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A Liberal Democracy Doesn't Fall from the Sky

January 30, 2018

CREDIT: Stanley Zimney (CC)

This article originally appeared in German in Neue Zürcher Zeitung on December 18, 2017, and is posted here with permission of the author. Translated by Paul Ostwald.

The West appears to face its end. After 70 years of hegemony, fundamental opposition carries the day in countless places. This opposition stands in stark denial of the West's core principles of citizenship and social liberties: tolerance of religious minorities, equality of the sexes, free speech, and openness to diverse lifestyles. As for relations between peoples and nations, it's "us first" again—from the United States to Catalonia. Cosmopolitan thinking, which sees politics as a solution to globally shared quests, is ridiculed.

Narcissism returns to the grand stage of international politics: the promotion of the self at the peril of the other. The Western model—secular liberal democracy—functions in the exact opposite way: as a democracy that derives its general wellbeing from the liberties of its minorities. It is a community that strives to enable participation and benefit the broadest possible group. This order ultimately realizes the utopia of equality, liberty, and brotherhood by combining the political with both economic and welfare metrics.

A liberal democracy can only exist where schools and universities are open to everyone. It can only exist where social pathologies are addressed: where unemployment benefits, accident insurance, health care, and pensions are enshrined in law for all. Liberal democracy doesn't just fall from the sky; it is the result of equal living conditions for all those participating in it. The middle-class societies of the West create the perfect conditions for it to thrive. To paraphrase German playwright Bertolt Brecht, when there's enough to eat, there's time to think about morality.

Civil liberties only enter conscious thought when education and affluence offer them an environment in which to flourish. That's why the United States in its rebuilding strategy after World War II prioritized economic projects that overcame the differences of the pastl—both in Europe and the Pacific Rim. The susceptibility to demagogic rhetoric only decreases with affluence. This also explains why The People's Republic of China is strengthening its grip on society at the very moment that a solid middle class is establishing itself. Beijing learned its lessons from the West's success story.

In the countries of Europe and the United States, which make up the West as we know it, the liberal model isn't yet fighting one-party systems and autocrats. Instead, it's battling with a perceived unlinking of economic and political participation. If the middle class isn't growing anymore, if savings pay no interest anymore, and if access to education is increasingly hard, then this middle-class loses faith in liberal democracy.

That's why calls for a strong leader are heard in almost every country of the Western world. And it's the reason, too, why minorities and Muslims are being demonized and declared to be the root of all evill—past, present, and future. In Germany, for example, supporters of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Pegida claim in surveys that while they're content with their present situation, they fear a bleak future because of mass immigration.

In the internet age, the opportunities for political participation have substantially increased in number. That doesn't apply to the possibilities of profiting economically from these new developments. The criticism aims at the political system but really means the financial-economic sector. During the summer of 2011, Margaret Thatcher biographer Charles Moore and German intellectual Frank Schirrmacher began a public discussion on the question of whether the Left might have been right with its criticism of financial capitalism.

The conservatives, argued Schirrmacher, had entrusted the financial liberals with their values and waited for the dividend ever since—without success, as Schirrmacher concludes. That's how both the conservatives, who understood themselves as patriotic cosmopolitans, and the social-democrats, who considered themselves an international alliance, stumbled into a crisis created by what is now labelled neoliberalism.

The world, globalized by the West, holds both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it realized the cosmopolitan vision of classical antiquity by enabling free movement of persons and ideas. A curse, because free-flowing capital—contrary to free-flowing knowledge—benefits the few, not the many.

The result is a divide between expectations and unfulfilled hopes. This dialectic of the liberal world is a reprise of the dialectic of enlightenment. Curse and blessing are still intertwined in political consciousness. That explains why citizens are willing to protest against refugees with a smartphone, but stay silent when the Panama or Paradise Papers reveal how the most affluent abuse financial globalization to avoid their duties to the welfare state.

European modernity, with its pursuit of enlightenment and development, got the ball rolling. It alone can reconcile the quarreling spirits that it conjured up. To do so, the West has to reappraise its origins: Christian humanism with its emphasis on humankind as an end in itself. As the Christian theologian argues, man is the axis of salvation. The world in which man finds himself has to remain intelligible and comprehensible to him in relation to the self.

In the classical sense, this certainly does not imply that human beings of foreign origin, language, or religions are perceived as beyond the bounds of his proportions. Instead, cosmopolitanism argues that the rulebook of the world applies equally to all because all are equal. The first cosmopolitans, by name and conviction, were philosophers of Athens (later Rome). To them, it meant an empathetic basis for thinking and acting that would reveal the whole world in us and our actions. Only in this way can the gaze, in a next step of abstraction, direct itself to the world beyond the city walls.

When, on Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 crew first transmitted a photograph of the Earth from outer space, the dream of the ancient European cosmopolitans was about to be fulfilled. Doesn't this planet look too vulnerable, from up there—sub specie aeternitatis [from the perspective of the eternal]—for its inhabitants to be divided over trivialities such as race, gender, and language? The photograph, titled "Earthrise," inspired the peace and environmental movements alike.

Today, the isolationist movements in all parts of the world point to the opposite direction, toward an age of nationalism and totalitarianism that could be termed 'the second Middle Ages.' To the European, accustomed to vicissitudes, the relapse into barbarism seems undeniable and fatal. But it isn't. He ought, instead, to go into battle and missionary mode and offer to humankind what has always been in its nature: a political and social system that builds on the connection lines of the human family, embedded in a shared sense of compassion. Above all, doing so will require a global social contract that puts an end to the rule of capital, which has enslaved man and disfigured his soul for far too long.

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