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Surviving the storm: liberal democracy in times of change

By Ralf Fücks , Roderick Kefferpütz

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 were 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.

Surviving the storm: liberal democracy in times of change

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