An Example of Neoliberalism as “Whig History”

The Wikipedia page on neoliberalism, has puzzled me for a long time. When I looked at it closer and with a critical eye, I realised that if I read it in the light of a generalisation that “we are all neoliberals now”, it could be made to have an internal consistency. Instead of interpreting the interwar years as a turn in the cycle of ordoliberalism, it emphasised the similarities between the different ideological positions.

This would account for the Wikipedia item dealing with Ludwig Erhard as a neoliberal, rather than as an ordoliberal. Anyone is, in fact, “neo” if at different points in history they and their thinking are analysed as products of Whig history:

Whig history (or Whig historiography) is the approach to historiography which presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasise the rise of constitutional governmentpersonal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment. The term is also used extensively in the history of science for historiography which focuses on the successful chain of theories and experiments that led to present-day science, while ignoring failed theories and dead ends.

This, of course, assumes that neoliberalism is the permanent end state, and it plays down the boom-slump cycles and the extremes of poverty and wealth that accompany the bailing out of banks. Ordoliberalism in these terms was merely a failed attempt to understand the past, and absolutely no help in understanding the (neoliberal) present.

However, it is better understood in the way that fashions in clothes return, a bit like Bell bottoms, returning after an interval of years. However long the interval is can depend on many things. But as I argued in the page Is Ordoliberalism cyclical? this particular neoliberal era will only be exhausted when governments realise that the pure market cannot be separated out from policies and politics, which is, of course, what Karl Polanyi argued in his embeddedness thesis, which can be read here:

Political Science will play a major role in this process of re-rediscovery, and once that happens neoliberalism will die a natural death, at least until the next time neoliberals dream about a society with a pure market free from politics.

But we can all make mistakes. In my work on German ordoliberalism I focussed far too narrowly on housing and urban aspects, and not at all on banks. Now in retrospect it seems obvious that I should have done so, and this is a lacuna in my earlier work on ordoliberalism, as well as in my planning of comparative research in my group. It need never have been like that as I had an outstandingly good Swiss researcher in my group, Philippe Thalmann, and together with Jan Kersloot we published an article in Housing Studies (2005) “Non-profit housing influencing, leading and dominating the unitary rental market” Vol. 20, No. 6, pp. 855-872.

We had two Austrians in the group, and one, Walter Maznetter, confirmed in an email to me in 2013 that Vienna had a similar system. We could never find a German researcher to work with. I was puzzled and rather frustrated by this, and only later, in 2011, understood why we could not find a German researcher (to learn the reason see Anyone who wants to know about German and Austrian ordoliberalism should read the two posts below.

Thee is another point associated with this. Many Wikipedia pages that deal with currently controversial issues are kept so marked – and the main participants in the ongoing drama of the Ukraine is a current such issue – This Wikipedia page is an example: Yulia Tymoshenko. See the talk-page of this article. Wikipedia are keeping it under question until it is resolved:

“This page is about an active politician who is running for office, is in office and campaigning for re-election, or is involved in some current political conflict or controversy. Because of this, this article is at increased risk of biased editing, talk-page trolling, and simple vandalism.”

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  1. Pingback: The Strength of Ordoliberalism (3) | Ordoliberalism

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