“All crises begin with the blurring of a paradigm and the consequent loosening of the rules […] finally, the case that will most concern us here, a crisis may end with the emergence of a new candidate for paradigm and with the ensuing battle over its acceptance.” - Thomas Kuhn
The end of liberal order?
Much has been written about the “end of the liberal order” since the first cracks became undeniable in the light of the dual – global economic and European migration – crises of 2008 and 2015. In spite of its critics’ previous slogans and expectations, it is obvious now that the crisis of liberalism does not only threaten profits, global value chains, international trade, minority rights and values of open societies, but ultimately the functioning of our pluralist, representative democracies as well as maintaining peace.
However, the passing of the liberal project is neither inevitable nor necessary. From the structural perspective, it has been only a short-period of time between the fall of communism and the mainstreaming of illiberal populism in 2016 when the liberal project and its political manifestation, liberal democracy, became the only game in town.
Even if one agrees that illiberal populism with its authoritarian and sovereigntist tendencies poses a full-fledged paradigmatic challenge for liberalism, the rise of the new and demise of the old paradigm is far from being self-evident. Now, the battle can be fought out in the open, like in the pre-1989 times against the contender ideology of state socialism, allowing better opportunity for a political and intellectual mobilization by the liberal forces too.
Caught in the Crossfire
Populist radical-right parties have effectively multiplied their electoral support in large sections of the European Union since 2015, but they are not the only ones. The threat posed by the populist radical-right contributed to a rising electoral demand for parties that make no compromises in questions of liberal democracy, fundamental rights and the values of open societies. The reinforcing of liberal and green parties throughout Western Europe is clear evidence for this bipolar mobilisation.
Against this backdrop and in light of the rising contender–paradigm of illiberal populism and the progressive electoral counter-demand it induced, both liberals and the political left are in need of urgent self-reflection and have to reconsider their mutual relationship.
Since last century’s neoliberal turn at the end of the seventies and beginning of eighties, the prime political conflict in Western societies has been the never-ending fight between the desire for increased competitiveness from the neoliberal establishment and the pursuit of a fair level of social justice by the political left.
During the nineties, neoliberalism appeared to score a triumphant victory over its counterpart when social democracy announced the program of the “Third Way”, which – from a neoliberal perspective – effectively domesticated the European mainstream left while simultaneously radicalising its opponent to the fringes.
It was the radical-left, newly-formed by the broad rejection of globalisation and the third way politics of social-democracy in the second half of the nineties that first demonised liberalism, without any differentiation between neoliberal economic policies and political liberalism. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, representatives of the populist radical-right adopted the above strategy of the radical-left, but swiftly filled up the half-empty shell of liberalism bashing with the rejection of cultural and political liberalism, beside the criticism of global liberal capitalism.
Therefore, since 2008 at latest, liberalism has been in crossfire of both the anti-globalisation radical-left and the populist radical-right. However, it must be clear for everyone if liberalism falls in this ideological Mexican standoff, progressive politics – including a large part of the political left – will fall with it.
Animosity towards global capitalism and liberal markets may tie the radical-right and the anti-third way political left, but the main battlefields of this war are the political and identitarian dimensions of the fight where the populist radical-right appears to be the common enemy of the whole progressive spectrum.
It might not only be possible but desirable for liberals and the progressive left to find economic and social policy compromises in order to enhance social cohesion.
Alternatively, the onslaught from the populist radical-right against the institutions of pluralist representative democracy poses a paradigmatic political challenge not only for liberals but again for the whole progressive spectrum.
Therefore, it is time to bury the hatchet for a while and forge strategic compromises in the progressive political camp instead.
Renegotiating the Battle Lines
For this end, both liberals and the political left have to start with uncomfortable self-reflection. Liberals have to recognize that they underestimated the social destruction neoliberal policies have left behind in Western European societies since the beginning of the eighties and the extent of the crisis they caused in terms of social cohesion.
They also have to understand that neoliberalism has been one – but not the only direction – where the liberal project could develop, and if the neoliberal approach and the core values of liberalism cannot be defended together, the latter must enjoy priority.
Post-neoliberal liberalism has to part with Hayek and return to the tradition of Rawls and Dworkin. It has to focus on seeking the balance of freedom and equality in society and invent new guarantees of individual freedoms that work both in increasingly hostile and representative (very often the two might be the same) political environment.
In contrast, the left has to understand that the intense criticism of liberalism by those with an anti-globalisation agenda has provided the fertile ground for the anti-liberalism of the radical-right and now the time for liberal bashing is over.
They have to recognise that the preservation of liberal democracy as the only political game in town is not only in the narrow interests of liberals, but should be the common strategic project of all progressive and moderate democratic forces. However, this goal cannot be reached if the left is entangled in a deep conflict with the liberals.
A Plea for a Progressive Alliance in Europe
What should a coordinated progressive platform of the left and liberals look like? With an eye on the looming populist radical-right challenge, it could cover policy compromises that may help to recover both social cohesion and broad democratic trust in representative institutions, and these would be negotiated in the European, but implemented at both European and national levels.
At the level of the EU, it could include a more determined approach against tax evasion, an increased taxation of global IT companies, a better balance between fiscal discipline and growth and employment stimuli in eurozone governance, but also a more straightforward commitment for free trade agreements by the Greens and the left.
At the national levels, liberals have to demonstrate a more complete understanding of social cohesion and must channel this new input in the political dialogue with the left.
However, the policy approach should definitely be supported by power politics, and the presumable advance of the liberal and green parties at the upcoming elections of the European parliament offer a golden opportunity for just that.
At its recent party congress in Helsinki, the right-conservative European People’s Party (EPP) gambled away its last chance to address the populist radical-right challenge in a credible way. Not only did Manfred Weber – coupled with his track record of cuddling up to wannabe autocrats like Viktor Orbán – question EPP’s commitment to values of liberal democracy but also the rhetorical openness to far-right verbiage of several EPP member parties, including but not limited to the Austrian ÖVP and Bavarian CSU.
A progressive alliance composed of the current European socialists (S&D), liberals (ALDE), Greens, and the Nordic-Green-Left (GUE/NGL) should collectively agree that they will only support a candidate for the post of the President of the European Commission from their own ranks and refuse any support from a Commission led by Manfred Weber.
This position should be coordinated with the ALDE and S&D governments represented in the European Council. Bearing in mind that the idea of having a German at the head of the European Commission is seen as a concern for several EU Member States and that Weber only enjoys the reluctant support of Angela Merkel, the chance for successfully blocking the EPP-Spitzenkandidate is far from being hopeless.
The four progressive political groups should make a well-founded decision about who their candidate will be using the electoral results and overall political acceptance as their guide. Considering that the candidate would need to be able to gather support in the European Council, it practically means a choice between Frans Timmermans and the yet unknown ALDE candidate, who could potentially be Margrethe Vestager.
Such a stance would demonstrate that in spite of their evident political competition, parties of the progressive political spectrum take the values of liberal democracy and the challenge posed by the populist radical-right seriously and that they are also ready to both coordinate national and European policies in this spirit and underpin this progressive political project with European power politics.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project series run by Visegrad/Insight and the Res Publica Foundation in cooperation with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as well as editors of leading newspapers across Central Europe.