- 04.03.2024 - 11:00 

Economy and democracy - In a dizzying society

After the societal turbulence caused by COVID-19 and Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022, we now face a new challenge in 2024: the growing and persistent right-wing extremism in Germany. By Thomas Beschorner
Source: IWE-HSG

Can you still remember New Year's Eve 2019? I do. I was feeling confident about the new decade. Maybe it would be the new golden 20s? That feeling lasted for almost exactly six weeks. Then we had to deal with coronavirus - combined with extremely difficult social discussions that reached into the private sphere for almost everyone. We had just gotten over this to some extent when Russia invaded Ukraine. That was in 2022. Now it's 2024 - and we're talking about the next big issue: the rise and persistence of right-wing extremism in Germany. Welcome to the 2020s!

Periods of transition

Sixty years ago, the anthropologist Victor Turner once emphasised that societies are always in what he called "liminal periods". By this he means a social transition, a threshold state in which the old world is no longer there - and the new world has not yet arrived.

Turner's diagnosis of a "betwixt and between", a "no longer / not yet", as the organisational researcher Günther Ortmann once called it, is a very apt characterisation of our social situations. We live in a "dizzying society" under which the ground is shaking. The 2020s (and even before) are characterised by massive social imbalances. And many people have become dizzy as a result. They are looking for stability, they are searching for orientation, even identity - in a world that is spinning ever faster.

Part of the metaphor of a dizzying society is that it attracts charlatans; swindlers who come up with simple stories to explain complexity. Unfortunately, the simpler the story, you could also say, (or the  more stupid the stories), the more likely they are to catch on with some people. "We-they" constructions are very popular: "we Germans or we Swiss, the foreigners"; "them up there, us down here" etc. etc.

Accordingly, people rant about the media, politics, the economy, science - all in the style of a know-it-all, anti-intellectualism and often with the victim sympathy of a minority that believes itself to be in the right simply because it feels like a minority.

Right-wing populism and right-wing extremism

This is roughly the social backdrop for the discussions that are being held on the subject of right-wing extremism in Germany. We should take note of it, but at the same time, not be fooled by the rhetoric of right-wing extremists and populists. Because to be very clear here, something is at stake: namely nothing less than the free and democratic basic order.

It is precisely this basic social order that should also interest the economy. Companies of all kinds: small, large, fat, thin: corporations, medium-sized companies, micro-enterprises in all sectors; and trade associations, chambers of industry and commerce, chambers of crafts and trades as well.

Interdependence of organisations

Why is this important? There are a whole series of sound economic arguments in favour of this, which make it very clear that the current "right-wing" developments in the economy cannot be right. With regard to the AfD's economic policy programme, a closer look also shows that these are maximum libertarian fantasies that don't work at all.

However, the current debate is about much more than that: it is about the fundamental connection between individual freedom, a democratic order and a social market economy. Walter Eucken, one of the pioneers of the social market economy, once aptly characterised this triad as the "interdependence of orders". If one of these three pillars is in danger, the others will falter.

What we can learn from this insight: Democracy is an essential foundation for what we call the social market economy. Both should be important to us, because one is not possible without the other.

The role of the economy

The business community in Germany has woken up to the issue of right-wing extremism in recent weeks, which has led to a wide range of initiatives. Under the hashtag #ZusammenLand, leading media in Germany launched an advertising campaign in cooperation with important companies that have taken a stance on the issue. In Kiel, the initiative "Wirtschaft für einen weltoffenen Norden" ("Business for a cosmopolitan North") was formed during these weeks. In Stuttgart, the "Business for Democracy" alliance was recently launched by the employers' association Südwestmetall in cooperation with the IG Metall trade union in the presence of the German Federal President.

Such initiatives on the part of business are of enormous importance: companies and trade associations should indeed position themselves very clearly on the topic under discussion and "do something" in the best sense of the word. But what can companies "do" in practical terms?

Six recommendations

Here are six brief recommendations for companies:

  1. Fundamental corporate values are the basis for a humanistic way of doing business and therefore the basis for a well-understood corporate responsibility - a responsibility in society, for society. Take the current topic as an opportunity to think about your fundamental corporate values and not just about economic success factors.
  2. Based on these corporate values, check whether these values match your business partners - customers, suppliers, sponsors, etc. - and who you want to work with. I don't think it can be ruled out that your company has relationships with stakeholders who are on the "far right" - and of whom you know nothing. Why don't you have this checked?
  3. Be more vocal in communicating your corporate values both internally and externally - and get creative. In the coronavirus era, companies launched campaigns with the slogan "Square, practical, immunised" (Ritter Sport) or "I like immunisation" (Otto). Bahlsen from Hanover headlines the current topic "Hate gets on our nerves". Deutsche Bahn writes: "Today everyone must stand" - Stand up for democracy. Please imitate!
  4. The key to good communication is to proactively stand up for something (not against something), e.g. for democracy, for diversity, for an open society.
  5. Related to this: As a company, do not make any election recommendations to your employees in favour of or against political parties. This would be an infringement of civil rights and is not ethically permissible.
  6. Engage in dialogue with your employees. That is probably the most important thing. Develop and find forms of constructive exchange on the subject of right-wing extremism and right-wing populism and don't make it taboo. Yes, it will be exhausting, but it is important.

Democracy is work

Helene Fischer and other prominent artists recently took a very clear stand in favour of openness and diversity in Germany. Breathless through the night? Yes, please! And through the day too. Just as millions of people throughout Germany have done during numerous demonstrations against right-wing extremism and in favour of an open-minded society in recent weeks. Democracy is work. It is strenuous work that no citizen or company should avoid.

***This text is based on two keynote speeches given by the author in Kiel and Stuttgart in February 2024. The initiatives "Business for a Cosmopolitan North" and the Stuttgart Declaration "Business for Democracy" were launched as part of these events.

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