Fellows
rnrnWhat is neo-liberalism?
rnA new reading group at the Forschungskolleg
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By Alexander Leveringhaus (Fellow at the Forschungskolleg)

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If one believes the usual political pundits, the broadsheets and many demonstrators, a spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of neo-liberalism, that is! Bank bailouts, the euro debt crisis, the primacy of capital over politics, welfare reform, stagnating middle-incomes, the commercialisation of education and, last but not least, increasing workplace stress. There seems to be a single culprit for these ills: neo-liberalism.

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The term is usually applied to those economic and political structures put in place by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, which, ironically, received the continued support of social democratic or, in the American context, ›liberal‹ politicians, such as Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and Bill Clinton, in the 1990s. Neo-liberalism, so it is argued, stands for free markets, deregulation, the rise of the financial services industry, a renewed emphasis on individual responsibility, and, in Margaret Thatcher’s famous words, the attempt to »roll back the frontiers of the state«. In fact, the importance of neo-liberalism to contemporary political debate can hardly be overestimated. While some politicians and intellectuals view neo-liberal reforms as an opportunity to free markets and citizens from the clutches of an ever growing state apparatus, critics contend that the recent banking crisis has impressively illustrated the failure of neo- liberalism as an economic and political doctrine. To assess whether these claims are sound, however, one needs a precise picture of neoliberal thought. What, after all, is neo-liberalism?

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In order to answer this question, this year’s Fellows of the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities founded a reading and discussion group. For neo-liberalism is much more complex than contemporary debates in politics and the media suggest. Interestingly, many of the economic recommendations of neo-liberal thinkers are not just the result of their engagement with the academic discipline of economics. Rather, they are the outcome of an ambitious philosophical and theoretical project. To illustrate the point, the rule of law plays a crucial role in neo-liberal thought. Furthermore, neo-liberal thinkers are interested in specifying an institutional framework for a pluralistic society in which individuals who pursue different conceptions of the good life can live together peacefully. The recently founded reading group seeks to provide a more detailed analysis of these nuances of neo-liberal thought, which, unfortunately, hardly ever feature in the broader political debate.

rnrnThe basis for discussion is Raymond Plant’s recently published book »The Neoliberal State« (Oxford University Press, 2010). Dr. Plant, one of the most influential British political scientists, is currently holder of a professorship in legal and political philosophy at the prestigious King’s College London. Raymond Plant, who, in British academia, is one of the major experts on the political philosophy of German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, is also an internationally recognised authority on neoliberal thought in particular and the political movement of the New Right more generally. However, Dr. Plant’s expertise does not only stem from his philosophical pursuits in the Ivory Tower that is academia, but also from his practical engagement with politics as a member of the British Labour Party – often in important and influential positions. In recognition of his political work, Raymond Plant was made a Lord (Lord Plant of Highfield, to be precise) and was appointed to the upper chamber of the British parliament, the House of Lords, where he now represents the Labour Party. The Fellows of the Institute of Advanced Studies are looking forward to meeting Lord Plant, as he kindly agreed to travel to Bad Homburg in order to discuss some his ideas about neo-liberalism with them. And the Institute is looking forward to its first visit from a British Lord!
(FKH - 22.10.2011)