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What comes after the liberal order? Call for Ideas

What comes after the liberal order? Call for Ideas

The Institute of Globalization and the Human Condition is seeking participants who can bring their disciplinary expertise to an upcoming speakers series.

Aug 09, 2019

Signs that our current liberal order is in trouble are proliferating. Freedom House has documented a historic reversal in democratization and announced that democracy is in crisis. The US-led global order is experiencing unprecedented tensions and doubts about its future. The acceleration of daily life is destabilizing institutions, jobs, life stories, and our sense of well-being. Pluralistic tolerance and inclusion are threatened by hatred and violence, including right here in Hamilton, close to home. Faith in science and even recognized standards for truth are waning. Growing social inequality is undermining social cohesion. The limits of our planet’s capacity to sustain life are being breached. Most likely you could continue adding to this list. Since the problems are so complex and multi-dimensional they most likely are relevant to every department and discipline across the McMaster campus.

If the liberal order is faltering, then what comes after it? How can we preserve what’s valuable, move beyond liberalism’s failures, and contribute to charting a sustainable future? This is a call for ideas about what such a future might look like, and how we might get there. We envision starting with a series of discussions on the McMaster campus and then broadening it out beyond campus. We hope that participants will bring their disciplinary expertise while also being enthusiastic about going beyond it. We are eager to identify commonalities across all the big and small vectors of change that we are witnessing while also being attentive to variation and specificities. We wish to enable informed discussion without constraining it with conventional academic formats but also for this to result in conventional academic outputs, including an edited volume or a special issue of a refereed scholarly journal. Below we have provided more information, including a list of possible topics, and we welcome suggestions for additional topics to this list ore alternative formulations of any of these topics.

Now we are asking if you are interested in participating in this. We hope so.

Please email with your name, a sentence about you or a link to your webpage, the topic or topics  you would like to discuss, and whether you’d like to just talk and listen, be a discussant, make a short or long presentation, or circulate a paper. Please do this by Friday, September 6. We will then create and share a schedule of discussions that will extend through the fall and winter terms. You are welcome to participate in just one or more of these.

 ~ Petra Rethmann, Director IGHC 


What comes after the liberal order?

As noted in the call for ideas, signs that our current liberal order is in trouble are proliferating. This historic moment’s challenges can be labelled in many ways, consistent with their multi-dimensional, multi-scalar character, including the climate emergency, the breakdown of global multilateralism, the limitations of markets as forms of social organization, and the reversal of democratization, among others. The liberal order label signals the tension between liberalism’s emphasis on freedom from constraint and the unleashing of individual creativity on the one hand, and the liberal order’s stabilizing and coercive aspects on the other. This tension is evident for instance when military force is entangled with democracy, or when calls for individuals to be resilient in the face of adversity are experienced as harsh abandonment and exclusion. The liberal order label also signals the multi-scalar, pervasive, and interconnected character of this order, from our intimate thoughts and relationships through to the global institutions that have been dominant since the end of World War II. These features of the liberal order are at the heart of its current troubles. The goal of this project is to begin to better understand the interconnections that these troubles involve, and what they can tell us about the future.

Our starting point is expansive, commensurate with the expansiveness of the issues involved, but we envision a series of more focused discussions that can group together existing detailed research and more speculative ideas into particular topics enabling  new reflections on how these might connect to larger changes, or changes in other areas. Below is a list of topics that is intended to illustrate the variety of research questions that might be addressed. These are framed abstractly, but can be discussed through particular cases, works, or practices. Please feel free to suggest alternative topics. The discussions that are organized from the responses to this call for ideas may be on a different set of topics, or only a few of the topics listed below.


Possible topics

Political possibility.
Liberalism has always worked to limit the role of government to enhance the freedom of the individual, but, combined with social acceleration, this has limited the capacity of democratic societies to imagine different futures and develop concerted long-range plans to bring them about, or in Ontario, even to create needed basic transportation infrastructures. How might the imaginative or practical aspects of this be overcome?

Anxieties about “fake news” and our “post-truth” era, and backlashes against experts, have highlighted growing challenges to ways of establishing and thinking about how knowledge is verified and legitimized, a critical issue for universities. Can we draw upon our knowledge about how knowledge is produced, including the character of scientific procedure and the entanglement of power with knowledge, to create better standards for evaluating truth? Should the production of knowledge, including university research, be democratized, or made more publicly accountable, and what would this look like?

