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German President: 'Monstrous' Financial Markets Need 'Taming'

The customary “left/right” political divide in the American sense has little to do with contemporary Germany, where parties from all across the ostensible political spectrum excoriate free markets and chat up the supposedly “protective” powers of the state. In case any further evidence was needed for this proposition, consider the speech given by German President Horst Köhler on Monday to the German Trade Union Association (DGB). (For some earlier evidence, see here.)

The occasion was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the DGB. Dismissing the decisions taken at the recent G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh as inadequate, Köhler described financial markets as a “monster” that needs “taming” and he chastised bankers and traders for what he implied was their personal responsibility for the economic crisis:

In fact, in the financial markets we can observe yet again a déjà-vu [sic.] with shell-games in shadow-banking, with opaque derivative transactions and speculation in raw materials markets — and all of this on orders of magnitude that are completely unimaginable. Yes, what I see is that the monster is not yet on the way to being tamed. Above all, I do not yet notice any more profound self-reflection on the part of global financial actors: this is to say, a reflection on the crisis in their own houses, on the crisis of values in their own thought and action. It seems that the branch has left the public authorities in the cold.

In a May 2008 interview with the German weekly Stern, Köhler had already described international financial markets as a “monster” that had to be “shown its place.” The German president’s own website presently features his DGB speech under the title “The Untamed Monster” [Das ungezähmte Monster].

Köhler is a long-time member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). (In keeping with the “non-partisan” character of the German presidency, his party membership is suspended during his term as president.) His speech to the DGB was repeatedly interrupted by applause.

The audience included not only trade union officials, but also leading representatives of all Germany’s main political parties: from Angela Merkel to outgoing Social Democratic Party chair Franz Müntefering to Jürgen Trittin, the new co-leader of the Green Party parliamentary group, to Left Party superstar Gregor Gysi. A former member of the East German Communist Party or “SED” and the first chair of its “post-Communist” successor party, the SED-PDS, Gysi is currently the co-leader of the Left Party group in the Bundestag. Even Guido Westerwelle was there. Westerwelle is the chair of the ostensibly free market-oriented Free Democratic Party, which will soon join Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a new coalition government.

“Can the nations of the world simply depend on market actors to have the necessary consideration for the common good and for sustainable economic activity?” Köhler asked. “No,” he answered, “the nations cannot. The crisis has shown that in economic life and finance, an energetic regulatory policy [Ordnungspolitik] on the part of the state and international agencies is indispensable.” Praising the role of the trade unions in the German economy, the “conservative” Köhler went on to propose “a genuine participation of workers in productive capital and profits.”

Köhler’s speech was preceded by a performance of the “Canto General” by the Chilean Communist poet Pablo Neruda as set to music by the Greek Communist composer Mikis Theodorakis. In November 2003, Theodorakis sparked controversy by describing Jews as “the root of evil.” One year later, he explained to the Israeli daily Haaretz that the Jews “hold world finance in their hands.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know about you,” Köhler said with a smile before beginning his speech to the DGB, “but Neruda and Theodorakis — they really get one going [die mobilisieren, ganz eindeutig].”

(Complete video of Horst Köhler’s speech is available here.)