Political Liberalism, Identity Politics, and the Role of Fear
Claus Offe, Hertie School of Government, Berlin 1 June 2013

One historical novelty of the regime changes that were initiated in the MENA region early in 2011, the “Arab Spring”, consists in the fact that they unfolded in a region where liberal democracy was never tried before. While many of the democratic transitions that occurred in earlier waves were in fact re-democratizations, that is not true of the countries of the Arab world and the world of Islam. Both internal practitioners of the old regimes in the region (be they monarchies or be they authoritarian republics) and external observers converged on the axiomatic assumption that Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible. This was assumed to be the case because Islam, among other things, is unable to open up to a gender-blind notion of citizenship and because a strict separation of the religious sphere of God’s will and the secular sphere of democratic legislation is inadmissible in Islam; both gender equality concerning political rights and the separation of religious and secular spheres are plainly essential to liberal democracy.

So the democratic rebellions in the MENA region came as a huge surprise to both insiders and outsiders. An even greater surprise was their actual success (in some countries, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, probably Syria) in putting a definitive end to the respective old regime, while in other countries of the region monarchies remained in place but were prompted by the rebellion to commence or accelerate a process of cautious political modernization, with Morocco and its new constitution (adopted by popular referendum in July 2011) acting as the pioneer in the region. If and to the extent that a democratic transition in these countries succeeds, one aspect of its success will be that of invalidating a political and cultural “impossibility theorem” concerning the compatibility of Islam and (some form of) liberal democracy; nowhere else – neither in Latin America (with no less than 12 cases) in the 1980ies nor in the post-war regime changes in Japan, Austria, Italy, and Germany after 1945 nor in the “Latin European” breakdowns of the authoritarian regimes of Spain, Portugal, and Greece in the mid-1970ies nor in the post-Soviet and later Yugoslav transitions in Central East Europe following 1989 was such an “impossibility theorem” so widely (and, hopefully, so wrongly) held to be true.

In other respects, regime changes in the MENA region and their foreseeable trajectories are less distinctive if compared with the other “waves” just mentioned. For one thing, (attempted) regime transformations seem to follow a pattern of tightly coupled sequences, if not positively simultaneous events in which several countries of a transnational region are involved. This pattern is referred to by metaphors such as cascades, domino effects, or bushfires; all of them suggest border-crossing forces which stimulate and encourage the emulation of what “we” see our neighbors doing and achieving. These forces were clearly at work, in Europe in the attempted regime transformations (successful or otherwise) of 1848, 1945, 1968, 1974, 1989; the same pattern can now be observed in the MENA region.

Another feature of democratic regime changes that is likely to repeat itself in the MENA region consists in the fact that such change is rarely a neat and smooth sequence of the three stages of breakdown of the old regime => the founding of a new set of institutions => the eventual and definitive consolidation of a new regime. Instead, a number of “anomalies” are normal and must be expected. For instance, after its breakdown the forces of the old regime can attempt a comeback. Or the authoritarian regime is followed by a different authoritarian regime, e. g. a military dictatorship. Or the transition does not lead to the consolidation of a fully liberal democratic regime (complete with adequate governing capacity or “stateness”; equal and effectively enforced civil, political, cultural, and socio-economic rights; substantively contested elections; and effective accountability of governing elites) but to an equilibrium of permanent deficiency, if not de-consolidation at the hands of social and political forces who cannot be contained within the constitutional edifice and fight each other not as opponents, but as irreconcilable enemies.

The experience of such “anomalous” outcomes gives rise to the question concerning the context conditions that are most conducive to the “normalization” of the process, i. e. its approximation of the to the above three-stage sequence. One answer to this question is: The experience (or the well-founded expectation) of a economic positive-sum game helps, as it did in the case of German (re)democratization after World War II as the process was embedded in and assisted by an “economic miracle”. Another answer is: To have a democratic template in the nation’s history to which “all of us” wish to return is helpful. While I do not intend to explore or even further illustrate these two helpful context conditions here, let me turn to a third one: A smooth and rapid transition/ consolidation is helped by the presence as a supervisory agent and cooperation of a hegemonic external power – be it an occupation power occupying the nation’s territory after it has been defeated in war or be it a widely recognized “role model” that is accepted by a nation in transition as the embodiment of what “we” want to achieve. The combined functions of a beacon and a magnet, of a supervisor and an external supporter, has been played by the US in post-war Europe and by the EU in post-Cold War Central and Eastern Europe. Yet as we look at the MENA region and its projected democratic transition, hardly any equivalent to any of the three supportive context conditions – an anticipated economic boom, the “better past” of a nation, or an provider of external guidance and economic aid – seems to be in sight.

If those three kinds of shock absorbers that have helped in other cases of (successful) democratic transitions are not in place in the MENA region, what is the nature of the potential and foreseeable “shocks” which can conceivably derail the transition in spite of the old regime being irreversibly ousted? Relying for the rest of this paper exclusively on my experience in Central Eastern Europe, I wish to suggest the contours of a model that may be applicable to the future of the MENA region as well. In a nutshell, the two types of conflicts and shocks that can bring a smooth democratic transition to a halt and actually reverse it are conflicts of material interest and conflicts of identity. The parties in these conflicts can besiege or invade democratic political institutions to the effect that their capacity for resolving conflict is overburdened. Among these two, identity conflicts – conflicts between “involuntary associations” (of ethnicity, nation, language, religion, tribal belonging) that a person is born into – are more resistant to reconciliation than those of economic interest. The reason is that for the solution of the latter one can follow a redistributive logic of “splitting the difference”, which is categorically not the case with the former.

To turn to the cases of CEE: To many people’s surprise, the new political resources of democratic freedoms of participation and collective action were partly invested, as it were, not in a centripetal political competition among political parties, but into the revival of ethnic identities and the promotion of their claim to statehood. The worst case of this dynamic of ethnic repression, secession and civil war was of course Yugoslavia. The good news within the family of the fourth wave come from countries where there is little or no opportunity for ethnic conflict because ninety per cent or more of the resident population do belong to and identify with the titular nation. These favorable cases are Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia. It is no accident that these countries are also at the top of the list of economic performers among the Central-East European transition countries, although in the special case of Hungary and its “national grievance” nationalism dating back to Trianon has rather dramatic economic decline (as well as deformation of democratic political institutions) seems to have set in after accession in 2004 and the end of conditionality.

Yet in the CEE region, it is not really “ethnic groups” that are in conflict with each other. The conflict is entirely and exclusively one that unfolds between majority populations of national states and internal minorities which are not so much seen as ethnically distinct (to that people are used in the area for centuries, given the ethnically diverse composition of many regions!), but as historically burdened, stigmatized, and suspicious. For these internal minorities are at the same time external minorities of former imperial rulers, and it is, I want to submit, the memory of this rule and oppression that fuels the conflict. The most significant cases of internal minorities which are at the same time external minorities of former imperial powers are: Turks in Bulgaria, Hungarians in Rumania, Serbia, Slovakia (but not so in Ukraine!), Sudeten Germans in Czech Republic (a mere memory which is causing only phantom pains in that country, if considerable ones), and Russians in the Baltic republics; and, of course, Serbs in Kosovo, as well as the British in Northern Ireland. (I am personally happy to report that the German minority living today in Poland is arguably the only exception to this rule, thanks to the careful management and cultivation of German-Polish relations that began in the early 70ies.) All these internal majorities are suspected of performing the role of bridgeheads for former imperial powers; or they are excluded from recognition and equal citizenship rights and have become the victims of revenge because of the hostile memories the local majority population associates with their more or less distant ancestors. These minorities are the object of fear, hatred, suspicion, and often also retaliatory repression which is at the root of much of the so-called (misperceived) “ethnic” conflict. Victims of imperialism remember oppression and defeat; and the descendants of imperial powers are aware of the historical context in which they are looked upon. If by the way of a miracle both sides could suddenly forget history, chances are that some form of neighborly and peaceful multiethnic coexistence could emerge, as we see it practiced in the multiethnic metropolitan areas of settler societies such as Toronto or Sydney. But intentional forgetting is neither a possible nor, in the last analysis, a desirable operation of the human mind even if it were possible. But is the memory of the wrongs and sufferings of the past an insurmountable obstacle to democratic consolidation?

Democracy, equality, and homogeneity

To put it mildly, liberal democracy is a highly demanding regime, at least at the beginning and before the processes of consolidation and habituation set in. Before democracy becomes possible, a state must exist. All democracies are successor regimes of pre-existing states, be it colonies, military dictatorships, theocratic, feudal, absolutist, authoritarian, dynastic, or totalitarian regimes. In the European and North American model cases of consolidated democracies we can see that the road to a fully developed democracy is a relatively slow moving sequence of various steps, or breakthroughs in the overall process of political modernization. Let me remind ourselves of the four sequential steps that lead from a non-democratic to a liberal democratic state. In doing so, I emphasize the ambiguities of every single step of “progress”, as well as the moral resources needed in order to sustain these ambiguities.

