by Alexander Görlach
The West appears to face its end. After seventy years of hegemony, a fundamental 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 man 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 wellbeing from the liberties of its minorities. It is a community that strives to enable participation and welfare the broadest possible group. This order ultimately realises 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 met: 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. Adapted from German playwright 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 prioritised economic projects that overcame the differences of the past – 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 strengthens its grip on society at the very moment a well-situated middle class establishes itself. Beijing learnt 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 felt 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 demonised 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, globalised by the West, holds both blessing and curse. Blessing, because it realised 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 globalisation 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 quarrelling 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 (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.
Photo: David Elmes, Harvard University