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“Social justice for all? That’s like Harry Potter on TV on a saturday night”

By Robert Habeck , Roderick Kefferpütz

Despite battling against the tide across the rest of Germany, in Schleswig-Holstein the Greens are back in the state government again thanks to a strong performance in the elections. This time, however, in a so-called ‘Jamaica coalition’ (CDU-Greens-FDP). We spoke with Robert Habeck, Green Deputy Minister-President, about the federal election campaign, coalition politics, the role of the Greens, and his new digitalisation portfolio.

Roderick Kefferpütz: In the state elections of Schleswig-Holstein earlier this year, the Greens emerged as the third strongest party with 13% of the vote, and you were able to draw a line between yourselves and the poor electoral result for the Greens in North Rhine-Westphalia and the trend across the country. What was your secret?

Robert Habeck: We offered policies for the broad majority of the public. In this way we succeeded in speaking to large parts of the population and not just to a small green milieu. This work, which has been carried out over many years, was the basis for a campaign in which we were able to separate ourselves from the wider national trend across Germany. In the campaign itself we then focused consistently on a positive overarching narrative with broad public appeal, and we didn’t get bogged down in detail or specific single issues. In addition, we didn’t let ourselves be defined in relation to other parties. We simply didn’t speak about the other parties at all, but only about ourselves and what we want to do. I believe that that caught on, and that it worked.

Now you are back in government, but this time not in the ‘coastal coalition’ (SPD-Greens-South Schleswig Voters’ Association), but in a ‘Jamaica coalition’ (black, green, and yellow to represent the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Greens, and the Liberal party respectively (FDP)). How will this affect your role? 

It’s still a little early to give a firm answer to this. What has certainly changed are the overall battle lines between the competing parties. The Jamaica coalition is the least popular with the Greens, because there are powerful forces pulling it apart. Policy fields like agriculture or the environment, which in the old coalition weren’t the main focus of conflicts, will now quite simply have a different weight. What will be important now will be the ability to strike a balance between political differences without allowing others to walk all over you. The Greens cannot allow themselves to become some kind of a supporting prop for a coalition between the bourgeois parties. If that happens, the coalition will immediately find itself in troubled waters. We have to find a good balance between Green self-confidence and assertiveness on the one side, and political acumen on the other.

And at the federal level? Could Schleswig-Holstein and its Jamaica coalition be a model there?  

As for the federal level, it simply has to be acknowledged that the starting position in Schleswig-Holstein was completely different. We were already in government and we had achieved a fantastic result in the elections. We had a clear mandate to govern, and so we went about things with a corresponding level of self-confidence. We never had the impression that we could drop out of sight in a coalition defined by others. So we didn’t have a guilty conscience about forming the Jamaica coalition. Besides, in Schleswig-Holstein we already had some experience of working together with the FDP in joint opposition, which is not the case at the federal level. And thirdly, in the Schleswig-Holstein election campaign there was a clear decision that there were to be no personal attacks. Things like that destroy the working atmosphere, and then nobody wants to even sit down with the others at the same negotiation table. So things went altogether differently in Schleswig-Holstein from the way they seem to be going at the federal level here.

The Greens are in government in ten of the sixteen federal states, in very diverse coalitions. Are they governing in so many states because they’re so strong, or has there been some fundamental change in the German party political landscape? And can the Greens remain recognisably the same in all these different coalitions?

In the different constellations, from Kenya (CDU-SPD-Greens) to Jamaica (CDU-Greens-FDP), you can see no difference at all in the way the Greens deal with specific issues. I cannot see that we have abandoned or betrayed the idea of pragmatic and responsible politics in the Red-Red-Green coalition in Thuringia, or the idea of ecological transformation in the Black-Green coalition in Hesse. In all these very different constellations, the Greens are always distinctly recognisable, especially in our specialist fields like environment, agriculture, and energy, which are of course core policy areas for us. And that is the basis for our own independent narrative and strength.

Because we’re not yet that strong. If we can manage to get 13% in Schleswig-Holstein, which really is a structurally weak state previously dominated by farming and the military, then we cannot be satisfied with around 8% at the federal level. And that’s a central question for the party as a whole. Are we a small avant-garde that sets a trend and shows pathways to the future, with its 7% or 8%, and 25 years later the Federal Republic comes trailing along behind, or are we a party that tries to provide orientation in the present, and in a way that enables the majority of people to join in? In Schleswig-Holstein at least, we’ve tried to do the latter.

How do we get to this latter strategy? Now, especially, during an election campaign?

An election campaign is a world of its own, a very superficial one that often has less to do with content and more to do with self-reinforcing effects. In an election campaign, the central question is: who has the momentum? If you’re not playing offense, you’re playing defence. So how do you get on to the attack? We managed it in Schleswig-Holstein. We went into the campaign with our narrative about being a small ‘Volkspartei’ [a party with broad appeal across the electorate, rather than to a small section] for our state. To reinforce that, we needed polling results that backed our claim. So we concentrated ourselves and worked strategically towards those polls. And when that first poll gave us 14%, then our story ran by itself. We had our momentum. And after that, all the substantive policy issues reinforced our position as well.

As a protest party, the Greens have their origins on the streets, so to speak. Do they still have anything of the street left in them, now that they sit in so many state governments?

