Thursday, October 27, 2016

Regina Kreide - The silence of political liberalism

Europe is convulsed by terrorist attacks and surrounded by theatres of war. Refugees are dying at the external borders of the continent or being herded together in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Yemen, or – and this applies only to the very few – in countries in Europe. The financial crisis seems harmless in comparison: annoying but transient, like a cold.

The beautiful, peaceful world in which we have arranged our lives so comfortably is showing its repressed, violent side. Yet established political theory is silent – perplexed, incredulous, and helpless – in the face of these problems. Is this because the circumstances are beyond explanation? Or is there a problem with political theory itself? What has happened to the discipline that claims to be able to tell us about the legitimacy of political systems? To paraphrase Kant, is it dreaming the sweet dream of perpetual peace? In the following, I develop three theses in order to explain this silence. Before doing so, however, I will offer a brief sketch of recent key developments in political theory.

The end of history?

The history of political theory over the last three decades has been shaped in decisive ways by variants of liberal theory. It is no exaggeration to say that liberal theory, which draws in one way or another on classical predecessors, still sets the tone. Here, central importance is accorded to the foundation of civil liberties, whose function is to protect life, security and property. For example, the seventeenth-century liberalism of John Locke is shaped by the idea that human beings by nature find themselves in a condition of perfect freedom in which they do not depend on the will of others. Almost two centuries later, John Stuart Mill added the condition that, if freedom is restricted, then the burden of proof lies with those restricting, rather than those whose rights are being curtailed. 

Contemporary liberal thinkers such as Joel Feinberg, Stanley Benn and John Rawls also affirm – notwithstanding all other disagreements – a 'basic liberal principle': the freedom of all or, more precisely, the negative freedom of all, to exist without interference by other individuals or the state. This is the key normative premise of all liberal theories. The protection of life, property and freedom of opinion (Mill) are central; deviations from these fundamental principles, for example state coercion (taxes, conscription), must be justified. A main question for liberalism is thus whether and how it is possible to legitimize coercive and freedom-curtailing rule.

After the end of the Cold War, when many things pointed to a single world-order for all under the triumphant banner of liberal constitutionalism, democracy and a politically domesticated capitalism, liberalism seemed to have reached its goal. The concept of society of Soviet-style socialism had imploded without alternatives and from its ruins one could dimly see democratic societies taking shape that were already breathing the freedom of borderless capitalist exchange and cheap production.

Political theory was not unaffected by these historical developments. In 1999, Otfried Höffe wrote a widely acclaimed book on the transnationalization of democracy, while in the same John Rawls year extended his Theory of Justice(1971) from the national to the global level. Seldom had liberal theory and politics been so closely aligned. Even if some 'peoples' needed a bit more time and would have to be met halfway by the 'West' when it came to ideas about democracy and justice, it was assumed that all societies would in the long run develop in line with a liberal concept of freedom, rule of law and justice. Kant's dream of 'eternal peace', in which an interplay between national democracies and international law backed up by force would give rise to a process of democratic constitutionalization under the auspices of the United Nations, seemed on the brink of realization. Francis Fukuyama spoke of the 'end of history' while not long ago Samuel Moyn argued for a repoliticization of human rights as 'last utopia'.

In the meantime, however, the theoretical tools of liberalism appear hopelessly inadequate. Liberal values no longer count as desirable without qualification – far from it… read more: