Liberalism is currently the talk of the town. And that’s not all: it has become one of the most fiercely contested contemporary concepts. It is only gradually that one begins to glimpse what exactly is at stake when liberal thinking on the one hand has to be defended in a kind of rearguard action, while on the other hand its limitations are constantly invoked. On the defensive on one front, on the offensive on another: on the one hand, there is growing concern as to whether any kind of universally valid concept of freedom can be salvaged; on the other hand, we find now familiar attacks directed against precisely this freedom, in keeping with the catchphrase of emphatically propagated illiberalism.
What exactly does one mean when claiming to be liberal (or illiberal) in this sense? It is certainly not just about controversial economic liberalism, which shares so much responsibility for social contrasts that are now growing ever more intensive. Nor is it merely the model of liberal democracy, which long appeared the only promising and potentially successful paradigm in terms of state policy. It is also certainly not just a (Western-influenced) set of values that emanates from the individual as the subject of a free, authentic will. Liberalism seems to be a complex constellation of all these ingredients that are simultaneously mutually limiting. And perhaps much more than that. In any event, its intrinsic ambiguity is one decisive contributory factor that makes it difficult to agree on a hard core, on some kind of fundamental structure of modern, individual and collective freedom. That is why a fierce conflict about liberalism has flared up.
Perhaps the most worrying tendency lies in the desire to constrain this vast realm by means of targeted authority. In that spirit, the continuing tendency towards “illiberal” approaches widely observed today seeks to replace the liberal view of human beings and the world, which it has taken centuries of effort to establish, with a negative distortion: a separate freedom, often couched in racist terms, for just a handful of people: the nationally or ethnically chosen few. Instead of ensuring that civil liberties and human rights are expanded to include everyone that does not enjoy the privilege of being white, male or of Western origin, the opposite approach is—quite deliberately—pursued here. The limits of the Enlightenment, long the subject of contested discourse, are thus affirmed “proactively” once again, to cite the terms frequently deployed in contemporary parlance.
The effects are devastating: it is not just that liberal democracy, an achievement of political modernity, is increasingly trampled underfoot by the ideological mechanism of new forms of authoritarianism. Over and above this, the social context constantly teeters on a cliff-edge; just think of the considerable degree of approval expressed for neo-right politics. How, and with which specific means, can this tendency towards division be counteracted? Does a division actually arise, as people constantly try to persuade us, or is that a rhetorical-ideological trick that once again primarily benefits the neo-right camp? After all, it is precisely this grouping that fosters separation or privileged treatment of certain highly specific “free agents”. Freedom of the few, in other words, while the unfree multitude increasingly becomes the plaything and manipulated mass as “crowd control” technology progresses. Is this not the scenario conjured up by accelerated globalization and digitization—developments that are simply incompatible with a liberal conception of humankind?
The Illiberal! edition approaches this extensive complex of topics along meandering pathways, addressing it, for example, through the prism of the freedom of art, for example, along with the question of how this must be recalibrated to avoid unwittingly contributing to a climate of constraints on liberalism and indeed how this freedom could survive in such an ambience. In this vein, in their piece artist Roee Rosen and critic Ana Teixeira Pinto discuss differing approaches, even contradictions, to dealing with accusations of fascism in the field of fine art. Rosen and Pinto’s exchange is underpinned by a sense of mutual respect and appreciation even when one deals with views diametrically opposed to our own.
Felix Klopotek also takes a contrary stance towards current ideas of liberalism. He sees liberalism not as a panacea that arises automatically as a result of progressively oriented concerns but rather as a critical touchstone, whose significance is discussed through the prism of two paradigmatic examples. While his paper addresses appropriate, yet also emancipatory, ways of handling censorship, along with the question of whether one should “talk to the right-wing”, Isabell Lorey turns the spotlight on a broader issue. Her essay on the feminist (strike) wave that is currently picking up speed draws attention to a major shortcoming in any debate about liberalism and illiberalism, namely the lack of subject positions that were never really envisaged in conventional discourse (and in some cases are still not foreseen). Donatella della Porta and Chua Beng Huat also bring broader perspectives to the debate. Chua, the author of Liberalism Disavowed (2017), recapitulates the extent to which the ambit of Western liberal thought has always run up against decisive limits when it comes to its application and acceptance in Asian societies. Donatella della Porta looks from a sociological point of view at the factors that should be taken into account to properly grasp the neo-right “backlash”.
Boris Buden builds a bridge back to contemporary art, more precisely to the discredited vernacular of “International Art English”. Buden’s astute analysis reveals the extent to which reservations about a general, loosely defined and freely deployed means of communication may conceal a potentially much more threatening dimension. That threat is referred to with varying degrees of urgency in the artistic contributions in this issue— ranging from Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Mikhail Tolmachev to Renate Bertlmann. All these contributors draw attention to or indicate what kind of new “dialectic of liberation”, and indeed new understanding of liberalism, should be developed for contemporary culture.