Rethink­ing Lib­er­al­ism: Occupy Future – Defend­ing the Open­ness of Futures

Shut­ter­stock Inc.

The future is hardly en vogue at the moment. The signs are point­ing to crisis and a per­ma­nent frown. In view of this diver­sity of inter­ests, it is easy for the enemies of liberal democ­racy to sell their nos­tal­gic vision of the past as a blue­print for the future. Lukas Daubner argues that the liberal forces of all stripes should once again take a pos­i­tive view of the future.

The promise of mod­erni­sa­tion has always been: it will be better than it was before. This promise has suf­fered greatly in recent years. Fewer and fewer people assume that the future has more to offer than the past. And it is true, the outlook is not par­tic­u­larly rosy: climate change, the pan­demic, right-wing pop­ulism, species extinc­tion, inequal­ity. You name it.

But when was that ever dif­fer­ent? People and soci­eties have always been con­fronted with sup­pos­edly insol­u­ble tasks: from the social ques­tion in the 19th century to the world wars or the decades of the Cold War. The prospects were rarely good, and yet there were always thinkers and prac­ti­tion­ers who looked to the future with moti­va­tion and con­fi­dence and built their polit­i­cal pro­grammes on this con­fi­dence. We need more of them again.

Despite all the prob­lems and crises – or pre­cisely because of them – the goal of liberal forces of all stripes must be to develop liberal democ­racy further as a pos­i­tive nar­ra­tive of the future; to narrate it and to work to ensure that it remains a reality. Only from a pos­i­tive vision of the future can the cre­ativ­ity and dynamism for tech­no­log­i­cal and social solu­tions to the various exist­ing prob­lems be found. That is why it is nec­es­sary to re-occupy the future in a pos­i­tive way.

The future of nostalgia

It is easier for illib­eral con­tem­po­raries. Instead of taking the trouble to design a cred­i­ble future, they rhap­sodise about the past. Jour­nal­ist Anne Apple­baum describes this as “the future of nos­tal­gia”, drawing on the Russian essay­ist Svet­lana Boym. They settle into an ide­alised past that is also sup­posed to solve the prob­lems of the future: less com­plex­ity, less migra­tion, fewer women in the public sphere, clear geopo­lit­i­cal rela­tions, etc. etc. The promise of simple answers to com­pli­cated ques­tions, not only in the present but also in the future, is catching.

In her essay Twil­light of Democ­racy, Apple­baum uses many exam­ples from dif­fer­ent coun­tries to describe how the idea of liberal democ­racy is losing its appeal increas­ingly and larger sec­tions of society are not only moving away from it, they are even turning hostile towards it. The pattern is similar every­where: the feeling of decline and value erosion is spread­ing. It renders parts of the pop­u­la­tion sus­cep­ti­ble to pop­ulist promises of sal­va­tion. Online media take care of the remainder.

In private as well as public debates, it is becom­ing increas­ingly dif­fi­cult to defend liberal ideas and insti­tu­tions. Things that are taken for granted are no longer self-evident, cer­tain­ties are attacked by con­spir­acy the­o­ries. Liberal society and its insti­tu­tions seem to be increas­ingly losing their power of per­sua­sion. What may pos­si­bly be defused in the family context by clever invi­ta­tion or seating poli­cies has far-reach­ing con­se­quences for society as a whole.

Liberal forces are under­tak­ing efforts to renew the liberal idea (see, for example, the LibMod dossier Rethink­ing Lib­er­al­ism). However, it is becom­ing appar­ent that liberal ideas are engaged in a defen­sive strug­gle and national and chau­vin­ist ideas are encroach­ing cul­tur­ally: Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Make America Great Again, Arriba España, Les Français d’abord and the like will remain present and dan­ger­ous despite Joe Biden’s elec­tion victory.

Liberal thinkers and politi­cians are faced with the chal­lenge of for­mu­lat­ing a legit­imis­ing nar­ra­tive or making the exist­ing nar­ra­tives fit for the future. The old promises of neolib­er­al­ism have run dry, and at the same time there is a lack of future con­cepts that can provide legit­i­macy. What is needed, there­fore, is a new nar­ra­tive of lib­er­al­ism that is not only open to the eco­nomic dimen­sions but also more strongly to the cul­tural and social dimensions.

The dawn of liberal democracy

Much has been written in recent years about the ques­tion of why people turn away from the liberal social order even in places where the “system” pre­dom­i­nantly works, and rel­a­tive pros­per­ity pre­vails. The crisis of liberal democ­racy that can be observed in many Western coun­tries shows that “good” gov­er­nance alone is no longer suf­fi­cient to obtain appro­pri­ate legit­i­macy for polit­i­cal processes. Some­thing else is appar­ently missing for many people, this is some­thing that goes beyond the current state of affairs.

One indi­ca­tion of what this might be is what soci­ol­o­gist Jens Beckert calls promise-ori­ented legit­i­macy or promis­sory legit­i­macy. This is a form of legit­i­macy that politi­cians gain through the cred­i­bil­ity of promises regard­ing future out­comes. Cit­i­zens must believe that the deci­sion-makers will keep their promises, regard­less of the status quo: increas­ing pros­per­ity, main­tain­ing peace, pro­mot­ing climate protection.