The street should not be confused with individual groups and their particular interests. For me, the street is a broad social movement. And I think it is absolutely essential that we have this element of the street or of a social movement, and that we keep it, or get it back if it has been lost. However, I do see a dual danger for us here. On the one hand, the danger is that we dissolve into many small, separate elements because we define Green politics as the sum of all these separate citizens’ initiatives; on the other hand, that we simply become the party that is just more capable at government administration. This means we are between two poles of the street and the government. That presents us with a big opportunity, because the other parties are much more clearly on one side or the other. But it also means we have to manage this balancing act.

As Minister, you have now been given the additional responsibility for digitalisation. That’s a topic which will affect everything and will have a big impact on society. How should it be handled?

It has to be treated as a political issue, and that’s precisely where the challenge lies. Because the technological development of digitalisation is much faster than politics. That’s why the issue is currently being handled in what might be called a non-political way. All of the visionary scenarios and changes made possible by digitalisation and artificial intelligence are not being driven by political considerations. We are now at a point where genetics and cell research can change our future lives and create a kind of ‘human being 2.0’: we will be able to regenerate our hearts, to inject nanorobots into our bloodstream, to more or less renovate our bodies at regular intervals and thus to live to 150 or 200. At the moment, politics has completely failed to rise to this challenge.

And that is why I would not be satisfied to be a Minister for Digitalisation who claims to have done a good job because he’s expanded the fibre optic cable network. That’s important as well, of course, but there is more at stake here. What is also at stake is the question of which values should provide the guidelines for the digital organisation of a society, and whether we can retain the values of liberal democracy – especially if we allow digital technologies so deeply into our lives – as is technically possible.

Is there enough discussion of this in Germany?

The discussion is always conducted either with fear or with a naive belief in progress. That is, either digitalisation is seen as really cool, by those such as from the FDP, or else there is some kind of fear of progress. Both are superficial and wrong. Some changes we simply won’t be able to stop, and our lives are already full of the new technology. We have noticed, though, that this is already bringing with it a shift in values. Here’s an example from my summer holidays: I used to keep a diary when I was travelling. That idea would not occur to my children. They put photos on Instagram and share them straight away. But that’s not just a new and different medium, it’s a completely different form of self-perception. A diary is subjective, retrospective, and reflective. That is, a medium in which an individual can reflect on who they are and who they want to be. The other is very public, dispersed, communicative, and social. How does a society use it to re-order and re-integrate itself? And at this point, questions arise about the values we want to uphold, the freedoms, the protected spaces, and so on. It’s only at this point that the political debate starts to become controversial, but also where it starts to matter.

These new technologies give rise to a greater level of individualisation, but on the other hand we are also witnessing a stronger desire for community and belonging. What is the new narrative that could bring both these things together?

Yes, digitalisation means having much better individual opportunities to organise one’s own life. Here’s a trivial example: nobody I know watches television any more by following the TV guides. That means that people today decide for themselves what they want to watch. Why should some TV programme maker from ARD or ZDF sitting in Mainz decide for me that I have to watch the third Harry Potter film tonight? This is an unbelievable degree of freedom. But of course it also means that 20 to 30 years ago we all watched the same news programmes at the same time. That meant that we had a common discourse and language. And it just isn’t like that anymore; instead, everyone watches whatever they want to watch and they get their information from Facebook, Twitter, and so on.

But that divides society.

Exactly! That divides society. It individualises people. And a political programme that operates at the same level as the television programmers in Mainz will fail to match the degree to which people’s lives have long been individualised already. That’s why I say that politics is lagging behind. More dramatically than in many other areas. So if we want to hold on to the idea of society – and in my view we have to do that, otherwise we are no longer a progressive party – then we have to find a language, a form of politics, that doesn’t try to reverse the degree of individualisation people have already long had in their lives, but accepts it, while bringing it into a new form of collectivity. This is unbelievably abstract. Why did the wheels suddenly come off the Schulz campaign train after the hype during the winter, whereas Macron won the election? Of course, there are vast numbers of differences between Germany and France, but one point is certain: at the decisive moments, Schulz overgeneralised, and he did so in the tired old terms of ‘now once again more social justice for all’. Social justice for all, that’s like Harry Potter on TV on a Saturday night. Hardly anyone identified with that; apart perhaps from the SPD grandees themselves, it didn’t appeal to anybody. Macron, on the other hand, succeeded in painting a picture of a diverse society in which everyone, no matter what they think about responsibility or freedom, can find their place – at least, he managed to suggest that.

You were also able to get something on basic income into the coalition agreement. Is that one way to counter the effects of digitalisation on the world of work?

For me, yes. In my case, that’s something that arose naturally out of my life, because my wife and I had children early, and have written books together. The idea that people are naturally lazy is not something that I recognise from my experience. On the contrary, I saw that it was easier to reconcile and bring together different lifestyles and life structures if there is a certain measure of basic security. And that fits in very well with this digital world.

I take all the counter-arguments seriously – for example, that companies could welcome it as a way of quietly slipping out of their responsibilities – and that’s why in Schleswig-Holstein we have agreed in principle first of all to take a good look at basic income in broad terms. That is, to evaluate concepts, experience, and so on from other countries, and if it seems to have been successful, and if we as coalition partners can come to an agreement, then to run a pilot project under specified conditions.

Work is disintegrating. The concept and the understanding of work are changing, but our social security system is still determined by Bismarck’s conception of work. That cannot be the final word. Various forms of basic income are more in tune with the times than that.

 

“Social justice for all? That’s like Harry Potter on TV on a saturday night”