Populism, Political Communication and the Scope of Economic Anthropology
(response to Theo Waigel)

Author: Chris Hann
Februar 07, 2018


On 29th December 2017 I published an extensive article about populism in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Part of the article consisted of a critical engagement with an article by Andreas Voßkuhle (23rd November 2017). I took the view that the President of Germany’s Constitutional Court had not looked closely enough into the causes and consequences of the success of populist parties in contemporary Europe. Hasty deprecation and exclusion of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party were not, in my view, conducive to a solution. I asked (with reference to the “migration crisis”): “… if no established political party raises an issue that is held to be valid, even urgent, by a large section of the population, how else can democracy function other than by giving the outcasts their chance to disturb liberal mores?” The AfD had taken up the theme and on this basis its electoral success should be welcomed. I also suggested that the enduring dominance of Viktor Orbán in Hungary made sense in a context in which many young people could not find decent jobs in their own country, and national identification was their only means to maintain self-respect. “If nothing else,” I wrote, “the populists will have played an invaluable educational role in laying bare the social processes that are undermining our democracies.”

In his reader’s letter of 30th January 2018 Theo Waigel succeeds in delivering a distorted picture of my article, of my academic discipline, and even of my political sympathies. I had written about Greece’s financial crisis and noted that German taxpayers were paying a high price for the structural deficits of the Eurozone. Focussing on just one sentence, Theo Waigel declared that this was not the case. All transfers to support the Greek bailout had been properly recorded in the accounts and “the budget was not burdened” (this was the title of his letter). One often hears the accusation that German taxpayers’ money is being frittered away from the AfD, a party that was founded and initially led by economists. Thus Waigel arrived at his criticism: Hann was singing a hymn of praise to the AfD, just like other professors before him; but what could a Professor of Social Anthropology understand about financial policies? “He would do better to stick to anthropology,” concluded Waigel.

The scope of economic anthropology

It may come as a surprise to Dr. Waigel but economic anthropologists have busied themselves with macro level structures for a long time, even if they also continue to carry out research at the micro level and this is what makes their work distinctive. I was therefore familiar with the accomplishments of Theo Waigel long before I moved to Germany two decades ago. In a reader’s letter to the F.A.Z. in July 1995 he wrote as follows:

“The Treaty of Maastricht contains all the necessary preconditions to guarantee the monetary value of the future European currency …  the fear that a unified currency will necessitate transfers in the order of billions is also unjustified … no one is more interested in maintaining a stable currency in Germany and Europe than me as German Finance Minister.”[1]

It would be an honour to welcome Dr Waigel at one of the forthcoming Workshops of our research group “Financialisation” to discuss these clear declarations.[2]

Dr Waigel has taken one sentence of my article out of its context. I am glad to clarify my perspective. I argue that taxpayers everywhere in the EU (and especially in rich Germany) are subsidising a highly dysfunctional system of governance. While Dr Waigel argues formally that transfers to Greece have not so far impacted on Germany’s budget, all observers are agreed that German financial help will incur costs when debt relief is granted. Considering the wider context of financial policy in recent years, Martin Hellwig comes to the conclusion that the processes addressed in my article have already cost the German taxpayer some 70 billion Euros, including 10 billion precipitated by the Greek bailout of 2012.[3]

But Germany is not just a victim. It is also the biggest winner of the Eurozone ushered in by Theo Waigel. Claus Offe has brilliantly pinpointed the basic hypocrisy: the pretence that Germany, the dominant economic power of our era, is on account of her history unable to assume a leadership role on the European stage, is very convenient for the German economy and the German political class, while the periphery of the EU continues to suffer as a result.[4] Offe recommends a radical reform, a deepening of European institutions in the sense of Jürgen Habermas. In contrast, in his path-breaking analyses Wolfgang Streeck calls for the restoration of democratic legitimacy at the level of the nation-state, since no higher level is viable.[5] Although these distinguished professors, whose works I recommended at the end of my article, represent quite different positions, to the best of my knowledge neither supports the AfD.

