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Collective memory in law and policy: the problem of the sovereign debt crisis

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2018

Patrick O'Callaghan*
Newcastle University, UK


The idea of ‘collective memory’ features prominently in several disciplines but rarely in legal scholarship. Drawing on the work of Henri Bergson, Maurice Halbwachs and GWF Hegel, this paper seeks to present an account of collective memory that is relevant to discourse on law and policy. The paper uses the example of the policy response to the European sovereign debt crisis as a means of illustrating how collective memory of events in the distant past can shape individual behaviour and thinking. It argues that the current policy response can be explained, at least in part, by the influence on policy makers of the standard historical narrative of the Great Inflation of Weimar Germany. When, however, collective memory takes the form of Bergsonian ‘habit memory’, it can inhibit our efforts to resolve hard cases and the German government's opposition to the European Central Bank acting as a lender of last resort in the government bond markets neatly illustrates this point. If the debt crisis is to be managed effectively, policy makers must draw on Bergsonian ‘pure memory’ to explore the bounds of political and economic possibility.

Research Article
Copyright © Society of Legal Scholars 2012

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71. Shiller, eg, demonstrates that on the whole, Germans are more concerned about inflation than Americans. See J Shiller Why Do People Dislike Inflation? Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper (No 1115, 1996). Rowley shows that the ‘threat’ of inflation was used in election campaigns in Germany until the 1980s. See Rowley, E Hyperinflation in Germany: Perceptions of a Process (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1994) p 177 Google Scholar.

72. I am most grateful to Professor Schachtschneider for providing me with a copy of the arguments used before the German Constitutional Court on 7 May 2010.

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74. Feldman advances a similar argument highlighting the ‘tendency [among popular historians and others] to confuse the trauma of hyperinflation [of Weimar] with the entire inflationary experience’. Feldman, above n 55, p 5.

75. Within this context we should also note that inflation has traditionally been one of the four basic mechanisms of reducing debt/GDP ratios. See further Aizenman, J and Marion, N ‘Using inflation to erode the Us public debt’ (2011) 33 Journal of Macroeconomics 524 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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102. There is no more reason, Bergson suggests, ‘to say that the past effaces itself as soon as perceived, than there is to suppose that material objects cease to exist when we cease to perceive them’. Ibid, p 182.

103. Ibid, p 220.

104. Ibid, pp 130 and 162.

105. Ibid, p 206.

106. Ibid, pp 89–95.

107. Ibid, pp 92–93.

108. Ibid, p 94.

109. This is the theory that ‘the larger the drop in output that a country suffered between 1938 and 1950, the faster it grew subsequently’. B Eichengreen and A Ritschl Understanding West German Economic Growth in the 1950s SFB 649 Discussion Paper 2008-068 at 4.

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114. This is particularly obvious in the common law tradition. In classical common law theory, the common law was understood to be the ‘accumulated wisdom of the ages’. According to this view, the ‘community’ was Gemeinschaftlich, it was the source or ‘bank’ of collective knowledge and wisdom. See Postema, GJ Bentham and the Common Law Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986) p 63 Google Scholar, quoting Blackstone (1 Comm 442). At the same time, the common law, ever ‘bent on action’, develops in an incremental manner.

115. Savelsberg and Ryan argue that collective memory induces path dependency, but reach this conclusion in the context of a theoretical framework inspired by Halbwachs' work. See Savelsberg and Ryan, above n 2, ch 4. This provides further support for the proposition that Bergson's analysis offers instructive insights for traditional collective memory scholarship.

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120. As with individual banks, the question arises whether it is possible to distinguish between illiquidity and insolvency. Goodhart argues that this notion is a myth. On this account, ‘nowadays illiquidity implies at least a suspicion of insolvency’. See Goodhart, above n 119, at 345.

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123. Gray and O'Callaghan, above n 10, at 29.

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128. De Grauwe, above n 124, at 4.

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