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Shaping politics in times of crisis – rethinking power and freedom

Freedom is too important to be left to politics alone, or to any single institution. Freedom concerns us all.

Crisis, fear, and polarization are the default settings of our times. From the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change to other geopolitical upheavals – with their frightening consequences for energy supplies and world trade – the societies of Europe and other liberal democracies are facing with highly dynamic threat scenarios that are difficult to handle.

These threats pose a dilemma. On the one hand: members of the business, cultural and science communities, as well as other social groups, are formulating their own demands of the governmental elites – even as state institutions claim ever-growing powers that limit the private sector’s engagement and even its civil liberties. On the other hand: the personnel, information-gathering, analytical, and technological capabilities of governments are extremely overburdened. This is true despite the fact that the professionalization of public officials seldom has been as high as it is today. The complexity and interdependence of potential crises – and the diverse expertise required to address them – challenge the ability of both governments and private-sector institutions to shape effective responses of their own.

This clash, between rising expectations and limited capacities, puts stress on the delicate structure of the political system and on its relationship with civil society. Previous divisions of labor and understandings of legitimacy are wobbling. The fragility of governments in liberal-democratic societies, and the mobilization of militant conspiracy theorists and system skeptics, provide clear warning signs. Many elites themselves find it difficult to navigate the shifting power dynamics of global competition and to accept emerging political realities. Values, worldviews, organizational forms, and even the meanings of basic concepts diverge between elites and other groups in society –making rational and shared understandings of the common good even more difficult to reach.

As a result of all this, the relationship of freedom (Freiheit), power (Macht), and politics (Politik) is put into play, as almost never before.

I. Political challenges in the 21st century

As publishers of the online magazine Freiheit|Macht|Politik, we want to address five central challenges:

First, to reflect on the mechanisms of political decision-making in the crisis-ridden, late-modern democracies of Europe and elsewhere, and to take a fresh look at the responsibilities of leaders in politics and the private sector alike.

Second, to understand the complex interactions between the sources of ideas and power in our societies, and to explore opportunities for new relationships through interdisciplinary, cross-sector exchange.

Third, to overcome the ideological rifts that mark the conflicts of our time – globalization, value creation, identity, populism, black-and-white thinking, etc. – and to resolve misunderstandings, some of which cause social antagonisms, by understanding their genealogy.

Fourth, to develop approaches to solutions and alternative crisis mitigation strategies that are not limited to ad hoc measures but include long-term planning and probability-based cost-benefit calculations.

Fifth, to network people committed to freedom with one another – in order to stimulate open, creative, and fair dialogue. Together, we must assume responsibility for our common good in word and deed.


II. Between power and freedom

This process of reflection, problem-solving and networking, which we initiate with our authors and fellow campaigners, recognizes the vital tension between the two concepts in our publication’s title: Freedom and Power.

Freedom has been the unique selling point of liberal democracies since the Enlightenment. In this form of government, two of freedom’s fundamental dynamics meet: the negative freedom from arbitrary intervention in private lives, guaranteed by the liberal rule of law, and the positive freedom of collective political self-determination, which is guaranteed by widespread political participation. Only if the positive freedom of shared self-determination succeeds, it can guarantee the negative freedom of each individual person.

Power, for its part, is at the heart of politics. The state claims a monopoly on organizing and using the “power of action:” the ability to harm, restrict, or outright destroy people and things in order to guarantee peace internally and sovereignty externally. This original political power is in continuous friction with other forms of power, such as the resource-based power of the economic sphere or the authoritative, charismatic, moral power of religion.

Freedom and power are not popular concepts in today’s discourse.

For many representatives of a new hyper-moralism, freedom is the antithesis of responsibility, as in: “those who insist on their freedom are too selfish to put their own interests aside.” At the same time, with the rise of anti-government rhetoric, “freedom” has been given a populist charge – often becoming synonymous with a defiance of authority.

Power, in turn, is considered by many intellectuals to be among the fundamental evils of socialization. The dictum of the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt that “power is evil, no matter who wields it,” informs the century-old dream of a society free of domination.

Still, “freedom” and “power” are the ideas – in balance – on which modern liberal democracies rest. Without power, politics is useless; without freedom, it is inhumane. Together, these two principles form the basis of the political culture we sometimes refer to as “the West.”

The relationship between power and freedom is complex and not without difficulties. On the one hand: every assertion of power is a potential restriction of freedom, insofar as it includes the means not only to achieve but also to frustrate the desires, goals, and interests of individuals. On the other hand: freedom, if we understand it in the sense of Hannah Arendt as the collective creation of something new, presupposes power. This can seem paradoxical. The closer one looks, the more the distinction between the two principles is lost, and the more they turn out to be iridescent and intertwined.

III. Looking ahead

In our view, this paradox is the starting point for fruitful debates. After all, reflecting on power and freedom in the context of contemporary politics offers a new approach to some of the big, difficult questions of our time:

What are the geopolitical parameters of European and international politics in the 21st century, in the face of new imperial aggression, multipolarity, the weakness of supra- and intra-national organizations, and a steady disappearance of Western-style free societies?

What is the relationship between politics and science in a new era of technocracy, in which politics takes over scientific pursuits and science increasingly claims to drive political decisions?

How should the tension between people and power be structured in the 21st century, specifically: How much power does the individual have? How much power does the collective or the system have? And can power still be distributed by geography or subject matter, or must it somehow diffuse according to the conventions and demands of the moment?

What sociopolitical responsibility arises from the power of digital data, which gathers in the hands of fewer and fewer major players, and how must political decision makers position themselves if they want to remain relevant in a digitally driven world?

What power mechanisms underlie current struggles over cultural, gender, and racial identities?

Ultimately, we must ask about the cultural, ethical, and psychological boundaries that make possible a basic conception of the common good in the first place.

These questions form both the themes of future Freiheit.Macht.Politik publication cycles as well as the framework for a new way of thinking about politics. This rethinking is urgently needed.

The great clashes of our time – between states and between ideologies – leave no doubt that two Western utopias have outlived their usefulness. The hope for an End of History, in which global interdependence means the convergence of all interests and values under classical liberalism, is nearly over. So is a belief that the force of better arguments ultimately will triumph over mere force. Instead, power in all its forms is back on the stage of world history.

The central value of political freedom, which for too long we took for granted in an almost banal way, stands front and center once again – the more the value of freedom is questioned, the more important the debate about it becomes.

The crisis of freedom, above all, calls for understanding and solutions through debate, encouragement of respectful disagreement, and networking.

Freiheit|Macht|Politik aims to offer all of this – debate, disagreement, but also the formation of novel connections and ideas – on a wide range of topics, which we sketch in this editorial, deliberately without spelling out the details. Instead, we look forward to bringing together distinguished theoreticians and practitioners from all parts of society – at eye level, without polemics, and without blinders.




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