The Frau is for Turning

In January 1979, at the height of the “Winter of Discontent”, the British Prime Minister Jim Callaghan was interviewed as he disembarked at Heathrow. Asked about the strikes that had even left the dead unburied, Callaghan replied: “I don’t think other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.” This was summarised by the Sun in a memorable tabloid headline: “Crisis? What Crisis?” Two months later, Callaghan lost a motion of no confidence in the House of Commons, and in the subsequent election Margaret Thatcher swept to power. The moral of the story is: faced with a crisis, the one thing a leader cannot afford to show is complacency.

Angela Merkel has acknowledged the real threat to the West

I want to ask what we might call Callaghan’s question: what crisis? What kind of crisis are we talking about? Is this present crisis really a crisis of capitalism? Or is it, rather, a crisis of the Western civilisation to which capitalism belongs? Until the rise of socialism, the market economy functioned more or less well. Then Marx renamed the market economy “capitalism” and insisted that it was inevitably destined for “crisis”. This was good news for economists, particularly those of the Left, because their diagnostic and prescriptive expertise was thereby rendered indispensable — indeed, permanently so. According to the experts, therefore, capitalism has been in crisis more or less ever since. We have all got so used to this terminological conjunction that to our ears, “capitalism” and “crisis” belong together, like “in the long run” and “we are all dead”.

Is it the case, as Marx believed, that economics determines politics and culture, or isn’t the reverse true: that the predicament we face is primarily a cultural and political phenomenon, of which the economic upheaval is merely an epiphenomenon? 

My answer is that the economic problems we face are serious but soluble and certainly not systemic. In fact, the market’s self-correcting mechanisms have already gone a long way to restoring equilibrium. The main contribution that governments can make is to live within their means, to maintain the money supply and to resist populist demands for punitive taxation or regulation. And, for the most part, these are indeed the measures that they are taking, in the teeth of often violent opposition.

But that is not the whole story. Underlying the present fluctuations in the financial and labour markets is a challenge to our fundamental values as a civilisation. It is this threat to Western civilisation that truly merits the appellation “crisis”. The economic turmoil has the function of highlighting the stark choice that we will have to make, and on which will depend the future of our civilisation.

I am not an economist, but an historian, and so I would like to illuminate both the threat and the choice by looking back to another period when Western civilisation faced a similar predicament. I would like to cite two witnesses: one for the defence of the West, the other for the prosecution. In his 1927 book Liberalismus (later translated as Liberalism in the Classical Tradition), Ludwig von Mises considered the question of whether the civilisation built on liberalism and capitalism would go the way of older cultures, as the “dilettantes” (he had in mind Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West) had been prophesying. The Spenglerian pessimists were wrong, thought Mises: 

Modern civilisation will not perish unless it does so by its own act of self-destruction. No external enemy can destroy it the way the Spaniards once destroyed the civilisation of the Aztecs, for no one on earth can match his strength against the standard-bearers of modern civilisation. Only inner enemies can threaten it. It can come to an end only if the ideas of liberalism are supplanted by an anti-liberal ideology hostile to social cooperation.

Note that Mises is not conferring a spurious immortality on Western (or, as he prefers to call it, “European”) civilisation: he concedes that it could be hollowed out from within. That, of course, is precisely what happened, at least in continental Europe. Following the Crash and the subsequent Depression, the critics of capitalism and liberalism gained the ascendancy in the battle of ideas. In 1931, four years after Mises warned against the “enemy within”, Ferdinand Fried published Das Ende des Kapitalismus (“The End of Capitalism”). Whereas Mises was a lone voice crying in the wilderness, even in Vienna, the marginalised capital of a defunct empire, Fried was the leading figure in an influential Berlin-based circle of nationalist intellectuals around the cutting-edge journal Die Tat (“The Deed”). Today, Mises is still read as a liberal classic, while Fried is forgotten, but at the time Fried’s critique of capitalism from the radical Right was even more sensational than the more familiar one from the Left. Here is the choice that Germany faced, as Fried saw it:

On one side stands the declining “West”, itself already beginning to disintegrate, and with it the entire complex of the capitalist spirit: the free market, debt, the gold standard, world trade and stock markets, international capital flows, stimulation of demand, advertising, cost price calculation, export drives — all of them about to smash themselves in the present crisis. On the other side…redistribution of wealth, debt relief, “the bondage of interest rates”, doubts about gold and the present conception of money, the right to work and above all the right to life, national and ethnic solidarity, economics as self-sufficiency, the authority of the state.