The first step is the limitations of the ruler’s power of discretion over what is most valuable to his subjects, namely their “life, liberty, and property”. The ruler is no longer “above” the law, but himself bound by constitutional self-limitations and constraints. Thus the ruler’s subjects begin to be relatively free and secure from the ruler’s passions and interests of appropriation and confiscation. The oldest of the liberties through which this is accomplished is habeas corpus, or the security that the ruler and his apparatus cannot kill or incarcerate people arbitrarily. Other liberties include the freedom of religious faith and its practice and the freedom to own and dispose over commercial property. This early development of rights is equivalent to the reduction of fear – the “vertical” fear, that is, the focus of which is the possibility of arbitrary or predatory acts originating from the ruler. At the same time, these elementary liberties can well strengthen a sense of “horizontal” fear – the fear that my fellow citizens may make some use of their liberty that is contrary to “my” interest and “my” sense of appropriateness and righteousness.

What I want to highlight here is the two sides of the medal of liberty. For one thing, “my” liberty is highly desirable because it immunizes me from arbitrary acts of the holders of state power. But “your” liberty and the use you make of it is conceivably threatening and endangering of what I consider the good order of things. “Your” liberty may appear to “me” as the liberty of a heretic who does not “really” deserve it. What I need in order to respect “your” liberty is thus an attitude or virtue which is classically called “toleration“. If a can bring myself to overcome my fear of what purposes you may use your liberty for, I tolerate you and can live without the fear that you might make some “mistaken” use of your liberty, be it in religious life, or in business, or whatever.

The second step, the step from liberty to democratic rights, follows the same logic of ambivalence. The positive intuition is that all those bound by the law should also be allowed to be the co-authors of the law – at least, that is, if they are male, autonomous, experienced, literate, property owning, and tax paying. The demand for “our” democratic rights has as its reverse side the fear that the democratic enfranchisement of others may result in dangerous and ill-considered moves and demands are the conflicting motives in which the entire early history of democratic political thought is entangled, say from Rousseau to John S. Mill. All these theorists were concerned with advocating democracy while at the same time preventing its perceived destructive potential (the unreasonable volonté des tous in Rousseau, the fearful notion of “class legislation” in Mill, or the “tyranny of the majority” in de Tocqueville) from manifesting itself.

What we need in order to resolve the tension between the desirable and the frightening aspects of popular sovereignty is trust – trust, that is, in the reasonableness, informed judgement and good intentions of our fellow citizens whom we recognize as legitimate co-authors of the law that eventually will bind all of us. Mill believed that a necessary condition for this confidence in our fellow citizens’ benevolence is that they belong to the same nation and speak the same tongue. But the distrust in those fellow citizens, the fear that they are guided by dangerous motives, manipulated into supporting disastrous political forces, or are allowed to engage into collectively damaging conflict, is as old as the theory and practice of democracy, and well and alive in new democracies. Obviously, a lot of trust, i. e. the confident expectation that my fellow citizens are neither ignorant nor follow vicious intentions, is needed in order to overcome this gloomy perception of the realities of democracy.

The third generation of rights that is less a precondition than (in most countries) the outcome of the democratic process once established is the institutionalization of welfare rights and social security. These social rights are designed to provide security and protect people – workers, families, pensioners, the unemployed, the sick and the poor – from the onslaught of market forces (be it in the market for goods and services, be it in the market for labor) with which they are unable to cope by relying on their own resources. Here, and from the very beginning of the evolution of welfare state programs and institutions, the logic of fear applies in the same way that is by now familiar. The fear is that the economic cost of social programs will grow excessively, that the availability of welfare will function as a disincentive to hard work and self-reliant responsibility, and that the welfare state will turn out as a giant self-inflicted damage that undermines whatever level of efficiency, growth and prosperity has been accomplished. If this fearful attitude is to be overcome, it is through the practice of solidarity, i. e. a disposition of non-indifference to the (however minimal) well-being of my fellow citizens and fellow-workers and a willingness to honor the duties following from these positive “external preferences” in the well-being of others through making the requisite sacrifices.

The “national” background condition

What I have tried to demonstrate so far is the fact that a set of moral resources is needed in order to enable people to endure the costs of democratic progress. These moral resources can be called, in line with the three stages of political modernization (as first spelled out by T. H. Marshall), toleration, trust, and solidarity. Democratic progress is thus not just a matter that pertains “vertically” to the relationship between subject (or rather citizen) and the constituted state authority. This institutional structure is, so to speak, just the hardware. What is also needed is the “software” of a “horizontal” relationship between any individual citizen and his/her universe of “fellow citizens”. The rise and robustness of these moral resources is contingent upon the presence of a powerful background condition, namely the presence of nationhood that constitutes the political community. If I can conceive of my fellow citizens as “compatriots”, the ever present temptation to defect from the requirements of toleration, trust, and solidarity is significantly constrained.

