Could Social Democrats learn from the Resilience of Neo-Liberalism?


22 - 24/06/2014
00:00:00 - 00:00:00
FEPS Office, Brussels FEPS Office, Brussels
Could Social Democrats learn from the Resilience of Neo-Liberalism?

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Presentation of the book: Resilient liberalism in Europe’s political economy by Vivien A. Schmidt, Mark Thatcher. With the participation of Amandine Crespy, Assistant-Professor for Political Science/EU Studies – Institut d’Etudes Européennes – CEVIPOL in the debate moderated by Bruno Liebhaberg.

The books explains that the neoliberal options, in spite of being the main cause of the financial crisis; continue attracting voters, as it was shown in the last European Elections. The authors explain this phenomenon with the provocative and stimulating account of how neo-liberalism has ensured its own resilience. The question in this discussion is how can social democracy itself return to resilience, learning lessons from neo-liberalism’s trajectory.     

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Reception from 12 to 12:30. Debate from 12:30 to 14:00. 

Book review by Christophe Sente

This book, edited by Vivien Schmidt and Mark Thatcher, does not delve into the populist phenomenon or the European elections of May 2014. However, it does provide vital insight to help us understand such issues. This, at a time when ballot-box results have shown that even if neo-liberal ideas were responsible for the 2008 financial crisis and today’s economic stagnation in Europe, they have yet to lose their appeal. As a result, just like the traditional parties, the representatives of the new right who criticise the choices of the Commission by demanding a reassessment of the role of the State have not entirely turned their backs on the doctrines of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, which have inspired governments since the 1980s. In this respect, the writings of Vivien Schmidt, Andrew Gamble and Maurizio Ferrera are useful in that they show how criticism of deficit spending and the welfare state has not led to any sort of consensus among the neo-liberal authors with regard to libertarian or anarcho-capitalist views. In fact, state control appears far less an exclusive trait of the left than the principle of socio-economic redistribution handled by a political authority.

Although they share the same line of questioning as Colin Crouch, who, in 2011, highlighted “the strange non-death of neo-liberalism,”[1] Vivien Schmidt and Mark Thatcher have avoided an overly economic approach. Their work represents a new milestone in the bid to clarify the characteristics, contradictions and paradoxes of European politics, following on from earlier books by Vivien Schmidt.

Included as an epigraph to the first chapter, Keynes’ comment that “the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas” illustrates a methodological approach that seeks to analyse the interaction between institutional developments and political ideas. In this context, the use of the word resilience—which, in psychology, denotes an individual’s capacity to adapt to stress and adversity by rising above the situation—is not a simple metaphor. Aside from the originality of using the term in the field of political science, it reflects an approach closer to the Hegelian tradition, which makes “sublation” (Aufhebung)—rather than antithesis—the focal point of dialectical reasoning.

The explanation provided by Vivien Schmidt, Mark Thatcher et al. with regard to resilience is stimulating and provocative. Stimulating because it encourages the reader not to succumb to the easy option of labelling neo-liberalism as pensée unique: the authors remind us that the notion that the free market is superior to market regulation by the authorities is rooted in a range of arguments from a number of different schools of thought. Their explanation is provocative because it suggests that the popularity of neo-liberalism lies notably in the limits of its effective application in Europe. When the time comes, will social democracy prove resilient enough to spare Europe the full impact of Hayek’s thinking? The book does not say. That particular responsibility falls to its readers.


Resilient liberalism in Europe’s political economy// Vivien A. Schmidt, Mark Thatcher (Cambridge University press, 2013)



Christophe Sente holds a PhD in Political Science from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and is a member of the Gauche Réformiste Européenne think tank and the FEPS Scientific Council.


[1] C. Crouch, The strange non-death of neo-liberalism, Polity press, 2011


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