Are liberal democ­ra­cies weak­en­ing by not describ­ing suf­fi­ciently cred­i­ble promises for the future? What is clear is that neolib­eral seman­tics of no alter­na­tive and “busi­ness as usual” do not hold promis­ing prospects for a medium or long-term future. This is all the truer in view of the mul­ti­ple social and eco­log­i­cal crises that are already raging or looming ahead.

Portrait von Lukas Daubner

Lukas Daubner is Senior Fellow Green Moder­nity at LibMod

Open­ness to the future, clarity of frame­work conditions

In private as well as public debates, it becomes appar­ent how chal­leng­ing it is to lend valid­ity to argu­ments in which futures are granted the nec­es­sary con­tin­gency for an open design and at the same time making clear why liberal insti­tu­tions are worth defend­ing. In the race for minds and hearts, the con­cepts and ideas of liberal democ­racy must become fath­omable and tan­gi­ble. Oth­er­wise, abstract con­cepts like (more or less) ratio­nal markets or mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism have little to gain against the hearth fire of narrow-minded and mis­an­thropic nation­al­ism sold as homely vision.

Open­ness to cul­tural as well as tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments must not be con­fused with shrug­ging one’s shoul­ders and saying, “busi­ness as usual”. But a lot of intel­lec­tual and con­cep­tual work needs to be put into to strength­en­ing the con­fi­dence that the future holds many solu­tions for present prob­lems – even such that we cannot imagine yet. After all, the future is some­thing quite dif­fer­ent from the linear exten­sion of the present. Often there is an impulse to under­take short-term and perhaps short-sighted state inter­ven­tions in order to be able to steer a devel­op­ment at all. However, such inter­ven­tions may lead to better solu­tions no longer avail­able in the future.

This is evident, among other things, in the dis­cus­sion about the right way to deal with climate change. It is nec­es­sary to for­mu­late a cred­i­ble and deci­sive strat­egy against the climate crisis and at the same time avoid falling into a restric­tive and, if at all, short-term prof­itable eco-etatism. It is true that quick solu­tions are needed. But in devel­op­ing solu­tions, it makes sense to rely on the dynamic cre­ative forces of civil society as well as the busi­ness com­mu­nity. At the same time, clear gov­ern­men­tal frame­works and support ser­vices are needed to achieve a post-fossil society. The German coal phase-out would prob­a­bly have been achieved faster through the market. A post-fossil trans­for­ma­tion of coal regions and other infra­struc­ture projects, on the other hand, obvi­ously need state support.

Relying only on the market would be just as foolish as leaving every­thing to the state. The state can do a lot. But it cannot predict the future. Instead of getting bogged down again and again in the dull jux­ta­po­si­tion of market versus state, this dis­cus­sion should be resolved in the direc­tion of sen­si­ble mixed relationships.

Market, state or what?

Gaining the trust of cit­i­zens for liberal democ­racy and for the future success of today’s deci­sions – that is the promise-ori­ented legit­i­macy out­lined by Beckert – is not achieved by repeat­ing boil­er­plate for­mu­las. Even the con­stant warning of illib­eral enemies is not enough as a legit­i­ma­tion engine on its own. The con­cepts and terms that are often pre­sented in a broad-brush manner must not only be filled with life, but their premises and their rel­e­vance must also be explained again and again: why is open­ness good, why is social market economy not an end in itself, where are the limits of indi­vid­u­al­ism and why are polit­i­cal com­pro­mises so valuable?

A con­fi­dence-build­ing lib­er­al­ism should not simply regard the control instances of the market and the state as oppo­sites or play them off against each other. Rather, there is a need for social debate about where the state has its strengths and in which areas markets reach their limits, where state action is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive and where markets enable dynamic and effi­cient solu­tions. There is enough empir­i­cal evi­dence as mate­r­ial for a nar­ra­tive about good mixed relationships.

In addi­tion, other gov­er­nance arrange­ments could be envis­aged, such as coop­er­a­tives, which aim at col­lec­tive action but are located between the market and the state. From one end of the country to the other, such solu­tions are applied suc­cess­fully for dif­fer­ent prob­lems. They can serve as a link between global markets and nation states. Of course, there is no objec­tively mea­sur­able correct mix of these gov­er­nance arrange­ments. The various liberal cur­rents each assess them dif­fer­ently. However, an open debate about them and policy responses based on wise com­bi­na­tions of state, market and other options may gain in polit­i­cal and cul­tural attraction.

Instead of mourn­ing the decline of liberal society, we should look to the future. Oth­er­wise, there is a danger that the decline will become a reality as a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy, as soci­ol­o­gist Robert K. Merton put it. It is ideas that change society in the long term. These new ideas must be taken up and be linked to liberal ideals. This is how a broad polit­i­cal alliance could be created in whose fairway there is suf­fi­cient legit­i­macy for present as well as future liberal pol­i­tics. The nos­tal­gia of the past could thus be coun­tered by a sober but at the same time bold and con­fi­dent nar­ra­tive of the future.


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