Views that never cease

Is ‘Liberalism’ losing fast! - Dr P R Kalia

No doubt a profound embarrassment, however, Donald Trump and some other leaders who have ideological affinity with him didn’t emerge in a vacuum. They often portray their opponents as not merely wrong, but dangerous and unpatriotic. Their rise is also the product of an economic system that has failed to deliver shared prosperity. Globally, when mainstream institutions neglect them, voters are destined to be drawn to the extremes.

Frustrated by the immigration policies and economic inequality, particularlyrural votersbeingoverlooked by the establishment and working-class white people turned to Donald Trump to set things right. Trumpism, today, is but the American symptoms of a global phenomenon of an astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far right and also of the far left.

[The general consensus has been that "left wing" includes liberals, progressives, socialists and communists, while the "right wing" embraces conservatives, traditionalists, reactionaries and fascists.]

For almost a century, liberal democracies in the West were marked mostly by the rule of law and fair elections, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property—though , at present, they are mostly seized by some big corporate businesses. These values were shared by the conservatives and social democrats alike. But as of today, liberal philosophy of individual rights and free markets continues to fast losing ground, while populism and identitarian politics1 is gaining ground nearly everywhere.

Looking around, we find that the parties of the ‘far right’ are mostly making inroads at the ballot box. Branded as “aggressive nationalists” US president Donald Trump, British PM Theresa May, controversial Elysee Palace candidate Ms Le Pen of France, and India’s Prime minister Narinder Modi are part of this “new world order”.

The aim of the champions of illiberalism is that they want to restrict immigration; they reject the very possibility of assimilation; and prioritize local, regional, and “internal” economies over “hyper-competitive” global markets. In contrast, as a result of Liberalism, they observe that authentic communities were uprooted in mass migration, resulting in social inability, economic insecurity and inner alienation.

Donald Trump promises to “make America great again”. He never fails to tell his followers that they have been taken for a ride, bamboozled, and robbed. The government’s real and perceived failures aren’t the voters’ fault. It’s the establishment, the Chinese, Mexicans, Muslims, and bankers—all are conspiring to humiliate the nation.

Given all this, the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seems part of a larger trend rather than a momentous disruption in the American timeline. The strength of the Trump and Sanders, as presidential candidacies, has revealed the hollowness of this liberal consensus in the 21st century. Both candidates opposed the existing North American Free Trade Agreement as well as Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade pacts, currently being negotiated between the United States and its Asian and European allies. Now, Trump has imposed tariffs on foreign imports and would penalize U.S. companies moving operations offshore. Sanders, meanwhile, has said American consumers don’t “need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.”

To economic protectionism Trump adds hostility to immigrants and deep skepticism about the geopolitical structures that provide support to liberal order, not least NATO and the EU. He has threatened to “open up” U.S. libel laws to make it easier to silence the press, and to go after media owners whose outlets criticize him. He openly admires Putin.

All this should sound familiar. The “protected class” of corporate and political elites has been uninterested in the pain of the “unprotected” many.

The fact is that varieties of “Trumpism” are on the rise in countries that have experienced economic growth in recent years (Britain, Poland, India and Turkey, for instance). As we know, Trump has pledged to ban Muslims from entering the US, described Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals and rapists. Bulling or discrimination, the demonization of opponents, promotion of muscular nationalism, and contempt for constitutional limits are the common pursuits of these governments. It amply amount to a threat to human wellness.

Victories in polls, for an example, in Britain/India or USA, have proved a licence for the supporters of the ruling parties to authoritatively spread hatred, anger, racist abuse and even lynching of innocent people. In a way, it’s unravelling of globalisation.

No doubt a profound embarrassment, however, Donald Trump, Narinder Modi, probably Le Pen and similar leaders of so many other countries, did not emerge in a vacuum. They were elected by their people. Their rise is also the product of an economic system that has failed to deliver shared prosperity.Globally, since the initiation of liberalism in early 1980’s, workers’ hourly wages have stagnated or declined, despite GDP rising. When mainstream institutions neglect them, voters are destined to be drawn to the extremes.

