Between Collapse, Integration and Co-Transformation. Universalist and Particularist Economic Ideas and Practices in Europe since the 1970s

Between Collapse, Integration and Co-Transformation. Universalist and Particularist Economic Ideas and Practices in Europe since the 1970s

Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences (KFG) “Universalism and Particularism in European Contemporary History”, Ludwig Maximilians University Munich
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
14.12.2023 - 15.12.2023
Emiel Geurts / Frieda Ottmann, Europäische Geschichte, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

At the second conference of the Kolleg-Forschungsgruppe “Universalism and Particularism in European History”, the participants questioned the commonly perceived universalist character of economics. Kiran Klaus Patel set the tone for the conference by classifying universalism and particularism as analytical lenses and heuristic tools. The papers sought to reassess contemporary European history since the 1970s in terms of how concepts and practices have shaped and connected societies. Addressing both Eastern and Western Europe, the conference provided insights into the interplay, discrepancy, and co-transformation of economic ideas on the continent.

GRACE BALLOR (Milan) opened the first panel, juxtaposing the European Community’s (EC) attempt to universalise its action in the struggle against climate change with the particularist nature and limitations of its approach. The speaker established an economic understanding of risk management as a prerequisite and determinant of environmental and climate protection. Economic considerations took precedence over the “unmanageable uncertainty” of climate change. As long as markets outside the EC/ European Union (EU) were unwilling to impose similar restrictions on their industries, companies were able to convince European policymakers to limit the economic risk by holding off on the far-reaching carbon tax and introducing the Emissions Trading System instead.

LISBETH MATZER (Munich) took up the constraints of universalist models and added a further dimension by presenting an assertion of particularist loopholes in the universalisation of quality standards for wine. In recourse to Italian and German case studies, Matzer argued that as the EC gained a dominant position in the global wine market, it simultaneously advanced its power of definition. Widening the arc to include trade conflicts with the US, she asserted that while the production methods may have differed, the EC successfully universalised the acceptance of regional distinctiveness.

In his contribution, KIRAN KLAUS PATEL (Munich) incorporated Brazil as a counterpart to the European attempts at universalisation. Starting from an assertive position, the EC in the late 1960s deliberately used trade to advance its global influence. Brazil initially met these advances with suspicion. By 1988, however, what was once regarded as a challenge had become a model. Patel used Brazil’s (re)assessment to distinguish between the transmitter and the receiver of universalism. While the EC judged it’s institutionalised economic integration as a move towards globalisation and universalisation, Brazilian discourse presented it as just one trading bloc and potential model among many. The EC’s claim to accommodate a global standard was countered by contextualisation and adaptation.

In the discussion the speakers accentuated two main aspects. First, they pointed to a competition between universalist assertions, with Western Europe and the United States both putting forth frames with universal undertones. This factor underlined the unequal character of universalist ideas. The discussion also highlighted the construction, staging, and framing of universalism. Businesses, politicians, and international organisations applied or obstructed particularist and universalist approaches for economic profits and reputational gain.

In her contribution to the second panel, SANDRINE KOTT (Geneva/New York City) examined the struggle of Western trade unions against multinational corporations refuting global standards for worker protection. Ultimately, the lack of comparable traditions and the absence of an international labour solidarity added to the complexity of generating universalist standards. Kott suggested that law had the potential to enforce universalist labour rights, but that European regulatory efforts had remained weak until the mid-1990s. Despite the numerous difficulties, the speaker recounted a success story of international mobilisation against the treatment of Guatemalan workers by Coca Cola.

BENJAMIN THOMAS (Nottingham) alternated the theme of universalising the particular by recontextualising the social market economy. Identifying its roots in West German discourse of the late 1940s as an interventionist state seeking to align the market with social values, Thomas recognised these features as the overall core of the economic agenda of West European conservatives. He proposed the argument that the social market economy, as an initially particularist economic concept, contributed significantly to the construction of the ideological family of centre-right parties in Europe.

The discussants concluded this second panel by emphasising the specific contexts which allow certain ideas to emerge in the first place. As they evolve, concepts get adapted and diverge. In response to probing questions, Thomas explored this process to distinguish between ordo- and neoliberalism.

In her keynote lecture, ANU BRADFORD (New York City) defended the EU’s global regulatory power, which she contended shapes its own universalism. Bradford made a compelling case for how the EU has recognised its potential to influence regulation globally through the power of its market. The notions of globalisation and multilateralism have created a regulatory vacuum that the EU has filled, at first unconsciously and since 2010 more willingly. She further advocated for the EU to continue down this route as long as it focuses on its core values and remains the initiator of the conversation.

The second day of the conference shifted the focus from Western to Central and Eastern Europe. PHILIPP THER (Vienna) kicked-off the third panel, about developments in the ‘former East’, by focusing on the implementation of neoliberal policies in Poland around 1989. Ther approached the topic as a Verflechtungsgeschichte, tracing the roots of the Washington Consensus to Latin America. The strategy, as the case of Chile demonstrated to many in the US, led to GDP growth and a loss of votes for Augusto Pinochet, increasing the association of neoliberalism with democratisation. Neoliberals discerned a similar trend in Poland. On a critical note, Ther argued that the economic success stories of both Chile and Poland in the 1990s in many instances relied on a softening of neoliberal policies following their implementation.

