Daniel Leisegang: After 1989, all the talk was of the “end of history” in democracy and the market economy and today we are experiencing the emergence of a new phenomenon in the form of an authoritarian/populist leadership – from Putin via Erdogan to Donald Trump. Clearly, a new “authoritarian international” is increasingly succeeding in defining political discourse. Was your exact contemporary Ralf Dahrendorf right in forecasting an authoritarian 21st century? Can one, indeed must one speak of an epochal change?
Jürgen Habermas: After the transformation of 1989-90 when Fukuyama seized on the slogan of “post-history” as coined originally within a ferocious kind of conservativism, his reinterpretation expressed the short-sighted triumphalism of western elites who adhered to a liberal belief in the pre-established harmony of market economy and democracy. Both of these elements inform the dynamic of social modernisation but are linked to functional imperatives that repeatedly clash. The trade-off between capitalistic growth and the populace’s share – only half-heartedly accepted as socially just – in the growth of highly productive economies could only be brought about by a democratic state deserving of this name. Such an equilibrium, which warrants the name of “capitalist democracy”, was, however, within an historical perspective, the exception rather than the rule. That alone made the idea of a global consolidation of the “American dream” an illusion.
The new global disorder, the helplessness of the USA and Europe with regard to growing international conflicts, is profoundly unsettling and the humanitarian catastrophes in Syria or South Sudan unnerve us as well as Islamist acts of terror. Nevertheless, I cannot recognise in the constellation you indicate a uniform tendency towards a new authoritarianism but, rather, a variety of structural causes and many coincidences. What binds them together is the keyboard of nationalism and that has begun to be played meanwhile in the West. Even before Putin and Erdogan, Russia and Turkey were no “unblemished democracies.” If the West had pursued a somewhat cleverer policy, one might have set the course of relations with both countries differently – and liberal forces in their populaces might have been strengthened.
Aren’t we over-estimating the West’s capabilities retrospectively here?
Of course, given the sheer variety of its divergent interests, it would not have been easy for “the West” to have chosen the right moment to deal rationally with the geo-political aspirations of a relegated Russian superpower or with the European expectations of a tetchy Turkish government. The case of the egomaniac Trump, highly significant for the West all told, is of a different order. With his disastrous election campaign, he is bringing to a head a process of polarisation that the Republicans have been running with cold calculation since the 1990s and are escalating so unscrupulously that the “Grand Old Party”, the party of Abraham Lincoln, don’t forget, has utterly lost control of this movement. This mobilisation of resentment is giving vent to the social dislocations of a superpower in political and economic decline.
What I do see, therefore, as problematic is not the model of an authoritarian International that you hypothesise but the shattering of political stability in our western countries as a whole. In any judgment of the retreat of the USA from its role as the global power ever ready to intervene to restore order, one has to keep one’s eyes on the structural background – one affecting Europe in similar manner.
The economic globalisation that Washington introduced in the 1970s with its neoliberal agenda has brought in its wake, measured globally against China and the other emergent BRIC countries, a relative decline of the West. Our societies must work through domestically the awareness of this global decline together with the technology-induced, explosive growth in the complexity of everyday living. Nationalistic reactions are gaining ground in those social milieus that have either never or inadequately benefited from the prosperity gains of the big economies because the ever-promised “trickle-down effect” failed to materialise over the decades. […]
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