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Who Represents Liberalism?

La Liberté guidant le peuple (Eugène Delacroix) [Liberty Leading the People]

La Liberté guidant le peuple (Eugène Delacroix) [Liberty Leading the People]

To coincide with the official opening of "Contestations of the Liberal Order" at the Free University and the German Foreign Ministry, February 6-8, 2020, Judy Dempsey asked several professors involved in this ambitious project to answer the question: Who Represents Liberalism? Here are their replies.

News from Feb 04, 2020

Prof. Dr. Andreas Eckert
Chair African History
Humboldt University Berlin

Liberalism offers many promises, but at the same it tends to spoil its own efforts. For me, liberalism is a good example that the opposite to well done” is “well meant”. For a long time, Western representatives of liberalism ignored or denied the fact that many of its central ideas are by no means products of purely European provenance, but products of the global circulation of knowledge. How Western the liberal script really is, seems to be a question that needs further reflection. Moreover, what becomes painfully obvious to me, is that liberalism was and still is in much denial of issues or racism and xenophobia. Look at the United States: President Trump has made white racial resentment more visible than it was before, but at the same time, white liberals have become much more attuned to racism — seeing more of it not necessarily because the world has changed but because their own attitudes toward longstanding features of it have changed. In essence, the liberal attitude to racism was highly paternalistic.

Finally, neo-liberalism does not work very well as an analytic concept. As for neoliberalism’s potential as a movement rallying cry? As Stuart Hall maintained, in 2011, “naming neoliberalism is politically necessary to give resistance content, focus and a cutting edge”. The opposite seems to prevail: stultifying abstraction, vagueness, and blunt weaponry. In fact, on the left, one often finds with “neoliberalism,” radicals cudgeling each other with what could be regarded as the historical equivalent of witchcraft accusations.

Anette Eva Fasang
Professor of Sociology
Humboldt University of Berlin & WZB Berlin Social Science Center

Margaret Thatcher.

She is a controversial, central figure of neoliberalism and the anti-communist movement. Being in such a powerful position for such a long time as a woman can be seen as a "liberal“ achievement in its self. But she represents the ambivalence of liberalism that might give rise to some of it's current contestations. 

Thatcher's style combined strong labor market deregulation and privatisation (liberal) with increasing national protectionism (not liberal). In any case, it resulted in a weird mix of liberal extremes with illiberal elements. To me, Thatcher represents the promises and pitfalls of some liberal policies taken to the extreme. 

Merkel would be an interesting counter figure, of course with a different mix of liberal positions and particularly a less extreme implementation, and different interpretation of some basic liberal ideals. And don't forget Merkel's experiences within communism as opposed to Thatcher's anti-communist Cold War socialization.

Stefan Gosepath
Professor of Practical Philosophy
Freie Universität Berlin

I’m a philosopher by training. Isiah Berlin comes first to my mind. The other is Ronald Dworkin. For Berlin, he thought liberalism didn’t need to have an overall theory. For Dworkin, he had a great theory in which the principles – rule of law, separation of powers, independent judiciary, individual rights and of course liberty and equality – they all should come together in one big picture. For me, as an individual, its about what we can do to defend liberalism. We need an attractive version of liberalism that has no contradictions, that has no hypocrisies.

Mark Hallerberg
Dean of Research and Faculty
Professor of Public Management and Political Economy
Hertie School of Governance

I have an economics-focused definition of liberalism. This means, first and foremost, a central role of the market. Liberal policies reinforce the operation of the market. They establish and protect property rights. The “winners” are those who provide the best product at a competitive price. Liberal policies encourage everyone to participate. This may mean some redistribution to assure a fair competition. But re-allocation simply through membership in a given class or clan is not liberal. Liberalism also means the protection of individual rights. The main threat to these rights comes from the state. Due process and the rule of law constrain the state and are essential elements.

Steffen Mau
Professor of Macrosociology
Institute of Social Sciences
Humboldt University of Berlin

Liberalism is a normative concept, incompletely entrenched in society, but cherished by many.“The West” uses it as self-description as do many international organizations built to resolve disputes among states and to warrant a balancing of interests.In the West, countries with a respect for human rights, democratic institutions and civic liberties claim to be liberal and refer to basic constitutional principles. Liberalism also rests on liberals who share the conception of all people being equal and free – an individualistic conception of the person – and defend democracy. In principle, it is seen and understood as universal.Liberalism, however, comes with some ambiguity as it is doubtful whether and to what extent liberalism is to be equated with a specific notion of Western-ness and whether the West itself lives up to its own principles.

It also raises the question of how to deal with political communities of groups of persons who do not share the comprehensive doctrine of liberalism. In this context, there is an ongoing debate whether liberal political principles can be justified for all political communities. However, illiberalism as a contestation of the liberal script should not be reduced to a normative issue, it is often a power struggle too.

Prof. Gwendolyn Sasse,
Director. Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS)
University of Oxford

No single actor represents liberalism. Instead, it is best thought of as a set of principles and practices. At the core of the liberal idea are individual rights and responsibilities which translate into expectations vis-a-vis the political and economic order both within states and in interstate relations. These rights and responsibilities are safeguarded by the rule of law, both at the national and international level. Following this logic, the constitutions of liberal democracies and international law are the two types of institutions that come closest to the representation of liberalism today. The rhetoric of political actors regularly adapts the term "liberalism" most notably when its political and economic dimensions are separated. Economic liberalism is not always accompanied by the principles underpinning liberal democracy; and the label "liberal democracy" often hides ill-liberal developments. Liberalism and illiberalism are thus better understood not as clear-cut categories, but as a scale of different combinations. This, in turn, requires careful analysis of any one particular actor claiming to be "liberal", or formulating an alternative to "liberalism".

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