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"We are experiencing an anti-liberal counter-revolution"

Why hard-won freedoms in the world and in Europe are under threat again today and what can be done about it. An interview with Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash

Photo: Thomas Burla


Michael Wiederstein, Editor in Chief of the liberal monthly journal Schweizer Monat, meets Timothy Garton Ash, historian and director of the European Studies Center at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, for a conversation about liberalism, populism, free speech and “robust civility”,  on the occasion of the Max Schmidheiny Lecture at the St. Gallen Symposium. This interview was first published in German by Schweizer Monat and translated by Daniel Fallenstein of Freedom Today Network. We thank Schweizer Monat for the kind permission to exclusively publish this interview in English.


Mr. Garton Ash, you describe yourself as a classical liberal. I would call myself the same. However: why add the qualifier “classical”? Does “liberal” not suffice to describe this stance today?

I’m a staunch Anglo-European liberal in heart and mind. If you describe yourself as such, especially at my age, early 60s, you have experienced an incredible and gratifying march of freedom and liberalism over the last 40 years. Remember: When I was a student, Spain, Portugal and Greece were dictatorships. Since then, there have been waves of liberalization and democratization that, even after 1989, were accompanied by globalization. Therefore, we must clarify right away what that actually means. Because in the United States the “L-word” means almost “communist” and in Russia almost “fascist”, in France “liberal” has almost become a dirty word. Classically liberal means to me: The highest political value is individual freedom. Of course, there are other political values important to liberalism, but individual freedom is already complex enough: In order for an individual to be free, it must be politically, economically and socially free.

If you, as a classical liberal, look at the world right now, what condition is western liberalism in?

We are experiencing a worldwide anti-liberal counter-revolution at the moment. Of course, to a historian it is not surprising that there is a reformation, and then a counter-reformation. There is the French Revolution, there is a restoration. But in the past nine months I have been in China, India, Turkey, North America and Europe. We see real counter-revolutions everywhere as a response to the march of freedom and liberalism. Freedom of speech, economic and social freedom is threatened. Whether we talk about Wladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orbán, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders or Nigel Farage: For all the differences between these politicians and their movements — and there are some of them — they can be called protagonists of a global anti-liberal movement. This movement is aimed against all the freedoms that have been won since 1989.

Born in 1983, I still remember how I, as a young boy, watched my parents when they saw at the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV: They opened a bottle of champagne, which they wouldn’t do otherwise. Later other relatives came, all celebrated. Since then, much has happened: the advances in freedom, prosperity and mobility are so enormous that I can not comprehend what feeds this counter-revolution you describe. Can you explain that?

(Thinks) Yes and No. My formative experiences took place in Eastern and Central Europe. Before the turnaround, the life chances of a young Pole and East German were incomparably worse than that of a young British or Swiss. Now they are comparable. There is a huge gain in individual freedoms. When I see a young Pole or Hungarian, who can travel anywhere, enjoying his freedom of movement, it delights me every time. But now for the other side of the coin. First, freedom is not safe all. For Wladimir Putin, a former KGB man and a friend of the Soviet empire, this is downright outrageous. The same goes for exponents of the Chinese Communist Party. Second, the wave of liberalization, globalization and Europeanization — three parallel processes — pushed aside, marginalized, abandoned many people — or at least give them that feeling.

You mean economic inequality? That may of course have been less pronounced in the former Soviet bloc — but they were all “equally poor”.

It is not just economic inequality. The Gini coefficient has not risen in Poland. The electoral prospects of populists have on the other hand. This is about an imbalance of attention and respect. We speak of the “downtrodden,” the “failures,” the “die hards”. And the new populists succeeded in welding them into a group, which I call a “coalition of the unwilling”, alluding to the “Coalition of the Willing”.

Who is involved?

