Much of the discussion about the causes of “populism” that is currently taking place seems to me to be hopelessly binary. The term is now used to describe an extraordinarily diverse array of figures, movements and parties (and even, in the case of Brexit, outcomes) in different geographical locations. The causes clearly differ in each case – even within Europe. But even many of those who recognize this seem to think it is possible to make the claim that, in a specific case, populism can be explained by either “economic” or “cultural” factors rather than a complex interaction between the two. A good example is Timothy Garton Ash’s recent essay in the New York Review of Books, in which he claims that the success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is caused by culture rather than “economic factors”. It seems to me the reality is much more complex.
There has been much discussion of the role of ordoliberalism in Germany’s approach to the euro crisis (see for example this paper by two former colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations and this paper by my former Transatlantic Academy colleague Wade Jacoby). But of course the story of how German ideas have influenced the European Union does not begin with the Greek crisis in 2010. It is well known that the European Central Bank (ECB) reflects the values of the Bundesbank. (Actually, it in some way doubles down on them – the ECB is even more independent, and has an even tighter focus on price stability, than the Bundesbank.) Less well known, though, is the way German ideas on competition policy that go back to ordoliberalism have shaped European integration since its beginnings in the 1950s. You might almost say that competition policy is the missing link between histories of ordoliberalism and the EU.
There seems to be a lot of discussion about rules these days. In particular, among foreign policy analysts, rules come up both in discussions about the liberal international order and in discussions about the eurozone. But it is striking to me how disconnected the two discussions are – and how differently rules are seen in each case. In discussions about the liberal international order, rules are widely seen as a good thing because they are thought of as an alternative to relations between states based simply on power. But in discussions about the eurozone, rules are seen by many as being much more problematic. In particular, critics of the German view, which emphasises rules over discretion (see Brunnermeier, James and Landau on this), see them as essentially post-democratic. So are rules a good or bad thing?
During the last year countless commentators have made the point that Donald Trump embodies the “paranoid style” in American politics that the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his famous 1964 essay. A central feature of the style, which Hofstadter thought was “all but ineradicable”, is a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories – a tendency Trump certainly has. Moreover, with his election as president, the style seems to have a had what Hofstadter called a “consummatory triumph” in the United States – something that, he wrote, had up to that point only occurred in Germany. Thus it seems to me that we now have to rethink some of our assumptions about the differences between Europe and the United States. But what struck me reading Hofstadter’s essay now was not just the way Trump embodies the “paranoid style” but also something altogether stranger: he is in reality exactly what previous practitioners of the “paranoid style” feared.
“If you want to understand the RAF [Red Army Faction], you have to read Moby Dick”, Stefan Aust said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that was published in 2007. Herman Melville’s great American novel was an important text for the West German terrorist group, about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz. The members of the group seemed to have imagined themselves as the crew of the Pequod, the whaling ship in the novel – though it is not clear how many of them had actually read it apart from Gudrun Ensslin, who had studied German literature. It was Ensslin who came up with the idea of giving them codenames taken from characters in the novel, which they used in correspondence with each other while they were in prison in the early 1970s. Paraphrasing Andreas Baader, one might say they saw whaling and shooting as the same thing. But what exactly does reading Moby-Dick actually tell us about the RAF?
Under Mao Zedong, China defined itself as a socialist country – albeit one with “Chinese characteristics”. But in the nearly 40 years since it began to “open up” under Deng Xiaoping in 1979, it has evolved into something much more puzzling. It has embraced capitalism to a large extent, though the state retains a relatively large role in the economy through planning and state-owned enterprises. But its political system remains authoritarian – as Richard McGregor puts in his book The Party, the Chinese state “still runs on Soviet hardware”. In fact, under Xi Jinping, it seems to be becoming more authoritarian. I wonder what George Orwell – one of my political heroes – would have made of it. It seems to me that China’s authoritarian capitalism was the exact opposite of what Orwell, who described himself as a democratic socialist, believed in.
In the previous post, I referred to the idea, attributed to Mark Twain (though I’ve never been able to find a reference), that “history rhymes”. It is meant as an alternative to the idea that history simply repeats itself. Instead, it is suggested, the patterns of history are more complex than this: there are connections between past and present but they are complex and subtle rather than direct ones. The task for analysts of the present, as the historian Charles Emmerson put it in a thoughtful essay, “is to listen for those rhymes and to calibrate our hearing to catch them.” The implication is that history is somehow like poetry. It is an intriguing idea. But if one takes it seriously, it raises lots of further questions. How, exactly, does history “rhyme”? Are there rules of what we might call “historical prosody”? If history rhymes, does it also have something like metre?