Surviving the Storm: Liberal Democracy in Times of Change

Attri­bu­tion — Non Commeri­cial — No Derivs Creative Commons © European Union 2012 — European Parlia­ment —————————————- Pietro Naj-Oleari: European Parlia­ment, Infor­ma­tion General Direc­toratem, Web Commu­ni­ca­tion Unit, Picture Editor. Phone: +32479721559/+32.2.28 40 633 E‑mail:

Society is caught up in a whirlwind of change. The power of liberal democ­ra­cies is dwindling and the political balance in the world is shifting. An interview with Ralf Fücks on what to expect from the renewed grand coalition in Germany, and how to defend liberal democracy in times of anti-liberal revolt.

Roderick Keffer­pütz: The European political landscape is changing. Macron’s election victory, the creation of a right-wing coalition in Austria, anti-liberal tenden­cies in Poland and Hungary, and the outcome of the Italian elections all point to growing divisions within the EU. Against this backdrop, what’s your view on the renewal of the grand coalition in Berlin?

Ralf Fücks: At first glance, this is a sign of stability and conti­nuity after months of political nervous­ness in Germany. I am not overly confident, however, about the political capacity of this coalition. The Social Democrats have taken a battering and will try to distin­guish them­selves from the Christian Democrats. But the Christian Demo­c­ratic Union, Chan­cellor Angela Merkel’s party and the bigger of Germany’s two allied centre-right parties, doesn’t really know what it stands for. While there is talk of a fresh start in European policy and of the chal­lenges posed by digi­tal­i­sa­tion, the coalition agreement is more of a ‘lowest common denom­i­nator’ document. We shouldn’t expect any great political initia­tives from Berlin, although this is urgently needed.

Since your last interview in the Green European Journal, you have both published a new book, Freiheit vertei­digen (Defending Freedom) and founded the think tank Zentrum Liberale Moderne (LibMod). What was the moti­va­tion behind these two initiatives?

Liberal democ­ra­cies are faced with a double challenge. An external challenge comes from the actions of assertive powers such as Russia, China, Iran, and even Turkey, which no longer see them­selves as societies in tran­si­tion from an author­i­tarian past to a demo­c­ratic future, but as a counter-model to the West. The concept of author­i­tarian moderni­sa­tion is being put forward with confi­dence and brings us back to global systemic rivalry between author­i­tarian and demo­c­ratic societies.

The defence of liberal democracy has become the key issue of our time. 

At the same time, there’s the enemy within. An anti-liberal counter-movement is spreading through Europe and the USA, affecting the core countries of the West. Trump, Brexit, and the increasing strength of right-wing populist to right-wing extremist movements are expres­sions of this. The defence of liberal democracy has become the key issue of our time. It is not about preserving the status quo: defence means renewal.

What are the reasons behind this anti-liberal revolt? 

We are expe­ri­encing a crisis of moderni­sa­tion. Funda­mental changes are taking place at an espe­cially rapid pace: economic glob­al­i­sa­tion with mounting perfor­mance pressure; the digital revo­lu­tion with its massive changes for the working and living envi­ron­ment; global migration accom­pa­nied by cultural and social conflicts; and even the change in gender relations, the political dimension of which we underestimate.

These changes have created a basic sense of inse­cu­rity in much of our society. The impres­sion that pros­perity and security have become precar­ious has been aggra­vated by three highly symbolic events: 9/​11, the attack on the World Trade Center in New York; the financial crisis of 2008, which still has not been resolved; and the great refugee movement of 2015–2016. All three have strength­ened the basic sense of losing control.

It’s not that people are dramat­i­cally worse off than they were in the past. This is indeed the case for sections of the working class, but not in Germany. It’s about a negative antic­i­pa­tion of the future – looking to the future with fear as opposed to confidence.

What guiding principle can give confi­dence in these troubled times? In author­i­tarian states, as in anti-liberal movements, this role is played by nation­alism. Free, liberal societies are char­ac­terised by a high degree of indi­vid­u­al­i­sa­tion and thus frag­men­ta­tion. What is the unifying element in liberal societies that can offer this type of confidence?

This is a familiar refrain in the debate on modernity. German philoso­pher and soci­ol­o­gist Helmuth Plessner iden­ti­fied this basic conflict in his 1924 book Grenzen der Gemein­schaft. Eine Kritik des sozialen Radikalismus (The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radi­calism). He describes the conflict between a liberal society with progres­sive indi­vid­u­al­i­sa­tion, increasing cultural diversity and the disso­lu­tion of all tradi­tional ties, and radical community movements from the left and the right in the form of communism and a radi­calised ethnic nation­alism. The ‘Volks­ge­mein­schaft’ (ethnic community) is the alter­na­tive to the liberal-indi­vid­u­al­istic society.

Human beings need connec­tion, the feeling of not being left alone in the storms of change that are raging around us 

We can only defend the basic ideas of liber­alism – indi­vidual freedom, pluralism, cultural diversity and cosmopoli­tanism – if we find answers to the basic need for security, community, and belonging. Human beings need connec­tion, the feeling of not being left alone in the storms of change that are raging around us – we have to take that seriously!

