The challenges faced by western liberal democracyby / January 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
It is a truism to argue that we are living in new times. Each day the sun rises is new, while the birth of new forces and new ideas—and resistance to them—is a commonplace of social and intellectual evolution. Current events in western democracies are also part of what Marxists, when they existed, used to call the “dialectic,” the process of action and reaction which is history’s driver.
Today’s diagnoses of the contemporary scene are much shallower, and it is superficial to find mere “populism” in public angers and feelings of dismay at the way things are. “Populism” is an empty word, an alibi, and therefore handy to the shallow; David Cameron, joining the chorus, and in lieu of analysis, attributed his own political demise to the “rise” of “populism,” a term that conceals much and explains nothing.
Discontent is eternal and in today’s free societies has become many-sided. In Britain, as in other democracies, it includes the growing desire of many millions, across the classes, to protect national sovereignty from “globalisation”; to revive lost civic values; to preserve freedoms of thought and speech from the encroachments of political correctness; and to defend the jobs, interests and communities of those who are seen as long-suffering “indigenous” working people, angered that their rights and entitlements are now being shared with, or displaced by, those of economic migrants and pretend asylum-seekers.
At the same time, public hopes that such ends can be gained are decreasingly vested in the existing political class. It is not a matter of party. Discredit attaches equally to, say, a Hillary Clinton and her hundreds of millions of dollars expended—in a notionally democratic election—on her presidential campaign, and to a George Osborne who earned some half-million pounds from Wall Street banks and financial institutions in October and November 2016 alone, and while sitting as a westminster MP. Oliver Cromwell would have had something to say about that.
The hopes of internationalists have also been betrayed by today’s supranational organisations. The UN, feebly led, its debates and decisions without significance and Security Council resolutions ignored, lacks the ability or authority to affect world events in decisive fashion, or at all; the European Union, a giant bureaucracy with some of its member-nations unreformably corrupt, remains in essence the “common market” it always was, with the Brexit vote a portent of its ultimate fate.
But it is the political establishment in western democracies which has opened the way to a Donald Trump, a Nigel Farage, a Marine Le Pen, a Beppe Grillo, a Geert Wilders and others still to come, their self-presentation as cleaners of the Augean Stables, as national liberators, as tribunes of the “little people,” and as Levellers of our times plausible to different degrees in each case. Their births long in the gestation, some are genuine would-be emancipators of their citizenries from thraldoms of every kind. Others are mere demagogues, while an unpredictable Trump, with his military-cum-corporate cabinet, could one day be impeached (or “un-presidented”) and be replaced by the clean-cut Mike Pence.
In the turmoil, it is also clear that vox pop is no longer represented adequately by the “mainstream media.” With the standards of the “old” print press falling, and the quality of coverage and analysis offered by (for example) BBC news channels having plummeted over the last two decades, the social media have to some extent filled the void with their own babel.
Meanwhile, Phil and Philippa Space remain hard at work in the “serious” press. Their cascades of pontification—of which this piece is a further example—continue to rain down on readers’ heads; decades of “columns,” placed end to end, would reach the moon. But they share one defect: with genuine gum-shoe reportage on the ground a lost art, today’s media has diminished knowledge of “public opinion,” a many-headed and now increasingly angry beast.
As a Mancunian in my formative years, I was brought up on the Guardian, once a by-word for insight, balance and reason, rooted in the local civil society from which it sprang and which it had a duty to inform. Yet, tragically, there is no guarantee it will be in print in ten years’ time; judging by their comments on its website, significant numbers of its current readers seem to be anticipating this themselves.
There are recurrences too, as the tide of events ebbs and flows. Three decades ago, a pre-Momentum generation of now-forgotten sectarian Trots, composed in the 70s and 80s of members of the Militant Tendency, of IS (International Socialists, not the Islamic State), of the International Marxist Group and of the Socialist Workers’ Party, egged on by MI5—as their successors are perhaps being egged on now—drove me out of Ruskin College, Oxford. The then college of the labour movement, I had taught Political Ideas, the Development of Socialism and Marxism.
I was nevertheless freed by my eviction to write some of my better books: The Principle of Duty, The Spirit of the Age, Death of the Dark Hero—on the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe from Poland to Bulgaria, which I witnessed at first hand—and The Losing Battle with Islam, a battle now more lost than in 2005 when the book was first published.
And if I was still teaching my Ruskin syllabus now, it would be to say that not only has communism died the death, but socialism too has hit the buffers, with a so-called “populism” all that remains of the impulses to which socialist thought once gave shape and direction; the Development of Socialism is at an end. For capital has proved too strong for labour—protest strikes notwithstanding—the Marxist promise of an “international working-class movement” proved a chimera, the bedrock producers of wealth have come to be seen as mere consumers, and for kicking a ball a “top” soccer star can each week be paid what it takes a nurse ten years to earn.
But despite the poverties of the working poor in a wealthy social order, despite the depredations of the public domain by privatisation, and despite the failing prospects of the young that they might one day own a home, in Britain the Labour Party is not electable under its present dispensation and perhaps not electable at all. Furthermore, the Nonconformist moral conscience which inspired the Labour party in its heyday and which was laid waste by Blairism is unlikely to be revived and given political expression now; the anti-semitism in the debased party is merely one measure of the depths to which it has sunk.
What is also plain enough—except to the blinkered—is that the slow suicide of western liberal democracies in the last decades has come about from too much, not too little, freedom; a freedom both of market-and-moral choices. Equally clear is that the progressive’s mix of the politics of pacifism, human rights, “diversity,” anti-nationalism and feminism have aided the growth of reaction.
However, it is not clear what further forms this reaction will take, just as it is not clear how far the free society’s self-degradation has still to go. Nevertheless, without a restoration of the ideas and ideals of a true “common-wealth”—one founded upon a reciprocity of civic rights and civic duties, and with citizenship a prize to be honoured—too little will stand in the way of the ultimate battle-to-come between Islam and neo-fascism, with western democracy its victim.