The reason has been that Liberal democracy didn’t address people’s frustrations and deeper feelings of alienation. In the past couple of decades, the Liberal story has been a simple and attractive tale. According to it—accepted with variations, humankind was inevitably marching toward a global society of free markets and democratic politics. But, their vision began to lose credibility starting with the 2008 global financial crisis. People who thought that playing by the rules would allow them to rise and flourish suddenly began to fear that they had been cheated, and that the system did not work for them.

For an example, the Arab Spring turned into an Islamic Winter; authoritarian regimes in Moscow, India, Ankara, and Jerusalem started abandoning liberal-democratic values in favour of chauvinistic nationalism and religious extremism; and even in the liberal strongholds of Western Europe people are having second thoughts. As people of these countries felt let down by decades of promises and assurances, their disenchantment brought Donald Trump into the White House (Modi and Yogi on the Delhi/ UP throne’s, respectively), to the horror and astonishment of the masses at large. So, instead of peace and prosperity, the liberal prescription has produced violence and poverty.

Another explanation for the loss of faith in Liberalism has been that people care more about their future expectations than about their past achievements. They rather enumerate their debts, disappointments, and never-to-be-fulfilled dreams. The Liberal logic of free-market capitalism encouraged people to have grand expectations. But, as people lose faith in the system’s ability to fulfill their expectations, they become disillusioned.

In the coming decades, we will likely see more Internet-like revolutions, in which technology steals up silently on politics. Artificial intelligence and biotechnology could overhaul not just societies and economies but our very bodies and minds. Yet these topics were hardly an issue in the current elections.

Going down the memory lane, the first era of globalization and liberalization ended in the bloodbath of the First World War (1914-1918), when imperial power politics cut short the global march of progress; yet liberalism survived. Then came the Hitler moment, when, in the nineteen-thirties and early forties, fascism seemed for a while irresistible. Fascists warned that if all humans were given equal value and equal breeding opportunities, natural selection would cease to function. The liberals next faced a challenge from the left, during the Che Guevara moment, between the fifties and the seventies. While fascists found the liberal story soft and degenerate, socialists accused it of being

exploitative and racist system of global capitalism. Since liberalism and capitalism were two sides of the same coin, much of this left-wing criticism stuck. As a result, revolutionary and anti colonial movements throughout the world looked longingly toward Moscow and Beijing, while liberalism became identified with the racist European empires. Now, Liberal democracy seemed an exclusive club for aging imperialists who had little to offer the rest of the world.

In the eighties and nineties, the Liberal Story yet again conquered the world. The supermarket proved to be strong.  It triumphed over traditional empires, over fascism, and over Communism by adopting some of their best ideas and practices (such as government-sponsored education, health, and welfare for the masses). By the early nineties, thinkers and politicians alike could proclaim asserting that all the big political and economic questions of the past had been settled, and that the liberal package of free markets, human rights, and democracy remains dependable.

But, as of today, Liberalism is not faced by an ideological opponent like imperialism, fascism, or Communism. Donald Trump, and others having affinity with him, has no ideology to speak of, just as the British Brexiteers have no real plan for the future of the disunited Kingdom, similarly in Modi’s India and places like the Middle East, nationalist extremism, religious polarization and fundamentalism is on the rise.

At the end of the day, we find, people don’t have any better alternative. However movements such as the Islamic State or the proponents of muscular nationalism don’t offer any serious alternative to Liberal vision, because they don’t have any answers to the big questions of our era:

What will happen to the job market?

What will happen to relationships, families, and pension funds, when nanotechnology would affect even larger gaps between the rich and poor?

And so many other questions! You are unlikely to find the answers to any of these questions in any religious book. The same is true for slogans such as “Make America Great Again”, “Make in India” or “Give Us Back Our Country.”

If people cling in desperation to outdated national and religious identities, the global system may simply collapse in the face of climate change, economic crisis, and technological disruption that nineteenth-century nationalist myths and piety can neither fathom nor solve. Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require new visions.

In this scenario, as nothing looks to be bullet-proof, Center-left parties must shift further to the left in order to fight off right-wing populists such as Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen and India’s Narinder Modi. Supporters/voters of these leaders were motivated by a sense of economic insecurity in an increasingly unequal world. In case they are promised a stronger welfare state, one better equipped to address their fundamental needs, and they probably may try you a once!


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