The Battle for Modernity

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Today’s central line of conflict runs between open societies and various forms of Identitarian radicalism. The challenge we face is to reconcile rapid changes in a globalized modern age with our need to belong and our need for security.

There was a time when the world seemed to be on a common journey towards democracy and market economy. Some nations had already advanced far ahead, others were eager to catch up. In the future, there would be no rivaling economic and political systems, only different varieties of liberal Capitalism. The division of Europe, sealed at the end of World War II, had finally been overcome, trade barriers were tumbling, the world economy was booming, computers and the internet began their triumphant ascent. It was an age of optimism.

What sounds like a fairy tale today was the dominant sense in Europe and the USA in the 1990s. Two bestsellers eloquently bespeak this discrepancy between back then and today: Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man”, published in 1992, stated that following the collapse of the “Socialist world system”, all disparities would converge. The end of history meant the end of rivalling systems. The combination of socially tempered Capitalism and liberal democracy was to be the ultimate culmination of our historical evolution. Accordingly, the US would reign as guardian over this world order, ensuring that everyone played by its rules.

One year later, Samuel Huntington published his no less famous essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” (in later editions, the question mark was dropped). Huntington is Fukuyama’s antipode. According to him, this is not the dawn of an age of eternal peace in which the entire world gravitates towards the Western model, but rather a global clash of cultures along old, religiously tinged lines of conflict. Instead of a universal propagation of Western values, Huntington predicted, independent civilizations would return to their own particular values. In the future, the West (North America and Western Europe) would be challenged by other power hubs: China, Russia (as the center of the Slavic-Orthodox world), India and the Islamic countries. A brief unipolar moment of American hegemony would be followed by a multipolar world order.

In Germany, Huntington was bashed vehemently for his notion of a culture war, in particular because he elevated cultural-religious traditions to determining factors of world history and global policies. His proposition that global events are governed by rivalling societies, which are each subject to their own rules, is a classic counter-position to the idea of a global modernity in the sense of a gradual Westernization of the world. It divides the world into ethnically and culturally defined regions, each led by a dominant superpower. The world is diverse, yet the rivalling civilizations in themselves are homogeneous. They each follow a lead culture which is deeply rooted in its own history and creates a unique identity. It is obvious where this sort of ideology is headed. In any scenario, globalization is its adversary. Such civilizations will defend the ironclad principle of their national sovereignty, deny the global validity of democratic values, detest the global spread of Western lifestyle, oppose free trade, and combat transnational migration.

Authoritarianism or democracy

I’m not trying to put Huntington in the murky corner of ethnopluralism, far from it. Sooner than others, he recognized the return of Identitarian policies onto the world stage – and thus, the return of antagonistic conflicts that Fukuyama had all but banned from history. And he was under no misconception regarding the massive power shift in world politics. Until the triumphant success of European-US-Imperialism, China, India, Iran, Turkey or Russia used to be proud superpowers. Today, they strive to reclaim their global significance and regional hegemony, which translates into a relative loss of power for the West. The West is being challenged by these old-new powers, not only economically and politically, but also in a normative sense. China embodies a confident model of authoritarian modernization: it champions controlled economic liberalization without releasing its bureaucratic elites’ iron grip on the power monopoly. Today, Russia has become the global headquarters of a new anti-liberal International whose common denominator is anti-Americanism and its aversion to the European Union, open borders and open markets. Iran is the center of Shiite fundamentalism, while Turkey is drifting towards an authoritarian facade democracy. They all have their own narrative to counter liberal modernity. In that sense, we are truly facing a global culture war.

However, this “clash of civilizations” is not just happening between the large geopolitical blocks, but also within them. The battle between liberal and authoritarian, modernist and anti-modernist powers is being waged in China as well as in Arabic countries, Russia and Turkey. At the same time, the project of liberal modernity – this combination of human rights, democracy and cultural pluralism that has been evolving in Europe since the Age of Enlightenment – is being questioned within the West, as well. These aren’t new developments, either – but let’s not forget that the two radical counter-movements to liberal modernity, Communism and Fascism, were European inventions.

No, history does not repeat itself, and historical parallels must be drawn with great care. Today, Germany’s democracy is much more stable than the Weimar Republic ever was. That is also true for Europe, in general. But we are not immune to a resurgence of anti-democratic tendencies. In many European countries, such tendencies have seized as much as twenty to thirty percent of the electorate. What they have in common is their disdain for liberal democracy, a call for direct popular rule, a retreat behind nationalist bulwarks, their defense of a fictitious cultural homogeneity, and incantations of family, people and state as a solidary community against a menacing outside world. All this comes with a hefty dose of deeply rooted anti-Americanism oozing from every pore and crack.

