Political Economy for Everybody? Popularizing and Moralizing the Economy in Political Conflicts

Political Economy for Everybody? Popularizing and Moralizing the Economy in Political Conflicts

Rüdiger Graf, Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung (ZZF) Potsdam); Stefanie Middendorf, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena
Vom - Bis
22.09.2022 - 23.09.2022
George Payne, Global History Research Area, Freie Universität Berlin; Marie Huber, Institut für Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte, Philipps-Universität Marburg; Sebastian Pieper, Institut für Geschichtswissenschaften, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin; George Payne, Global History Research Area at the Freie Universität

The economy may seem abstract, but it is a social domain whose workings are material, disputed, and subject to politics. Popular and moral rhetorical or visual strategies have historically been used to make the economy understandable, especially in the struggle for political change. This conference aimed to answer the question whether such popular and moral narratives represent a political economy for everybody. The event was attended by experts of the political history of market economies in the industrialized world. The largest contingent were based at German academic institutions, with a few guests coming from elsewhere in Europe or North America.

The populist surge of the past decade, which appears, at least temporarily, to have suffered a number of setbacks, was acknowledged as a partial inspiration for the conference. RÜDIGER GRAF (Potsdam) and STEFANIE MIDDENDORF (Jena) were, however, keen to stress that popular and moral narratives of economic relations have an altogether longer history. Presentations covered the marked rise in popular imaginaries of the economy starting in the 19th century and continuing through the 20th and 21st centuries.

In their opening remarks, the organizers set out some principles, aims, and questions for the conference. It is important to note that among these was not the formulation of a testable definition of populism. The term has limited value as a category of analysis. For one, historical actors rarely describe themselves as populists. In recent years, it has most often been used as a label to dismiss opposition to liberal economic and political elites. While the use of ‘populist’ is beset by problems, analyzing the fine line between necessary simplifications and political instrumentalization seems all the more important in context of ongoing popular uprisings and their political communication. A political economy for everybody displays one, several, or all of the following characteristics: simplicity in the face of the growing complexity of economic life; claims to universal validity without ambiguity; personification or symbolism; popular media or visual representations; and moral or binary reasoning. Understanding the construction and communication of popular representations of political economy meant determining structural and discursive elements, the political force of interventions, changes over time or at the national and international level, and the relationship with processes of democratization, globalization or financialization.

The opening panel was an early reminder that populist movements in the US and Germany have historical legacies from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. JAN LOGEMANN (Göttingen) identified a familiar visual language in political cartoons that pitted Americans against foreign threats and the people against elites. This was a response to the economic transformations unleashed by the first wave of globalization. The Populist Party, the first self-proclaimed populists, cannot be ignored in this period, but Logemann stressed its weak legacies in the present. In line with the conference organizers, he argued that popular style echoed through the ages.

CATHERINE DAVIES (Zürich) was at pains to note that ‘populism’ was a term alien to the German political context, unlike in the US. The moralized dichotomy between the people and the elites in critiques of finance by political parties in this period still warranted its use as an analytical term. The financial crisis of 1873, coming shortly after unification, was taken as a starting point. This also coincided with the birth of modern anti-Semitism, a prejudice embraced by an array of conservative parties and, to a lesser extent before being discarded at the end of the century, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). This form of discrimination would cast a dark shadow over subsequent German history.

Economic crises, which can cause or be caused by political conflict, were a structural factor in many of the populist mobilizations discussed here. The malaise of the 1970s was just such an opening for neoliberal-populist and leftist visions of the public economic imaginary in the US. MAURICE COTTIER (Freiburg) contrasted inconsistencies in left-wing arguments on the role of government in the economy with disciplined messaging from the right. The left’s lack of a unified strategy to make economic policy tangible is a contingent counterpoint to the tendency in some literature to herald all-powerful ideas and neoliberal intellectual circles.

