Liberalism versus Democracy: Round 1

A lot has been written recently about the decline of democracy and the the crumbling of the liberal world order.

It has indeed become something of a commonplace to set the election of Donald Trump beside the success of the Leave campaign leading to Brexit, then go on to point to the electoral shock of the AfD entering the Reichstag in Germany and the steady rise of Marine LePen and the National Front in France, and conclude that if the sky isn’t precisely falling, it certainly is clouding up.

Add a dash of Hungary and Orban, the Poles and PiS, and even the plucky Czechs leaning to the right, and we are forced to recognize that a hard shift to the right is threatening the status quo of the Pax Americana, that  understated version of imperialism that has soothed the world’s liberals into a profound sense of righteousness and absolute certainty in the justice of the overweening power they have wielded ever since WWII ended.

The hierarchy of significance of these offenses against the world order is clear: liberalism is the hallmark of the Anglosphere and for right-wing illiberal populism to gain such power as to elect a goon like Trump in the imperial metropole and to have the sidekick Brits kick against the pricks of the European Union is almost unbelievable. These two nations have after all been running the world on the “liberal imperialism” plan for centuries now.

Next in order of importance are the two continental champions, the erstwhile co-leaders of the EU, who have struggled so long to pretend that the Bundesbank (aka Germany) has not actually taken control of the European project, even to the extent of ignoring directives issued by Washington. France and Germany, whose rivalry was central to the most murderous wars of the 20th Century and possibly all human history, are drifting to the right and that is almost as scary as having l’Orange in the Oval and the UK mounting one long racist rally and calling it Brexit.

Almost as an afterthought come the former Warsaw Pact nations and their ugly fascist-leaning governments that seem to be inexorably pushing their peoples back to the authoritarian past, apparently just because they really really don’t like Muslims. And as was the case when the Balkans exploded less than a decade after the death of Tito, many western commentators point to the history of these former East Block nations as an explanation for this descent into nationalist xenophobia. They are, after all, not part of “the West”, not really.

It is usually the case that very little time is spent on laying out what is meant by ‘democracy’ or what the ‘liberal’ in the “liberal world order” really signifies in these articles. We are assumed to know and, sure enough, most people in the west are quite willing to throw around the term ‘democracy’ without ever giving a moment’s thought to what it is, outside occasionally quoting Churchill’s reluctant approval.

One way to think about the ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ that are usually mashed up into our beloved liberal-democracy is to recognize that each plays the role of limiting the possible excesses of the other in a modern state. Democracy is rooted in the notions of consent of the governed and majorities as the measure of what might be called the will of the electorate. Liberalism, as the ultimate expression of individualism, acts to limit the tendency of majorities to ride roughshod over the rights and freedoms of minorities and individuals who deviate from the norm.

Many of the institutional hallmarks of liberal democracy are more liberal than democratic per se. Rule of law, equality before the law, the full panoply of human rights, civil rights and individual rights: any or all of these might be dismissed as irrelevant or contrary to custom and belief by a majority of citizens in a modern state. Conservative polities in Muslim-majority countries may not accept the equality of women in certain legal contexts or the right of gays to engage in either sexual congress or marital union. Nationalist majorities in Europe may cling to a preference for “nation-states” as they were originally created in the bygone 19th century as “imagined communities” of people sharing a language, a culture, and a historical tradition, thereby rejecting immigrants and immigration, and denying them the liberal rights and privilege that are assumed to belong to citizens.

As Kathy Smits says in her discussion of Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire:

     “… it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking.  In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld'”

Put another way, for most westerners liberalism is the air we breathe, the ground we walk on and the lingua franca of all our conversations about values. Or at least it has been up until relatively recently. Keats caught the overwhelming power of the liberal worldview when he said

            ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –- that is all                                                                         Ye know on earth, and all ye need to  know.’

A slightly less respectful expression of what liberalism means to the vast majority of people in  western countries would be something along the lines of “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarden”. Hence we have the poignant irony of a thought leader like Ben Affleck defending the Islamic world from the Islamophobia of bigots everywhere by declaiming that a billion Muslims just “want to go to the store and have some sandwiches”, to which Egyptian-American Muslim scholar Shadi Hamid replies:

This is why the well-intentioned discourse of “they bleed just like us; they want to eat sandwiches and raise their children just like we do” is a red herring.* After all, one can like sandwiches and want peace, or whatever else, while also supporting the death penalty for apostasy, as 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 83 percent of Jordanian Muslims did in a 2011 Pew poll.13 In the same survey, 80 percent of Egyptian respondents said they favored stoning adulterers, while 70 percent supported cutting off the hands of thieves.                     *

And that is without asking the obvious question. “How popular are sandwiches among the world’s Muslims, especially among those living outside the sandwich-eating west?”

