21st Karlsruhe Dialogues - Speakers
Rising Anger at ‘The System’: Why the European Union Is in Crisis
Prof. Alan Johnson
1. In your opinion, which “enemies” pose the greatest threat to pluralistic societies?
Most obviously the authoritarians of the far-right, in which category I would include the Islamists. But watch out for the so-called New Communists such as Slavoj Žižek who – as yet only in writing – advance a contempt for liberal democracy as an anti-human fraud, and an obstacle to “revolution”, “truth”, “heroism”, and “virtue”; a loathing for the miserable mediocrity and the “stupid pleasures” of the unheroic modern “bourgeois” individual, a figure deemed so obscene that any enormity must be risked – as an ethical obligation, no less – to transcend it; a commitment to pure will, ruthless dictatorship, “divine terror”, and disciplined organisation as the necessary tools to abolish liberal democracy, and a yearning for excess, violence, and self-sacrificial death as salvific. But the greatest threat is a system: globalised neoliberal capitalism is destructive of the social contract between governments and peoples on which the liberal democratic or social democratic political centre rest. As Wolfgang Streeck puts it, this system increasingly lacks the capacity to “build a framework, a social framework, around the hot core of profit-making”.
2. Public trust in elites and the media has been declining in recent years. What do you think can be done in order to restore this trust?
I’m not so sure public trust in the media is declining. Public trust in elites is, dramatically, but not always without reason. De-subordination has its reasons. Public trust has to be earned by acting so as to put capitalism, democracy, and social stability back into a more or less harmonious relationship with each other; reversing some powerful neoliberal trends to exploding economic inequality, slowing and frozen social mobility, and the erosion of welfare systems by an economics of the common good; tackling the crisis of political representation by listening to concerns about mass immigration and austerity, not dismissing these concerns as bigotry or glibly telling people that ‘you can’t say: stop the world from turning, I want to get off’. Also, a massive decentralisation of power: stop trying to give people who do not want ‘more Europe’, more Europe.
3. In pluralistic societies, how can awareness of the advantages of freedom – and the appreciation thereof – be raised, in particular when it comes to those who lack experiences with unfreedom?
By reattaching freedom to security. Modernity eroded our belief in transcendental authorities and the alternatives we came up with – social communities with meaning, where notions of collective welfare and common good took root and, sometimes, even flourished; and institutions that were able to mediate between individuals and modernity – are now being eroded by neoliberalism. “There is no such thing as society”, as Margaret Thatcher put it. This notion of freedom and the ‘neoliberal individualism’ associated with it erodes the basis of freedom, which cannot endure if every longer-lasting identity and every deeper attachment is destabilised; life is fragmented and individualised, often very lonely and bewildering, often lacking the sustaining experiences of stable families and communities, the comfort of home, the meaning provided by local associations, by notions of the ‘common good’ and by that enriching sense of being part of something that is beyond the smallness of self.