How to Avoid Sleepwalking into Illiberalism
The US presidential election draws nearer. Europe is thinking about politics after the Coronavirus has become part of life, especially that important European elections (in Germany and France) are on the horizon.
The big question is: will the far-right continue its rise?
Most answers in mainstream Western political parties link the question to economics. This is a mistake. Standards of living have been declining in most Western countries, and the causes are a combination of diminishing labour competitiveness at home, corresponding increasing competitiveness in Asian economies, and the arrival at mass scale of transformative new technologies that are gradually eliminating scores of jobs, all in a highly globalised world. These economic conditions appear permanent. This brings about fear within large social groups in many Western societies.
Fear stirs knee-jerk responses. The fearful social segments blame the leaders of their countries for allowing conditions to get that far. Worse, many see them colluding with the beneficiaries of these economic and technological changes. Many ask, with good reason, if the austerity programmes they have been suffering for over a decade now were matched by transformative changes in the political-economy of the two decades prior to the financial crisis, which generated immense wealth for a small section of beneficiaries.
Actually, it gets much worse. Large sections of these wide social groups see the leaders and many of those beneficiaries, socially detached from them, talking about values, ways of life, and political norms that most of them (in these wide social segments) have never subscribed to. And the problem for them is that the talking has, in the past decade or so, turned into a prevailing “correct politics” that they are expected to adhere to.
For many at the top of these Western societies it was progress, almost a cultural end of history where these societies have arrived at the summit of socio-politics.
This was manifested in different ways – in the notion of converging with the ideal of the European Union, in the thinking of American intellectual Brahmins in the north-east, in major policies across Europe with noticeable impact on social look and feel, and in the direction technology has taken, where the thinking envisions a future of the human race underpinned by dramatic advancements in artificial intelligence.
The division that has always separated Western societies from the rest of the world became obsolete. A new division now separates the beneficiaries of the political-economy of the past two decades from the rest (whether in Western societies or elsewhere).
True, the new separation was fundamentally economic. But the social and political separation was the more problematic. Though there was not a prevailing cultural or value system uniting the beneficiaries across the globe, there was however a prevailing rhetoric, anchored on a way of seeing progress – this “correct politics” that originated in the West, and which became the mantra of the beneficiaries there, and to some extent was (selectively) used by the beneficiaries elsewhere.
For these wide social segments, to be separated economically from the ruling classes is one thing (quite normal, and effectively the order of society since history began). To be separated from the ruling classes by culture, values, and ways of living is another thing. This has built up rejection. And to have within this separation a strong current of superiority whereby the prevailing rhetoric implies that the new culture, new values, and new ways of living are superior to those of the rest, has turned the rejection into anger.
This is why seeing the rise of the far-right as an economic problem is not only mistaken. It is dangerous. It supposes that economic solutions to the declining standards of living are the route to stemming the rise of the far-right.
The route must be political, where values, belonging, and a serious sense of respect are ingrained in the relationship between the prevailing political system and the largest possible sections of society.
But this is not happening. The situation is actually getting worse, for the responses to the rise of the far-right are also deluded and insincere.
Deluded, because whether in the American centre-left or in most European centre-right and centre-left parties, the campaigns in the nascent electoral season are anchored on economic growth and saving jobs. Not enough. The fundamental questions behind the rise of the far-right will re-emerge every time there are major elections or plebiscites. The rejection did not disappear with the Coronavirus; it was suppressed by an unprecedented development no one alive today has witnessed before. But it will return at a time when anger will be much stronger. And as long as the separations and rejection and anger exist, the underlying feelings will trump all economic arguments and attempted solutions.
The responses are insincere because some mainstream political forces have actually borrowed rhetoric from the far-right so as to compete with it on some social constituencies. But irrespective of the rhetoric, these parties are trying to preserve the political economy of the past few decades.
This is understandable, because the immense and highly concentrated wealth that was generated in these decades as a result of that political economy remains the key financier for most mainstream political parties. And that wealth wants to contain the threat of immense change, not by confronting the anger, but by absorbing its force.
It will not work. This is because the gradual and slow move of large social groups toward the far-right was, as explained above, stirred by strong feelings, not utilitarian calculations. Also, these feelings will not turn into acceptance of the ruling classes as they steer Western economies out of the Coronavirus pandemic. Winston Churchill lost the general election on the eve of steering Britain to victory in the Second World War. A majority, though highly respectful of and many would say grateful to him, wanted a new leadership for a new period they sensed and desired to be different. The comparison to the situation today is limited, primarily because most of today’s leaders are neither respected nor people are grateful to.
So if absorbing the force of anger will not work, what could? The problem here is that some in the prevailing political-economy might calculate that “divide and rule” is a good strategy to preserve and perpetuate the system. We might see even more polarising media messaging, political rhetoric, and the creation of new political forces whose only function would be to channel some of the anger and rejection away from its current concentrations. We might also see further demonisation of the “other” (for example, immigrants) and attempting to create more ‘enemies of the people’. This is dissipating the force of anger as opposed to absorbing it.
Save for a shock that totally alters the dynamics of political sentiments in most Western societies (for example, a war), this dissipating also will not work.
This brings us back to the beginning, the responses of mainstream political parties. They must resist the inclinations (and become free from the tentacles) of some of their main financiers. They must move from the intellectual laziness of mixing of far-right rhetoric with policies of temporary pain-killers that do not address the problems in the prevailing political-economy. They must seriously address the widening gap in culture and values between the elite and the rest.
In the same way that a new Cold War has effectively begun, and geo-politics has returned to a world of confrontations between different poles, domestic Western politics have moved beyond the unquestioned supremacy of liberal-democracy. There is a war of ideas already raging on in the West. It needs a new strategy with the objective of re-establishing respect in and for the prevailing political system, a system the largest possible sections of society identify with and relate to. This will likely entail a return to earlier forms of liberal democracy, detached from the economic manifestations that accompanied it in the past few decades. How to do that, is a big question centrist political parties must take seriously.
We, non-Westerners, must wish them well, for true liberal democracy remains the most successful political system the world has ever known. Its demise in its historical home would be a loss for all of us.