Understanding the Origins of Liberalism’s Current Crisis

Book Cover Re Inventing Western CivilisationIt is sometimes assumed that liberalism somehow came to an end during the 1930s, handing over the baton to national welfare state regimes after the war while finding refuge in liberal internationalism. Furthermore, recent studies on neoliberalism have shown that a profound understanding of liberalism seems to be missing. Is neoliberalism merely the renaissance of liberalism? What, then, is liberalism? And what exactly is neoliberalism? Are social democratic versions of a market economy not liberal?Yet, are we not living in a liberal age called globalization with key liberal assumptions and a priori at the heart of almost all international organizations? And why is liberalism, or neoliberalism, not dying as a doctrine after it had been quite obviously (and convincingly) found guilty for the financial and economic crisis ensuing since 2008? There seems to be a need to re-read and re-interpret the history of liberalism in the twentieth century in order to somehow find answers, or at least a compass, for contemporary conceptual and normative insecurities.

Our book “Re-Inventing Western Civilisation: Transnational Reconstructions of Liberalism in Europe in the Twentieth Century” strives to map out a new perspective on the study and understanding of liberalism in Europe. While a plenitude of studies on the history of liberalism exists, it comprises mainly research on national stories of liberalism and a handful of actors while neglecting its transnational and institutional configurations. We believed that a transnational conceptual and actor based approach would be most fruitful to address the above-mentioned questions and could potentially serve as the compass for future research that was missing so far. A conceptual approach, because it takes for granted the semantic shifts in the meaning of liberalism that occur when the concept is applied, appropriated, molded to fit political purposes and contexts. An actor-based approach, because it takes a transnational vantage point from the beginning rather than a national one. Accordingly, we understand those involved in the reconstruction of liberalism as networked normative actors. By this, we mainly want to highlight that the process of reconstituting liberalism was not one in which actors were simply trying to make things work for their societies and the wider world. Their attempts at doing so also included a very conscious construction of a normative order according to which societies, economies, polities, and indeed the whole world should ideally run. Liberalism itself became an unstable and contested concept in this process, and those involved in reconstructing and negotiating its meaning did not follow a common fretwork stencil. In highlighting the tensions between different actors and interpretations of what this reconstructed liberalism should be, we accordingly understand those involved in these histories as networked normative actors. They consciously set out to construct a conceptual universe on which national societies, international organizations and a global order should be built. This was not a modest goal, but it was seen – against the backdrop the communist alternative – as an inevitable task.

What liberal identities, imaginaries and modes of argumentation were involved in the processes in which liberalism was reconstructed in Europe? Did the actors involved add to the liberal agenda? Did they introduce new concepts similar to the German invention of social market economy? By answering these questions the book shows how versatile these networked normative actors were and how the (neo-)liberal agenda developed shortly before and shortly after the Second World War still shapes our contemporary normative regimes.

Re-Inventing Western Civilisation: Transnational Reconstructions of Liberalism in Europe in the Twentieth Century
edited by Hagen Schulz-Forberg and Niklas Olsen
Cambridge University Press, 2014

Written by

Hagen Schulz-Forberg is Associate Professor for Global and European History at Aarhus University. He was a Visiting Researcher at the WZB Center for Global Constitutionalism between February 2014 and January 2015.
Website at Aarhus University

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *