal life’s journey. Necessary for this is a public with a short memory, a scanty intellectual grasp of consistency and a low sentimentality threshold, restricted by institutional or moralist exclusion of critical questions. An example is how the “atomic chancellor”, who had pushed secession from the hard-fought Red-Green campaign to leave atomic energy until the day before Fukushima, because she was convinced, as a “trained physicist”, that the residual risk of Chernobyl — as it had been long contemplated at that time — was acceptable. But just a week after Fukushima — still the trained physicist — she became the chancellor of the Energy Turnaround [Energiewende].

This kind of maneuver is eased in Germany by a parliamentary system that does not require the chancellor, like the British prime minister, to stand across from the leader of the opposition and submit to cross examination. In place of the Prime Minister’s Question Time, we have Anne Will’s talk show. Such maneuvers are most successful when they move in the direction of opposition traffic, whose discipline as a coalition partner hastily relinquishes anything that could boost the disheartened, faithful standard bearers of the government camp.

Who Closed the Balkan Route?

To each country its own ways, one might say. But the national peculiarities of German politics in the close quarters of Europe have the most destructive imaginable external effects. The core of the new German ideology is a self-image of German policy as European policy — policy derived from the European identity for European interests. And that is because there can no longer be German identity and German interests. This is connected with a moral claim to the fealty of all other Europeans — a claim that can only evoke resistance, intensified by the unpredictability of a German governing style run as a “one-woman show” following the imperatives of internal, power-political policy that is at least as exceptional as that of any other country. And so the changes of position inherent in System Merkel, which are confusing enough in Germany, penetrate allied countries. The claim upon European and member state policy for German purposes, the incorporation of other European countries in the course of the re-labeling of German identity and politics as European, is becoming an international source of danger.

With refugee policy as with the salvation of the euro, the destructive dynamic of the “new German” separate path is illustrated. This starts with the alienation nearly everywhere outside of Germany from the German “welcoming culture”, and is far beyond normal international anxiety. This is heightened by a national culture of consensus — perceived from outside as creepy — which makes the acceptance of the most astounding claims collectively obligatory.

In Germany, for example, it is compulsory to believe, or indeed to profess — at any rate, not to doubt, under threat of exclusion from democratic communication, that borders between countries in the 21st century can no longer be maintained. And that successful closing of borders is contrary to human rights, when it occurs in Hungary or Macedonia, but not when it occurs between Greece and Turkey under German supervision. And that there is no difference between asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. That when it comes to immigration, there is only push and never pull. That refugees are refugees, even the discharged interpreters of the American army in Afghanistan whom their previous employer did not find reason to admit into their own country. That an immigrant’s need for assistance is measured by whether he has enough money to pay the smuggler and the strength to negotiate the Balkan route, and by how far along that route he gets. That there can be no ceiling on the admission of immigrants. That the measures undertaken with the would-be dictator of Turkey to end the refugee stream are not in contradiction to this. That the same applies to estimating the number of Syrians who will be admitted on humanitarian grounds, with reference to the number of their compatriots captured at the maritime starting point of the now closed Balkan route. That the closing of the Balkan route in time proximity to the Cologne New Year’s “celebrations” was accomplished by “Europa” under the leadership of the German chancellor, and not by Austria or Slovenia, and therefore is in agreement with “our values”, which would ordinarily be different.

No Ceiling

The decision to open the German borders certainly had nothing to do with a political necessity for image-correction following the destruction of the Greek healthcare system by German foreign policy, and just as little to do with plans for preferred 2017 coalition-building, or even with the insuperable resistance in Merkel’s own ranks against an immigration law and the foreseeable consequences of this resistance for employment and pension policies. This decision was entirely due to a personal, moralistic impulse of the chancellor and therefore no cabinet decision, no governmental declaration, no law and not even a written directive to the appropriate authorities was necessary.

The political constriction of German public opinion must seem even more threatening to the members of the EU, when it is demanded that they accede to it without protest. To be sure, every national consensus community tends to imagine the outside world as an extension of its inner life. But German policy combines its self-definition as European with the expectation that its smaller neighbors will emulate its bizarre backs and forths. For example, when Germany seeks “European solutions” which are German ones for everyone else. So the German-European answer to the pressure of immigration was originally expressed in the call to allow immigration “with no ceiling” and distribute the immigrants in upwardly flexible “contingents” to all member states of the EU.

Half a year later, on the other hand, it contained the originally discounted closing off of European exterior borders with the help of Turkey, in exchange for the prospect — offered by the German head of state in the name of “Europa” — the previously rejected admission of Turkey into the EU and the dropping of the visa requirement in EU member states for Turkish citizens . The cardinal principle was the ban on nations going their own way, excluding Germany, of course. As at the time of the Energiewende, Germany suspended the Dublin regulation without consulting the other European countries, and it was only because of solo actions of other states — at first moralistically condemned and then co-opted by “Europe” — that Germany managed the feat of keeping its borders unrestrictedly open and simultaneously ending the influx of immigrants

The Unity Party — Pressure to Conform

Only a German used to System Merkel does not get vertigo. In other countries, there is the devastating impression of a diminishing acceptance of capricious political and intellectual expectations by an implicitly docile German public, for whom sacrificium intellectus[3] is a duty. Besides the governmental apparatus, what has been contributing to the virtually one-party conformity pressure that maintains the German refugee discourse is the left and left-liberal milieu, which routinely supports national discipline by using the threat of relegating dissidents who cannot perceive the “chancellor’s new clothes” to the rightist, beige-to-brown [i.e., Nazi] category.