Having thus set up this existential choice in terms that are uncannily reminiscent of 21st-century anti-capitalist campaigners, Fried then focuses on Germany. He sees Germany as the heart of a divided Europe, while Germany itself is in turn divided between a capitalist West and an agrarian East, with Berlin as a capitalist “enclave”. Germany, as one of the debtor nations, is destined to take its place in the “world in revolt”: “In the coming clash of civilisations, Germany, as the country most exposed to the impact of Western ideas, has been assigned the most important task, perhaps even the leading role.” 

Anyone who has studied the writings and speeches of anti-Western leaders such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, of leftist and environmentalist intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein, but above all of Osama bin Laden and his fellow Islamists, will recognise these sentiments of Ferdinand Fried. Germany no longer has such an exalted role in the anti-Western camp, whose leadership has numerous other claimants today. 

Capitalism, now as then, is an integral part of the Western civilisation. For friends and foes of that civilisation, the Judaeo-Christian and Enlightenment traditions that enabled capitalism to emerge are part of a seamless whole, a complex of natural and man-made law, of virtues and values without which a market economy cannot function. More important even than the rule of law or representative democracy, however, is the idea of an open society, a public square, in which freedom of speech and of the press are guaranteed. It is this freedom of access to the realm of public opinion that enables Western societies to criticise and correct their faults. The marketplace of ideas and opinions makes possible the marketplace of goods and services. Where the former is lacking, the latter is defective. Conformism, repression and corruption go hand in hand, as we see under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes everywhere. Mises thought illiberal ideologies were the political equivalents of neuroses in psychoanalysis: pathological compulsions that enabled the neurotic to live a lie, eine Lebenslüge, shielding him from reality in a bizarre comfort-zone where fear and loathing replace love and security. Even if we do not share the very Viennese faith in Freud of Mises, we may agree that those who hate Western civilisation, and especially those who are its products, suffer from profoundly masochistic guilt complexes that are immune from rationality. And we may also accept that it is healthy for the neurotic to be exposed to reality, by whatever means. Those who represent our politics and culture need to be given a regular reality check, however unwelcome this may be.

How well is the public sphere in Germany functioning? Consider, first, the case of Thilo Sarrazin. Just because his book Deutschland schafft sich ab (“Germany is abolishing itself”) and the subsequent controversy have become so notorious, we should not assume that this outcome was inevitable. As long ago as 1999, Peter Hitchens, a prominent English journalist, published an indictment of Tony Blair’s “cultural revolution” with an almost identical title: The Abolition of Britain (Quartet). Rather than generate a nationwide debate, however, the book was met with almost total silence. Last year, he updated it under the new title The Broken Compass: How British Politics Lost its Way (Continuum). Once again, the book was killed by silence. 

That was not Sarrazin’s fate, to put it mildly. The initial reaction to his book must have exceeded his wildest expectations: it sold a million copies in a matter of weeks. Clearly his critique of multiculturalism and the long-term impact of Islam found its mark. But then the politicians got involved. In particular, Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that Sarrazin’s opinions were “unerwünscht“: not merely mistaken but undesirable, even dangerous. The rest of the German establishment followed Frau Merkel’s line. President Christian Wulff followed the procedures necessary to force Sarrazin to resign from his post on the board of the Bundesbank. Having sent out the signal that to criticise Islam would cost any public official his job, this same head of state attempted to draw a line under the affair when he declared: “Islam is part of Germany.” Not only had Sarrazin lost his job, he had apparently lost the argument, too. In Standpoint, Karen Horn praised Sarrazin’s courage in launching “a double debate which will benefit Western civilisation: one on the mishaps of integration, another on the road to serfdom down which our political class is leading us”. 

