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Issue 37, April 1999

Bosses strike out 'Red Oskar'

THE ABRUPT resignation of Germany´s finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, has profoundly shaken the Red-Green coalition government. Nobody now is betting on the coalition lasting its full parliamentary term to 2002.

Never before in Germany´s post-war history has a new government entered crisis so quickly. Elected on the back of the mass anger of workers and unemployed against the neo-liberal policies of Helmut Kohl's government, they have no alternative policy to offer and are under enormous pressure from big business. How big will the mess be when the recession hits Germany in the course of 1999?

Lafontaine was brought down by the bosses. The reason was not that he is a socialist or a left-winger, as he is sometimes portrayed in the press. He did not defend workers´ interests - he was the first to demand a shorter working week with pay cuts in the 1980s - but he was calling for a change in economic policies. He argued for more state intervention, for mild Keynesian reforms, and for higher wages to boost domestic demand. He also argued for lower interest rates and for a new world financial system with fixed exchange rates for currencies.

These were not proposals to defend the interests of the working class, however, but measures to manage the capitalist crisis in a different way. Yet, while the ruling class in countries which are in deeper economic turmoil than Germany, such as Japan, have started public investment programmes and state intervention, the bosses in Europe and the USA still stand solidly for a continuation of their neo-liberal programme of deregulation, cuts in social services, 'flexible labour', and so on. 'Red Oskar' had to go.

  To a limited extent, Lafontaine had raised the self-confidence of trade unionists who were demanding higher wages in this year´s wage negotiations. For the capitalists he came to symbolise the fact that the Red-Green coalition was not the government they wanted. From day one the bosses started a vicious campaign against any mini-reforms which were in the minds of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Green ministers. They targetted Lafontaine as enemy number one. The main bourgeois economic newspaper quoted one company director as saying, 'There never has been a revolution of capital. Now it has started'. On the day after Lafontaine´s resignation they gloated, 'The battle is won. The Oskar Lafontaine chapter is closed'.

The government had already backed down on a number of major issues. They buckled under the pressure of the energy companies on the question of stopping nuclear energy, while the ecological tax reform ended up as a measure solely in the interests of big business, freeing large companies from higher taxes on energy with the income being used to lower costs for employers.

Lafontaine´s resignation will accelerate the shift to the right of the SPD and the Greens. The rest of the so-called left within the SPD were unable to react to the new situation because they have no solution to the crisis in the economy either. The minister for economic affairs, M?ller, offers more help for the employers, including tax cuts - an increase in VAT (sales tax) which will hit consumers is more and more likely.

Right-wing politicians in the Green Party have written a document in which they demand lower taxes for companies, cheap labour and more market economy. This position is also supported by the party 'left'. Left spokesperson and minister for the environment, J?rgen Trittin, now says that, as the SPD and the conservative CDU have fewer and fewer differences, a coalition with the CDU is possible in the future. Given the economic prospects - Germany´s economy slowed in the last quarter of 1998 and is likely to enter recession this year - we will see massive attacks on social services and the rights of the working class by the Red-Green government.

  Lafontaine´s resignation has shown clearly to working-class people that it is big business which holds the power in society. Many think that nothing can be done about that, as even a finance minister could not stand up to big business pressure. But the metal workers have shown who can fight the bosses - the collective power of the working class. In this year´s wage negotiations the metal workers only had to engage in a round of warning strikes and the bosses backed off, conceding a 4.5% wage rise.

In the next few years masses of workers, unemployed and youth will enter the struggle against the effects of the capitalist crisis. They will not have illusions in the SPD or the Greens as these parties move quickly to the right and attack the welfare state. That will mean that many will get active in the trade unions and will challenge the right-wing leadership there. Others will get organised in different forms of ad hoc committees in order to organise resistance. Given the capitalist crisis and the lack of any working-class party many will draw the conclusion that what is needed is a new mass workers´ party which does not defend the dictatorship of the market but stands for genuine socialist policies.

Sascha Stanicic Socialist Alternative (SAV), Germany

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