Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
The prospects for Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic Party’s candidate for chancellor in the coming German election, are looking up because he has stopped looking down.
His poll numbers are climbing the more he abandons the elite rhetoric of fierce competition in the flat world of globalization that champions the sophisticates who dominate cosmopolitan culture industries and the cult of canny entrepreneurs whose algorithms scale them up to unicorns overnight, mythically making it to the top through nothing other than their singular genius and clever marketing moves.
The imputation is that those who merely work with their hands and hearts to make the daily world turn — the very store clerks, elderly caretakers, waiters, janitors, meatcutters, supply packagers, delivery drivers and others on the front line of the COVID battle — are second-class citizens, if not slackers and losers who deserve low pay and lowly regard as proper compensation for their lack of ambition and college credentials.
When such constituencies actively resent this demotion of their dignity, they are cast into Hillary Clinton’s condescendant category of “deplorables.” Perhaps more than anything else, this rift in the social status-sphere is what roils politics across Western democracies today.
Understanding this, Scholz has sought to reverse the implicit disdain for average workers and pledged to restore a society that respects their dignity and compensates them for their real value upon which the success of all others is built.
Scholz’s political message is informed by his reading of philosopher Michael Sandel’s 2020 book, “The Tyranny of Merit.”
Sandel’s use of the word “merit” is unfortunate since it can mean nothing more than the knowledge and experience to do something with competence. He deploys the term instead to disparage what he calls the “rhetoric of the rising” used by the “professional classes” who dominated the center-left politics of the Tony Blair and Barack Obama era.
Their mantra was that the best route to success in a relentlessly competitive world was for the individual to aggressively strive for the highest grades and prestigious credentials, especially from the most elite schools, in order to access the top law or financial firms, or as an entrée into the universe of high-tech startups promising to richly reward their entrepreneurial swagger.
The best would scale the heights. When success came, it was due to nothing other than making it on their own “merit.” “Then those who rise by dint of effort, talent, hard work, will deserve their place, will have earned it,” says Sandel. “The implication is that those who do not rise will have no one to blame but themselves.”
In Sandel’s reading, this patronizing blame on the un-rising is the root of the populist revolt. Scholz agrees. And that is what he is trying to uproot in German politics.
“Why did Britain vote for Brexit if it was against its own interest?” he asks. “Why did America vote for Trump? I believe it is because people are experiencing deep social insecurities, and lack appreciation for what they do. … We see the same dissatisfaction and insecurity not just in the U.S. or the U.K. but in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Austria or Germany. … Among certain professional classes, there is a meritocratic exuberance that has led people to believe their success is completely self-made. As a result, those who actually keep the show on the road don’t get the respect they deserve. That has to change.”
Scholz wants to replace the self-serving ideology of “merit” with one of societal “respect,” calling out the hypocritical “applause” for frontline workers during the pandemic so far unaccompanied by any commensurate revaluation of their economic worth. He has pledged to start heading down that path with a $15 per hour minimum wage in his first year in office if elected, something that has long been resisted in Germany. Scholz has also pledged to preserve and invigorate the country’s apprenticeship programs for small and medium size industries, which are the backbone of its manufacturing strength and working-class employment, while loosening fiscal strictures that inhibit investment and spending that would boost the fortunes of those who labor in the basic service economy.
The election on September 26 will demonstrate whether Scholz’s approach resonates with voters, many of whom have abandoned the mainstream parties of the postwar period. More than any set of policies, his crusade for “respect” that would stamp the dignity of recognition on every level of society would go a good distance in stemming the animus of resentment that fuels anti-elite populism.
Hegel long ago understood that since identity is established inter-subjectively, the lack of recognition by others would lead to “a struggle for recognition,” such as we have seen in recent years not only in the white working class precincts of the rusting belt, but in its symbiotic twin of race and gender identity politics that have seized university campuses.
Neither, of course, is a self-contained phenomenon, but cut across other life experiences that ultimately define a person’s place in the world. They may even align now and again along the anti-authoritarian or libertarian axis they sometimes share.
What has sustained faith in all the great religions over millennia is precisely the spirit — if not always its practice — of inclusivity in which none are privileged and every believer is equally valued in the eyes of their God.
If Scholz can lead the way in fostering that same dignity of recognition in political life, there is some hope of escaping the struggle for it that is ripping contemporary societies apart.