Thus intimidated, no one wanted to inquire what could have been meant, when Merkel let it be known that the refugees would “change our land” and indeed, “for the better”, which was followed a few weeks later by the euphoric declamation of her soon-to-be vice chancellor that that “our land would become more religious” through immigration.

Elsewhere, such conversion plans would at least call for a parliamentary question hour. In Germany, the subject was left to “the Right” and alternatively, anyone who insisted on the subject was considered to be a part of the Right. The same is true for the legal organization and legal basis for opening the border. And for the consequences of the government-driven immigration of “our future fellow citizens” and for their homelands. And for the puzzle of why the government does not fly the neediest out of the camps, build schools and hospitals for the others, and — as to those alleged 500,000 annually needed by the German economy (April, 2016 prognosis) — do as Canada does and use a point system to seek them out and fly them in.

Kitsch and Non-Kitsch

Even in retrospect, it is astonishing to contemplate a public discussion in which it was impossible to distinguish humanitarian obligations from economic interests and our own needs from those of the refugees, so both could be better taken care of. Cf. the detailed suggestions by George Soros(!) in a brief, astute article in the New York Review of Books. Instead, common sense is declared to be “right radical”, running the risk that rightist radicals may appear as the foremost or even the only representatives of common sense.

Large swaths of the German quality press, to say nothing of the openly rightist media, have forgotten that it is a task of political commentary to investigate the narratives produced by political machines as they relate to underlying networks of collective and particular interests, rather than acting as cheerleader for a wave of charitable enthusiasm, which we all know will not last. Instead of critical analysis, we all too often have psychologizing, obsequious reports — both pre- and post-modern — on-the-road-to-Damascus experiences of a party leader who, unlike Saul-become-Paul, is capable, ever anew as occasion demands, of doing it again, from Fukushima to Budapest to Istanbul.

It is probably futile to hope for Shakespearean meaning in lunacy or simply the ability to distinguish kitsch from non-kitsch. For instance, when the Green governor of Baden-Württemberg, Winifred Kretschmann, shares with us that before going to bed he prays for the head of the party whose coalition partner he wishes to be. Or — after the election debacle — when the “parties represented in the Bundestag” announce in concert that all is well; after all, 80% voted for “Angela Merkel’s refugee policy”. Or when the head of a democratic government announces in monarchic tones that the country whose citizens have elected her time after time could no longer be “my country” if she could not continue to show its “friendly face”.

Europa Must be Worth That to Us

Supposedly, you can become used to anything. The latest twist in German-European refugee policy seems to be that the member states allow the German head of state with the council presidents in tow to negotiate “European” treaties with whomever, without intending to feel bound by them later. That is certainly better than the spread of increased hostility against a perceived German imperialism, economic, moralistic or both. Perhaps, by anticipating it, this is preparing for the loosening of the lateral coupling of member states with the volatility of German policy.

Ultimately there may be a political constitution appropriate to the European constitution, in the framework of which the Germans could do as they wish without everyone else participating. Here too, it is imperative in the interests of neighborliness to work on a sustainable expansion of the thematic and persuasive spectrum of German political public life, although flouted by the thought prohibitions from the royal purveyors of the milk of piety and the defamations they use in their defense. Europa must be worth it to us, to undergo the risk of being excluded as “anti-European” or “National Socialist” by people who have never been out of Germany,

A Merkel critic from the Left

Wolfgang Streeck is one of the leading social researchers in Germany. From 1995 until retirement he was director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Research in Cologne. In numerous publications he has established himself as a critic of capitalism. He left the SPD, to which he had belonged since his youth, out of protest that Thilo Sarrazin was not expelled. As a leftist intellectual, he is prominent for sharp analyses of the EU as it really is, and as a critic of the governing style of Angela Merkel.


1.   Schiller’s William Tell. Reference to the (Habsburg) imperial governor Herman Geßler in the provinces that were to become Switzerland, who placed his hat on a pole and demanded that every passing citizen salute it. Tell, of course, refused.
2.   I am reminded of the villain of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Physicists, in which three prominent physicists in an asylum are only pretending to be insane. One of them — Möbius — has made astonishing scientific breakthroughs which he fears mankind will misuse, and this is his escape. The other two are here to recruit him for their respective homelands. The true villain of the piece is their psychiatrist, who also runs the institution, Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd. She is genuinely insane, has gradually copied all of Möbius’ original research, and is poised to rule the world. James Bond would tremble. She is cunning, secretive, manipulative, grandiose and, of course, nuts. Now whom does that bring to mind?
3.   Apparently a Germanic scholarly rendering of “giving up individual thought”.

