Rethinking German Political Economy: Lessons for Comparative Theorizing after the Social Democratic Century

Wednesday, August 30, 2017 -
8:00am to 5:00pm
Goethe Institut in San Francisco, 530 Bush Street, 2nd Floor


The social democratic century is over. Throughout most of the past century, European welfare states consistently extended their commitment to protecting citizens against the externalities of capitalist development by intervening in the economic sphere. Yet, more recently, market shifts and policy adjustments have left rich democracies less effective in ensuring citizens’ welfare. This workshop explores the comparative political economy behind these changes in advanced countries by probing the changing politics of Germany’s social market economy. 


For decades, Germany’s evolving form of welfare capitalism illustrated the possibilities of social democracy. From the postwar "Wirtschaftswunder" to the successes of German firms in weathering turbulence in the 1970s and 1980s, German institutions were emblematic of a “third way,” balancing economic growth and social equity in a manner more effective and more stable than capitalist partners to the West and communist neighbors to the East.

However, over the last decades, the pillars of stability have crumbled under increasingly adversarial labor relations, rising socioeconomic inequality, aggressive right-wing parties, and declining economic growth. Direct attacks and gradual policy drift have joined market developments in undermining past achievements, from education to pensions and from unemployment to health insurance. Not only do these changes in Germany reflect broader trends across Western Europe, Germany’s recent policy positions within the European Union (EU) have played an important role in strengthening such tendencies across the continent.

SMLR's Center for Global Work and Employment wants to build on a long tradition in the social sciences to leverage assessments of the changing “German Model” and its European embeddedness for innovation in theorizing broader changes. In the past, German developments proved to be an important prism for conceptualizing evolving capitalism and democracy. At the current juncture, the country has the potential to again inform consequential revisions of existing theories. Appropriately contextualized analyses of causal processes and outcomes of change in Germany can yield a better understanding of ongoing transformations across capitalist democracies. We contend that current shifts cannot be captured through either a narrow lens or as a simple one-dimensional story. Throughout the 20th century, welfare state expansion was not due solely to working-class power, nor did it benefit everyone. Contemporary causal dynamics are similarly complex, and outcomes are at times contradictory. Reduced working-class coherence has been highly consequential, yet European countries have not simply abandoned their normative commitment to answering the “social question” with social citizenship. Rather, the structures of production under services-oriented growth models have posed new risks and vulnerabilities that have undermined the strength of existing institutional settlements. Moreover, transnational economic and political integration has significantly reshaped the institutional arena for social protection, including the meaning of citizenship itself.

Delving into the German case promises to provide the necessary empirical focus to trace the diverse socio-economic drivers of change, track the complex political processes at work and outline the multi-dimensional institutional shifts that societies are undergoing today. By allowing scholars to recognize how the social question itself is being transformed, the envisioned research collaboration should allow for more durable abstractions than in much recent research.


The workshop focuses on three themes in particular, seeking to make progress toward formulating

  1. A dynamic theory of capitalism that grounds the conceptualization of evolving political conflict in changing patterns of economic growth and financial accumulation
  2. A conception of democratic governance that integrates transnational institutions as part of multi-level repertoires for representing popular will and regulating economic forces
  3. An analytic approach to tracking evolving answers to a shifting social question – primarily for leverage in Europe but with applicability beyond.

Call for Papers

View our call for papers. 


This event is organized by Professor Sidney A. Rothstein from the University of Pennsylvania and Professor Tobias Schulze-Cleven from Rutgers SMLR.