Liberals, Year Zero

If we are faced with an implosion of liberal democracy – as I believe – then the challenge we face is that of reinventing liberal democracy.

Francesco Ronchi
22 May 2018
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Italy's former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is the special guest of the TV show Porta A Porta. On the screen behind him : Matteo Renzi. Vandeville Eric/Press Association. All rights reserved. The debate on the hard right started by Edmund Fawcett and taken up by Anthony Barnett and Jan Zielonka and others deals with central issues from a strategic point of view.

Fawcett captures the structural nature of the changes under way in western political systems. The rise of what he calls the hard right is not a temporary hiccup but a deep-rooted tendency that calls into question the pillars of liberal democracy.

If the direction of this development (the destruction of the liberal order) is evident, the nature of this movement is more complex and varied and probably transcends the traditional right-left dichotomy. There is certainly a strong hard right component in this anti-liberal trend but it is nevertheless not the only one. Left-wing forces like SYRIZA, Podemos and Mélenchon’s party in France, and other parties that are not classifiable on the left-right spectrum, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, share the hard right’s desire to bend the liberal order.

Jan Zielonka speaks of counter-revolution to negatively characterise these variegated forces: what unites them is a rejection of the liberal revolution of 1989. Others prefer to use the somewhat abused term ‘populism’.

The ductility of populism indeed allows it to coagulate and unify the different and heterogeneous anti-liberal thrusts coming from both the right and the left. The ‘people’ is a constant political construction by an actor, so it is a practical-political category, but not a cognitive one. It is built to act, not to know. And its practical and non-cognitive nature makes it difficult to characterise it in substantial terms. In this sense, Fawcett, by openly talking of the ‘hard right’, takes a perhaps questionable but courageous stand by substantiating this category and clearly delineating its outlines.

Implosion of liberal democracy

The three authors seem to implicitly agree that the crisis of the liberal order is also the result of errors made by the liberals themselves. The list is long, and it goes from a foreign policy aimed at exporting democracy with bombs to an economic policy that gave socialism to the right and unbridled capitalism to the poorest, as Zielonka puts it. Peter Mair, in his Ruling the Void, has well explained the dynamics of depoliticisation and technocratisation resulting from the liberal consensus of the 1990s.

The strength of the anti-liberal front lies precisely in having filled this void.

If the crisis of the liberal order is the result of mistakes made the liberal themselves, then perhaps rather than talking about an attack on liberal democracy by populists and the hard right we should talk about an implosion, not to say suicide, of liberal democracy. Perhaps... we should talk about an implosion, not to say suicide, of liberal democracy.This is not a trivial distinction: if we are faced with an attack against liberal democracy, then our task is indeed that of raising moral and political barricades against the anti-liberal barbarians. If, instead, we are faced with an implosion of liberal democracy – as I believe – then the challenge we face is rather more that of reinventing liberal democracy by learning from our past failures.

Thus a rigorous self-examination on behalf of the liberal ruling classes is fundamental.

But this can’t be limited to a mea culpa; it must translate into political action. Does anyone seriously think that the current liberal ruling classes responsible for this historic failure still have the legitimacy to assume a leadership role in the necessary revival of democratic liberalism?

From this point of view, Corbyn’s ascent is not accidental. Besides his age, what is striking about the Labour leader is his radical separateness from the leading groups of the past. If liberals want to survive themselves, the current leadership should perhaps consider abandoning the political scene. Liberals, Year Zero one might be tempted to say.

New solitudes

And to start afresh, liberals would do well to study and learn from the anti-liberals, including the hard right, as Michael Sandel suggests.

Two issues seem to me to be decisive in this regard.

The first one is that of community. The liberals have left this theme to their adversaries.

Liberals are often associated with the cosmopolitan intellectual elite whose values are not rooted in the country but in the global world. But many disadvantaged voters in particular in western European political systems are attached to their communities. Whether it is the nation – hence the rebirth of nationalism – or the collective rage of the plebs against the elites – this is also populism.   

In these times of new solitudes – by 2060 in countries like Belgium 60 per cent of families will be made up of only one individual – and great global changes, people’s need to identify themselves with communities is growing more and more. By 2060 in countries like Belgium 60 per cent of families will be made up of only one individual.

This search for community is not negative in itself and indeed could be the opportunity to reinvent new forms of cooperation in societies torn apart by decades of neoliberal individualism.

The question we must ask ourselves is whether it is possible for liberals to re-appropriate for themselves the theme of community without giving in to the nationalists, or worse still to the nativists.

The German concept of Heimat is indicative in this regard: it indicates a homeland but also one’s roots, inscribed in a specific history and territory. The philosopher Ernst Bloch considered the relinquishing of the symbolic dimension of Heimat to the extreme right one of the reasons of the defeat of the liberals in 1930s. Is there space for a liberal Heimat too?

In other words, what is the liberals’ vision of community? There are no easy answers to this question.  

Writing on “Patriotism and National Community” on openDemocracy, Michael Sandel seems to suggest a way forward.

However, I would add that if we talk about community we must not limit ourselves to the national dimension. There are extraordinary experiments of community reconstruction at the local level. And perhaps more than focusing on the national dimension – too often polluted by nationalism – we should reflect on how to make a plurality of distinct but connected local communities coexist in an open and cooperative way.

I would add that for liberals returning to the community also means inaugurating a new approach to the theme of individual rights. Belonging to a community does not simply imply individual rights but, as Paul Collier has repeatedly emphasized, it also implies reciprocal obligations. In a community every claim is matched by an obligation. This is what makes cooperation possible. For liberals this means integrating a sense of obligation and responsibility towards the community into their discourse. In a community every claim is matched by an obligation. This is what makes cooperation possible.

Conflict in democracy

The second theme from which we should learn from the anti-liberal concerns the importance of conflict in democracy. In the last twenty years, many western political systems have witnessed a ring-fencing of conflict. This has taken the form of the transfer of sovereignty to so-called depoliticised institutions and organizations (the ECB and the other institutions of the European Union are an example) but also of the apparent convergence between right and left parties in many western political systems.

A dynamic of collusion has replaced the classic competition between right and left. Thus we have witnessed the proliferation of grand coalitions in Austria and Germany. In Italy we even saw the paradox of an unnatural alliance between Berlusconi and the Democratic Party, initially born to oppose Berlusconi. The same is true for the Netherlands, for Sweden. And even in countries where the right and the mainstream left are not allies, like Spain or the United Kingdom, they are perceived as having given up their fundamental reciprocal opposition.

The effect of this convergence has been detrimental for liberal democracies. Far from undermining radical forces the convergence between mainstream liberal forces has fostered them.

In Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, parties such as Alternative fur Deutschland, the FPO and Gert Wilders’ s Party of Freedom have thrived by filling in the gaps on the extreme left and right.

All of which suggests that the best way to counter the ascendance of anti-liberal parties is for liberal parties not to unite against the upstarts. Polarisation between left and right is on the contrary crucial to save liberalism. I would add that returning to a true and authentic adversarial politics means partly returning to one of the foundations of liberalism: the idea that peaceful conflict is one of the bases of political action.

Unchartered waters

Faced with these challenges, we cannot but share the position of Anthony Barnett when he invites us not to limit ourselves to repairing the liberal house. Rethinking liberalism requires creativity and inventiveness. It involves paying attention, however, so that the baby is not thrown out with the bath water as previous experiments, including the Third Way, have probably done.

Concepts like right and left, community, cooperation and patriotism are not new but belong to our history. But they must be declined in a new manner, without fear of abandoning the beaten paths. Liberals too must be ready to enter unchartered waters.

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