Then, however, something unforeseen happened. Chancellor Merkel gave a speech to young Christian Democrats in which, to their astonishment, she admitted that “we lied to ourselves” about how successful the integration of the Turkish Muslims into German society had actually been. “The multicultural approach,” she declared to enthusiastic applause, “has failed — utterly.” This was pure Sarrazin. Suddenly, his “undesirable opinions” had been adopted by the German government — without acknowledgement, naturally. The echo his book had found in the electorate meant that his views could no longer be ignored and the petty spite of the political elite’s punitive reaction had become indefensible. Public opinion had forced Frau Merkel to change course. This is how an open society is supposed to function. Germany has not abolished itself — yet.

How did Angela Merkel come to accept that she, her government and Germany had to change with the times? It is surely significant that she is an East German, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a teacher of English and Latin, who lived at different times on either side of the Iron Curtain. The young Angela grew up with first-hand experience of the difference, not only between the prosperity of the capitalist West and the poverty of the communist East, but between what Orwell called “the freedom to say that two plus two equals four” and a diabolical world in which reason itself is denied.

Far better than most Western leaders, Frau Merkel grasps why the West is now faced with a real threat to its survival from the moral and cultural relativism that underlies the multicultural approach to Muslim immigration. Another — now deeply unfashionable — leader who gets it is George W. Bush. In a recent interview, the former President told The Times: “One of the controversial things I happen to believe is that freedom is universal. I happen to believe there is an Almighty, which might make this statement even doubly controversial, but the gift of that Almighty is freedom. And there is a tinge of moral relativism in the world expressed by those who say: he is imposing his values. Well, I rest my case. They are not my values. They are universal values.”

Angela Merkel shares both the Christian faith and the undeviating moral compass of George W. Bush and Tony Blair. In this, she is quite unlike her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, who was German Chancellor during the years after 9/11 and who capitalised on anti-American sentiment in German elections during that period. Immediately after his defeat at Angela Merkel’s hands, Schröder accepted a lucrative post working for an arm of the Kremlin, the energy monopoly Gazprom. It is inconceivable that Frau Merkel would allow herself to be tempted by an offer, however generous, from a regime whose record is so utterly at odds with the values of Western civilisation, and which barely disguises its anti-Semitism. Before she was elected, she gave her word to the people of Israel that she would never make any concessions to anti-Semitism: “We will fight with determination against this and use all legal means at our disposal. It is important to heighten the society’s awareness of the meaning of anti-Semitism, which means the hatred of mankind.” Frau Merkel has stuck to her guns on this crucial test of the West, going out of her way to build close relations with Israel, regardless of the conflicts on its borders and the weight of international hostility.

Germany’s most important relationship in the Muslim world is with Turkey. The country’s largest ethnic minority is much younger than the rest of the German population, and much of the Sarrazin controversy concerns the impact of Germany’s failure to integrate its Turkish citizens into the education system. Sarrazin argues that the result of mass immigration and de facto segregation has been a drastic decline in educational standards. His claims are hotly disputed but the fact remains that international comparisons over the past decade, in particular the OECD’s league table Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), suggest that Germany has long since lost its reputation as Europe’s most highly educated nation, and is now performing at or below the OECD average. How far this can be attributed to the failure to integrate German Muslims is moot, but it is clear that under Angela Merkel there is no question of Germany permitting a huge new influx of Turkish or other Muslim migrants.

There are other reasons why Turkish membership of the EU is unthinkable for Frau Merkel. Having shouldered the burden of saving Greece from bankruptcy, the German Chancellor is not about to risk taking on the incomparably greater liability of its neighbour and rival, Turkey. As if to reinforce the danger, a parcel bomb, addressed to Frau Merkel and apparently sent by Greek terrorists, was defused in Berlin last month. Undaunted, she still advocates penalising bankrupt member states by depriving them of voting rights. Together with her flinty Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, Chancellor Merkel is determined to defend and police the Eurozone more strictly. She fears a return to the instability of the past two years. In an interview with the Financial Times, she denounced countries where “growth was built on debt and [speculative] bubbles. I now see the world in some regions returning to a sensible growth path. The greatest danger that threatens us is protectionism, and we are still not taking enough steps to ensure genuinely free trade.” 

