by Herman Michiel
With this contribution Herman Michiel answers to Andy Storeys “The Myth of Ordoliberalism“, which was recently published in this blog.
It was a good idea of Andy Storey to circulate his article “The Myths of Ordoliberalism” in broader circles than the academic ones . Ordoliberalism is one of those concepts by which the ‘ordinary’ left militant may be overawed, making her/him think to miss basic knowledge on the nature of the European Union. Andy’s paper is sufficiently readable by the broader public to temper such fear. And that it contradicts the opinion of a (also by me) widely lauded left critic as Wolfgang Streeck proves how important it is to continue our debates within the Left.
In this short note , I want to show that discussing the role of ordoliberalism in the current European context is not just a matter of debate among political scientists. Misrepresenting and overstressing its significance may result in an erroneous political perspective, which takes as the main target not the neoliberal policies of the European Union and the governments of the member states, but the ‘ordoliberal order’ which one of them wants to impose on the others. This at least is the impression I got after reading “Europe, état d’urgence” by Bruno Odent, a journalist of the French communist L’Humanité . Already the subtitle of the book hints to the main thesis of the author: “La régression nationaliste, consécration de l’ordo-libéralisme”. One could indeed summarize the book as stating that in the last few years, Europe came in a precarious position, nationalism overwhelming the continent, now also in Germany with AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and Pegida. According to the author, the reason is that ordoliberalism turned into ‘national-liberalism’ under the pressure of economic competitivity and austerity policies.
For Bruno Odent, it is beyond doubt that the post-war West German economy and society were “progressively configured along the lines of the ordoliberal ideal”, in the first place by Ludwig Erhard, the first economic affairs minister and later chancellor of the FRG (p. 22). Even a superficial knowledge of the ordoliberal theses makes one wonder how they could be reconciled with e.g. the not really market dictated institution of German Mitbestimmung , or with the longtime rather protected position of German companies, financed by German banks rather than by the market. Looking for some clarification on this ‘riddle’, I came across the paper by J. Hien, “The ordoliberalism that never was” . And then, I found Andy’s analysis (quoting also Hien’s paper), fully confirming the impression that ordoliberalism is certainly an elaborate theoretical corpus, but much less an active force in German and European policy formation than often claimed.
Odent recognizes that ‘pure’ ordoliberalism was watered down by trade union agitation in Germany and the existence of the ‘socialist camp’ internationally, but according to him, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union and after German reunification, the German ruling class could free ordoliberalism from these restrictions.
All this could seem a matter of personal interpretation and appreciation. However, Odent’s use of the ordoliberal argument with respect to the course of EU policy risks to reduce the latter to a power game between states, rather than a class conflict between Labour and Capital. Let me first mention an impression of stylistic nature. Odent uses systematically the word ‘Konzern’ when speaking about German companies. No specific meaning is given of the term, and there is no indication what difference there is between a German Konzern and other capitalist companies in Europe or elsewhere. But the use of the German word in a French text gives it a sinister flavour; that at least is the impression it makes on me. As if Siemens or Volkswagen were sharks when compared to ‘doves’ as Dassault, Areva, Total, … A similar effect (at least on me) has the frequent use of the word ‘germanique’ rather than ‘allemand’; that’s only one step away from the even more suggestive word ‘teutonique’, which fortunately is not used.
This is not to suggest that the author gives a nationalist turn to the often dominant role of Germany in European matters. He clearly shows how the German working class is the victim of the Hartz reforms, the plunder of East Germany by the Treuhand Anstalt, etcetera. But his ordoliberal reading of the course of European policy in the last thirty years leads to a misleading interpretation. Instead of a worldwide strategy of capitalist forces to restore profitability (usually called neoliberalism), he sees the “hegemony of German capital on the continent and the eurozone” (p. 28); he ignores the neoliberal turn of the EU starting with the Single European Act (1986) and implemented under Commission president Jacques Delors, whose name is nowhere mentioned. No mention either of the excellent service offered by the European Round Table of Industrialists in the establishment of Europe’s neoliberal ‘constitution’; true enough,this Round Table brought together the cream of European capitalists, rather than German ordoliberals.
As one can expect, reducing recent European history to the development of the ordoliberal Spirit is not without problems. Germany is certainly the strongest member state, but why would other states always bend to the ordoliberal hegemon? Odent gives a not very convincing argument: Germany has at it’s disposal a “superior technocratic agency” (p. 29). The link between ordoliberalism and the progress of nationalist and xenophobic forces also poses some problems. As already mentioned, according to Odent, ordoliberalism turned into ‘national-liberalism’ and produced AfD and Pegida. However, this was 20 years after ordoliberalism could freely develop after German unification, whereas the French Front National had it’s first successes years before the Wende. Odent even sees the fiscal programme of the FN “formatted with reference to ordoliberalism” (p. 117).
To conclude, Bruno Odent’s book illustrates in an almost caricatural way that interpreting political and social history as the development of a corpus of ideas, in particular recent European history as a realisation of the ordoliberal programme, may lead to considerable inconsistencies.
 See http://lexit-network.org/the-myth-of-ordoliberalism
I wrote a longer comment on Odent’s book, but in Dutch. See Boekvoorstelling: Bruno Odent, “Europe, état d’urgence”, March 11, 2017, http://www.andereuropa.org/boekvoorstelling-bruno-odent-europe-etat-durgence
 Bruno Odent, Europe, état d’urgence – La régression nationaliste, consécration de l’ordo-libéralisme, Le Temps des Cerises, Montreuil, 2016 (15€, 230 pages).
 Available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283595131_The_ordoliberalism_that_never_was