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Research Focus: The Liberal Script Under Pressure

The world has experienced a series of political shocks in the last two decades. Among them were transnational terrorism, unexpected right-wing populist electoral gains, a rise of fundamentalist religious movements and the success of state capitalism in China. Nation-states that are committed to liberal models of political and social order are challenged both internationally and domestically. In consequence, contemporary liberal societies face a loss of confidence in the ability of their core institutions to provide solutions to an array of challenges, which lie at the heart of prominent domestic and international conflicts in the early 21st century.

Astonishingly, this has happened despite huge economic and social achievements: from a decreasing number of interstate wars to economic growth and a decline of absolute poverty in many places. SCRIPTS was established to investigate this puzzle of an increasing number and frequency of contestations of the Liberal Script.

The Liberal Script

The “liberal script” is defined as ideas and institutional prescriptions about the organisation of society based on the core principle of individual self-determination. The foundation of the liberal script rests upon implied universal values such as freedom, equality, justice, progress, and tolerance. Its manifestations range from human rights and the rule of law to free market capitalism. The term “script” originates from the theatre playbook as a terminological concept for “social order“ or “social system”. As a generic concept, it is not geographically or culturally confined to the so-called “West”. Moreover, the term allows for describing not only liberal but also competing scripts, given that the liberal script has been in competition with alternative scripts for organising societies, such as fascism, communism, authoritarianism, or Islamic fundamentalism. Through these interactions, the script has been shaped and redefined.

Research Questions

By putting the contestations of the liberal script into a broader historical, global, and comparative perspective, SCRIPTS aspires to answer the following three sets of research questions:

1. Contestations

To what extent do current challengers target the liberal script? Are alternative concepts of political and social order that claim universal validity on the rise or are they varieties of existing liberal ideas?

2. Causes

What are the causes of these contestations? Under which conditions does the liberal script lose or gain attractiveness, and what are the drivers of the rise of alternative scripts? To what extent are the causes of current contestations different from earlier ones?

3. Consequences

What are the consequences of the intensified contestations of the liberal script and the potential rise of alternatives for politics, societies, and individuals, as well as the challenges the world is facing in the 21st century?