The dialectic of liberalism

Almost 250 years ago, Immanuel Kant defined the Enlightenment as man’s emergence from his self-inflicted immaturity. Since then, liberalism as a philosophical, political and economic movement has invoked this individual maturity and has shaped Western societies and their economic systems. But its appeal is waning. Right-wing and populist forces are gaining strength in democracies; at the same time, totalitarian dictatorships are opening up their economies but not their societies. The popular equation “free economy = free society” is increasingly proving to be false.

This comes as no surprise. As early as the 1950s, the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno warned that the economic order would keep the majority of people in a state of immaturity even after the end of fascism. He was less concerned with concrete economic well-being and the lack of economic means for self-realisation. Rather, he saw the economic system as a form of coercion that stood in the way of the individual’s experience of autonomy. The broken promise of freedom and autonomy made people indifferent to democracy and susceptible to the promises of totalitarianism.

Since Adorno’s diagnosis, this compulsion, we want to argue, has become fully apparent in society as an anonymous system – in the professional, private and political spheres – and is now, with the breakthrough of artificial intelligence, likely to jeopardise democracy in its very essence.

The professional world has become anonymous and offers less and less of a social home. Formerly owner-managed shops – supermarkets, drugstores, DIY stores – have given way to branches of large nationwide or even international companies and have left the inner-city life. Processes, product ranges and workwear have been standardised. The responsible entrepreneur has been replaced by the branch manager who is controlled by KPIs. In large corporations, local structures have been replaced by functional ones. Cross-sectional tasks have been centralised, outsourced or offshored. Who used to be a colleague is now an external service provider and may be replaced tomorrow. And within one’s own workplace, agile teams, teleworking and flex offices are dissolving binding structures. Whoever comes to work becomes a cog in the wheel.

Private life has become more complicated and economised. Thanks to the liberalisation of formerly public services, citizens now have to make more economic decisions than ever before. They can choose from hundreds of electricity, gas and telecommunications tariffs. They have to choose a health insurance company and, if possible, opt for some private pension plan. The situation is unmanageable. After signing the contract, people often discover that they have missed out on a special offer, not taken advantage of a retention or switching bonus or not cancelled a free additional offer in due time. 

And politicians are also increasingly resorting to economic instruments to steer society: CO2 taxes and pollution-dependent lorry tolls, long-term tuition fees and education vouchers, cigarette and alcohol taxes, the list goes on. The state exerts economic pressure, which mainly reaches the lower classes; the wealthy have the financial means to buy their way out.

The liberalisation of formerly public services and the targeted taxation of undesirable behaviour can be seen as liberal democracy’s response to the acceleration of modernity described by Hartmut Rosa: Where all aspects of life are continually accelerating, democratic decision-making and compromise-taking take too long. Economic logic is faster, but also more liberal, because it does not impose rules, but lets people decide how and where they spend their money.

All these developments have brought us economic benefits: longer shop opening hours, a wider range of goods, cheaper products, fewer government bans. But they have also increased the coercive nature of an anonymous system. Today, it is difficult to find someone to assume responsibility. It always seems to be the anonymous market that we cannot escape. In 1984, the German Minister of Posts still had to answer to parliament for the 6-month waiting times for a telephone connection at the Lübeck telecommunications office. Today there is no longer such a minister; and the answer to the lack of fibre optic connections or poor network coverage is economic constraints and “the (failing) market”. Yet the market is proving effective in preventing unprofitable projects, however much they are politically desirable.

Liberalism is blind to the fact that such market mechanisms can constitute coercion. Liberals conceive the market as the sum of the free decisions of responsible citizens. But while liberal societies continue to try and take the economy into their service, the international tech scene has long been thinking about a different future. Accelerationism is the name of a school of thought that believes humans are too imperfect and the institutional structure of the democratically organised state is too slow. The philosopher Nick Land propagates the organisation of society in the form of stock corporations with citizens as shareholders and strives for a comprehensively technologised and de-humanised economy.

