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Beyond Possessive Individualism

Shrinking the financial sector and overcoming neoliberal myths are crucial to overcome the next financial crisis. The authors, German Young Socialists in their 30s, decry the myths that incomes are just, that self-interest leads to public interest and that economics and politics are separate. US elites prefer flying in jets to studying tax charts or distributive justice.

Criticism of financial capitalism does not go far enough. The left must take up the competition of ideas around a new society with democratic conservatives

By Niels Annen, Byorn Bohning and Benjamin Mikfeld

[This article on political strategy published in: Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung newspaper September 22, 2011 is translated from the German on the Internet,  link to www.faz.net.]


Measuring the success of political parties by the success of their representatives has become a fashion. But this is too simplistic. An ideology failed, not only persons: the ideology of market-liberal possessive individualism. This way of thinking that reduces freedom to economic freedom of contract has lost its influence in nearly all German parties - although it had a majority in a moderate form from time immemorial in Germany.

With the financial crisis, a disorderly withdrawal from neoliberalism began in the two large camps, the conservatives and the left or red-green. After a lot of effort, the SPD arduously marched backwards in its "third way" and clears away several liberal errors from the red-green coalition - most recently in fiscal policy. Many conservatives question their partnership with their liberal economic companions stylized as a fairy-tale wedding. Historically it is not an accident that shrill fairground barkers have withdrawn or even abandoned their parties.

We remember Gerhard Schroeder wanted everything to be done differently and better in 1998. Today "improving" is understood as mere pragmatic government work, neither capitulating before political conflict nor the final wisdom for social democrats. Rather we must do many things differently today. This presupposes readiness for a modern, not backward-oriented criticism of capitalism and ideology. The excesses of financial capitalism are denounced everywhere now. But this must go deeper if the criticism should lead to changes. Some critical voices presented with verve are only superficial tactics, not a strategy.


To penetrate to the core, refuting and overcoming the market-liberal myths infiltrating parties and heads is necessary. The first myth is that incomes gained in the free play of forces are just and correspond to performance. The current debate over "more taxes on the rich" suffers in that it is only understood as a bailout-measure for a heavily indebted state.

Social prosperity arises out of a complex interplay of many factors. The wealth of individuals cannot be absolutely equated with their performance. The property owner who constantly raises his rents in a trendy part of town makes a higher profit without doing anything... Thus it is right and reasonable when society properly taxes this profit or the property - to maintain the social and economic infrastructure of the cities and create new reasonable living spaces.

The second myth argues the self-interest of everyone maximizes social well-being. The related question whether everyone can do what he wants with his property (after taxes) is affirmed by society so far as it does not have any side-effects endangering the public good. We need universally applicable rules because the liberal view of the person as homo oeconomicus is often false. The conduct of a herd of ego-tacticians can lead to crises and losses of prosperity as shown in the hundred-year history of greed and panic in diverse speculation crises. Unfortunately the social learning curve is remarkably flat. A politico-economic profit brake to enable sustainable economic- and entrepreneurial growth is more important than a debt brake.

The third myth artificially divides our society into an economic and a political sphere. Democracy has to be kept out of the economy. But how convincing is an ideology that asks the weakened state for scarce tax funds when the free play of forces leads to economic collapse? In history, it was and is mostly the state that overcame crises and introduced new growth phases.

The task of democratic politics is to argue for this functioning of the state on the economic terrain. Otherwise the extortion potential of the "markets" endangers democratic civilization - investors always disinterested in the public interest - as we observe again and again in history.


Neither a nostalgic glance back nor trivial answers lead out of the crisis. One fact is clear: an ever-larger part of the politico-economic assets and of the increasing top incomes must be withdrawn from speculative processes. They must be taken away so these assets are steered into genuine future-friendly investments according to the rules of collective democratic reason - in the turn from the fossil to the solar age. How this can be done is contested. A future-friendly social democratic logic must become concrete. The hope of rationally acting market actors is not trustworthy since their rationality today is oriented in na´ve, short-term profit explosions.

For this strategy, we need new social alliances. The necessary democratic organization of the economy only finds acceptance when we overcome the artificial separation between the economic "I" and the civil society "we." The liberal model of democracy is weak and knows no common agreement on economic questions. What connects the banker from Frankfurt with the cashier from Ulm, the Turkish trainee from Dortmund with the creative from Berlin? They can all wave the flag at a soccer match. The political space of our republic is socially and culturally fragmented.

This is indifferent to the liberal; he doesn't know anything like society. Still a new "we" needs more than a flag and freedom of contract. A democratic squabbling is necessary about the goals we set and the means for reaching them. We have to embed our economy in a new social republicanism that negotiates common economic goals and promotes a culture of cooperation - without hindering concrete economic initiative and personal autonomy.

Such a "we" may no longer be narrowed in a national way. It must be joined to a shared European identity. Therefore defending the European idea and questioning the market model for the European Union is the task of a pro-European social democracy.

In the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung newspaper, Frank Schirrmacher recently expressed doubt in the so-called middle class camp of market liberalism. On "middle class values," he said: "I am beginning to believe the left is right." He in no way crossed over to the left but indirectly called to a competition. It is time to contrast the two great political "currents," the democratic conservatives and the democratic socialists on the political stage and argue what the social republic of Germany (and Europe) should look like.

Social republicanism is an offer to civil society to organize the economy differently. It makes society and the economy better for everyone. As an idea, it is more than the pure rivalry over the better technique of government.

Niels Annen, 38, was chairman of the Young Socialists from 2001 to 2004 and is a member of the SPD party executive. Byorn Bohning, 33, led the Young Socialists from 2004 to 2007 and is also in the party executive today. Benjamin Mikfeld, 38, was the Young Socialist chairperson from 1999 to 2001.

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