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Militant liberalism

Achilles Skordas
17 September 2001

Todd Gitlin asks, “Is there any politics after the attack against New York and Washington D.C.?” My answer is an unequivocal “yes”. Not only will politics survive the World Trade Center; terrorism has drawn the final lines in the globalization of political cultures.

Those people were deceived, who believed that after the “schism” between the West and the Communist East had been overcome, the world would operate as a de-politicized “Copernican” system of state and non-state actors revolving in an orderly and peaceful manner around Wall Street. Any belief in a self-regulated international system of economic players was irreversibly shattered the day the Twin Towers went down.

Instead, global politics is now a reality. Democracy and freedom do not merely build the conceptual environment of economic indicators. They are scarce goods that have to be gained and protected. Our world is heading towards a disciplined international system of “benevolent hegemony”, capable of maintaining global order and security, even by waging war in the name of “militant liberalism”. The transitional age between the cold war and the new order has come to an end.

The resulting politics of globalization will be far more complex than the simplistic scheme of the clash of civilizations. It will develop on three parallel levels: “politics of dissent” in democratic societies, “cold peace” between democratic and authoritarian states, and, finally, the fight against the “external threats” to the system, including – but not limited to – terrorism.

Within democratic nations, the distinction between the right and the left still makes sense. But the cardinal political subject is now the tempo and finalities of globalization: who is “progressive” and who “conservative”; how quickly national borders will be eliminated; how much labor protection will be maintained; how to preserve the environment and to promote development. These are all questions to be answered in the democratic process of national and regional societies.

Political parties that are able to define the “optimal speed” of economic and social transformation are likely to dominate. States that can reach a “balanced pace” minimizing costs and maximizing benefits will be the front-runners in the process of globalization.

However, the multiplicity and complexity of internal and external factors increases uncertainty. This then complicates political communication and encourages protest and its associated possibilities of violence – such as that seen from Seattle to Genoa. These represent the “collateral damage” of a highly political and participatory democratic process. They are the natural consequences of wide masses of people being engaged in decisions existentially affecting their lives.

Protesters are partners in shaping the new world order with governments, who retain the upper hand, and whom it is essential to influence. On the other hand, globalization does not only need the consent of bureaucratic elites, it lives from dissent, imagination, creativity and the liberal culture of people in mass democracies. It is rooted in association and dissociation, and it breathes from the freedoms of speech and individual initiative. The politics of dissent is our most valuable asset for progress, legitimacy of change – and, hence, stability.

The globalization process does not involve only democracies, but authoritarian states. After an initial period of optimism about the alleged final victory of liberal democracy over totalitarianism, the “momentum” of a worldwide democratic international system seems to have reached a standstill – or even a rollback, as the 1999 Pakistani coup’s de facto legitimacy demonstrated. Cooperation and “peaceful coexistence” with authoritarian states is necessary for the maintenance of global stability. However, liberal democratic states should not abandon their ideological campaign against dictatorship, oppression, war crimes and human rights abuses. Nor should they compromise with the aggressive rhetoric of authoritarian rulers.

The liberal economic order under pressure

As an example of the new self-confidence of the authoritarian societal project, last year the UN General Assembly voted on resolution 55/107, on the “promotion of a democratic and equitable international order”. That resolution, proposed by Cuba, requested the revival of the “new international economic and communication order” of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Through a carefully formulated wording, accessible only to specialists, the Assembly called upon states to establish an authoritarian international economic system and to ensure a “balanced” and “reciprocal” information order between developed and developing countries. If the resolution were applied, the international community would come under pressure to abandon the liberal economic order of the Nineties, and restrict freedom of communication. The result of the vote, 109 States in favor, 52 against, is alarming and indicates the nature of the “cold peace” between democracy and authoritarianism.

Liberal democracies should stand for their values in international organizations: equality of men and women; rights of minorities; separation of state and religion; rejection of anti-Semitism; “new racism” and xenophobia. They should carefully, but openly, engage their political and economic resources to protect and promote an open international society. They should unequivocally warn “borderline” states that trespassing over the limits will make them “external threats” to the international system.

If “domestic dissent” and “cold peace” belong to the “internal” side of the politics of globalization, then terrorism, state implosion and trans-boundary criminality belong to its “external” side. Building alliances, defining and isolating enemies and taking the necessary and proportional military or police action, all need to be part of the international response. Despite the unanimity of the international community on the need to suppress terrorism, the anti-terrorist war should be carried out without the substantial involvement of the United Nations (unlike the suggestion of Timothy Garton Ash). Only NATO, cooperating occasionally with other states, including Russia, has the capacity to effectively gear that kind of global action for the maintenance of peace.

Hegemony is not incompatible with the decentralized, open and liberal character of the international society; on the contrary, it seems to be the only option for the viability of that system. The real problem is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is the fact that the liberal and the authoritarian political cultures will co-exist for a long time to come, and they will continue their existential clash in many forms, sometimes in an orderly fashion, sometimes violently.

A militant liberal culture is needed, therefore. This is neither the ideological cover of plutocrats and military, nor a post-modern Western mythology. It is, in its essence, a deeply anti-heroic and ironic state-of-mind of ordinary people: it is the right of every individual to existential anxiety. It is the right to live in doubt. It is the option to loneliness and the chance to distinction. It is the right to be unique and the right to die in dignity. The passengers of UA Flight 93 faced the unthinkable and refused to surrender. They defined, beyond words, the militant liberal ethos of our era.

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