The panel historicizes competitiveness as a contested concept that has been used since early modern times to establish hierarchies among states and to set political priorities. Such conflicts had real political consequences because national security, sovereignty, reputation, and wealth were at stake. The panel puts into conversation intellectual history, historical semantics, and discourse analysis, and it relates to discussions in contemporary history about (in-)security “after the boom” and about neoliberalism.
Competition in global markets is not, as is sometimes proposed, a genuine neoliberal ideal. The idea of a world in which states compete for market share is a European product of early modern times. The relationship between discourses about competitiveness, national security, and “greatness” is much more complex than supposed dichotomies of a post-Trump and post-Brexit analysis would suggest, i.e. dichotomies such as “nationalistic-protectionist states versus open global markets.” Free markets, too, were a tool of national power politics.
What actors demanded national competitiveness and why did they do so? What competitor did these actors consider a threat, what remedy did they propose, and who prevailed? The discourse about competitiveness was a symptom of a national and/or imperial angst, a fear of decline, as well as of ambitions: At the very moment the British Empire appeared to particularly powerful, the debate about Ireland shifted from questions of imperial governance to Irish competitiveness, first as a threat, then as a bonus for Britain. After the Union of 1801, however, political economists warned of a downward spiral of immiseration through Irish workers. In the 1980s and 90s, U.S. elites were deeply worried about “economic security” and the loss of American world leadership. And after German unification, the end of the Cold War, and the implementation of the European Common Market, Germans became concerned about their ‘Standort.’
From the mid-eighteenth century, British political discourse expressed intense doubt about the Empire’s ability to compete with European economic rivals. This paper identifies the place of Ireland in these debates. It explores how, over this period, British perceptions of Ireland dramatically shifted. As an autonomous Kingdom, Ireland’s low taxes and labour costs were viewed first as a threat, then as a potential resource, for British imperial interests. After the 1801 incorporation of Ireland into the United Kingdom, however, the migration of lower-paid Irish workers to British industrial centres was viewed with growing suspicion by the proponents of the new ‘science’ of ‘political economy’.
Does the loss of economic competitiveness pose a danger to national security? In face of powerful Japanese competition in the 1980s, this question took center stage in the public debates about the future of U.S. high technology. Powerful critics pushed back against the neoliberal credo of free markets and “small government.” They clamored for a new concept of “competitiveness.” Parts of the Reagan administration, but also academics and pundits, merged competitiveness and national security into a new concept called “economic security,” which redefined the U.S. stance towards Japan and shaped American economic and foreign policy after the end of the Cold War.
The debate about Germany losing its competitive edge as a “business location” gained traction during the crisis of reunification. During the late 1990s, newspapers and commentators even considered the former export champion “the sick man of Europe” and a danger to the stability of the Euro. Politicians, economists, and journalists increasingly conceived of countries as competing business locations. This discourse was centered on the supply-side equation Standortsicherung = Zukunftssicherung, which suggested that a political economy had to secure its attractiveness as an international business location in order to secure the country’s future existence. The equation, in fact, was the German version of the contemporary transnational discourse on competitiveness. This discourse had become a neoliberal governing rationality in the global North, and it has held sway until recently, when populists from the left and right have denounced globalization and open markets as threats to the nation.