News from the Centre

Crisis of Liberal Narratives as a Crisis of Universal Pretence

28.03.2017 Research on political narratives, neglected in the respective academic disciplines for a long time, has been accelerated by current events and developed into a much demanded tool of policy analysis. A conference in Berlin now stated a crisis of the liberal narrative and scrutinized it from different perspectives. It may not have eased all participants that convincing alternatives were rarely recognisable.


From a historic perspective on the development of European liberalism, a certain distance between representatives and the voting public was always constitutive, because democratic representation is also founded on 'hierarchical gradation'. Literary scientist Albrecht Koschorke, in his opening speech, reflected on a 'political semi-distance' of recognition of representative authority, which is not only a question of procedure but also of political culture. A corresponding 'informational semi-distance' of classical mass media exists, because the 'permeability' would combine with an 'attribute of professional distance-keeping'. Populist movements aim at ignoring, not least on social media platforms, this implicit agreement of democratic representation.

It was a conscious decision of the organizers to have a look on the present situation in quite different countries, in which liberal discourses are challenged. The question of Eva Horn whether alternatives could be identified worth to be considered also in Europe as new elements of governance did not trigger much.

Nevertheless it seems to be a fundamental result from non-European perspectives that liberalism, at least viewed from history, does not constitute a universal idea but, as Ranjit Hoskote labelled it, a proprietary philosophy that spread in India for example in the context of colonialism and the British Empire, initially inside emerging elites. In China, liberalism as a political concept does not exist. The contribution of Tongdong Bai, nevertheless, made clear that an alternative is discussed that aims at refreshing classic ideas of political Confucianism for the present situation. Under global conditions, according to Bai, no school—or country—can reasonably maintain a universal pretence. Bai's proposal imagines elected representatives who name experts among which an Upper House could be assembled. Here the idea of the Confucian scholar (mandarin), who councils political power in all possible issues, shines through; an Advisory Board avant la lettre and a political concept that seems to be compatible with international negotiation processes. The sceptic stance towards democracy, as it seems, stems from a fundamental mistrust in the population's ability to judge. This scepticism is anti-populist and at the same time 'not very much democractic', as Bai himself stated.

Many contributions suggested a decisive role of the middle-classes reconfiguring themselves constantly in rapid change processes, urban, recruited from migration movements into cities, and in all emerging markets a driving force not only of economic processes but also the supporting level for culture exchange, networking, lively start-up scenes between classic entrepreneurship and NGOs.

The Turkish governing party AKP served as an example for a temporary and strategically felt 'liberal' phase of political objectives that soon gave way to other contents. Karolina Wigura diagnosed a similar temporary phase for Poland. Transient liberal as well as transient illiberal positions are being fostered by the fluidity of political constellations and concomitant changing identifications in huge parts of the population. Following rapid boosts in development, the quest for identity motivates the recourse to older narratives. One example for this is Turkey, where the narrative of the Ottoman Empire functions as a point of refuge that, connected with Islamism and Turkism, makes the liberal discourse of the past years appear merely as a transitional problem. In this context, Kedar Kanak demonstrated vividly the role popular-cultural movement productions (museums, operas, entertainment parks) play.

Which developments, though, did liberalism—whose endangerment is frequently lamented—foster, and to what extent is it being evaluated in a positive manner anyway? Chandra Nair doubted blessings of the West referring to Asian states. There is no such thing like a global crisis of liberal narratives like the event title suggests, this is 'liberal bullshit' which he believed in himself once upon a time. For him, liberalism is, historically, the motivating core of colonial expansion and interventionism that is not present in Asia, and also not in China. He appreciated the ascendency of Asia and accused the West of not being capable to handle the increasing relevance of others in the global power dynamics. By looking at the future, Nair rejects the, as he says, unrealistic visions of neo-liberalism. Asia will pragmatically set priorities without the illusion of a liberal democracy in the 21st century, because 'we cannot have everything'.

Due to the criticism on liberalism and its role during the colonial past, Kedar Kanak's statement that the problems are not the liberal values themselves was very interesting, especially against the background that Turkey never experienced a foreign intervention, as she emphasized.

Aside from the threat of populist re-nationalist movements, another challenge to the open society had been identified; a challenge resulting from more privileged sources: Silicon Valley, as Koschorke put it, is an ultra-religious movement, and also a certain ultra-orthodox worldview in Russia is shared by a—predominant male—bureaucratic elite, as Ekaterina Schulman explained. One can anticipate, thus, that the endangerment of civic liberalism through anti-democratic populist movements goes along with an endangerment through old and new elites.

The concluding round with representatives of the participating organisations finally brought up the wish to continue this multi-layered debate.  On the way to the 'post-humanistic society' (Koschorke), the controversy over the consensus of values in a globalized world is facing the next challenge.

The event 'Competing Narratives' was organized by the German Goethe Institute, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Federation of German Industries (BDI) and the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research.

Competing Narratives (official website)

Media archive of the event

3SAT Kulturzeit, 27.03.2017 (report by Torsten Glotzmann, 6:13 min., in German)
Competing Narratives—The global crisis of liberal narratives: Big promoters of culture realized a far-reaching conference dealing with nothing less than the great narrative of liberality.