Wednesday 7 August 2013

The Lure of German Capitalism

During the 1980s and early 90s there was a fad for all things Japanese. Reflecting the then growing strength of Japan's economy, bits of what some would now call J-culture dribbled into the West's popular consciousness. Video games were the most obvious - Nintendo, Sega and then Sony pretty much cleared out American games consoles and European home micros. Anime, and Manga specifically became a whole new hobby/obsession for teenagers of a geeky bent. But the tsunami of all things Japanese did not confine itself to popular (youth) culture. It exercised the imagination of managerialists, wonks and sociologists of work too. "Japanisation" became a buzzword describing the importation of voguish theories of workplace organisation. If memory serves it demanded regular assemblies of workers, a strict system of workplace deference and a feeling of paternalistic responsibility on the part of the company towards its employees. But then as Japan's economy stagnated and the novelty value of its cultural exports wore off, so did Japanisation. Besides, "responsibility toward the workers" was so much socialist poppycock as neoliberal imperatives restructured the British economy.

But the faddishness is back. This time it's strictly affecting the Bubble and those who chase it, and it is Germany - not Japan - that politicians and commentators have gone dippy for. It's for the same reasons - the efficiency and order of German society, its soaring economic success, its epitome of integration and sectoral balance. For the discerning technocrat, what's not to like? Even George Osborne, that clueless husk of neoliberal soundbites and narrow class interests can't hide an aspiration for Britain to become more like Germany. Never mind that he's ideologically allergic to the corporatist practices that underpin their "model".

With this unabashed admiration - or Germania - gripping the London dinner party circuit, it was only a matter of time before a BBC commissioning editor got round to giving programmes about the German Condition the green light. Hence Dominic Sandbrook, when not penning Germanophobic tosh, took a look at the German car industry; and, bizarrely, Rick Stein's been on a culinary tour of the country. But the third - and most sociological - of BBC Two's German Trilogy was Justin and Bee Rowlatt's Make Me a German.

This documentary sees the Rowlatts "travel to Nuremberg and adopt the German lifestyle in an attempt to find out what makes Germans so successful." To do this they must both live the "average" German's life. This, according to the programme, consists of the following attributes:

* Live in rented accommodation
* Have one or two children
* Male partner works in a Mittelstand company
* Female partner stays home (at least when the children are young) and does 4.28 hours of housework a day
* Attends an evening club (Justin joined a singing group)
* Saves 10% of the salary
* Observes the special status of Sunday
* Gets up 20 minutes earlier than the average Briton

Work and home are the key sites the documentary turns around. Justin is packed off to a pencil factory, one of many tens of thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises that collectively employ some 70% of Germany's workforce. He's here to find out how German workers are much more productive than their British counterparts, and yet manage to work an hour less a day. And true to form, it's the very picture of smooth running and orderliness. He is gently chided by one of his workmates when he stands around waiting for the pencil machine to do his work. At McDonald's, I understand they used to say "time to lean, time to clean". Which is what Justin had to do. Equally bemusing, he was not allowed to text from the factory floor as, in work time, he had to keep his eye on the pencils all the time. But it was a nice foil to lead into workers' attitudes toward their jobs. With a cultural emphasis on stability, most businesses build team bonuses into their models. As wages tend to rise in line with inflation, extra spending depends on securing the bonus. There is then an immediate collective interest in reaching the productivity goals the company sets, in turn providing a material basis for business "patriotism" and a sense of shared endeavour. Vocational education has long been voguish in Britain, but in Germany around half of its young people leave school and move into apprenticeships. These then lead on to jobs for life, as employers tend to value the experience their workforce builds up.