The crucial question then is how to define cohesion, and how to do this in a non-exclusive way: not ethnic, like the Volks­ge­mein­schaft, or religious, like Islamism; not as class soli­darity, as in communism, but rather in a repub­lican sense. A political community of free citizens who share common values and beliefs and stand in soli­darity with one another, that is the answer.

Has the post­modern Left not pursued its own identity politics instead of strength­ening such a sense of repub­lican commonality?

The Left’s identity politics was a trap. The politi­ci­sa­tion of identity issues such as gender and ethnic, cultural or religious affil­i­a­tion contributed to this populist counter-attack. We now have a white majority society which is reclaiming and defending its identity. Therefore, rather than deriving politics from group iden­ti­ties, we now need to focus on a repub­lican under­standing of democracy with equal rights and equal oppor­tu­ni­ties for all.

In Germany, the term ‘Heimat’ (‘Homeland’, a place of belonging) is discussed in this context, and the federal govern­ment plans to establish a ‘homeland ministry’. Is that the answer?

The grand coalition has already grasped that in times such as these, in which bound­aries are being eroded, there is a need for belonging and attach­ment. But of course you can’t meet that need with a homeland ministry. As outgoing German Interior Minister de Maizière correctly empha­sised, home isn’t a state respon­si­bility; it belongs in the sphere of civil society.

Never­the­less, it’s right to challenge the right-wing populists over the concept of homeland. But in order to do so, you have to spell out alter­na­tive defi­n­i­tions. My home is a place where I am recog­nised and respected. It needs to be open to newcomers who want to shape their lives in community with others.

What is the role of the European Union when it comes to homeland?

I believe that for younger people, the Erasmus gener­a­tion, Europe is already part of their self-image. We never have just one identity, but are at the same time European, German, French or Italian, with our whole history, culture, and language. We also come from partic­ular regions with their own land­scapes, histories, and dialects. These are multiple iden­ti­ties with many possible points of connec­tivity. Europe gives us another layer of political affiliation.

But Europe can feel a long way away, and this perhaps rein­forces the impres­sion of losing control. 

This is primarily the case when Europe is described as a central state. Then the backlash is triggered. The European central state is an elite project. The educa­tional and economic elites can move wonder­fully within such a post-national Europe, but the majority of the popu­la­tion feels that the disso­lu­tion of nation states takes away oppor­tu­ni­ties for partic­i­pa­tion. Politics moves further away from them; it becomes even more anonymous and bureaucratic.

We have to get away from the false dichotomy of a Europe of nation states or the United States of Europe. 

That’s why we need to rethink Europe. We have to get away from the false dichotomy of a Europe of nation states or the United States of Europe. Europe must be thought of much more as a political network, with common normative foun­da­tions and insti­tu­tions. More Europe does not always mean a greater levelling of differ­ences, but unity in diversity.

Does the grand coalition’s new coalition agreement provide the answer to these funda­mental changes and challenges?

There’s no need to tear it up out of hand; it does all sorts of things right. But if you read the fine print, then you realise that it’s based upon the status quo. The grand coalition is trying to somehow get a handle on the various problems by throwing money around. There’s not a lot of ‘future’ in the agreement.

For example, there are no struc­tural reforms in funda­mental fields such as pensions, health­care, or the green renewal of the economy. This is one of the biggest disap­point­ments for me. The idea that ecology is an oppor­tu­nity for indus­trial moderni­sa­tion and economic viability has completely dropped off the agenda. We have regressed to where we were ten years ago. At present, the Greens are the only party in the German federal political landscape that even comes close to having such a future-oriented discussion.

And what about foreign policy? As you have already mentioned, attacks from outside – from countries such as Russia – also pose a real challenge to liberal democracies.

The foreign policy section of the coalition agreement is a refusal to face up to reality. There is little reference to the geopo­lit­ical chal­lenges facing the European Union today. Basically, it’s still the old idea that all conflicts can be solved with money and the right words. It doesn’t face up to the conflict with author­i­tarian powers such as Russia, while the question of dealings with China is given little serious consid­er­a­tion. It lacks both self-confi­dence and an awareness of the European Union’s own power. Europe mustn’t only take care of economic relations and devel­op­ment aid; it also needs to think about security policy in the classical sense. This includes acting as an insti­tu­tion that is conscious of its own power. We are still quite a long way from that.

We had outsourced the confident, power-conscious role to the Americans, but they are now with­drawing from that.

This schiz­o­phrenia has always been there. On the one hand we were happy about the Americans with their hard power, and at the same time we crit­i­cised them for mili­tarism. However, this division into hard and soft power is also visible in Europe. Up to now, France and the United Kingdom have been respon­sible for hard power. Germany doesn’t feel that its respon­si­bility lies there, which is why we also have an army that is not oper­a­tional. The German submarine fleet, for example, is made up of six submarines: not a single one is oper­a­tional. The same applies to the Air Force.

In this context, we must also raise the question of the Euro­peani­sa­tion of defence. Common European defence is a real goal, but it should not be an excuse. We like to talk about the Euro­peani­sa­tion of defence to avoid discussing Germany’s own security responsibility.

On 27 March 2018, this interview was published at the European Green Journal in German and English.


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