Our present problem is that the frame of common nationhood is not very promising today as a vehicle of the three democratic virtues. Neither an ethnic nor a republican conception of the foundations of the political community is likely to provide the kind of cement that helps to neutralize fear and thus to generate the kind of tolerance, trust, and solidarity that liberal democratic societies depend upon for their integration, cohesion, and durability. Why should this seemingly pessimistic assessment be warranted? The answer is that differences of interests, ideas, and identities divide modern societies along so many cleavage lines that a unifying conception of who “we” are is exceedingly difficult to put to work. It is probably a minority of countries in the developed world (insular Japan may be the most obvious example), the inhabitants of which can conceive of themselves in terms of a culturally and historically homogeneous community. In the United States, the “melting pot” metaphor has given way to the “mosaic” of multiculturalism, with bilingualism creeping in. In Europe – most evidently in a Europe that has now become a constitutional political community of a multinational sort, the very antithesis to the idea of a nation state – the notion of homogeneity has become anathema. Hence the moral resources of toleration, trust, and solidarity must be generated, and the associated fears must be overcome, without the supportive context condition of some shared and overarching identity, national or otherwise.

Liberal virtue vs. the politics of difference

Political liberalism advocates the rights and liberties of persons. These persons are conceived of as fellow human beings, not as compatriots. This is a morally demanding, perhaps even heroic position to take: the recognition of the other without the help of some presumed affinity, similarity, or shared identity. But it is the only position that a consistent political liberalism allows for. A consistent human rights liberalism is color-blind, secular, and nationality-blind as far as the victims of human rights violations are concerned. It is prepared to come to the defense of those victims. But it is also utopian in the sense that until the present day the human rights of persons remain much more securely protected if the person in question happens to be recognized as the citizen of some state than if the person is just a person unrecognized by a state or a nominal citizen of one of the many half-ruined states that are neither capable nor willing to protect him or her.

Here the dilemma of human rights liberalism is painfully clear. It demands toleration, as well as even a measure of trust and solidarity, to be extended to strangers, as well as the active defense of the liberties of those strangers, in the absence of any primordial or historical ties. What is required here is the heroic effort of abstraction, or the refusal to distinguish between those who are worthy of our toleration, trust, and solidarity and those who are categorically unworthy, and hence the object of our indifference or fear. The only conceivable way in which a liberal human (as well as eventually also political and social) rights approach can be turned into a realistic project is by granting states, as well as alliance of states, the effective competence to supervise and, if need be, sanction other states so that the claim to “sovereignty” never again can be used as a protective barrier for terror and massive violation of rights.

But if a regime of supranational rights enforcement and consistent global policing sounds utopian, what is the alternative? The alternative is advocated by adherents of the communitarian proposal to code people not as individual bearers of rights, but as members of groups, tribes, and social categories pursuing a form of life that for the members of the group is canonized as the “good” life. The implication of this move is the proclamation of a fourth generation of rights, the only ones the bearers of which are not individuals, but “groups” whose distinctive identity must be recognized, protected, and provided with the resources that are needed for its survival. These rights of groups are not thought of as being derivative from the rights of individual persons to form, join, engage in, identify with, or leave associations. In contrast, they are superior to and in fact constitutive of individuals whose rights are framed and constrained by the collective form of life they are coded, internally or/and externally, as belonging to. This is the politics not of ignoring and neutralizing identities and differences, but of stressing identity and the difference and incompatibility of identities.

Once the cognitive habit of coding social life in terms of group identities and group rights has been adopted (and the alternative frame of coding realities in terms of individuals and their individual differences and rights at least partially abandoned), a dynamic of potential conflict and fear is set into motion that parallels in logic, but often exceeds in intensity, the fears triggered by the three other categories of rights discussed above. Why should the intensity of conflict and fear associated with group identities be greater in comparison with human and civil rights, democratic rights, and social rights? The answer is that, as I have argued before, the incidence of the use of rights and the (negative) externalities of the use of rights is (or at least used to be until very recently) embedded and contained in a shared collective identity of co-nationals. For instance, as all those who benefit from “my” net-contributions to social security are, according to the setup of the “national” system itself, my co-nationals and compatriots, I am less concerned about matters of fraud and exploitation, and my solidarity will be more readily offered, compared to the case of a strictly “open” system from which everybody, even the strangest of strangers, can benefit. Such background condition that can cushion and mitigate the conflict over the use of rights vs. the negative externalities of such use is often absent in the conflict over the fourth generation of rights, namely collective or group rights. In the case of group rights, there is often no overarching identity or commonality of shared nationhood that serves to limit the conflict.