The financial crisis of 2007/08 had immediate repercussions on global economy, but the populist political aftershock came in the following decade. Among those tremors was the Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose early years are a model case of right-wing populist economic nationalism, according to DAVID BEBNOWSKI (Munich). The age-old German self-image of a strong work ethic and cultural superiority returned to the mainstream in the Euro crisis. This served as a nationalist bridge to the AfD’s domestic ‘ordoliberalism’. The actual alternative offered by the AfD thus consists in an expansion of competition between states and population groups. Bebnowski aptly calls this competitive populism, a dynamic framing that could be applied in other contexts.

Arguing for the importance of visualization in populist discourse in the late 19th and early 20th century, NICOLAS DELALANDE (Paris) highlighted the role of the French satirical press in the construction of the taxpayer as a social figure. Through this, the media and its audience became active and tangible players in conflicts over the modern fiscal state and redistribution through taxation. Monetary relations, an archaic and technical matter, can underwrite a shared community identity.

The rise of money museums helped to secure, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s term, "imagined communities" in the post-Soviet space, according to archaeologist KATARZYNA JAROSZ (Wrocław).[1] The central banks in the newly-independent states created means of exchange to assert state sovereignty. They also housed money museums in which coinage and cash promoted various, sometimes competing, claims to national or European identity.

Personification or collectivization are tools of simplification in popular representations of the economy. For MARCUS BÖICK (Bochum), Treuhandanstalt president Detlev Rohwedder is an example of “popular attention economy”. His assassination by the Red Army Faction (RAF) in 1991 marked the beginning of a post-modern negative founding myth for East German society. Rohwedder’s figure embodied democratic and national promise that was followed in succession by disappointment, resentment, and entrenched historical memory. Co-host Middendorf argued that the Weimar period marked a transition in the imagining of the ‘creditor’, from a specific moral being to an abstract collective form. This was the result of an institutionalization of credit relations, mass mobilization on the part of creditors, and the sheer complexity of modern capitalism. Creditors could then resort to populist tactics, positioning themselves as small savers on the side of the people, a moral message that won a degree of support in an era of domestic hyperinflation and inter-state war reparations.

With his semiotic analysis of a visual rhetoric of money, media studies scholar SIMON KÜFFER (Bern) demonstrated the value of focusing on aesthetics and the affective intentions of visual material. Using gangsta-rap album covers and Swiss private bank ads, he showed that money narratives differed vastly between the two: from a capitalist-realist notion in the gangsta-rap context to quasi-magical notions in the bank ads. In the context of this workshop, his contribution marked a fruitful starting point for social and cultural analysis across the disciplines, especially for comparative studies.

As the ongoing global supply-chain crisis drives cost-push inflation, MONIKA DOMMANN (Zürich) turned to the visual history of logistics. For an industry that touches all corners of the world, it has a remarkably consistent symbolic language in the form of literal or metaphorical containers, pallets, warehousing, flow charts, and tycoons. Twenty-first century populism is often portrayed as shockingly new, but its form has historical antecedents. The recent blocking of the Suez canal by Ever Given, Brexit, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also share a certain visual logic with analogous events or figures of the past.

Multinationals are frequently depicted as the true rulers of the world, in self-representation as well as in various forums of public communication. Having observed similar depictions of oil companies and data companies as world rulers, co-host Graf found that narratives about multinationals are characterized by holistic descriptions of the economy. This includes the all-pervasive fluidity of capital, arguments for the creeping take-over of government functions by companies, and even conspiracy theories of supra-control. Indeed, the backlash against globalizing projects seems to be fertile ground to explore the dynamics between structural and discursive elements of popular rhetoric.

CARINA MOSER (Tübingen) was guided by populism theoretician Ernesto Laclau in her account of the NAFTA debate in the US.[2] In the moment of uncertain triumph after the end of the Cold War, free trade represented both the promise of a unipolar world and deep-seated fears of a de-industrialized America. Many precursors of current media stereotypes emerged out of the fraught debate, such as the "white working class" and "liberal coastal elites", not to mention the outsider politician in the person of Ross Perot, who many regard as a proto-Trump.

Contemporary libertarian ideologies, often peddled by nationalist, right-wing political organizations, propose not an anti-global, but an alternative vision of globalization. The political economy of goldbugs in the German AfD, the subject of the final contribution from QUINN SLOBODIAN (Wellesley), refers to older ideas of economic world order, ones where progressive social reforms are signs of the impending collapse of a dysfunctional economy and traditional society. Although a separate phenomenon, this helps explain the libertarian infatuation with cryptocurrencies as a global private money that is supposedly transparent and depoliticized.

