Thursday, April 14, 2016

Is Liberalism in Trouble?

Roger Cohen is worried:
Looking back at human history, the liberal democratic experiment - with its Enlightenment-derived belief in the capacity of individuals possessed of certain inalienable rights to shape their destinies in liberty through the exercise of their will — is but a brief interlude. Far more lasting have been the eras of infallible sovereignty, absolute power derived from God, domination and serfdom, and subjection to what Isaiah Berlin called “the forces of anti-rational mystical bigotry.”

Such anti-rational forces are everywhere these days — in Donald Trump’s America, in Marine Le Pen’s France, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, throughout much of the Middle East, in North Korea. Representative government under the rule of law has proved to be insipid fare for an age that traffics in heady images of power and violence through solipsistic social media and online games. . . .

Liberty, however, requires certain things. Liberalism demands acceptance of our human differences and the ability to mediate them through democratic institutions. It demands acceptance of multiple, perhaps incompatible truths. In an age of declamation and shouting, of polarization and vilification, of politics-for-sale and the insidious submersion of politics in fact-lite entertainment, the emergence of Trump is as unsurprising as it is menacing.
I'm not as worried as Cohen; liberal democracy may be strained in the U.S. and Europe, and put off in China, but I still think it dominates the thinking world. Other systems may have emotional appeal, especially in times of crisis, but nobody has a clue how to defend them intellectually, and I think that matters.

But Cohen is right that there is nothing inevitable about liberalism. Our system is a recent invention compared to monarchy, aristocracy and thuggery, and it has always had enemies. It survives mainly because other systems have failed to deliver decent lives to most people to anything like the same degree.

And that, right now, is its vulnerability. People are frustrated with the lack of economic progress, and frustrated people want answers, not sermons about the Enlightenment. We ought to be focused on how to make the system work for ordinary people, because if we don't there is going to be hell to pay.


Unknown said...

Yes, Cohen's essay is another dismal screed richly deserving the "For I Am Old And Jaded" treatment. Cohen should remember the 1930s, if he wants a time when liberalism was genuinely in trouble.

G. Verloren said...

Meanwhile, we're seeing liberal thought actively reshaping portions of the world where it traditionally has never existed.

Burma is right now struggling mightily to democratize and shed their military junta; Iran has just now begun allowing women to hold public office; young girls in the poorest parts of Africa and Asia, from Burundi to Afghanistan, who have traditionally been denied the right to receive an education are now being given the chance to learn; et cetera.

One of the hidden strengths of liberalism is that it plays directly to the interests of over half the world's population - women. A return to traditional forms of rule, to "monarchy, aristocracy and thuggery" as you phrase it, would almost necessarily be based in a return to absolute patriarchy, and that is something which is going to engender fierce resistance.

Overwhelmingly, the people who are most discontented with modern liberalism are men of the ethnic majority of their home regions. Their positions of privilege are being undermined at the same time that conditions are improving for women and minorities, and they're abjectly horrified by the notion.

It doesn't occur to them that they've had an unfairly large share of the pie for all of written history. They view the loss of their privilege not as the natural consequence of rectifying longstanding societal inequity, but as their being robbed of what they view as their absolute birthright. To be reduced at long last to equality with the rest of the world is the worst possible offence they can imagine, because they've always believed and taken for granted that they were better than everyone else and deserved to receive the lion's share. And so they lash out in response, trying to forcibly reverse their changing fortunes.

It won't work. Anti-rational forces couldn't undo the abolition of slavery. They couldn't undo the French Revolution. They couldn't undo the Reformation. They couldn't undo the invention of the printing press. At every step, when a major development has come along which worked to democratize and equalize the world, they struggled mightily to suppress and reverse it, and equally mightily failed.

That's not to say they won't make the attempt today, nor that they won't inflict consider damage in doing so. But despite the backlash, the genie will continue to work its way out of the bottle, bit by bit. Because once a people taste freedom and equality, they do not readily return to the yoke.