Europe and the Backlash Against Liquid Modernity

4 min read
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Open the borders, protesters' signs read. Government: no more excuses, It's a human duty, Welcome them now, For an open Europe.

Open the borders, protesters' signs read. Government: no more excuses, It's a human duty, Welcome them now, For an open Europe. What sounds like a liberal daydream happened on February 18, when 160,000 people marched the streets of Barcelona to protest, not against, but for the rights of others. Their message: We stand for an open Europe. Could this be the spark of a new grassroots movement of open internationalism?

In a recent article, Mark Leonard applied Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity to the international system. Bauman argued that the main trait of modernity was the fragility and temporariness of its forms of life, and as a result, many previously solid things such as jobs, place of residence, sexual orientation, relationships, had become fluid. According to Leonard, global security, too, has become fluid as previously solid notions of war and peace, domestic and foreign, state and non-state, ally and adversary, are taking on more flexible forms. In other words, we are transitioning from what could be called a relatively solid global order to a more liquid system.

The liquefying of the international system, however, is not going down smoothly. There is a backlash against the relative loss of order that comes along with greater flexibility. One of the features of this backlash is the rise of identity politics. The melting of many formerly clear-cut notions of international structures and relationships entails a sense of chaos and overbearing complexity. Antonio Gramsci's phrase "the old is dying and the new cannot be born" relentlessly captures this zeitgeist. Bassam Tibi talks about the “simultaneity of structural globalization and cultural fragmentation” as a trigger of identity politics. In order to feel secure in a liquid global environment, people seek structure and belonging in the form of more locally rooted national, ethnic, ideological, or religious identities.

Often these are exclusionary identities that find the strength of the self in the alienation of the other. Much ink has been spilled to assess how right-wing populist immigration discourse pins an ethno-nationalist native population against an alleged immigrant intruder. Beyond the domestic realm, identity politics turns into a weapon of hybrid warfare, as foreign powers such as Russia use migration to affect electoral outcomes in Europe. In the liquid global system, those who can claim and steer identity politics are one step ahead.

By belittling the human yearning for identity as a pitiable necessity of the ignorant, Western liberal elites have failed to anticipate some of the greatest political earthquakes of our time. Trump supporters did not cast their votes based on the candidates’ competency, credentials, or truthfulness. British Leave voters did not base their choice on factual precariousness or over-alienation caused by the EU. Both campaigns provided a simple answer to one question: What do I stand for in a fluid world?

Meanwhile, liberal elites seek to beat populist competitors focusing on their lies and doubtful credentials, not realizing that they are playing the match on the wrong pitch. Leonard argues, “to make citizens feel more in control in an era of uncertainty, the EU needs to liquefy rather than seeking impossible ideals of order.” Rather than attempting to become more flexible, European political elites cling to a rigid notion of global order that has begun to fade. And perhaps more importantly, they are missing the chance to fill their citizens' identity vacuum.

Of course, global interaction is not possible without rules, and democratic leaders of all political leanings should continue their efforts to preserve multilateral structures, norms, and values. The European Union need not threaten local identities. On the contrary, it should pretend to create new ones. European political elites need to realize that — if they do not wish to leave the field to the Le Pens and Wilders — they need to shape up their own ability to provide identity. How to channel, embody, and promote the values of openness and cooperation into an appealing identity of fluid internationalism, therefore, will be a key challenge for European political leaders in the coming years.

The good news is that the backlash against liquidity may be producing its counter-backlash. Hundreds of thousands are filling the streets of Barcelona and 30 other Spanish cities in the name of a European openness. German and Dutch right-wing populists are losing electoral support. Trump's travel ban against citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries has triggered an unprecedented global outcry. A new popular movement is hatching that carries the banner of openness and cooperation. It is just waiting to be led.