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The FDP, the Party of Neoliberalism (May 11, 2006)

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Nothing has disagreed with German neoliberalism more than being in the opposition ever since. With an aggressive marketing strategy, Westerwelle succeeded in establishing his party as the “new” FDP. It attracted people’s attention for a while. The no-frills analysis, the decisionist radicality, the euphoria of change – all of this distinguished it spectacularly from the paralyzing atmosphere at the end of the Kohl administration. But without any decision-making power where could Westerwelle and his party go with their energy and radicality? Without any opportunity to implement party policies the reform pathos quickly sounded hollow. The constraints of government might have been able to serve as a corrective. But powerless neoliberalism was instead downgraded from passionate reform prospects to self-destructive impulses. Clarity was transformed into arrogance; and powerlessness into delusions of grandeur. As the liberals increasingly lost their ability to shape practical politics, their demands became louder and their propagandistic tone sharper. Hopes of quickly gaining power started to sound like raving. Neoliberalism became cynical, excessive, and suspect. In 2002, “Project 18” finally brought its downfall; the party still hasn’t recovered from that.

Still, the FDP can definitely view itself as an inspirational force in reform policy, as it has existed in Germany since about the mid-1990s. Schäuble’s austerity package, the last attempts at tax reform, and the introduction of demographic factors in pension calculations pointed in its direction. It was, of all things, the Red-Green government that soon followed the liberal melody: the beginning of the privatization of retirement funds, Eichel’s early consolidation policies, and later the Hartz reforms that were forced through under the pressure of the crisis. But the FDP, slowly lamenting its place in the opposition, didn’t want to believe that Schröder was undertaking reform efforts in a liberal sense – “neoliberal,” as the critics called it.

Since Westerwelle’s fresh start, the advocates of liberal reform ideas have been suspected of not being interested in social consequences. It sounded good to want a “market economy of sound social and ecological results” instead of a “state economy of sound social intentions.” But anyone who polemicized as derisively as Guido Westerwelle about ideologizing the concepts of the “common good” or the “welfare state” made people wonder whether social responsibility played any role at all for him. What did the liberals want? Did the reforms aim to bring about a more robust, crisis-proof welfare state? Or were they levers with which to abolish it?

Even Schröder wasn’t able to convey the social intentions of his reform policies. He failed because those affected could no longer distinguish between modernization and social welfare cutbacks. Radical reform propaganda pricked the public’s ears. By now, the “neoliberal” label is no longer applied solely to liberal proposals. Angela Merkel’s healthcare reform was considered “neoliberal” even within her own ranks. And even Oskar Lafontaine senses “neoliberal currents” – in the Left party of all places! Suspicion of neoliberalism as a form of paranoia?

The opposition party that enjoys provocation (which is what the liberals have been for years) does not seem to be harmed by the neoliberal label, though. The FDP proudly refers to the election results. But that’s just one side of the coin. Only after looking at the Union’s results does it become clear that neoliberalism does not have majority appeal in Germany. The fact that a tax professor who made a false step* could become the epitome of social indifference can hardly be explained without the history of the “new” FDP.

Is there such a thing as a reform policy that could dispense with the “neoliberal coldness” label and still succeed? That is a question for the Grand Coalition. As long as it seriously seeks answers, neoliberalism will remain in the opposition.

* Reference to Paul Kirchhoff, a law professor who was seen as a likely finance minister in a CDU/CSU and FDP coalition before his tax reform ideas sparked controversy – eds.

Source: Matthias Geis, “Liberale ohne Neo” [“Liberals without the Neo”], Die Zeit, May 11, 2006.

Translation: Allison Brown

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