11 thoughts on “The Empress’s New Clothes

  1. I’m left speechless; while incredible that the writer disassembled the German body politik, it’s unclear how the citizens are to (bloodlessly) unwind the mess. I pray for the German citizens.

  2. The bio claims that Wolfgang Streeck is prominent for his sharp analyses of the EU as it really is. Well I think he knows it “as it really is” only partially. It’s a bit complex to know everything. He needs to camp out in Calais a few weeks and Merkel needs to be tied to a tank headed into a Syrian war zone. The problem with Merkel is more than her style of governing. The problem is her and the problem is the people who vote for her too. Time for the breakup of the EUSSR. EU members must start leaving the EU now Before it’s too late, before TTIP and TiSA get its claws in. the other big problem is the illegal EU itself. The EU project must be burned down to the ground and only then will Europeans dance in the streets again even though there will be no guarantees. Meanwhile the lamps are going out all over Europe.

    • Yes but…

      Whilst his analysis is pretty straight, his remedy will be more of the same. Socialism is incapable of self-correction, it only has one solution to any problem and that HAS to be made to work each time around. This is now the fourth cycle: French revolution, Russian revolution, Nazi revolution and EU revolution…..

      • And world revolution next, MC. Remember what Daniel said about the Third Temple being desecrated.

    • Peter,

      “A leftist gets it (I think.)”

      It’s not a Left/Right issue, that’s a myth. Some people on the left understand the existential threat that the Islamic ideology presents to liberal democracy.
      There’s the Left and there’s the loony Left.

  3. Bloodlessly?
    I am afraid that is not bloody likely, anymore.
    We will probably get through 2016 in fair shape very like the present whilst still in decline–but I doubt that the West will get through 2017 without major upheaval. This weird combination of invasion and collapse that we endure proceeds slowly enough though, that it still might boil the proverbial frog and end us all.
    Will opposition voices like G of V be loud enough to prevail through the calamitous ‘noise’ of the national main street presses? Let us hope. In any case, it will be as Wellington’s “Near-Run thing” battle hard fought.

    Luck to us all.

  4. I wonder at the author being allowed to write and speak as he did, and then be published. This “prior notice/acknowledgement” of what all of us here already know may be in reality an “in your face/ whatcha gonna do abboutit” gauntlet that has been cast at the feet of those of us who do not wish to comport to the new agenda that appears to be pervading the entire world.
    I am concerned for the unknown factor that Islam is. Mahomet’s doctrine was known to be fluid and changeable. There have also been a sufficient number of doctrinal ‘revisions’ during the past 100 years that could lay the groundwork for a ‘new’ interpretation that will be awarded to the highest bidder.
    While the world may be standing on the shifting sands of political and religious change, I prefer to stand on the Rock as I have difficulty keeping my balance when the ground underneath me is moving.

  5. Angela Devela Merkel
    We love her.
    Best regards from The Union of Satanists in EU

  6. I think we get a little too obsessed with the labels “right” and “left.” We are so used to “tribal politics” that we expect to identify everybody as one or the other, with no possible overlap in beliefs. If we didn’t have the mass media constantly labeling and defining our discourse, most of us probably wouldn’t know which tribe we belong to.

    Our media seems to have decided, for example, that if you believe that global warming caused by CO2 emissions is a real problem, you must be a leftist. But if you favor nuclear power, you are a rightist. But if you favor nuclear power as a solution to global warming, you must be a..ah..uh, that does not compute, help! (head explodes)

    I personally find Islam to be a vile (and violent) religion, and I oppose Muslim immigration to the West, so I must be a rightist. But I think abortion should be legal (so I’m actually a leftist). Uh oh, get ready for head to explode again.

    With all the above said, I do recognize that there is a sort of loosely organized “tribal left,” as well as a “tribal right.” An amazingly large number of people self-identify themselves as belonging to a particular political tribe, and proudly rally around some nutty pundit – on the left, we have the propagandist Noam Chomsky, formerly a big fan of the Khmer Rouge but now obsessed with destroying Israel. The staff at Comedy Central have turned left-wing punditry into a well-paying business. On the right, there is more competition for leading the charge, though I think Rush Limbaugh deserves recognition for fathering the movement, and making millions in the process.

    Personally, I don’t identify with the left or the right. As Groucho Marx once said, I’d never belong to any club that would allow people like me to join it. But getting back to the topic of this article, congratulations to Wolfgang Streeck for having the courage to speak out. I’m sure that many members of the left-tribe will attack him as a result, and possibly the German government will find some way to prosecute him. Such are the risks one runs for simply stating the obvious in public.

  7. Interesting essay.

    “This is heightened by a national culture of consensus — perceived from outside as creepy” —

    Yes, the word “consensus” has acquired some sinister connotations, as the Swedes have learned to their cost. Were they arrogant or just extremely naive?

    I noticed a UN report that forecast that Sweden would be a Third World country in 15 years.

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