These are very different social groups, but a simplified, emotionally appealing, nationalist narrative unites them into a large group. They are struggling with what Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has called the “trilemma of globalization”. Rodrik claims regarding from the three things globalization, democracy and the sovereign nation-state, we can relatively easily have two,, but not all three. Globalization and Democracy? Works, but only when you remove some sovereignty. Globalization and sovereign nation state? Works, but only if you remove some democracy. Populists have succeeded in combining sovereignty and independence with the rhetoric of democracy. They shout: “We are the people, we are for democracy!” In this, they also say: “The others are to blame for our problems.” Then the immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, the Kurds or the elites. target. ! “On est chez nous”, they chant at the Front National, “If only we were alone, among our own, then everything would be fine.” That is not true, but sounds good to many ears.

The British called a year ago: “Take back control” Beyond the populism, this was a legitimate policy concern, wasn’t it?

“Take back control,” “Wir sind das Volk” or Donald Trump’s: “I’m your voice” — each of these classic populist claims pits “us” against “the other”. This is of course necessary, because populists rely on demarcation to define themselves. They achieve this with delimitation of two bogeymen: on one hand the ethnocultural others, i.e. “the Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, Kurds”. On the other hand, the socio-politically different, such as the “elites, the experts.” Michael Gove said during the United Kingdom and Gibraltar European Union membership referendum debate: “People in this country have had enough of experts!” And he says that, even though he is an expert and elite in one person!

The same holds true for us that develop thoughts to publish them in a classical liberal medium: We are the new favorite bogeyman of those who reject the status quo.

That’s the way it is. And indeed, in a sense that is true : We just do not belong with a “people” that populists imagine, that is wonderfully harmonious, strong and warm, and has settled here for thousands and thousands of years, with no change. liberals and experts alike do not commit themselves to warm the nest. They do not speak a populist, emotionally appealing and “warm” language.

Do you have a recent example?

The French presidential election! Let’s compare, regardless of political preferences, Macron and Le Pen. Macron presented himself in the debate very intellectual, sometimes even technocratic — he relied on complicated truths, facts. In contrast, Marine Le Pen’s ideas of economics: protectionist nonsense, but highly charged with patriotic phrases. Jacob Burckhardt, my favorite historian, called such people “terribles simplificateurs”. And now I say something that may sound elitist, but is very important: We liberals often have the mind on our side, but rarely the heart. This does not mean that we also should start with simplifications, polemics and lies. But we must, if we want to be politically successful again, streamline our narrative, make it more attractive and emotionally appealing.

It is the old problem of liberals: Their approach to politics is often essential, technocratic, at best, evidence-based. Democratically, that is not necessarily attractive.

On the contrary, it is! But only in a dictatorship, when it comes to the fight for freedom. I will never forget what the struggle for freedom looked like in Eastern Europe in the 1980s — the liberal narrative there was actually very “warm”. But my friend Ralf Dahrendorf even then said: liberalism, constitutional patriotism, open society — they are all wonderful things, but relatively cool.

That’s true. But it plays into the hands of the anti-attitude that it has actually been neglected for too long to openly discuss obvious problems within the structure of the European Union — for example “Imperial overstretch”, too much bureaucracy, remoteness. At least, the emerging protest parties address the problems — that may suffice for many voters, even those who do not agree with the offered “solutions”.

A very important question: What are liberals to do in the face of anti-liberal counter-revolution? First we need to be self-critical: Globalization, liberalization, Europeanization, simply proceeded to fast in parts. The lives of people — I’ve heard that from people when I was in the streets during the Brexit- referendum to promote “Remain” — have changed too quickly.

With respect, however: More than a quarter of a century has passed since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

People are not so fast! We underestimated the impact of freedom of movement within the EU, the rapid social liberalization that is discussed so controversially for example in Poland. The various effects of globalization, which are very positive course as a whole, the relocation of jobs to India and China and, not least, even the acclimation to the digital revolution — all that we underestimated. In the European Union the remoteness and the democratic deficit come on top. Sure, we can counter by referring to the European Parliament that has directly elected members and now has many powers. On paper, and objectively, the EU has a democratic control.

And subjectively?

Subjectively, it does not work at all. No common person in Europe believes that he or she is directly represented democratically by the European Parliament. This is not an assertion, but a fact. Each year, the citizens of the EU countries will be asked in the Eurobarometer: “Did you feel that your voice is heard in the EU?” And year after year, that number drops. Currently only a third of respondents feel they are heard. This is a structural problem of the European Union.

