Rethinking Liber­alism: Glob­al­i­sa­tion and Demo­c­ratic Regression

Yavuz Meyveci /​

Has glob­al­i­sa­tion led to the triumph of democracy? Only temporarily, says Michael Zürn, Director at the Berlin Social Science Center. It has also brought forth new opponents of liberal democracy, both at home and through author­i­tarian powers. [1]

Glob­al­i­sa­tion has led to the temporary triumph of democracy. It foiled the socialist world’s strategy of isolation from the dynamics of capi­talist and demo­c­ratic societies. It increased the pressure for renewal in these societies and ulti­mately brought them crashing. Without glob­al­i­sa­tion there would have been no 1989.

At the same time, glob­al­i­sa­tion has brought forth and strength­ened the new opponents of liberal democracy. On the one hand, through the export of capital and knowledge, it has intro­duced economic dynamism to regions that for a long time failed in the face of the chal­lenges of catch-up devel­op­ment. East Asia in partic­ular has benefited from glob­al­i­sa­tion and found its own path to pros­perous modernity. Initially, this process could be observed in societies that also democ­ra­tised in the course of their economic dynamism. After 1989, on the other hand, China in partic­ular proved that there need not be a close connec­tion between successful capi­talist devel­op­ment and democracy. Glob­al­i­sa­tion thus also enabled the success story of an auto­cratic political system like China. Since the financial crisis at the latest, liberal democracy of Western prove­nance has been facing regu­la­tory compe­ti­tion that, in contrast to real existing socialism, is both different and successful.

Glob­al­i­sa­tion has also brought forth the new opponents of liberal democracy

It is different because it explic­itly does not link the flour­ishing of economic market dynamics to the insti­tu­tions of liberal democracy and thus questions the seemingly insep­a­rable connec­tion between market and democracy. It is successful because the author­i­tarian ruling elites in countries like China and Singapore cannot be easily dismissed as selfish despots. Their policies have a recog­nis­able common good component and can point to a track record of consid­er­able progress, espe­cially in the fight against poverty. They have also proven to be more successful in fighting the pandemic than Western European and North American countries. These states show that social progress is possible ─ and this without the demo­c­ratic control of those in power and the guarantee of indi­vidual rights, combined with far-reaching surveil­lance and reward systems. This under­mines the notion advocated, espe­cially after 1989, that liberal democracy has no alter­na­tives. If China is seen as a regu­la­tory alter­na­tive in parts of the Global South today, then the question of the right political order is back on the global agenda.

Rapid change has strength­ened the opponents of liberal democracy

Glob­al­i­sa­tion has also strength­ened the internal enemies of liberal democracy. Within the Western world, it has led to a dramatic increase in cultural diversity, to growing economic inequality and to the alien­ation of parts of the popu­la­tion from a political class perceived as aloof. These are the devel­op­ments that have made the rise of populists possible. This refers to the parties and political movements that claim to give the ordinary people a voice again in the name of democracy, but at the same time represent a funda­mental danger to liberal democracy. Indeed, contem­po­rary populism is primarily an author­i­tarian populism. It is a political ideology that builds on a de-proce­du­ralised form of majority repre­sen­ta­tion and turns nation­al­is­ti­cally against “liberal cosmopolitan elites”. The topos our nation first expresses the nation­alism. De-proce­du­ral­i­sa­tion refers to the rejection of demo­c­ratic argument about what is right. There is no need to negotiate what is right. It is set. “He knows what we want” was to be found on an election poster of the Austrian Freedom Party referring to H.C. Strache.

Author­i­tarian populist parties have a potential of about 20 percent of the vote in almost all liberal democ­ra­cies in Western Europe. More impor­tantly, a signif­i­cant propor­tion of the world’s popu­la­tion is governed by author­i­tarian populists. The best-known names are: Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Lech Kaczyński, Nicolás Maduro, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin and, until recently most notably, Donald J. Trump. These are almost all large countries, which is what makes author­i­tarian populism so powerful for the inter­na­tional order. Author­i­tarian populism has spread globally in a rela­tively short period of time.

Michael Zürn is Professor of Inter­na­tional Relations at Freie Univer­sität Berlin and Director of the Depart­ment of Global Gover­nance at the Berlin Social Science Center. Together with Tanja Börzel, he is the spokesperson for the Cluster of Excel­lence “Contes­ta­tions of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS)”.

Author­i­tarian populism is wide­spread globally

Wherever author­i­tarian populists have come to power, we are expe­ri­encing a demo­c­ratic back­sliding. In all eight countries mentioned (Brazil, Turkey, Poland, Venezuela, India, Hungary, Russia and the USA), the Gothen­burg Democracy Barometer V‑Dem shows a clear dete­ri­o­ra­tion in the quality of democracy. At the same time, the quality of demo­c­ratic gover­nance has worsened even in suppos­edly consol­i­dated democ­ra­cies. If the decline of democracy was for a long time regarded as something that only took place in distant countries, from the perspec­tive of Western Europeans, the strikes are now coming closer. Not only in Venezuela or Brazil, but also in the USA and Poland, democracy has dete­ri­o­rated signif­i­cantly over the past decade. In some of these countries, there is hope that a change of govern­ment will reverse the trend; but where liberal democracy has already been replaced by an electoral autocracy, voting out the govern­ment is also becoming increas­ingly less likely.

