Being liberal

Some years ago I started to define myself again as a political person. Politics re-entered my life on a micro level, mostly due to the immediate political context of my work. But I also put some effort into getting a grasp of bigger topics, like globalization, european integration or global security issues. I read political analysis, mostly in foreign language papers and magazines like the Guardian or Economist. As a ‘secularised Marxist’ I did my best to acknowledge and understand the political impact of economical issues.

But I never really succeeded in finding some access to domestic politics. I even feel – and not only in myself, but also in many of my friends – an acute sense of embarrassment whenever there is a need to position ourselves towards one of the important political questions of our country. Political judgement in these areas is at best fragmented, related to certain smallish aspects, it is mostly emotional and rarely well-informed.

So what is going wrong here? Why has it become so difficult for me and others to be or become an articulate political animal in this country?

One answer of course is the decline of the political parties. The ruling ‘big coalition’ of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats has again shown very clearly that politics in Germany is mostly of a corporatist nature. The parties have become a playground of their related corporate interests. (I don’t know if they’ve ever been anything else.) Political individuals and their arguments don’t play any role in this game. Party politics is not about finding solutions to problems, its about tectonic shifts in the power field.

Another reason is the completely obsolete character of the left-right axis. No thinking being wants to simply cling to traditional structures and values – as is the nature of Conservatism – but nobody wants to be so naive as to follow mostly theoretically or emotionally motivated ideals either – as is the nature of Socialist politics. And in between you are left with a political fog called the Middle, which – taken as is – is just a maximally inarticulate position.

My generation had escaped this dilemma by becoming eclecticists: collecting a hodgepodge of issues like women and gay rights, environmental issues, third world romanticism and whatever else allowed for some emotional attachment. The Green movement shared its immediate (and rather short-sighted) morality with traditional leftist politics, but it sacrificed the coherence. And it turned out to have a rather short life-span: presently it’s dissolving between opportunism on the one hand and dogmatism on the other.

But there is another political position to be taken in the prima facie limbo between left and right: traditional Liberalism. This used to be the home ground for many bourgeois intellectuals, with its strong focus on civil liberties, the basic insight that the law should be protecting us against the state as well as against each other. Liberalism takes a much more dynamic stance towards cultural and societal development than Conservatism. And it can be defined against Socialism by weighing the value of Liberty higher than the value of Equality, the right and responsibility of the individual higher than organized welfare.

This is of course a matter of degree, and enlightened Liberalism isn’t inclined to just reject any state regulations or social measures, or to deny any value of politics. To the contrary, liberal politics, which is by definition minimalist politics, has to be smart politics.

The problem is: there is no enlightened Liberalism in Germany any more. Whatever real Liberals there have been – and there have been impressive figures even in the infamous Liberal party FDP, like Gerhart Baum, Burkhard Hirsch, Werner Maihofer, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger – they have been mostly marginalized and forgotten. The party itself has become a synonym for corruption and double talk, a permanent object of contempt and ridicule.

Looking at the personal profiles in social networking site like Facebook, I see that most of my contacts describe their political position as “liberal”. (Of course this term has a slightly different meaning in US American politics.) I bet that Liberalism is the natural political homeland for many of us who desperately and ashamedly still pretend to be leftists or greenists, even though these movements have long lost their credibility to us.

But when we look at our home ground in the game of politics it’s been taken by the wrong people, intruders who’ve seized and occupied and consequently poisoned a whole political tradition with all its arguments and rhetorics, and abused it for their purpose. That’s another reason why becoming a real political person turns out to be so difficult. At least for me.


  1. “I bet that Liberalism is the natural political homeland for many of us…”

    You’re probabley right. IMHO the problem with the German way of Liberalism is its (perceived?) connection to economic liberalism which is disgusted by many…

  2. Well, that’s for sure. I don’t think that economic liberalism by itself deserves such a degree of dislike, but as I said, a more enlightened type of liberalism would accept the necessity of certain economic regulations and certainly would not align itself with obvious greed. That’s one of the things that definitely went wrong with our local liberals.

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