Meanwhile, Bee spends her week bouncing off the walls of their apartment. Utterly nonplussed how a German housewife can spend over four hours a day keeping a home, she seeks out other women at the children's nursery. She is shocked that many of these young mums are actually quite content to stay at home and bring up the kids. As it happens, the tax regime in Germany encourages motherhood - there are tax breaks available for men who take home a bread winning wage. For the mother, a two income household is so punitively taxed that it is barely worthwhile bothering with a job. This probably explains why German business is more heavily patriarchal than practically any other West European economy - just two per cent of board members are women. If that wasn't enough, many jobs open to women with a mother's responsibilities keep hours that do not fit around the school day. It's almost as if that was done on purpose. And lastly, there is a social stigma - working mums are known as "raven mums" who pinch pennies at the expense of bringing their children up properly. As a career woman (both Howlatts work in good jobs at the BBC), she could not get her head around this deeply traditionalist-sounding arrangement. But entirely separate gendered sphere of responsibility do speak of a sense of order, especially when set against what you might call the 'flexible families' common in Britain.

A couple of points about the programme. As this comment by Kathrin notes of Make Me a German, the Howlatts did not choose to live in an "average" area of the country. Nuremberg and Bavaria is Catholic, more conservative, has better wages, lower unemployment and fewer working hours than the rest of Germany. It would be like taking the Home Counties and describing them as typical of Britain. The second bit is the confusion of industrial for German discipline. I don't know if either of the Howlatts have worked in a factory, but I have. And I can tell them there is nothing peculiarly German about bonus-related production targets, keeping a constant eye on the machinery and not bunking off a few minutes to send a text. In other words, what they find foreign is the workplace experience of working class people, which they mistake in this case for German-ness. But that is the modern condition of the relatively privileged - their view of the world is taken for granted and assumed to be everyone's default outlook.

This was a gentle portrayal of Germany, however. Apart from the strong reaction against women's expected domesticity (not shared by Justin, incidentally); Germany's problems are skirted over. Yes, it mentioned immigration and how large numbers of Turkish migrants were locked out of German citizenship - even if they were born in the country. It noted how living standards were stable, not soaring; while German capitalism is booming. And popular discontent around Germany's being the EU's banker got the briefest of asides. It didn't mention, for instance, the three million unemployed (and rising) and increasing poverty, particularly in urban areas. And is it impolite to mention the persistence of difference between the old Federal Republic and the late and unlamented German Democratic Republic?

The integration of business and education, the stability in work, the paternalism of the employers is 'better' than British capitalism. It delivers more jobs, allows for a better standard of living, and generates greater wealth. But "Germanism" cannot simply be imported off-the-shelf. The cultural difference between the two capitalisms is deep rooted. As the first capitalist nation and then seat of the largest empire the world has ever seen, "our" bourgeoisie inherited a culture of short-termism and complacency. Germany's ruling class however had to use state planning to overcome the country's relative backwardness in the 19th century, and then again to rebuild after the war. For Britain to become more like Germany requires nothing less than a cultural revolution - one that throughout Britain's long decline last century our decadent rulers have resisted. But nevertheless, casting one's eyes across the North Sea we see not all is rosy in Germany. Its problems are the same intractable problems of capitalism everywhere. And so, we have to ask ourselves, is the German model the best we can ever possibly hope for or is there a better society waiting over the horizon?


belle le triste said...

Bit unfair to Rick Stein there:
(a) German cuisine is not in intrinsically worthless object of enquiry ( a TV schedule which favours slightly gimmickery cookery programmes)
and (B) Stein is (as his name indicates) of German ancestry.

Phil said...

I just liked how the food programme was shoe horned into a mini-season about German culture (read order and efficiency).

Fred said...

Three cheers for this article.
When I came to live in Italy in 1989, I used to read "The European" avidly for articles like this, to get an idea of life elsewhere in Europe.

Our different languages, and lack of any pan-European media mean that most of us in the bigger EU countries, are confined de facto by our mother-tongues within an almost totalitarian nationalist culture.

By contrast, in smaller EU countries, which can't afford enormous TV empires, people often watch other European TV programs.

I think the EU parliament should have an high-priority debate on setting new quotas of SUB-TITLED TV progs from other European countries. Also regular, short sub-titled Euro-news bulletins.

We are a multilingual continent. How can the EU have any meaningful democracy unless TV exposes most people, and not just rich bourgeoise, to this reality?