Liberal Democracy Doesn’t Fall from the Sky

by Alexander Görlach [translated from the German original published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, December 17th, 2017]
 
The West appears to face its end. After seventy years of liberal hegemony, the opposition carries the day in countless places. This opposition stands in stark denial of the core principles of citizenship and social liberties which the West brought: tolerance of religious minorities, equality of men and women, free speech, and openness to the variance of life-paths. Regarding the relations between peoples and nations, it’s “us first” again – from the US to Catalonia. Cosmopolitan thinking, which thinks of politics as a solution to global quests, is ridiculed. 
 
Narcissism returns to the grand stage of international politics: the appraisal of the self at the peril of the other. The Western model – secular liberal democracy – functioned in the exact opposite way: a democracy that derives the general well being from the liberties of its minorities. It is a community that strives to enable participation and welfare 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 countered with unemployment welfare, statutory accident insurance, health care, and pensions – 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 are its perfect breeding ground. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht: where there’s enough to eat, there’s time to think about morality. 
 
Civil liberties only enter conscious thought where education welfare and affluence offer it a breeding ground. That’s why the United States, in its rebuilding strategy after World War II ,prioritized economic projects that overcame the differences of the past – both in Europe and the Pacific Rim. The susceptibility to demagogic rhetoric decreases with affluence. This also explains why The People’s Republic of China strengthens its grip on society at the very moment a well-situated middle class establishes 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 the access to education is increasingly hard, then this middle-class loses faith in liberal democracy. 
 
That’s why calls for a strong leader are audible in almost every country of the western world. And it’s the reason, too, why minorities and Muslims are demonized and declared to be the root of all evil – 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 of mass immigration. 
 
In the internet age, the facilities 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 means the financial-economic sector. During the summer of 2011, 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 ever since waited for the dividend – without success, as Schirrmacher concludes. That’s how both the conservatives, which 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 blessing and curse. Blessing, because it realized the cosmopolitan vision of classical antiquity by enforcing free movement of persons and ideas. Curse, because free-flowing capital doesn’t benefit the many, but the few – contrary to knowledge. 
 
The result is a divide between expectations and unfulfilled hopes. This dialectic of the liberal world is a re-issue 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 not 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 origin: 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 befit his proportions and 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 (and 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 – for its inhabitants to be divided over trivialities such as race, gender and language? The photograph, titled “Earthrise” inspired the peace and environmental movement alike. 
 
Today, the isolationist movements in all parts of the world point to the opposite direction, into an age of nationalism and totalitarianism that could be termed ‘second middle age’. To the European, accustomed to vicissitudes of life, 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. 
 
Professor Alexander Görlach is an affiliate of the FDR Foundation’s Defense of Democracy program and a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also a fellow to the Center for the Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, UK. He holds PhDs in linguistics and comparative religion and is the publisher of the online-magazine www.saveliberaldemocracy.com. This article represents his views alone, not those of the FDR Foundation or other institutions.

Taiwan Versus the Beijing Narrative

 

As a European in Taiwan, I came to understand why the conflict of Taiwan is often misunderstood in the West. The knowledge about the civil war between the Kuomintang and Communists, resulting in the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek and his troops to the island, is not widely known. The implications of the term “One China,“ therefore, leaves many Westerners clueless. When Chinese President Xi Jinping deals with the island as if it were a defecting province, as he did at the 19th Communist Party Congress this week, he sounded somewhat legitimate.

 

Surely, Western governments are aware of the complicated situation and the pending threat, but they may feel that their hands are tied. Europe has always looked to the United States of America when it came to supporting Taiwan. Now, with declining support for the values of liberal democracy across the Old World in recent years, as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the rise of far-right xenophobic movements, little compassion is left for a far-away country such as restricted Taiwan. The stance that US President Trump takes on the issue is still unclear.


Prior to the National Day on October 10th, an article was widely shared and discussed on social media. The text claimed that the Chinese military would finally meet the necessities to invade Taiwan by the year 2020. Observers, however, would argue that the Mainland’s military would neither dare nor have the capacity to invade and long-term occupy Taiwan. Alas, that doesn’t mean Taiwan will not see some serious infringement on its liberal democracy. 


For Beijing, Taiwan is a threat because the leader of the Communist Party sells the idea to his followers and the West alike that being Chinese and simultaneously a liberal democrat is impossible: the tradition of Confucianism can only live on in the form of the one-party state. Mr Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption and moral misconduct needs to be seen as him catering to the narrative that he has deployed during his first term as president of the People’s Republic of China: emerging to the very top is only possible by applying the highest ethical standards


In the West, where democracy is typically deliberately limited by the rights of individuals or specific groups such as minorities, leaders do not cease to praise the Chinese president (and leaders before him) as visionary, innovative, and thoughtful. What they mean is that, due to the autocratic one-party rule, Beijing is capable of following through with policy ideas – such as tackling climate change – that would take years in a democratic framework.


The existence of Taiwan, however, reminds Mr. Xi Jinping and the West of the existence of a democracy in a Confucian context. As a matter of fact, Taiwan is not the only liberal democracy of the region. It has potentially powerful allies in South Korea and Japan. All three are allies of the United States, and all three have a similar set of interests when it comes to fighting off a power-hungry China.


Yet, for historic reasons, the three have not elaborated on their common policies. And it is doubtful that they will do so anytime soon. Beijing is anything but sad about the disagreements of its democratic rivals across the Sea. In Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo observers may already be nervous when they anticipate Donald Trump’s visit to China in a few weeks. The US president seems to have been marveling autocratic rulership.


One can only hope that the result of the meeting between these two power-hungry men of dubious mindset and character when it comes to civil liberties and liberal freedoms will not be frightening the three truly democratic countries in the region. As for Taiwan, the leadership and the people should be eagerly trying to strengthen their ties with Western allies and the liberal democracies in South Korea and Japan. For China may not be able or willing to invade the country, but it will also not tolerate any further development of a free and independent society for this may, in the logic of Beijing, inevitably lead onto the street of independence. 


Alexander Görlach is an affiliate professor with the FDR Foundation’s Defense of Democracy Program. He is also a fellow to the Center for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, UK. He’s a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior advisor to the Berggruen Institute. Alex holds a PhD in linguistics and a PhD in comparative religion. He is the publisher of the online-magazine www.saveliberaldemocracy.com and an op-ed contributor to the New York Times. This academic year he is a visiting scholar to National Taiwan University and City University of Hong Kong. This article represents his views alone, not those of the FDR Foundation or other institutions.

Populism in America and Europe 12/4

The liberal order has recently come under threat from uncountable angles in all corners of the world. New populist leaders have learned to successfully deploy divisive and forceful rhetoric along with seemingly reasonable policies. Will there be room in 2018 for cosmopolitanism, secularism, reason, and empathy?

Join Prof. Alex Görlach at a fireside chat about our new age of real and manufactured identity crises.

Monday, December 4, 7:00-8:00pm, at the FDR Suite (Adams House B-17). Limited to 12, undergraduates given preference. RSVP here: www.SignUpGenius.com/go/10C0E44AEAD29A4FA7-populism 

Alexander Görlach is an advisor to the FDR Foundation’s Defense of Democracy Program. He is also a fellow to the Center for Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, UK, and a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Alex holds a PhD in linguistics and a PhD in comparative religion. He is the publisher of the online-magazine www.saveliberaldemocracy.com and an op-ed contributor to the New York Times.