Since the breakthrough of Artificial Intelligencethis is within reach. The structural consequences for the relationship between business and society have so far been underestimated. In its detailed and differentiated statement on AI, the German Ethics Council analysed four fields in more detail –  medicine, education, public communication and opinion-forming as well as public administration – but mainly focused on individual applications. However, the fact that machines and algorithms take over individual processes or process steps in companies is nothing new; for example, a large part of stock exchange trading is already automated today, and the autopilot lands an aeroplane more smoothly than a human.

What is new is the possibility of fully networking individual processes and automating the entire company, from purchasing and employee scheduling to sales. The Chinese company Netdragon Websoft replaced the CEO of its Fujian subsidiary with an artificial intelligence in August 2022 – albeit presumably as a PR stunt. What we are looking at is an independent software that can participate in economic activity as a company. This is not primarily about reducing costs, as the current discussion about job losses would have us believe. The far greater leverage of AI is to increase sales and margins; in short: we should all buy more and pay more.

We will therefore probably see the first fully digital companies in the sale of simple contracts: electricity and gas, telephone and internet, banking and insurance services. The platforms have long been in place, the processes are digitalised and run on Amazon, Google and Microsoft servers in the cloud. At the moment, the last people are still working in customer service, in product development and in programming the processes. As soon as the computer can reliably communicate and programme independently, they too will be replaced. And as the computer always has all the relevant data available across our various needs, it can adapt its sales strategy in real time by analysing its human counterpart. As it doesn’t get tired even after eight, twelve or sixteen hours of use, it will become an irresistible salesperson and seducer. Gilles Deleuze’s metaphor of capitalism as a machine becomes reality.

Do we need to redefine economic freedom in the face of new technological realities? – Liberalism rightly defends the freedom of the human entrepreneur. It is difficult to imagine a free society without free choice of profession and free entrepreneurship. The economist Friedrich August von Hayek went so far as to celebrate the economic society as the saviour of democracy from itself. Democracy has a tendency to become “inevitably egalitarian”, he wrote. With the legal fiction of the “legal person” (Article 19 of the German constitution), we even guarantee basic rights for companies and are prepared to weigh these up against the basic rights of humans. But would we also guarantee the fundamental rights of a company controlled by machines if it replaced a company controlled by humans? – Blindfolded, Justice will not see the difference.

Enlightenment, which, as Kant said, requires “only freedom”, will not be enough. He still considered our immaturity to be self-inflicted through “laziness and cowardice”. Liberalism has come a long way with this thesis: We probably live today in the most prosperous and freest of all worlds. Kant was confident that in a free society, a few would start to think and thus enlighten the rest. But they will have a hard time against the machines and their art of seduction. We are becoming increasingly immature in the face of the machine. It knows more about us than we do ourselves, knows our pain thresholds when it wants us to work for it and our weak points when it wants to sell us something.

If Adorno’s thesis that the experiences of coercion associated with the economic system give the right a boost is correct – and various current studies show correlations between dissatisfaction with democracy and the rejection of (economic) globalisation as well as the feeling of no longer belonging to society – then we need to think about how we can put people back in a position to experience maturity.

We need to strengthen individual entrepreneurs over anonymous companies and give people the chance to work in an environment that allows them to experience autonomy.

We need to push back the economic decisions in the private sector, which many people are unable to understand, and which create little value for society as a whole. Nobody needs the multitude of providers and tariffs for (former) public services of general interest.

And in politics, we would have to dare to make decisions politically again instead of inventing a market mechanism and then waiting for the smartest and fastest to win in the new market and the less smart and less fast to call for subsidies and postponement.

All of this would mean that our social prosperity would grow more slowly because we are slowing down economic dynamism. This makes issues of social justice more virulent than they are today and may strengthen left-wing groups, but it need not be harmful to liberal society, as it was primarily labour movements and the political left that contributed to the fall of totalitarian regimes, for example in Spain and Greece in the 1970s and in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s. The economy, on the other hand, will not rush to our aid against totalitarianism in case of doubt; it lives quite well with it in other parts of the world and has not stood out as a great resistance fighter in Germany’s past either.