To sum up, the conference successfully managed to ground ‘populism’, for all its ambiguity, in empirical research. At the disciplinary level, the contributions here displayed the full range of research options when cultural history and a history of knowledge are integrated into the history of political economy. The framework of a political economy for everybody, while broad and somewhat unwieldy, appears to apply across time and space. The rhetorical and visual style, rather than issue-based positions, were historically comparable. Political conflicts were a particularly rich terrain for revealing the "moral economy" or "embeddedness" of economic relations.[3] In times of relative calm, populist rhetoric receded, but its legacies would reappear. In discussions, it was felt there was a need to explore examples from earlier times or non-industrialized, non-capitalist, or undemocratic parts of the world.

With respect to the fine line between simplification and instrumentalization, the contributions here were strongest on determining the motives and tactics of so-called opinion-makers in the media or politics. Using material from these sources meant, conversely, that there was insufficient reflection on who the audience was, beyond everyone, and how these messages were received. Popularization may simply be the best means for making a complicated field like political economy comprehensible. Moralization is perhaps the distinguishing feature of populist political economy, with normative value judgments that then spur people into action.

Conference overview:

Welcome and Introduction

Rüdiger Graf (Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam) / Stefanie Middendorf (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)

Section I: In Search of Economic Populism

Legacies of Populism

Jan Logemann (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen): Political and Economic Populism in the United States around 1900: Ideas, Images, and Lasting Legacies

Catherine Davies (Universität Zürich): Populist Critiques of Finance in the Late 19th and early 20th Century

Chair: Stefanie Middendorf (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena)

Populist Mobilization

Maurice Cottier (Universität Freiburg): More or Less Government Intervention? The Dilemma of the American Center-Left in the 1970s

David Bebnowski (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München): German Populism: The AfD as a Result of a Popularized Economy

Chair: Rüdiger Graf (Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam)

Section II: Popular Representations of “the Economy”

Approaching the Public

Nicolas Delalande (Sciences Po, Paris): The Populo as an Economist. The Popularization of the Economy in the French Satirical Press, from the 1880s to the 1930s

Katarzyna Jarosz (International University of Logistics and Transport, Wrocław): Currency and Identity in Post-Soviet Space Seen Through the Lens of Museums

Chair: Jan Logemann (Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

Figures of Economic Power

Marcus Böick (Ruhr-Universität Bochum): Hate Figure, Monster and Slaughterhouse: Detlev Karsten Rohwedder, the Treuhandanstalt and the Economic Reconstruction of Eastern Germany after 1990 as Extreme Examples of a Popular (Attention) Economy

Stefanie Middendorf (Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena): Moral Being or Persona Ficta? Imagining the ‘Creditor‘ in the Interwar Years

Chair: Frank Bösch (Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam)

Visualizing Economic Abstractions

Simon Küffer (Universität Bern): The Visual Rhetoric of Money – Aesthetics, Affects and Narratives in Contemporary Mass Media Images

Monika Dommann (Universität Zürich): Container, Bezos, Ever Given: A Visual History of Logistics

Chair: Annette Vowinckel (Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam)

Section III: Political Conflicts and Economic Arguments

Controlling the Economy Across Borders

Rüdiger Graf (Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam): Controlling Global Flows. Oil and Data Companies as World Rulers

Carina Moser (Universität Tübingen): “People who don’t make anything, cannot buy anything”. The Free Trade Policy Debates in Politics and Media in the US in the 1990s

Chair: Marie Huber (Philipps Universität Marburg)

Economic Extremism

Quinn Slobodian (Wellesley College): Investments for Survival: Goldbugs, Moneypocalypse, and the Rise of the Libertarian Right

Chair: Rüdiger Graf (Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam)

Concluding Discussion

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London 1983.
[2] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason, London 2005.
[3] E. P. Thompson, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, in: Past & Present 50 (1971), pp. 76-136; Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation, New York, NY 1944.