Inevitably, some have compared Angela Merkel to Margaret Thatcher. On the economy, the German Chancellor has already proved herself worthy of the comparison — an iron lady indeed. The spectre of the Weimar Republic and its catastrophic economic consequences still haunts the Berlin Chancellery. Ironically, however, that is precisely why Frau Merkel had to distance herself from Sarrazin, only to embrace his critique of multiculturalism, after an indecently brief interval. German public opinion likes leaders to be tough-minded on economics but is easily intimidated by the aggressive assertion of the interests of radical Islam under the guise of the rights of a victimised minority. 

The commentator Necla Kelek has become a symbol of the generation of Turkish-born Germans who have grown up under the tyranny of their “community”. She has written several devastating books about the sufferings of young Turkish men and women at the hands of their elders, particularly the “foreign brides” imported into Germany to live in forced marriages, to whose plight the authorities turn a blind eye. Significantly, Necla Kelek spoke in support of Sarrazin at his book launch. Last month, she received the Friedrich Naumann Prize in the birthplace of German democracy, St Paul’s Church in Frankfurt. There she spoke movingly of her hope that German Muslims will seize the chance of freedom, explicitly comparing them to the East Germans who had also found life in the West problematic. Responding to President Wulff’s “Islam is part of Germany”, she bravely declared: “Not sharia, not the unity of state and religion, not the claims of the umma to infallibility, not the segregation of man and woman: none of these must be allowed to become part of Germany. That would be a betrayal of freedom, of the constitution and of the Muslims who are experiencing individual freedom for the first time in history.” 

What the Merkel government is doing, by embracing the ideas of Kelek and Sarrazin, is reversing half a century of multiculturalism. It required courage for Angela Merkel to change her mind, but she did so. On the issue of Islam, the lady was for turning.

What is also striking, however, is the response to Frau Merkel’s volte-face of the self-appointed guardians of liberalism. Let me give just one example: Günter Grass. In a recent newspaper interview, he argued: “The West’s moral voice lacks credibility.” Is Grass voicing necessary self-criticism here, or is something else going on? Here is his evidence. The West has no right to deny Iran nuclear weapons because Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not seen in America as war crimes. Note that for Grass, the annihilation of the Jewish state, which Iran has explicitly declared to be its goal, is less important than the supposed hypocrisy of the US in confronting the events of 65 years ago. Past trumps present. Grass is obsessed with his idée fixe, that the victors of the Second World War have failed to follow the example of Germans like himself in acknowledging their crimes, such as the bombing of German cities. He insists that, because the Bush administration has not been prosecuted for war crimes in Iraq or Afghanistan, therefore “the Nuremberg trials retrospectively become a farce, granting right-wing extremists an argument they wouldn’t have had”. But it is he who gives that argument respectability, by placing the Nazis and their Japanese allies on the same moral plane as the US or Britain. Tellingly, Grass thinks neo-Nazis are less dangerous than “politicians in the democratic parties who make a big circus to win votes from the far Right — as in the Netherlands, with Islam enemy number one”. In other words, he makes no distinction between the representatives and defenders of Western civilisation and those who are fundamentally hostile to it. Grass is happier denouncing democratic leaders, such as Bush or Merkel, than the mortal enemies of the West, whether Nazis, communists or Islamists. 

I am afraid that Grass, who fancies himself the conscience of Germany, has instead become the opposite: the voice of a nihilistic moral relativism. He and his kind are precisely those “enemies within” against whom Ludwig von Mises warned us. Western civilisation cannot be destroyed by a crisis of capitalism: only the enemies within can threaten it. The West needs its critics to be tough-minded and even to break taboos. But civilised debate presupposes a reverence for life, liberty and the law that ultimately derives from the knowledge that we are made in the image of God. Public opinion can only perform its vital role of providing the checks and balances if its leaders clearly distinguish between, as Karl Popper so memorably put it, the open society and its enemies. 

It was in the book of that title, first published in 1945, that Popper wrote: “We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.” An ideology that preaches intolerance as an article of faith is incompatible with the open society that Western civilisation has uniquely nurtured. If we are to preserve our freedom, whether in the marketplace or the public square, we must not delude ourselves that we can accommodate Mephistopheles, as though he were just another exotic product of multiculturalism. The death cult of Islamist terrorism, which negates everything the West stands for, is the latest manifestation of Goethe’s devilish nihilist, “the spirit that always denies”. We cannot integrate those whose only purpose is the disintegration of our civilisation. 

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