The new social fronts

Such regressive tendencies are in no way limited to the milieus of the socially marginalized and the economically left-behind. The new quality to this anti-liberal revolt is that it spreads horizontally as well as vertically. It also takes hold of solid middle-class citizens as well as of parts of the left. The kind of people Germans have come to call “Wutbürger” – the ‘angry citizens’ – are usually well-trained, not too poorly situated professionals. They are still doing well, but they feel the ground quiver under their feet. Economically speaking, they believe that they face ever stiffer competition and ever higher expectations. Culturally speaking, they feel threatened by the crisis of patriarchal culture, a loss of confidence in classical male social roles, the bold uncloseted presence of gays and lesbians, and immigration from Islamic countries. They maintain the narrative that there is money available for everyone and everything but for them and their concerns. They feel abandoned as well as bossed around by “those on top”. Society as a whole, they feel, is headed in the wrong direction.

Since the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the pace of political, technological and social change has accelerated tremendously. Globalization also makes us more vulnerable to crises. There is a dangerous gap between global market dynamics and their manageability by international policy. The financial crisis of 2008 and the following years abruptly showed just how vulnerable the global economy is. At the same time, it shattered the people’s faith in their institutions. “Bailing out banks” became synonymous with dumping the burden of crisis on the working population. Low-skilled workers are under growing pressure; the middle class is becoming increasingly insecure. Parts of the population feel that they are no longer represented politically, that representatives of the cultural, economic and political elites on the television screens are disdainfully looking down on those who don’t care much for European integration, multicultural society and LGBTI rights. That is the breeding ground in which anti-liberal parties and movements thrive.

Modernity creates its own opposition

It is no surprise that globalization creates radical counter-movements. Each new phase of modernity has triggered fear and rejection, from the steam engine to the digital revolution. Scientific and technological de-mystification of the world leads to romanticism; secularization gives rise to religious fundamentalism; increasing individualization creates a yearning for community; global competition makes people call for a more protectionist state. The point is: Modernity is generating its own opposition. This conflict extends into the consciousness of each individual.

Most people have an ambiguous relationship with modernity. We take advantage of the educational and professional opportunities offered by a socially permeable society, we claim our personal liberties and we appreciate the variety of possible lifestyles. We communicate and travel all across the globe, we partake of world art, world music, world literature. We expect to receive state-of-the-art medical care in an emergency. At the same time, there is a swelling cacophony of articles, books and conferences bemoaning this or that tendency of modernity. We are well familiar with the tenor: free yourself from excessive affluence, from competitive pressure, decelerate your life, focus on ‘being’ rather than ‘owning’. All this is part of this permanent self-criticism that is integral to “reflexive modernity”. Remarkably, the combination of democracy and capitalism transforms any form of opposition towards it into innovation, causing it to constantly renew itself. But you can’t have it both ways: You cannot arrest the dynamics of the modern age while at the same time holding on to the scientific and technological achievements of our civilization. One is the reverse of the other.

Today, the central political line of conflict no longer runs from left to right, but rather between an open society and various forms of Identitarian radicalism. This is how philosopher Helmut Plessner summarized the fundamental Fascist and Communist opposition to liberal modernity, as early as the 1920s. The polarity of back then is resurfacing today: Political and cultural diversity versus a streamlining of society, parliamentarianism versus people’s democracy, cosmopolitan openness versus nationalist isolationism, political pluralism versus authoritarian rule. If we want to defend our open society, it is not enough to reiterate the values of freedom and democracy. The decisive challenge here is to reconcile the rapid change of the global modern age with our need to belong and our need for security. This requires, on the one hand, expanding “global governance”, i.e. crisis prevention and crisis management at the supra-national level. On the other hand, we must develop strategies to strengthen social cohesion and empower the individual to face constant change with confidence.

It would be a grave mistake to pit freedom and safety against one another. No form of society can guarantee absolute safety. But we need to have relatively stable living conditions to be able to exercise our freedoms. Those who are plagued by constant fear of social ruin or arbitrary violence are not free to live their lives the way they choose. In a highly complex society, the individual’s freedom is tied to institutional prerequisites: rule of law, public safety, a solid educational system, insurance against risks like unemployment, sickness etc. Public institutions are an anchor of stability in a world of rapid change. If we want to preserve liberal democracy, we must not only defend individual freedoms, but also strengthen the institutions that are the very backbone of a democratic republic.

This article first appeared in our Böll.Thema 2/2016 "The great insecurity – the crisis of liberal modernity".