In the Humboldt Lab the Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS) excellence cluster deals with the promises of liberal society. What are they? What problems and conflicts accompany them? And how are liberal democracies responding to current challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic? Are populists or states with authoritarian governments the better crisis managers after all?
The corona pandemic poses challenges for all countries. Responses differ, however. Scientists working for the Berlin excellence cluster Contestations of the Liberal Script (SCRIPTS) are investigating how different political systems are handling the crisis. The cluster’s remit is to deal with the challenges and disputes that liberal democracy faces.
Which self-perception the “liberal script” represents, what it promises and why it is more fragile than many assume is to be discussed in the Humboldt Lab, the Humboldt-Universität’s exhibition in the Humboldt Forum.
The liberal script is a model of society that has competed with others since the end of the 18th century, first came to predominance after the end of the cold war and was seen by many scientists as without alternative, but now faces new challenges. “It provides the screenplay for how we organise ourselves as a society,” explains Prof. Dr. Michael Zürn of the Berlin Social Science Centre (WZB), who with the political scientist Prof. Dr. Tanja Börzel of the Freie Universität Berlin (FU) heads the cluster of excellence.
Political and Societal Dimensions of Global Problems
SCRIPTS is to play a central role in the exhibition along with IRI THESys, the Humboldt-Universität’s integrative institute that conducts research into transformations of human-environment systems. “Together,” says Dr Gorch Pieken, head curator of the Humboldt Lab, “they represent the two cultures of science.” The natural science approach of IRI THESys is linked with the social science perspective of SCRIPTS. Answers to global problems such as the climate crisis or the decline of biodiversity can only be found if their political and societal dimensions are taken into account, the curator says. Challenges of this kind, key challenges of the present, are dealt with on a kinetic wall about six metres tall and 25 metres across. It consists of mobile and telescopic blinds onto which videos, images, world maps and data visualisations can be projected.
SCRIPTS is showing video interviews with some of the cluster’s 38 professors in 17 disciplines, says Cordula Hamschmidt, coordinator of its Knowledge Exchange Lab and in charge of external presentation. SCRIPTS is a project of the Freie Universität Berlin in cooperation with the Humboldt-Universität. Other participants are the Berlin Social Science Centre, the Hertie School, the Centre for Eastern European and International Studies, the Deutsches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung (DIW Berlin), the German Institute of Global and Area Studies and the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient.
The Promises of Liberal Democracy
SCRIPTS, a relative newcomer among clusters, is presenting in the Humboldt Lab mainly methods and approaches. Its focus is on the liberal script’s promises: freedom, equality, progress, legal certainty, control over nature to establish security – and exploitation of nature to create growth and prosperity. “That is the framework of what we have to say,” Hamschmidt explains.
The liberal model of societal order has repeatedly been subject to changes and has faced a wide range of challenges, such as those of fascism and of real existing socialism. In the exhibition the focus is to be on developments, internal contradictions and external contestations.
“I believe the general message to be that the liberal script is not only more complex but also perhaps more controversial than we might like it to be,” says cluster research scientist Prof. Dr. Schirin Amir-Moazami of the FU’s Institute of Islamic Studies. A cornerstone of SCRIPTS is its strong roots in regional studies. Cooperation between experts on different parts of the world is intended to facilitate global perspectives.
Current debates, such as on how to deal with the corona pandemic, are very Eurocentric, says Professor Börzel. Even within Europe the question of European solidarity is often reduced to economic aid for Italy, France and Spain. Little public attention is paid to the situation in poorer European countries or to the refugees in Greek camps. “And next to nobody mentions the consequences of the pandemic in the southern hemisphere. We are talking very much in circles about ourselves,” says the cluster’s spokesperson. That is why SCRIPTS is trying to do it differently.
In addition to permanent reflection on one’s own regional and historical point of view, taking global interrelationships and power structures into account plays a central role.
A Fragile System in Times of Crisis
From the researchers’ viewpoint the liberal script is neither infallible nor without alternative. In the exhibition who the liberal script’s promises are made to and whether they are kept is subjected to critical scrutiny. “The history of the liberal script begins with the declaration of human and civil rights that initially applied only to men,” Gorch Pieken says. They have since been extended in negotiating processes that are far from over and both update and amend the liberal script.
Where, however, do we stand in the current crisis? “At first glance it may look as though authoritarian regimes are better able to contain the corona pandemic,“ says Tanja Börzel. That is because they don’t have to worry so much about civil rights and liberties – and because democracies are in principle slower to arrive at decisions. But not all authoritarian regimes are looking good and there are differences between democracies too. Authoritarian populists or populist parties have proved to be poor crisis managers, Professor Börzel says.
One reason for that could be that “authoritarian populists assign interpretation of the popular will to the head of government,” says Michael Zürn. Determining policy guidelines is no longer subject to due process. It is personalised, and scientific advice is of secondary importance.
Tanja Börzel says “populist trends currently pose a central challenge to liberal democracy”. Authoritarian populist movements have gained political ground in Western societies in recent years. The phenomenon has spread globally too. “If you only count Orbán, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro, Trump, Putin, Kaczyński and Modi we have two billion people who are ruled by authoritarian populists of this kind,” Zürn notes.
The corona crisis might weaken these forces, he says. “It could be that the strong men with their basic macho outlook are debunked and shown to have been poor crisis managers.” On the other hand, economic and financial problems and social divisions are on the increase. “That means what happens is what has made authoritarian and populist movements strong,” Professor Zürn says.
Topical issues of this kind could well find their way onto the exhibition’s agenda, SCRIPTS spokesman Zürn says. “In our cluster we have sought from the start to seek a systematic exchange with other societal actors. For that the Humboldt Lab offers a fantastic opportunity,” he adds. “The aim is not for us to teach the world but to enter into a genuine discursive exchange.”
More about SCRIPTS and IRI THESys at the Humboldt Lab
|Datum:||08. September 2020|