Liberalism in Decline

In Europe, the experiment of multi-culturalism, cooperation, and a shared governing vision for their future is under threat. From Hungary, Poland, to Italy and Brexit, the European Union is increasingly showing its strain and inability to adapt to broad geographical and cultural differences (especially between its northern and southern states).

The United States has been pulled back from an extreme. Under Trump, it pulled away from a host of international agreements it itself built and benefited from, attacked the World Health Organization, antagonized the United Nations, abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a free trade agreement geared toward undermining Chinese economic influence in the Pacific), and even prodded the nascent bear that is NATO on grounds that’s member nations weren’t contributing their ‘fair share’. But now the United States returns from its brief hiatus (under Biden) to find the world has changed, or perhaps, it never changed to begin with. The failures of Afghanistan is just another nail in the coffin (including Iraq, Vietnam, and China) of the neo-liberal gospel of free markets, free trade, and democracies promise to liberate and civilize the planet.

In Latin America, nations whose constitutions and governing structures mimic the American example have found themselves teetering between unashamed nationalism (see Brazil) and a double down on economic collapse (see Venezuela) to save face at incredible cost to human life.

In Asia, bold hopes for the Chinese free market policies were dashed by the communist party’s adept hand at managing the broad economy and challenging ethnic fabric. So long as its citizens remain employed and it’s minorities fractured, individual liberty in China will never appear on any 5 year plan. India under Modi has fallen into the slippery slope of ‘hindu supremacy’, putting this grand multi-cultural, multi-lingual experiment into question once again.

Liberalism and its parent democracy seems to be a victim of its own success. It is the worst-best form of ideology with its natural worst-best form of government tagging along for the ride. At this stage, the western ideological playbook has been fully explored with side tangents into identity politics. Communism and fascism both failed to create their respective utopia and so Europe and North America are left wondering, what now? While Marx was wrong about the supposed innate weakness of capitalism, Marxist theorists may have had some truth behind the eventual, nationalist degeneration of the liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ state in the face of crisis, a crisis brought about by unparalleled success and wealth.

Dark futures

Our most vivid imaging’s of a post Liberal world come from our movies and media, but note the distinct lack of a utopian vision available to us in film. What sells today is what people innately feel is more interesting, more worrying, perhaps more probable. For every utopian future (star trek) we have dozens of dystopias to compete (black mirror, hunger games, maze runner, ready player one, snow piercer, the purge…). While we are apt to pretend to care about both sides of the ideological coin, the free market has apparently chosen what we think is more deserving of our time.

Liberalism is clearly facing a crisis, the grand promises made in the 1900s, those of individual liberty, shared prosperity, rapid improvements in technology, and enlightened rule were only partially realized. Simmering resentment and self-cannibalism of the Liberal movement has only fermented the nascent feeling that some arguments of the fascist (we live in a shared nation with a unique heritage worthy of preserving) and of the communist (capitalism is inherently exploitative and is incapable of addressing rampant inequality) hold serious sway in electoral politics today. But this isn’t a left vs. right issue. Both the American left and right wing have started to argue against their own ideological heritage, desperate to patch the perceived holes of their framework.

The clearest path forward for our society is likely reflected in social media, on blogs and in familial conversation. Questions of race and gender, of religion and the state all have a role to play in the age of tech monopoly. But Liberalism itself seems unable to adapt in face of an increasingly globalist world. Identity politics is a reductivist game, one which inherently divides its own supports and pits them against each other. When the reaction of authority to pan-cultural entities becomes visceral then we may have reached the end of the tracks.

Problems of income inequality and gender discrimination can likely be solved under Liberalism, given that the State is small enough. Even if this solution gets corrupted through the funnel of party affiliation and regional tribalism, it has a tenuous peace for now. But unfortunately it cannot reconcile people’s seemingly biological inability to respect the innate value of cultural beliefs and practices of an ‘other’. Liberalism teaches us that each human is instilled with a set of inalienable rights and that those rights extend like a bubble beyond to things we seek to practice, such as religion.

However, if the Liberal has had nearly 200+ years of failed attempts at convincing its adherents that immigrants of a different skin color speaking a different language is no threat to your way of life, then what will? The alliance between liberalism and democracy means that with the growth of the ‘other’ as a demographic group, comes the erosion of your group’s control over government. Favorable treatment, something we claim doesn’t exist today (with a sarcastic smile), will then be argued to certainly get implemented under the clutches of these outsiders. This not-so-unspoken argument is now the principal rallying cry to the awakening nationalist. Maybe here the fascist has something to teach the liberal, a polity apparently needs an enemy or an other in which to rally against; what else can catch our so often divided attention?

These battles are no closer to being resolved now than they were in the ’20s. Liberalism’s potential seems capped in this framework. Pan-continental unions appear destined for failure. The result is the perpetual status-quo, endless nation-state posturing while we desperately try to keep the ‘national interests’ of state A from requiring the poverty of state B.

Humanities inability to shed the weight of its evolutionary heritage appears the principal crack in Liberalism’s armor; the value found in the tribe, of the local community, and of some shared sense of unifying ‘tradition’ appear more important than the all encompassing values of universal human freedom to speak and act as they see fit. The fascist, it seems, may have been right on that point all along.

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2 comments

  1. This is a very insightful piece, thank you. This is a topic which is just as complex as it is important. I am a philosophy professor and it’s sobering to see how students are being taught about ‘liberalism’. They are taught that it is a system complicit in racial oppression and that ‘individual freedom’ and ‘tolerance’ are just concepts that liberalism uses to cover up the inequality and white supremacy with which it will happily co-exist. Liberalism has its problems for sure – as you say here, it’s a worst-best kind of paradigm. But it was formulated to help peoples of different religions and races live together without killing one another, through pedaling the idea of the dignity of the individual person. Call me an 80’s girl, but this seems like an extremely good idea to me. The problem is that, as you say here, we may have come up against its limits, but I see no good alternative on the horizon. The next generation seems sold on dismantling liberalism, even being willing to dismantle the idea of individual rights. But I don’t think they know what they are going to put in its place. That is the sobering part. Increasingly, I see it as my role to keep telling the upcoming generation that individual freedom and tolerance are not only good things; they are an essential part of any flourishing human life.

    1. You are fighting the right fight. It’s absurd to me that people are so willing to look at nearly 200 years of unmitigated success (the lifting of untold millions, maybe even billions out of poverty. relative peace, massive increases in life expectancy, huge reductions in infant mortality, amazing improvements in technology, the list goes on) and say well, because racism exists in society then it’s all garbage. it’s absurd. There is no nation, no piece of territory on any map, in any period of history with humans that discrimination and racism don’t exist. Most (all?) Tribal societies have strict gender roles and extreme xenophobia. Bronze/Iron age is filled with debt-slavery and unashamed genocide, etc, etc.

      It has nothing to do with liberalism and everything to do with humans. People are so unbelievably short sighted, I see it with my generation as well. We are walking into a self-created storm.

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