A leader elected to widespread acclaim a mere few years ago, empowered to make real change and sweep away a discredited regime — now on the ropes, a target of the party they had brought to success. Yes, Angela Merkel is having a tough time.
Having come in as the great alternative to a succession of statist and indistinguishable Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, having thoroughly bested the latter in the most recent poll, she is now the object of a deep dissatisfaction from the German public. The difficulty for Merkel is that there is no consensus on what exactly they don’t like about her any more.

Traditional SD union and left blocs have marched against the relatively mild inroads she’s made into the German welfare state – other groups have complained that she hasn’t done enough to change the culture. Pro-Europeans have slated her for dithering on a bailout of Greece; many others now hate her for ultimately agreeing to it. The recent Westphalia regional elections saw the CDU replaced as largest party by her free market coalition partners the Free Democrats.

Merkel is not alone in this despite. The condition is near universal in the West…

Nicolas Sarkozy, once the standard-bearer for European free-market reform is now widely dismissed as a time-wasting clown, Gordon Brown was escorted off the premises, without his opponents being given a commanding mandate, Barack Obama’s successes have been consumed by a strategy of hedging and caution, Japan’s political leadership has collapsed, Greece has dithered its way over the past decade to auto-destruction, the Swedes are likely to make the ‘right-wing’ reformer Carl Reinhardt a one-term PM in September, and it is proving all but impossible to stitch together meaningful governments in the Low Countries.

And then there’s this bloke in Australia….

All unhappy governments are unhappy in their own way, but beneath their very real differences, the predicament is the same. There is now a fatal disconnect between the perceived challenges faced by nations and the entire species, the political system and the leaders chosen by it. Governments that attempt to address structural weaknesses in the economy from the right, immediately attract opposition – often from people who voted them in to ‘do something’.

Those like Rudd elected to make social reforms from the left get opposed at every turn when they show the least sign of concerted effort, and please no-one when they try a steadier and slower pace of change. Leaders of conservative parties such as David Cameron and Tony Abbott, in their very different ways, conversly find it difficult to be conservative in the genuine sense of minimising government action – and thus commit themselves to endless, opportunistic and disconnected ideas often take from social democratic parties. To quote George Orwell Western publics resemble a sick man turning from one side to the other in bed every fifteen minutes, in pursuit of momentary relief.

This sudden collapse of legitimacy has come at the end of a more stable period, in the anglosphere at any rate. Bush, Blair and Howard represented a shared approach to social life – an unleashing of untrammelled market forces, compensated for by a tightening of social and cultural repressiveness, and a projection of power (and problems) out to the wider world.

The public consented to this formula as long as the consumer and service economy, and purchasing power within it, continued to grow. Once it hit a wall in 2008, that consent was withdrawn. What was revealed was not a happy public in tune with charismatic leaders who represented their values, but a disconsolate and dissatisfied public who were both aware that great changes are required, but unwilling to countenance a change in lifestyle. They want strong leaders, but they don’t want the truth from them. They want their way of life to be restabilised, but they don’t want anything done. They want to be involved, but they don’t want to be led by do-nothings. And so on.

Part of that is due to the mendacity of a right-wing media which sells a toxic mix of pessimism and false nostalgia, but no-one can make bricks without straw. The neo-con trio of Howard, Blair and Bush may be the last for some time to enjoy the genuine sense of legitimacy – which for all of them had in any case, evaporated some time before the end of their reign. What is on offer now is a series of ad hoc governments chosen with minimal enthusiasm and consent, and quickly turned on when it becomes clear that they are dealing with problems on a scale that stretches beyond the power of political frameworks inherited from the nineteenth century.

Whether Gillard or Abbott win the next election will make little difference to this. Abbott remains an object of suspicion and dislike outside the News Ltd op-ed rooms, and Gillard’s wave of support derived from becoming the first female PM, and Labor at that, will not long survive a rightward turn on asylum seekers, and other ‘necessary’ manoeuvres.

This collapse of legitimacy comes from two factors that are less coincident than they are different sides of the same coin – as the scale of problems facing Western society has rapidly been revealed, the utter disconnect of deadened elite political parties has come to the fore. Whether people can vocalise it or not, the 2008 financial crisis, combined with an overarching sense of environmental unsustainability, and the apparent absence of any wellspring of economic recovery has created a a widespread awareness that our way of life — as defined by open-ended consumption as its key cultural component — is on the clock.

For thirty years people have been told by economists that the GDP figure is what matters and not the actual types of production that compose it. Now they look around and realise the obvious – that we dont make any shit anymore, what we’ve replaced it with is flimsy and fragile, and that we are massively in hoc to the East, which is in turn, dependent on our (now vanished) continued purchasing power.

In the last decade, they were told that the ‘new economy’ meant that we could live on thin air, and essentially expand for ever without boom-and-bust — now, once again, the obvious appears: an economic system which extends credit using the future profits from that credit is a giant Ponzi scheme. The billions and trillions counted into the Western economy never existed at all. Finally, the clash between system and environment could be ignored when it was couched in abstract language, or expiated with pointless personal recycling tasks. But now that BP appears to have actually punctured a hole in the Earth in a manner beyond our capacity to fix it, well, the attention has been focused.

The same historical development – a switch to an economy and society multidimensionally unviable over the long term – that has created the big problems has made existing political parties unable to respond to it. As class society became more atomised and segmented in terms of interests, the sense of relationship between parties and classes atrophied.
Into that vacuum has rushed narrow political castes, who have made the parties self-sustaining, self-reproducing entities of Mps, advisors and hacks – sustained in Australia by the triple whammy of compulsory voting, non-optional preferences and state funding of political parties. This essentially makes them immune from any real need to have a relationship to a genuine social base.

Given license to manage things during the good times, by a population encouraged not to be involved in the running of their own lives, such parties and their leadership have no public backing or good faith extended when adverse circumstances offer only bad and worse options. Furthermore, those who have risen to power from these political castes find themselves manifestly inadequate to deal with all-encompassing problems, since their training has been largely in petty political and media tactics. Brown, Bush, Merkel, Sarkozy, Blair, Nelson, Turnbull, and now Rudd…all have fetched up on the reef of the twenty-first century. Obama, despite some achievements, looks like going the same way. Intellect or its absence has nothing to do with it, since the problem is deep-seated and structural. The only rule-proving exception has been Greek PM Georges Papandreou, which is undoubtably connected to a family and national heritage of actual lethal struggle. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

At first sight, it might appear that Australia has escaped this cycle, given our glorious and obviously never ceasing flow of resources. But really, it was beginning to imapct at the end of Howard’s leadership – not only in the lack of connection with the heartland that allowed them to introduce Workchoices, but also in the way that the oublic so easily dumped him. Now that Rudd has gone, he is being blamed by all and sundry for a lack of connection with, well just about anybody. But it is the very fact that Ruddism could develop its distinctive style – highly abstract depoliticised grand initiatives – in the absence of objections or protest from within the party, that is a measure of how utterly disconnected the political process has come. When the wider crises hit us – and giant quarry or not, they will – whoever is occupying the big seat will be equally flummoxed, out of their depth and quickly discredited.

The coup against Kevin Rudd was seen by all commentators to be a remarkable occurrence, as for example would a dancing building. It is only when you realise that there’s an earthquake moving underneath it, that it starts to make sense.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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