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Ideology and Morality: What the Financial Crisis teaches about functioning of democracy

by Patrick Schreiner Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 at 5:45 AM

Moralizing is a form of argumentation found in many ideologies and academic systems of thought.. State interventions, we were taught, are bad because they run counter to the objective laws of the market.. The market is a social institution that we interpret in different ways..


By Patrick Schreiner

[This article published November 15, 2012 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Ideologies always contain statements about facts. When these statements do not match reality, there is moralizing: a condition does not exist but should. This is now shown by how neoliberalism appears in discussions of the current financial crisis. The lesson is that democracy is always a dispute over its interpretation, never a conflict around facts.

For the mass of workers, improvements in the here and now were on the day’s agenda, not visionary demands of a better future or historical laws. To simplify, the reaction of dogmatic Marxism was moralizing. A moral “the working class should be” came out of “the working class is.”

Moralizing is a form of argumentation found in many ideologies and academic systems of thought. When practical or objective statements turn out “incorrect,” these become imperative statements. Morality replaces facts. In this way, one’s own ideology is rescued despite opposing facts. Ideology obviously needs morality when facts no longer match the ideology.

For many, Marxism is now regarded as a failed philosophy since the defeat of communism in the competition of the systems. Neoliberalism is seen as its victorious opponent. However the current financial- and economic crisis actually shows that dogmatic Marxism and dogmatic liberalism have one thing in common. Liberalism moralizes as the basic ideology of the market economy and capitalism when the facts no longer match the ideology. That was the case with the collapse of the international banking- and financial system.

Dealing with Greece is a very insidious example. In a moralizing way, it is said Greece is not fulfilling its “promises.” The assumption here is that a budget deficit could be reduced by cutting state spending. If a state cuts its expenditures, the economic output collapses – and the deficit often increases – as is now happening very massively in Greece. The economic facts in the country contradict the ideology of the Schwabian housewife. But moralizing occurs instead of correcting the ideology. In the summer, an article worth-reading appeared in the Berliner Zeitung newspaper [1] on priggish language in the relation of politics and media with Greece.

This moralizing seems to be a basic pattern in confronting the current financial- and economic crisis. The market functions according to laws, it was preached for decades. Supply and demand regulated prices. Whoever is not efficient or economical disappears from the market. Whoever is efficient will be rewarded. State interventions or obligatory economic conduct for the common good are bad, we were taught, because they run counter to the objective laws the market. Those in the circles of the (neo-) liberal high-priests were (and are) skeptical about unions, collective agreements and minimum wages. Even if these theses are defended more quietly since the financial crisis, they were loudly proclaimed for many years in the political debates…

It is interesting to see how the debate has turned since the latest intensification of the banking- and financial crisis. “Greed” and “megalomania” are now suddenly denounced as though pursuit of gain and the growth orientation were not seen for years as necessary and good behavior on the market. “Mis-management” and “unprofessionalism” are criticized as though failure on the market was not represented for years as completely normal and necessary. “Casino-mentality” and “fraud rampage” are decried as though speculation on future profits was not propagated for years as the mainspring or driving force of all free enterprise prosperity. As with dogmatic Marxism, morality should save ideology here. The core of the argumentation is that ideology is the correct description of reality but some people act contrary to this reality.

The moralizing criticism of the speculation rampage was represented by the former German finance minister and current chancellor candidate Peer Steinbruck (SPD). The questionable financial products are only dubious because there is too much speculation. Former German president Horst Koehler also saw the “economic elites” obligated in a moralizing way. They must relearn moderation and liability. Only maximization of profits occurs to them. For years, maximization of profits was justified as the task of “economic elites” even if bank employees were dismissed.

In the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung newspaper, the former FDP-head Wolfgang Gerhard was quoted as saying”market, character and attitude” are equally significant and important. He also spoke in a moralizing way of a “business virtue of modesty” and of “civilized virtues.” The former head of Deutsche Bank Josef Ackermann moralized confidently: “The market economy has always learned from crises and become better. That will also happen this time.” Only Gerhard and Ackermann know how this is compatible with the ideology of the market economy as a purely rational process full of laws that run automatically. The stock market newspaper also recently discovered the morality in capitalism.

Where are the unquestionable practical necessities, the pure facts and unavoidable laws of the market now? The answer is simple. They do not exist just as the historical laws of dogmatic Marxism do not exist. The market is a social institution that we interpret in different ways – like capitalism as a system.

In a democracy, we argue over the arrangement of the market as we argue over the organization of the German army and the themes of education programs. The market can be questioned like the German army. The market does not run simply automatically and rationally. Pursuit of gain is not a natural law but is itself a morality that is cautiously contrasted with other moralities.

On this background, the talk about practical necessities or constraints and laws that we had to hear intensively since the end of system competition turned out to be very undemocratic. This argumentation is undemocratic because it contributes to the conflict of opinions and does not appear as an opinion. It wears the robe of the inevitable and lawful and claims a higher truth-content – and yet is only morality and opinion. In the austerity orgies in Southern Europe, morality and opinion are rising from the ashes.

In the 2008 Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, former government spokesperson Uwe-Karsten Heye (SPD) described this assessment of practical necessities and laws in an interesting way. In a retrospect to Gerhard Schroeder’s term in office, he said: “We must slowly understand capitalism with a human face that considered social interests also perished, not only the DDR (East Germany.” In the 1970s, we did not have to carry out any debate about the minimum wage, not for a second. Capitalism had captivated and enthralled. We – the western world –w anted to show the Eastern block at last that we have the better and more social form of society. Capitalism emerged unfettered from the end of bipolarity. It saw itself as a victor and did not show any consideration any more.

As a reverse conclusion of Heye’s comment, if the DDR still existed, capitalism would have been more social and more human in 1998 and afterwards. Supposed practical necessities were described as what they actually were and are ten years after the assumption of power of the SPD and the Greens: claims and opinions in a battle of claims and opinions excluding one another. In this unequal battle, certain claims and opinions of Heye’s capitalism gained acceptance in an undemocratic way as practical necessities and as far more acceptable.

Perhaps the most important lesson from the current financial crisis for democracies is that the market must be seen for what it is, a conflict field not an automatism full of laws, a conflict field where the interests of employers and capital are marked by subjective opinions and claims just like the interests of employees and the unemployed.



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