The scale of democracy
There is a mismatch between our globalized world, environmental threats to our planet and the ongoing ties of democracy to nation-states. Crises seem to be sparking xenophobia and nationalism rather than global alternatives. What principles and practices can be imaged to address this? Is transnational democracy viable? Should foreign environmentalists influence Canadian pipeline politics? Should Canadian authorities have offensive cyberwar and surveillance capacity to defend democracy? Should Canadians support struggling democrats in authoritarian countries? What principles might govern our answers to such questions?

Hate is proliferating, from the White House to the streets of Hamilton, undermining the pluralism and tolerance that is supposed to be central to the liberal order. How can our understanding of the sources, properties, and effects of hate help transcend it? Hate can create the feeling of belonging…can a similarly expansive but positive force bring collectivities together, such as Braidotti’s discussion of the dynamic life-force of zoe or Hardt and Negri’s of the common and love?  

Pluriverses and ontopolitics
A key feature of the liberal order has been its reliance upon and search for a universal nature, science, laws, or truths independent of human volition which can be appealed to as sources of authority, diminishing other sources of authority, including from worlds that were erased historically by colonialism. The declining credibility of faith in universalism has undermined the liberal order. Pluriverses and ontopolitics are among the responses offered. How can we imagine ways of knowing that will help bring us into alternative futures?    

Contemporary liberalism has tended to be motivated by individualized meaning or morality, or by instrumental purposes such as consumerism, displacing other sources of meaning and morality such as religion. On campuses the disciplines more attuned to reflection on meaning or morality have often been displaced by more instrumentally-oriented professional or vocational training. Some have seen the loss of shared meanings and values as contributing to liberalism’s troubles. If so, how might this be addressed?

Social inequality
The ongoing growth over more extreme social inequality and failures to solve this have helped undermine the legitimacy of liberalism. Multiple explanations have been given for this growing inequality, including technological change, corporate power, and globalization. Most of the efforts to address social inequality have been too slow, had too many negative side-effects, or have failed. Can we move beyond these?

Global orders
The aggressive nationalism of US President Trump and the growing global power of China and the other BRICS countries signals a sea change in the US-led global liberal order that has been dominant since World War II. The global upsurge in populism and nationalism suggests that this sea change is not only geopolitical, but relates to properties of the liberal order at other scales as well. What is the likely future of the global order?

In the past decade Canada has displayed some distinctive experiences, such as weathering the 2008 financial crisis and having weaker xenophobic nationalist movements. At the same time the global environment is changing in ways that raise questions about Canada’s established ways of engaging with the world. What can be said about what a changing Canada signifies for the world and what a changing world signifies for Canada?

We are in the midst of a climate emergency that is likely to irreversibly damage our planet and the life forms on it, a challenge that is present at multiple scales, from daily personal practices to global initiatives such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. How does this now decades-old crisis relate to changes in the liberal order that have become apparent more recently? Are there successes that can be built upon amidst the ongoing failures to address the crisis.    

A feature of our current historic moment is the prominence of identity, including its connections to gender and sexuality, race, nation, religion, individualism, community, and other distinctions. How do we understand the relationship of this prominence to other changes in the liberal order, and the significance of this for the future? 

Social acceleration, the feeling that time is speeding up, is palpable in our personal daily lack of time, the unpredictability of our workplaces and life narratives, the speed of social and technological change, the destabilizing of institutions, and the challenge of devising solutions to keep up with the pace with which new problems arise. How are these temporal issues implicated in and affected by this historic moment in the liberal order? 

The pace of disruptions from technology has accelerated, and the impacts of these disruptions more profound, altering the planet and human life in unprecedented ways, such as carbon emissions, genetic engineering or artificial intelligence. A typical response to this challenge is to recommend greater openness and stakeholder participation through the development and governance of technologies, but more insights are needed into how best to do this, including in university research.

Care is essential to human flourishing but is often devalued. As Puig de la Bellacasa and other feminist scholars have extensively discussed, care has multiple meanings—to take care of, to care for, to care about—and can be both life-giving and involve oppressive expectations and labour. Care can inform an alternative approach to research, moving away from the detached scholarship that has been privileged in earlier times. Is care a useful antidote to the widespread cynicism, detachment or irony that is prevalent today?

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