At the global level, too, recognition is growing that the ideology of neoliberalism has reached its limits. For the American economist Dani Rodrik a certain degree of “economic populism” is desirable in order to counter the power of transnational capital.[6] If no established party proposes such a programme, the way is free for what Rodrik calls “political populism”. In the USA this currently means degradation of the office of President and gross abuse of the media.

Neither Offe nor Streeck nor Rodrik devote much time to Eastern Europe. I can well understand those German citizens who say: “So much money, our money, flows from Brussels to Budapest; how is it possible that Hungarians are not ready to accept their quota of refugees?” But the transfer of value in the opposite direction makes for a significantly larger sum, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has recently shown (yet another professor, but hardly a populist).[7] At the micro level of society, I am investigating the consequences of the Daimler-Benz complex in the neighbourhood of Kecskemét, where the wages of the assembly line workers are reputed to be roughly 25% of those paid for the equivalent work in Stuttgart. But my sad conclusion is that the problems are far worse in those locations where this exploitation does not take place. It is better to work for Daimler-Benz in this way than not to have a job at all and be forced to emigrate.


The social anthropologist concerned to address current conditions in provincial Hungary can hardly avoid engaging with the monetary policies and Europapolitik pursued by Germany. The same applies to Greece, Spain etc. At the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology we are also carrying out projects on the causes and consequences of financialization at the level of individuals and households in Germany itself. Beyond empirical investigations in particular places, we endeavour to participate in general theoretical debates together with other social scientists and historians. Alongside the expertise of the lawyer (indispensable for the formulation of a Treaty such as that of Maastricht) and the fine distinctions drawn by the accountant, it would have made sense in the 1990s, in the long-drawn-out birth process of the currency union, to pay attention to other disciplines. Political populism (in the sense of Rodrik und Waigel) is successful nowadays because the justified criticisms of a range of professors, from economic historians and economists to political scientists and sociologists all the way to anthropologists, have been largely ignored. There has been a failure in communication between politics and the academy.

As a British citizen who has no right to vote in parliamentary elections in Germany, I would like to reassure Dr Waigel that I am not composing hymns of praise for the AfD. But I hold the main lesson of its successes to be that lines of communication within the established parties, and between those parties and society, are malfunctioning. Rather than continuous defamation, from my perspective it is healthy for democracy that this party is represented in the Bundestag since the Autumn, and that its members participate in the work of parliamentary committees. If my homeland had a system of proportional representation, then the United Kingdom Independence Party would have been well represented in parliament in 2015 and I don’t believe we would have had a vote in favour of BREXIT in 2016. The sad fact is that, despite this shock, there is still little sign that the key institutions of the EU can be infused with a genuine ethos of democracy. While Claus Offe might see a glimmer of hope in the recent initiatives of Emmanuel Macron, I continue to ask with Wolfgang Streeck: even if the new/old grand coalition government agrees to move in Macron’s direction, how are the new European-level rules of the game to be legitimated?


[1] I thank Jörn Seinsch for sending me a copy of Dr Waigel’s letter, published on 11th July 1995 under the title ‘Only with healthy finances‘.

[2] ‘Households and Peripheral Financialization in Europe‘, 22.-23 February, 2018; ‘Financialisation Beyond Crisis: Connections, Contradictions, Contestations‘, 10. - 12 September, 2018).

[3] Martin F. Hellwig: Forthcoming: ‘Finanzstabilität, Transparenz und Verantwortlichkeit: Stellungnahme für das Bundesverfassungsgericht‘, Credit and Capital Markets 50 (4): 421–454 (calculation at p. 430).

[4] Claus Offe (2016): Europe Entrapped Cambridge: Polity.

[5] Wolfgang Streeck (2017): Buying Time. The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. London: Verso.

[6] Dani Rodrik: ‘In defence of economic populism’. Social Europe, 18. 01. 2018

[7] Thomas Piketty: 2018 l’année de l’Europe. Le blog de Thomas Piketty, 16. 01. 2018: http://piketty.blog.lemonde.fr/2018/01/16/2018-lannee-de-leurope/

My thanks to Claude Rosenfeld for drawing my attention to this blog, and also to the Rodrik reference mentioned in the previous note.

Go to Editor View