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Liberalism Under Threat

If politics continues on its present path discourse will become entirely populist and practice increasingly totalitarian, the charismatic leader ubiquitous, elections irregular, their outcomes predictable and the concept of society invoked only in terms of security rather than social justice.

Johnny Lyons writes: Imagine a world where the rich just get richer and the poor get poorer and more numerous year upon year ‑ and where those in the middle feel more and more vulnerable. No need to imagine: that world is here. And we have sleepwalked into it.

Moreover, it is by now scorchingly clear that the future of liberal democracy hangs in the balance. While there are people in the West – far more than we cared to imagine – who welcome this development, many of us are scared out of our wits. I feel this way because I have some small knowledge of history and I fear what might happen if liberalism dies.

If things continue to deteriorate the evidence suggests that we are facing the real likelihood that politics becomes entirely populist and increasingly totalitarian, the cult of the charismatic leader ubiquitous, elections irregular and their outcomes predictable, parliamentary oversight and judicial independence relics of the past, with the concept of society invoked for reasons of state security rather than of social justice and minority rights obliterated for the sake of that great populist myth – The Will of the People.  We have observed these patterns before.

Those who have deluded themselves that such a nightmare scenario could never happen have already been overtaken by events. There is nothing set in stone about the survival of our liberal freedoms. In the grand sweep of human history, liberal society arrived yesterday and could be gone tomorrow. This is not meant as a flippant remark but rather as a reminder that the rise of an open, tolerant Western society was as contingently non-inevitable as its annihilation is entirely possible, perhaps even probable. There is no liberal fairy godmother who can restore things to the status quo ante with a wave of her magical wand.

The scope and speed of the decline of liberal principles and public decency in Europe, the US and South America has forced even the most complacent to see the frightening reality of our predicament. This situation has reached boiling point recently, but it has been simmering for much longer. Collectively we have behaved like the frog in the saucepan, not realising we are being gently cooked because the rise in the temperature of the water is so gradual as to be virtually unnoticeable. In a perverse way we owe the likes of Farage, Le Pen, Gauland, Orban, Salvini, Erdogan, Trump and Temer a modicum of gratitude. They have awoken us from our self-induced slumber. They are merely the obvious and grotesque symptoms of what we have let ourselves become.

How, you may ask, did we get ourselves into this mess? I suspect it has something to do with our chronic amnesia or blank ignorance about what sustains a humane and fair society. The measure of a just state is how it treats the most vulnerable, but we have forgotten this. We have also forgotten that the privilege of living in a world where we don’t have to spend every waking hour worrying about politics does not come for free.

Liberalism has given us an area of freedom from political interference – what the twentieth-century liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin famously called ‘negative liberty’ – where we can do as we please insofar as doing so does not prevent others in society from enjoying the same right. We choose to use this inviolable, private space as we will – most adults fill it by meeting up with a partner and having a family; many of us focus on making money so that we can live in a nice home in a nice, safe neighbourhood; some of us become teachers or nurses, but the vast majority of us work in the commercial world; a minority follow a life of artistic creativity, join the church or even enter politics. And all the while we are free to think, say and do whatever we choose, including criticising and opposing virtually anything our rulers are thinking, saying or doing. 

But an ever-growing number of citizens never get to enjoy the fruits of negative liberty because they are too poor. Liberty for the privileged is not liberty for the under-privileged. Without a minimal level of social welfare, civil liberties can seem meaningless to the least well-off. But this should not prompt us to conflate the need for more compassion with the separate priority to preserve an inviolable private space for everybody. Both of these human ideals, along with much else that is so precious about our world, are now facing the prospect of imminent extinction.  

So is there anything that can be done? WB Yeats pointed toward the solution nearly a hundred years ago in “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” How do Yeats’s lines help us in practice? Because “the best” are not, or not yet, in a minority. They are the ordinary, decent and tolerant people among us who have simply taken their eye off the ball and let “the worst” rise and, in some cases, get their hands on power. Thankfully, liberalism’s historical bedfellow is democracy. The latter is what gives us the opportunity to convert our rising fears and impotent rage into real and redeeming political power. Our democratic rights as citizens, our rights to vote, to protest, to a free press, to freedom of information mean that we can protect the deeply imperfect but fundamentally civilised and tolerant West from those who are hell-bent on destroying it.

Could the end of liberal democracy spell the end of the more decent and civilised aspects of Western life? It is impossible to tell. There were good and gentle souls before its birth and no doubt others will be found in a post-liberal epoch, whatever that ends up being. But it is hard not to think that the demise of liberalism would exert irresistible pressure on the survival of our basically open, humane and free civilisation. The following lines from Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” have made their chilling presence felt once more:

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

If you think I am exaggerating just open your eyes. You don’t have to look very far: recall the ignorant and hateful poison spouted by the candidate who came second in our own recent presidential election.

We have a fight on our hands and it is one we must try to win. The hard-won but fragile liberties we still enjoy and largely take for granted every day of our lives are at stake. And unless we protect our Western values and way of life we have no hope of tackling the bigger and increasingly urgent existential threats of global warming, geopolitical conflict and world poverty. Right now, what we need to fear far more than fear is the absence of fear. It is also time we recognised that the source of our Western principles and liberties lies with the people and that we the people must fight for them if we want to keep them. The biggest mistake we can make is to assume that someone or something will keep liberalism’s affirming flame lit on our behalf.

13/12/2018

Johnny Lyons has recently completed a book on the liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin, Why Isaiah Berlin’s Ideas Matter. In a previous life he taught politics and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin.