The specter of ordoliberalism is haunting Europe. This socio-economic theory, before the euro crisis known only to a handful of people outside of the German-speaking world, has made a formidable career during the past five years. Commentators in media and universities have identified it as a variable that should explain the position of Germany during the European sovereign debt crisis. The discussion on the contemporary influence of ordoliberalism follows the same geographical fault lines as the euro crisis: southern Europeans often see ordoliberalism as an “ideational superpower” at work amongst German elites. Germans, on the other hand, are reluctant to admit being remote-controlled by ordoliberal ideas. They think that Germany’s reply to the crisis was commonsensical.
The treatment of ordoliberal ideas by most commentators is too superficial, and its influence is too often assumed rather than thoroughly traced. We though that political ideas like ordoliberalism should be studied in their own right before we can use them as independent variables for our explanations.
Christian Joerges from the Berlin-based Hertie School of Governance and I were not satisfied with either interpretation. The treatment of ordoliberal ideas by most commentators is too superficial, and its influence is too often assumed rather than thoroughly traced. We though that political ideas like ordoliberalism should be studied in their own right before we can use them as independent variables for our explanations. For that purpose we organized a two-day conference at the Hertie School on May 13-14 2016, co-funded by the Thyssen Foundation and the REScEU project at the University of Milan. The title of the event was “Ordoliberalism as an Irritating German Idea” and the aim was to find out more about ordoliberalism and why it provokes so many irritations outside of Germany, while its provisions are perceived as commonsensical within the country. We brought together 24 experts on ordoliberalism from Germany and elsewhere, and we had them discuss, debate, eat, drink, and argue with one another for two days. The results went far beyond our expectations. The proceedings will soon be available in the report series of ARENA, the center for European studies at the University of Oslo, and will be published as a book shrtly thereafter. The following is a cursory summary of the major insights of the conference. We organized speakers around three main themese: “ordoliberalism in Europe”, “irritations”, “reconstructions and Ordoliberalism”.
Ordoliberalism in Europe
The section on ordoliberalism and the European Union held the most political dynamite and could be also of interest to those readers that are not fully fledged ordo-nerds. The section revolved around the question of how much influence ordoliberalism had on European integration and how much it can explain Germany’s response to the euro crisis. The discussion got heated. The participants were split on the issue. Angela Wigger (Radboud University) denied any specific ordoliberal influence on European competition policy while Heike Schweitzer (Free University of Berlin) emphasized the influence of the ordoliberal Ernst-Joachim Mestmäcker in the 1970s, when he was legal advisor to the European Commission. The question on the contemporary influence of ordoliberalism was even more controversial. Philip Manow (University of Bremen) and Brigitte Young (University of Münster) both emphasized the limits of the ordoliberalism-as-ideational-superpower thesis and favoured an interest-based approach pointing towards Germany’s shift to an export-led growth model during the 2000s, for which the unresolved crisis and the euro are highly beneficial. Young also argued that crisis management has led to a degree of discretionary influence, breaking and stretching of rules, that cannot be called ordoliberal.
A set of distinguished non-German scholars pointed out that socio-economic ideas similar to the ordoliberal tradition—albeit under a different label, and much less successfully—have actually been pursued in their countries too. The reason why the ordoliberal label never made its way to these countries was simple: it was too German.
Christian Joerges had already pointed out earlier during the conference that the current crisis of law in the EU indicates that ordoliberalism cannot have played a significant role. Johnathan White (London School of Economics) countered with a theoretical elaboration of why the breaking of rules might from the very beginning already be an in-built feature of ordoliberal praxis. Earlier on, in the genealogy section of the conference, Werner Bonefeld (University of York) had elaborated on a similar interpretation based on the vicinity of early ordoliberal thought to Carl Schmitt’s state of emergency. David Woodruff (LSE) had also emphasized that ordoliberalism is a crisis theory, like Polanyi’s, however a conservative one, which draws almost authoritarian conclusions for state and society. Maurizio Ferrera (University of Milan) argued that the ordoliberal skepticism regarding plural interest representation and democratic features in the economy could have been eased had early ordoliberals taken a closer look at the emerging debates in political science in the 1950s dealing with exacly these problems but reaching rather different conclusions.
An outstanding feature of the foregoing debate was its divisions along lines analogous to those of the crisis itself: southern European researchers were advocating the “ordoliberalization of Europe thesis”, while German researchers tried to dismiss it. Now what does this tell us about the irritative potential of ordoliberalism? Why do Germans find it commonsensical while Anglo-Saxons and southerners find it repulsive?
We asked a set of distinguished non-German scholars to explain why ordoliberalism is perceived as an irritating idea in their countries. Kenneth Dyson (Univerity of Cardiff), Michelle Eversen (Birkbeck) and Bruno Amable (University of Paris) pointed out that socio-economic ideas similar to the ordoliberal tradition—albeit under a different label, and much less successfully—have actually been pursued in their countries too. The reason why the ordoliberal label never made its way to these countries was simple: it was too German. Albert Weale (University College London) nailed it by describing Walter Eucken as a sort of “Hayek in Lederhosen”. William Callison (University of Berkeley) and Stefano Solari (University of Padua) emphasized the incompatibility of ordoliberalism with the dominant strings of liberalism in the United States and Italy respectively.
Tracing the roots of ordoliberalism
The discussion pointed towards a beneficial match of ordoliberalism with German culture and a dissonance in the Anglo-Saxon and southern European cultural spheres. The reason might lie in the ideational roots of many ordoliberal concepts and arguments in German Protestant social thought. This makes its ethical fundament and the provisions that follow from it irritating to people who grew up in countries influenced by Catholic, Christian Orthodox or liberal ascetic Protestant social norms.
In Germany we do not witness the direct reference to religion, but ordoliberalism serves for German politicians increasingly as a “civil religion” in which (crypto-)Protestant values are embedded.
This is not an argument that implies a re-spiritualization of the continent, but religion has been used during the crisis as a cultural marker to declare superiority of the own culture and to fend off demands from other cultural spheres. In Greece, public intellectuals with former Marxist background have rediscovered Christian Orthodoxy for their arguments against the Troika. A former Greek member of parliament even remarked about the negotiations with the Troika that these were difficult because he had to negotiate with “idiots and Protestants”. In Italy, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has recycled the idea of a “Latin empire”, an alliance between France, Italy and Spain based on culture, Catholic religion and Romanic languages to balance the (Protestant) heavyweight of Germany in Europe. In Germany we do not witness the direct reference to religion, but ordoliberalism serves for German politicians increasingly as a “civil religion” in which (crypto-)Protestant values are embedded. All of it points towards a phenomenon that is too often forgotten in the current debate on solutions to the European sovereign debt crisis and the future of the euro: European economies, their institutional embedding, the social and ethical logics according to which they operate, and the ideas that have underpinned them are all cultural artifacts that have evolved along cultural fault lines for centuries. They are complex cultural systems that a successful approach to European integration would need to respect rather than to demolish in favor of one-size-fits-all solutions.
Photo Credits CC MichaelBueker