For a democracy to be democratic there needs to be some mechanism for majorities to choose those who will govern in their names. The usual mechanism for this is to hold elections to send representatives of specific groups to a parliament or congress where laws will be made and national initiatives debated and approved. Corollary to this requirement is a politically aware, preferably active, electorate.

At this point in the defining of what constitutes a democracy, a western liberal will almost always add something about either human rights or rule of law or both. That is, westerners usually reflexively define democracy as liberal-democracy and find it near-impossible to understand how that undermines the very basis of democracy if democracy is understood to involve the expression of the values and beliefs of the people who make up the demos.

In Indonesia, the nation presently wearing the crown for SE Asian “beacon of democracy” now that Suu Kyi and Myanmar have lost that title after such a short reign, there are politicians and Islamist civil society representatives who label “liberalism” a foreign ideology along with communism, socialism and religious radicalism. According to Pew, something like 93% of Indonesians reject homosexuality, more than in one-party authoritarian Malaysia or even Pakistan with its revolving door democratic and military dictatorships. And yet, unlike those two nations, Indonesia has no law criminalizing homosexual behaviour or relationships between consenting adults. Only in Aceh does a sharia-based regional law applying only to Muslims criminalize homosexuality.

When politicians and civil society spokespersons call for a rejection of LGBTQ++ rights and for laws to criminalize homosexual acts, they are speaking for a very large majority of Indonesians. Nevertheless, it is a journalistic and academic commonplace to see these politicians and these groups as “threats to democracy”. That is, to represent the values and beliefs of the majority of an electorate that does not share liberal values as they have evolved over the past 2 or 3 decades in that tiny region of the planet known as “the west” is to be “anti-democratic”, whereas to uphold the values of, among others, the former colonial powers in the region, is to safeguard “democracy”.

It really doesn’t take much imagination to understand why it is that electorates around the globe are turning away in droves from this conception of “democracy”, seeing how it is little more than a version of the kind of liberal cultural imperialism that Kipling celebrated and that Winston Churchill was willing to defend with war crimes and genocide, those markers of the liberal-democrat venturing outside her own democratic backyard.

When Madeleine Albright suggested that the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children were “worth it” and Hillary Clinton crowed “We came. We saw. He died.” in celebration of the death by ritual sodomization of Gaddafi, they were speaking for liberal internationalists everywhere. Unfortunately for those who would see liberal-democracy spread to the vast tracts of the globe that are yet to come under its sway, the great majority of people outside the liberal-democratic west find it much easier to imagine themselves in the place of those Iraqi children and a man like Gadaffi than they can see themselves reflected in plutocratic psycho-killers like Albright and Clinton, neither of whom is easily imagined sitting down and having a sandwich with the world’s billion Muslims.

*Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 13). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

 

Addendum:

Liberalism is credal. And like any religious creed, it sets the stage for heresy. This is of course the source of the infamous “It’s not my job to educate you” response to questions aimed at some element or other in the creed.

It is obvious that this vacuous phrase comes in handy for those unable to muster a reasoned defence of whatever article of faith is being questioned and has led many dissenters to suggest that it is a measure of either the stupidity or the ignorance of the liberal who is intent on excommunication (sexist! racist! homophobe!) rather than education or debate.

And while that may often be the case, it is also a measure of the degree to which those articles have indeed become nothing more or less than articles of faith.

As Kathy Smits says in her discussion of Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire:

“… it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking. In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld”

When Stanley Fish began his pristine assaults on the obfuscatory illogic and illiberalism of liberalism back in the 80s, his focus was on the cult of reason and its fundamentalist insistence on the primacy of the one and only standard by which any and all arguments, principles, or beliefs were to be judged: that is, reason itself. He addressed his arguments to a topic that was highly relevant at the time: religious fundamentalism.

Since that time, liberalism has been “radicalized”, if that is the appropriate term, by the so-called “left”, centered on identity politics, that dominates so much of the English-speaking world and presumably has made inroads in much of Western Europe.

It is no longer just the primacy of reason that contemporary liberalism promotes as the bedrock of liberal faith. Pretty much the whole panoply of “human rights” as laid down in the tablets of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights are now simply to be taken as unquestionable truths.

As with so many aspects of the contemporary global culture, it is easy to trace this overwhelming universalizing tendency in liberalism, and its equally overwhelming predominance in what has come to be called “politics”, to the United States of America. It is in the Declaration of Independence that the literate world first hears the blast of what would eventually be labeled “Tumblr-liberalism” by the astute and acerbic Angela Nagle:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The foundational irony of these words being used to announce the existence of a slave state by a cabal of slaveholding misogynist elitists has of course followed this liberalism wherever and whenever it lifts up its voice to insist on someone’s absolute right to tell someone else how things are meant to be done.

Which takes us back to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

 

 

 

 

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