A federalist escape?

To be sure, there is one method of containing and civilizing the particular potential of conflict about group rights. This method can limit the depth of division and keep conflict within manageable orders of magnitude. This method is known as federalism, where the rights of groups are not directly attached to groups and their members, but to (sub)territorial units, with the understanding implied that the territory in question either is at present or will likely become in the future the “homeland” of those who have either always settled there or wish to move there. In order for this institutional method of federalization (or, more precisely, “holding-together-federalism”, using a term coined by Alfred Stepan) to work, however, a number of conditions must apply. Let me discuss four of them.

First, the allocation of rights must not just be territorial, but also functional: sub-territorial units must be granted some substantive domains of self-government and expression of distinctiveness (e. g., the policy areas of education, media, and social services) but not all (e. g., not those of taxation, defense, and foreign policy). If regional autonomies are “too small”, resentment and more or less passionate opposition to the center will follow, with the implication that a crisis affecting the center will be used by the sub-territory as an opportunity for defection from the (“oppressive”) center. If federalism and devolution are largely nominal, crisis at the center means breakup – as it did in all three state socialist cases of federalism (SU, CSFR, FRY). On the other hand, if regional autonomies are “too large”, they can be used for blackmailing the center into granting ever greater autonomies, up to the point of de facto or even de jure secession.

Second, if a minority claiming group rights settles in a sub-territory, it should ideally be the only population settling there. For if the resident population is itself “mixed” in terms of significant group properties (such as religion, ethnic origin, language, or historical hostilities and stigma), the problem remaining after devolution has been accomplished is that of “minorities within the minority”, i. e. the same problem is reproduced on a smaller territorial scale. (cf. the Anglophones in Québec).

Third, in order for territorial federalization to become a durable solution, not only must a balance be struck and agreement reached between what belongs (in terms of territories and in terms of functions) to the center and what belongs to the sub-territorial unit. Also, and in order for the two-tiered system to be viable, the citizens of the sub-unit must be willing and get used to develop a sense of multiple identities. That is to say, in certain contexts, such as paying taxes and performing military service, the more encompassing reference unit of the (multi-)national state must be referred to, whereas in others (such as matters of education, culture and language), the regional point of reference becomes dominant. Only a reliable functioning of this demanding intra-personal division of reference units will support sustainable results.

Finally, territorial federalization is entirely unsuitable a solution wherever ethnic or linguistic minorities are dispersed (such as guest workers in Europe or the Turkish minority in Bulgaria) or migratory (as the Romani in Central East European countries). To be sure, it is always possible to grant these minorities not rights to self-government in a sub-territory, but special representation rights in national legislative assemblies (such as the tiny Danish minority enjoys them in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany or the Maori in New Zealand). But such representational bonuses will be acceptable to the majority only if relations are friendly and unproblematic in the first place. One could also think of a kind of virtual or non-territorial federalism, where several constituent parts of a people, settling in a dispersed pattern or otherwise, form an elected body for themselves, and all the bodies thus constituted combine into one legislative assembly. This has been tried with groups in German universities (with the electoral “districts” of full professors, junior faculty, students, and non-academic staff), which are clearly not “identity” groups, but status and functional categories. Something analogous has also been proposed and eventually rejected as a viable solution for the problem of equalizing gender representation in one of the Canadian provinces. The obvious drawback is that, while women are always guaranteed that half of the members of the assembly will be female, they are also deprived of the control over the political composition of the male half of that assembly, and vice versa.

All these considerations and illustrative examples help us to understand that our repertoire of institutional devices is precariously limited to represent diversity along dimensions of identity within a system of an overarching political community. A liberal and democratic republic can simply not be thought of as being made up of “tribal” collectivities. They are made up of individual citizens. Federalization allows for a division of territories and can solve our problem to the extent identities are fixed to highly homogeneous regions. But even these solutions can only work if the territorial and functional divisions are based on a solid agreement between the territorial populations involved. Federalization is not always a viable prescription for deeply divided societies, because in order for federalism to provide stability, the division must not be very deep.

A version of this article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 (‘Overcoming the trap of Resentment’) that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.

Parts of this paper rely on an earlier publication “Polical Liberalism, Group rights and the politics of fear and trust”, in: Studies in East European Thought, 53 (2001), 167-182

The final/definitive version of Claus Offe’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 359-367, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/38/4-5.toc



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