Changes in the func­tioning of democracy are crucial for the wide­spread alien­ation from democracy. The discus­sion so far has focused strongly on the economic and cultural causes of author­i­tarian populism. While growing inequality in rich countries certainly plays a role and a cultural backlash may be observed to some extent, the political question is the actual key. Economic and also cultural expla­na­tions assume that people are dissat­is­fied with specific policies and therefore turn to author­i­tarian populist parties. Surveys show, however, that the dissat­is­fac­tion is mostly based on a systemic criticism of the political class and the estab­lished main­stream parties. Economic satis­fac­tion, on the other hand, is rela­tively high and gender equality policies enjoy broad support.

People no longer feel noticed in a democracy

The political expla­na­tion says that it is dissat­is­fac­tion with the political system that is instru­men­talised by the author­i­tarian populists for their purposes. On the one hand, many people do not feel adequately repre­sented by their parlia­ments. MPs are perceived as a profes­sion­alised political class that operates in a bubble, detached from the interests of voters. On the other hand, over the past three decades, decision-making powers have been shifted to a consid­er­able extent from majority insti­tu­tions (MIs), such as parties and parlia­ments, to non-majority insti­tu­tions (NMIs), such as central banks, consti­tu­tional courts and inter­na­tional insti­tu­tions. Decisions are made increas­ingly by insti­tu­tions that are not subject to the majority principle, nor to the account­ability oblig­a­tions of repre­sen­ta­tive bodies. The purpose of many NMIs is to enforce the triple liber­alism of indi­vidual rights, inter­na­tional rules and open markets.

Against the backdrop of these two mech­a­nisms, many people obviously have the impres­sion that they have been left out of politics – and this percep­tion has a real basis. Not all groups have the same chance of having their concerns heard and imple­mented polit­i­cally. This has allowed the idea to spread that there is a homo­ge­neous political class that does its thing aloof from the popu­la­tion, serving the interests of a pampered and poten­tially corrupt cosmopolitan class. Accord­ingly, most author­i­tarian-populist campaigns do not seem to criticise concrete economic or cultural policies, but the system that produces them, i.e. the “parties of the system”, the “left-red-green infested system” and the entire political class, and above all, the declared enemy, Angela Merkel.

The current retreat of democracy seems to be more than a passing phenom­enon. The opti­mistic narrative according to which democracy spreads in waves with only short periods of partial regres­sion between them hardly coincides with the actual devel­op­ment. Rather, in retro­spect, the period from 1945 to the end of the 20th century in partic­ular proved to be a phase of worldwide democ­ra­ti­sa­tion. However, that half century was char­ac­terised by positive framework condi­tions that do not exist in the same manner today. The demo­c­ratic progres­sion was not so much the result of an inevitable logic of progress, but rather owed to a specific histor­ical constel­la­tion. The change in these specific circum­stances now makes demo­c­ratic regres­sion possible. Societies do not slide towards liberal democracy on a prede­fined trajec­tory, but rather evolve through political conflicts and struggles for the expansion of social and demo­c­ratic rights – and these conflicts can not only slow down the journey, but also lead to a change in the station of destination.

A new brand of liber­alism must first and foremost reconcile

A new brand of liber­alism must reconcile cosmopoli­tanism and democracy insti­tu­tion­ally in order to get back on the right track. Real changes in our democracy are required to counter the success of the author­i­tarian populists. Looking exclu­sively at the char­ac­ter­is­tics and strate­gies of the opponents only leads to the repro­duc­tion of friend-foe thinking. It deprives us of the insight into the central questions we have to ask ourselves in order to deprive author­i­tarian populism of its basis: How can we solve the problem of repre­sen­ta­tion? How can we reform non-majori­tarian insti­tu­tions so that they become more respon­sive and continue to deliver good outcomes in a complex, glob­alised and pluralised world? Simplistic solutions that aim to re-nation­alise and homogenise the insti­tu­tional foun­da­tions of democracy, as demanded by author­i­tarian populists, fall short in a glob­alised world. So, what to do? The answer of a new brand of liber­alism must be: Venture more democracy and promote tolerance of complexity in our society.

[1] This short essay is based on a wide-ranging study published under the title “Die demokratische Regres­sion. Die poli­tis­chen Ursachen des autoritären Populismus” (The Demo­c­ratic Regres­sion. The Political Causes of Author­i­tarian Populism”, Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2021).



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