Rethinking Liberalism: Occupy Future – Defending the Openness of Futures
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.
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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