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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