I tend to avoid the word liberal as much as possible in conversation. My reticence does not come from any ideological aversion (although that could be forgiven), but from an abundance of caution. What exactly do my peers mean by liberal? ‘Does it include respect for the rule of law, freedom of expression and other unenumerated rights?’ Yes, they nod. ‘What of free markets and a rules-based international order.’ Their enthusiasm is now palpable. Here, I cannot help but goad them. ‘Or does it merely guarantee that my rent increases without end and that I’ll never actually own anything?’ A dose of cynicism and the conversation stalls. ‘That’s not the point,’ they usually reply! ‘It’s dishonest to confuse neo-liberalism with classical liberalism, and besides, it’s certainly better than the alternatives.’ Ah yes, the perfunctory defense: it could be worse. ‘Is that the best we can do?’ I ask. ‘That it could be worse?’ On cue, the coffee machine growls, and the conversation ends. The comment is barbed, but not without making a point. What are the liberal values worth defending? And why does it matter now?
It’s a broad church, I am told. Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel were liberals, but so too were Augusto Pinochet and Alberto Fujimori – at least self-professed. The experience of liberals on one continent does not necessarily equate with those in another. In the United States, the word liberal is, in fact, an epithet for the left, as any visitor to the country can attest to with a survey of car bumper-stickers. B. R. Ambedkar, amongst the world’s foremost liberal thinkers, never quite liked the label despite drafting the Indian constitution. Indeed, when it comes to liberal thought, inconsistencies abound. A ‘liberal newspaper’ reads the founding-note of The Economist Magazine, as does the online banner for the progressive American monthly The Nation. It is worth asking, how can something so varied find coherence?
To be clear, I am not arguing for a liberal retreat. Voices should be raised in defense of democracy. I am horrified at the resurgence of the far-right here in Germany, or the particularly nasty variant of ethno-populism rearing its ugly head in the Visegrad countries. Yet these challenges have been met by an unmistakable liberal ambivalence . Warsaw is home to Deloitte and Bain Capital with a modern chic skyline to boot. As one colleague recently argued, pride flags now adorn bars in Budapest and Prague, where a freewheeling nightlife rivals Berlin. So court-packing can be forgiven. At least while times are good.
Before liberals make their final stand, they should take stock of what it is they are actually defending. Proponents of the liberal script are quick to point out that liberal values transcend markets. ‘Liberal values gave us the Declaration of Human Rights, the European Union, and universal suffrage’ they are eager to explain. And yet the story seems so much more complicated, inexorably entangled with resource extraction, racism, and the material production of war. There is a look of mild irritation. ‘The status quo is not that bad,’ I hear the chorus protest. ‘Incomes have never been higher, and poverty falls precipitously year in and year out.’ The argument is delivered with such certainty as to preclude rebuttal. ‘A liberal world is a prosperous world’ they assert. It seems that at any moment they’ll break out into An die Freude! And still, such hopeful indicators ring hollow for so many when the gains are concentrated at the top. Like a Potemkin village, behind the facades, the walls are rotting. Prosperity and freedom for whom I need not ask.
I don’t intend to play the part of the perpetual cynic. It is, after all, an intellectual fetish to criticize. I am, however, tired of liberal declarations followed by inaction. What is required is a period of introspection. That is, a recalibration of the scales. Not all liberal values are commensurate; some must take precedent over others. Compassion should come before capital flows, freedom of movement over the monetary union, fair trade over arms deals. This is no more apparent than in our own moment of crisis, where the state must reconcile the needs of capital with the urgency of a public health emergency. Solidarity, compassion and above all else the dignity of the human being must prevail. I am unconvinced a liberal would agree.