So would a simplification and purification of the EU not be appropriate — and could it not be supported by liberal forces?

Life is not lived in the subjunctive. But if we could start the European project again today, I would argue for a European Parliament as the representation of national parliaments. This euro zone, I would not start, and a monetary union only if it were properly prepared, and only between countries that are capable of it. And I would be more careful with the freedom of movement. For in retrospect, it is of course absurd: We have broken down the borders within the Schengen area without building up the external borders of the Schengen zone. What were we thinking?

Hindsight is 20/20.

In any case, the EU must convince people again. For a political community like the European Union persuasion is vital. Whether I now go to Turkey or to Britain to Ukraine or to Morocco — there is very little left of the formerly magnetic force of the EU.

So you understand why currently 80 percent of Swiss have absolutely no interest in becoming EU Europeans? Here it was fairly possible to resolve the “trilemma of globalization”: Switzerland is a good bit more sovereign, but it is highly globalized — and every three months on the ballot box it says: “We are the people” — and this, to some extent of course, without foaming at the mouth.

(Laughs) Even though I’m really a passionate proponent of the EU, I understand Switzerland, yes. And maybe Switzerland is the little big exception to the rule. But direct democracy is something quite different from a plebiscite in representative democracies — a plebiscite comes from above, direct democracy comes from below. To that extent, the Brexit-referendum has nothing to do with what has been happening in Switzerland for centuries. Nevertheless, the Swiss people should have no illusions.

What do you mean?

To put it bluntly: Switzerland behaves quite parasitically with the European Union. If all European countries would be as “independent” and “headstrong” like Switzerland, Switzerland would not be the Switzerland, you live in today. I am exaggerating, of course — but Switzerland, just like the UK, is benefiting without a doubt from the greater regional cooperation, openness and the rule of law of the EU. Left to themselves, there would be no guarantee that all European countries would be so democratic, open and willing to cooperate. This was already visible in former Yugoslavia. Especially Swiss populism shows how much the Brexiteers lead us astray. They keep telling us: “No longer will we bear the problems of Europe” With immigration, with a multicultural society, with Islamists and so on. But do these problems suddenly stop on the Swiss border? No. Neither will they halt on the English Channel.

But still: Switzerland with its four cultures, a lot of individual freedom, a high degree of globalization, low tax base, etc. but could be a model from which the European Union could copy a thing or two — in the name of system competition. Keywords like federalism, tax competition, cohesion are dropped in Brussels all the time. How appropriate is a “Role Model Switzerland”?

Of course, Switzerland has its many cultures, languages and the link between the multicultural and direct democracy — and that is quite admirable, but not easily transferable to Europe. The European Union is a UFO, an “unidentified flying object”. It is something completely new in history and thus all such comparisons are more or less misleading.

Nevertheless, currently a particularly large number of people are struggling, not only in Switzerland. We are dealing here, in effect, with conflicts between community and society, that we thought were overcome, right?

Between nation and globalized world, right.

One is manageable, transparent — warm. There are social control and visibility. The other is anonymous, global, seemingly chaotic — cold. At least the that appears to be the perception of many citizens. Do nation and globalized world no longer get along?

Our problem is rather the mistaken assumption that communities would have to be defined exclusively national. That’s no longer the case: Just consider the networked world, the Internet. It offers the opportunity to build a virtual community that is cross-border and trans-cultural — and a lot of people are already using this opportunity. There has never been a time in which half of humanity over the smartphone, this magic box, could communicate with each other.

What’s your point?

Is there not a chance that we have a cross-cultural sense of community that we are a bit closer to Immanuel Kant's dream of the “global civil society”? And if so, why should we continue to accept that “community” can only be defined ethnically and culturally — in the sense of a people?

Granted, many of us today have friends or colleagues on the other side of the world, who we appreciate very much — and with which we often have more in common than with old school friends or people from other parts of the country. But the potential of this network world citizenship be but so far only experience of a globalized class at all.