The panel turned from Ther’s metanarrative into a highly local and particular case with MAX TRECKER’s (Leipzig) contribution on the privatisation of a single company, VEB Schweisstechnik Finsterwalde. The presentation could have been mistaken for a crime novel; it was filled to the brim with political intrigue and the devious cowboy capitalist scheming of a crooked Belgian investor. Arguably most important in Trecker’s analysis was the agency he ascribed to local actors such as the workers themselves and a district court – especially interesting in a field of study often dominated by structural and sweeping historical processes. Ultimately, the employees took over the company legally via a foundation they established. Trecker’s contribution demonstrated the particularities of a universalist neoliberal paradigm applied in practice.

Martin Schulze Wessel (Munich), chair of the panel, highlighted the synergies that might emerge of relating Ther’s metanarrative to Trecker’s empirical account. Yet the panel discussion took another direction less closely related to the contributor’s main points with a lively debate on whether Russia could and should be described as a ‘normal’ country. This led to a semantic discussion on the idea of normalcy and if it functions as a pejorative or carries mostly positive connotations. Middle ground was found in the assessment of VIACHSELAV MOROZOV (Tartu) that Russia was “normal” in some aspects of Western state-building, but deviant in terms of identity politics.

Morozov continued as first speaker of the fourth and last panel concerning Russia. He put forth the idea that when the neoliberal revolution in Russia failed to integrate it into the West, a universalist discourse of “civilisation-in-the-singular” changed to a particularist frame of “civilisations-in-the-plural”. Interesting, furthermore, was Morozov’s explicit interaction with universalism and particularism. He argued that universalism generally carries a certain particular origin and that the inverse is true as well: particularism builds on general ideas and signifiers that transcend the unit in question. This, applied to his Russian case concerned with tensions surrounding universality, normalcy, and indigeneity, provided a clear example of an interplay between the categories in practice.

ALEXANDER LIBMAN (Berlin) continued the panel discussion with a more empirical case: Western economics in Russia. Libman explored the seeming paradox of an increasing anti-Western government that tried to steer economists towards Western thinking – which was in fact framed in universalist language. This, he argued, was fuelled by national financial incentives. Interestingly, then, Russia granted finances to Russian economists and students laying bare, amongst other things, political and economic failures of the country in international journals. While this created tensions and an increasing watchful eye on what was published, Libman argues that Russia still embraces Western economics – even though such economists are essentially excluded from having social influence.

Initiated by panel chair Patel, the discussants argued that the neoliberal pedigree of Russia resulted in atomisation and a general lack of mass mobilisation as was the case for other European twentieth-century dictatorships. A tragic result of this is on display currently, as a regime is generally weaker without broad public support but paradoxically can also strengthen at times of crisis and war when there is comparatively little public demand a regime has to take into consideration.

Finally, the conference’s attention to both Eastern and Western Europe – and at times going beyond that – should be stressed. Not in a Western triumphalist narrative as is oftentimes implicitly the case in historical and political economic studies focusing on the 1989-juncture, but by accounting for agency and contingency in all cases at hand. A future endeavour in the form of another conference or a volume could more explicitly explore the stipulative definitions of universalism and particularism and their analytical and/or heuristic qualities, which Patel addressed in the conclusion to the conference as well.

Conference overview:

Keynote Speaker: Anu Bradford (New York City): The Evolution of the Brussels Effect

Kiran Klaus Patel (Munich): Introduction

Panel I: Universalizing European Union in the West

Chair: Andreas Wirsching (Munich)

Grace Ballor (Milan): Managing Risk in European Political Economy (1970s – 2000s)

Lisbeth Matzer (Munich): Universalizing Particularism: Standardizing Wine Quality as Economic Strategy in the EEC (1970 – 1990)

Kiran Klaus Patel (Munich): ‘Desafio’ or ‘Modelo’: The European Community’s International Trade and Brazil, 1980s–1990s

Panel II: Universalizing the Particular and the West

Chair: Hélène Miard-Delacroix (Paris)

Sandrine Kott (Geneva): Western Trade Unions Confronting Multinational Corporations: International Regulations and the Defense of Special Interests (1970 – 1990)

Benjamin Thomas (Nottingham): Ordoliberalism and the Social Market Economy in the Formation and Contestation of the Center-Right Ideological Family

Panel III: From Collapse to Co-Transformation? Developments in the Former East

Chair: Martin Schulze Wessel (Munich)

Philipp Ther (Vienna): From the Washington Consensus to the Warsaw Consensus: ‘Shock Therapies’ as a Neoliberal Success Story

Max Trecker (Leipzig): Privatization in Theory and Practice: How Universalism and Particularism Clashed in East Germany in the 1990s, the Example of VEB Schweisstechnik Finsterwalde

Panel IV: En Route to New Particularism? The Case of Russia

Chair: Kiran Klaus Patel (Munich)

Viacheslav Morozov (Tartu): Neoliberal Revolution: ‘Unworlding’ and the Origins of the Post- Soviet (Dis)Order

Alexander Libman (Berlin): The Fate of Western Economics in an Anti-Western Regime: How Economics in Russia Adapts to the Transformation of Putin’s Regime

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