Re-setting the Liberal Centre

Liberalism has been an unprecedented success story in the western world over the last five centuries, and liberal democracy over the last few decades. The collapse of Soviet socialism owed much to the paradigm shift from collectivism to individualism. However, the global process of opening borders following the collapse of the Iron Curtain has shuffled the cards anew for liberal democracies. Russia, China, Islamism and even Turkey are challenging the supremacy of liberal democracy. Understandably, migrants want to share in the prosperity of liberal societies, which however already have in their populations many who have little to give; nor would this be enough to make a difference to the lives of millions of immigrants in any case. Why, we may ask, is this not more openly debated?

The arrival of a multipolar world has cut across the West’s claim to universal values and this is being replaced by self-assertion. With the relative decline of liberal democracy new weaknesses have come to the fore with the conjuring up of old and new enemies. The Open Society has become polarized around new axes of conflict: openness versus demarcation and re-bordering.

Caught between utopianism and regression

While the old Left continues to aspire to a utopian global governance, the new Right is threatening to wall in its people – a regressive and defensive mechanism. Their mutual antagonism prevents a search for third ways between globalism and nationalism. After all, a new generation of politicians has emerged in Austria and France seeking new ways and positions that transcend the Left and Right. The Danish Social Democrats have also noticed that a balance between self-interest and humanitarian openness needs to be offered to voters. In the US, the UK, Italy and Germany, however, the new centre has so far remained vacant, and in the case of Germany this has directly contributed to the decline of the German mainstream parties. They have failed to appreciate the real issue and the tasks at hand.

The new political fringes are not always extremists, but their one-sidedness hardly offer any practical solutions. In the context of Germany’s new energy nationalism, some sacrifice the competitiveness of the economy to “humanity’s challenge of climate change” (Angela Merkel), while an initial middle class opposition to too much openness is drifting towards a regressive, or at least nostalgic, nationalism. Small states like Singapore may have their niches. Middle-sized states, however, cannot assert themselves against such empires as China, the United States or Russia. Brexit is degenerating into an “America First” farce.

With the “fight against the New Right”, the established parties merely fight the symptoms. The causes of this phenomenon will not be understood so as long as fundamental questions about the limits of open societies are ignored. Resistance to new heterodox dissenting ideas further destabilizes democracies, because this cannot differentiate between conservative critics who aim to conserve democracy and those right-wing extremists who want to fight and undermine democracy.

Marxisant sociology both critiques its host society and emphasizes the equivalence of all cultures, treating the values of secularism and liberalism as an arbitrary choice. Ecological fears spur apocalyptic movements, whose one-sided fixation on climate change misjudges the main task of politics, namely to keep an eye on ecological, economic, social, cultural and also psychological perspectives at the same time, in order to then strive for a healthy balance between them.

The unfortunate creation of the word “illiberal democracy” (Viktor Orban), denotes the reorganization of freedom – beyond atomization and globalism, with the help of traditional communities, the nation and religion. Classical ordoliberalism had always sought to place freedom within a specific sense of order. But crucially the relationship between the state and the market has to be expanded and differentiated in an age of globalisation.

Nobody should want to go back on what they have already achieved. On the contrary – in underdeveloped regions, in the long run only the expansion of individual freedoms can lead out of the dead ends of collectivistic entanglements. In the Middle East, in particular, liberalism still has its future ahead of it. There, a paradigm shift from collectivism to individual interests – as happened in Western Europe after the Second World War and in Eastern Europe after 1990 – will bring an end to religious-denominational and ethnic entanglements.

From opposites to reciprocity

The loss of the centre was preceded by the loss of an open debating culture, which robbed open societies of their greatest strength. It is important to revive this culture in order to find new compromises and syntheses.

For example, a liberal centre could combine the affirmation of multicultural diversity with the rejection of a multiculturalism that reinforces differences and endangers social cohesion and the freedom of the individual.

Other false opposites, too, call for a new reciprocity. The essential globality of science and technology stands in sharp contrast to the need for the continued delineation of cultures so that they may preserve their identity and cohesion.

Individualism could be compensated by more connectivity. The anti-imperialist “leftist” urge to restrain national interests in international affairs provokes more “rightist” self-assertion internally. Global competition requires safe spaces at the local level – not least to prepare for future competitiveness. The contradiction between protection and openness can be handled over time. Free trade and internal social solidarity can be reconciled using the principle of reciprocity.

It’s possible for a new centre to emerge from between the illusory global community and a regressive particularism, feeding on notions from both Left and Right as well as from ecological, liberal and conservative ideas. This would allow a kind of functional re-alignment drawn from cultural conservatism, economic liberalism, authority in the rule of law and a supportive and demanding welfare state; these are not antagonists but offer reciprocal advantage. It is only in this way that mainstream centre parties will again acquire significance and popularity.

Finally, Paul Collier’s notion of “social capitalism” would also have to reconcile globality with the nation state, liberalism with order, and openness with limits. The global economy is diverse. A thin layer of simple ‘traffic’ rules would be sufficient at the global level. With the ability of local players to act, democracy would be strengthened and the new nationalism would be mellowed.

The European Union therefore does not need uniformity or equality, but different speeds and a differentiation of its tasks, depending on the levels, areas of action and actors required. The British have missed their historical destiny in steering the European Union to a reconciliation of the supranational character of the Union with the protection and sovereignty of the nation states.

Limits would have to be put in place to achieve greater diversity internally and more unity externally. Instead of open doors or enclosing walls, the door metaphor should help to demonstrate that – as with every house – every form of statehood has to be sometimes open and sometimes closed. The political custodians of these metaphoric doors should then decide on the exact relationship between openness and control, dynamism and dirigisme, and global change and local preservation.

About the GPI

The Global Policy Institute is a research institute on international affairs. It is based in the City of London, and draws on both a rich pool of international thinkers, academics as well as policy and business professionals. The Institute gives non-partisan guidance to policymakers and decision takers in business, government, and NGOs.

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