Even the clichéd northern English fisherman who never held a smartphone, ultimately benefits from the fact that people’s needs are better met around him. But that’s not the point: Whether in India, China or Turkey, wherever you look, there is a “generation cosmopolitanism”. Especially where anti-liberalism is prevailing politically, there is a whole generation of mainly young people who enjoy the freedom of the Internet and defend these very bravely and at great risk.They are currently under political pressure because they defend the pluralist version of the Enlightenment. The monist version — Isaiah Berlin described that wonderfully — after all, was a pioneer of totalitarianism. For us liberals, it is not about being in agreement. What is important is that we are united, as to how we disagree: Conflicts are waged peacefully without restricting freedoms.

I counter: In aging societies, which tend to become more conservative, these young people have a demographic-democratic disadvantage. If they are ever asked about freedom, they will be probably simply overruled.

Or is it the other way around: Their great advantage is that they are young. Because their time is coming! History goes in waves — wave, counter wave movement, countermovement. The development will therefore take time. The populism from left and right will not go away today or tomorrow, its icons will berate us as “globalists” for a long time. But if you look into the future with a perspective of 20 to 30 years, the generation of potential world citizens comes to power. I put a lot of hope in this moment.

Were you ever called a “globalist”?

Certainly.

And what did you say?

“Why not?”

(Laughs) Is that an example of that “robust civility” you promote in dealing with those who want to silence others?

Yes, because that is what a liberal, pluralistic democracy. Every individual is called upon to defend and advance our standards of robust civility. This includes, for example, learning how to deal with hate speech, how to counter it, how to criticize it. We need a climate that rewards this commitment — which it does not need censorship and bans. Look at Germany: There is constant chatter about Google, Facebook and Twitter. The major platforms are painted in the bleakest colors, because they allegedly made nonsense, hatred and resentment socially acceptable. And the good father state, it is said must, make sure that everything is going neatly. It is the other way around: We, as civil society, need to do our best, to reinvigorate robust civility — this culture of debate. — under the circumstances of the Internet. And, that much is right, the private superpowers, those big Internet companies, play an important role.

In your book, “Freedom of Speech” you write in this respect of cats, dogs and mice. The cats that are said companies such as Google and Facebook, the dogs are the trend-setting political forces, primarily the US, China and to some extent the EU. What really bothered me is the image of the mice — of us citizens. Are we really so small and weak?

No. My book is a manifesto for networked mice (laughs). The Internet gives us new opportunities for networking that allows us mice to exercise effective and efficient pressure on the powerful dogs — our States that intend to limit us, such as China. That is new. And from what are the cats, the Googles, Facebooks and Twitters, afraid of? Rather not the dogs of the US administration. Maybe a little the regulatory power of the EU, but especially having their users run away. We are the mice. And we citizens should use this position of power much more effectively.

So the greatest threat to our freedom of speech is not the introduction of a “ministry of truth” but our own fear?

The threat of violence remains the ultimate weapon against freedom of speech and pluralism — and if this is not countered decisively, that has certainly to do with fear but also a certain laziness, intellectual laziness. This means that we must avoid the threat of violence not only ourselves, but also defy threats of violence by others. Take the Islamist attacks against journalists in Europe: Yes, we should be in solidarity with “Charlie Hebdo”. Especially on the part of journalists, publishers, society. If we do not learn that, the intimidation effect of violent threats will only grow.

How do we go about that?

First, we should communicate. In the face of threats of violence, it takes a lot of courage to say, “I’m scared.” But it takes even more courage, for example to say, “I’m not going to publish these this Muhammad cartoons — out of fear.” That would be a great intellectual progress compared to the often hypocritical statement: “I do not publish these cartoons out of respect or respect for other religions.” Do not get me wrong. All this may be true, but if more and more citizens exercise self-censorship out of fear, this is a disaster for the social climate and thus for freedom. As Pericles said? “The secret of happiness is freedom, but the secret of freedom is courage.” There is little to add.

Submitted by FTN Editorial Team on 7 August 2017