The new political grammar includes several other aspects in perfect contradiction with liberalism’s original conception. The first is a spectacular reframing of the state. Liberal thinkers initially saw the latter as fulfilling a simple but essential function: ensuring that economic wealth contributed enough to social welfare to guarantee stability. Various schools of thought debated the state’s optimal size and regulatory powers, but agreed on this clear-cut raison d’etre. Today, liberal governments embrace a more conservative logic: As a rule, they prioritise fostering big business, while downsizing public policies to match dwindling budgets even as they ratchet up coercion.
Liberals have also transferred the very notion of progress, originally vested in the state, to the private sector—through job creation, innovation, and philanthropy allegedly serving the common interest more efficiently than redistributive taxation. Even as the state continues to bear the costs of making societies productive through essential infrastructure, basic services, social housing, subsidies (not least to education and innovation), and national security, it is increasingly derided as a cumbersome intermediary between society and business. Large corporations owe much to the levies they abhor, in a context increasingly marked by a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector through tax breaks, bank bailouts, imbalanced “public private partnerships,” and the sale of undervalued state assets.
Second, liberal politicians have taken the lead in devaluing key democratic levers of power. Obama inaugurated the ongoing drift toward hyper-personalized politics in lieu of traditional parties. Brexit occurred when Cameron used a crucial mechanism for public consultation—a referendum—as a mere instrument of petty politicking. While unions—another essential intermediary between the people and the state—shriveled from popular disaffection, liberal governments chose to snub or suppress spontaneous protests too. The anti-globalisation movement of the 1990s, Occupy Wall Street, the Spanish Indignados, and the ancestor of les gilets jaunes, Nuit Debout, were met with political contempt—alongside extravagant police deployments.
Third, and consequently, liberal politicians have made up for the shrinking space allotted to genuine politics by overinvesting in the pomp of power. Obama, Cameron, Macron, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all made extensive use of personal charisma derived from photogenic youth, rousing speeches, and an air of cosmopolitanism. Such qualities garnered accolades strangely disconnected from concrete progress: Obama received the Nobel peace prize within months of taking office, and the UN knighted Macron “champion of the earth” just as his own minister for ecology resigned for lack of action.
As liberal policies fall short on such urgent issues as climate change and inequalities, an explosion of concepts, conferences, and processes seems designed to compensate for lagging performance. The “sustainable development goals” and other such frameworks have produced an expansive cohort of “goal keepers,” “young leaders,” “global shapers,” and “change makers” who fly around the globe at a pace entirely divorced from tangible outcomes. The inflation of feel-good initiatives drives all sorts of institutions—government branches, international organizations, and billionaire-run foundations to name a few—to create comfortable jobs with enigmatic mandates and results. Large NGOs have developed a standard of paying their leaders over half a million dollars per year, while often struggling to demonstrate impact.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, liberalism has by-and-large become narrow-minded and unimaginative, abandoning its own track record of fertile debate. Establishment liberals in the US indulge in Trump-bashing as a matter of course and consensus, leaving it to a budding far left to tackle the causes of his ascent. Meanwhile, Obama purports to shape the debate on inequalities even as he entertains the banking sector with speeches invoiced at hundreds of thousands of dollars. Similarly, liberals in Europe fail to grapple with what is threatening to tear their continent apart. Rather than fight, they surrender to the myth of a massive onslaught of migrants. Instead of reforming what was once a visionary EU, they defend it meekly as the devil we know. Where a new social compact is needed, they promote austerity, attenuated only by the long-debunked “trickle down” effect of private enrichment.
Liberalism’s shrinking intellectual horizon is manifest in foreign policy, too. Hard-fought global norms, once a totem of the liberal order, have always been challenged by populists and authoritarians. But they only truly lost ground when their original champions renounced them: Liberal governments now strike expedient deals with any partner they believe can help pin down Jihadis or migrants. For the most part, the era of lasting alliances is gone, as is the belief that political reform and economic development present the best chances for stability. More than ever, the spooks are at the forefront of diplomacy. Military outposts, drone strikes, arms deals, and “capacity building” in the security sector have become paramount in the foreign policy toolbox.
A liberal establishment isn’t a promise of renewal or a voice of moderation: It’s an oxymoron
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Liberal governance increasingly evokes all the images it was conceived to oppose: bloated and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, entitled and detached elites, empty words obscuring lack of vision, and political impotence in the face of predatory economics. Liberalism is hard to pinpoint as a school of thought precisely because it emerged as a dynamic alternative to more rigid paradigms—as the art of balancing capitalistic enterprise and social welfare, state intervention and civil liberties, public order and democratic leadership. Such juggling always entailed difficult and ambiguous tradeoffs, but today’s crisis is far more profound. The best liberals currently have on offer is a rearguard defense of some aspects of the past—a reactionary posture that contradicts their original purpose. A liberal establishment isn’t a promise of renewal, a rallying call or a voice of moderation: It’s an oxymoron.
Absent a new vision, the ongoing cannibalization of what was leaves the world hamstrung between two equally frightening propositions for the future. On one side, there are those who fear chaos and oppose fundamental change at any cost; they hope to address increasingly dysfunctional national and global compacts with unambitious, conventional fixes. On the other, there are those who dread inertia and stand for transformation at any price, resurrecting an awkward mix of fascistic, socialist, and anarchic lines of thinking. In the 19th century, a similar split between stalwart conservatives and rowdy radicals is the reason why liberalism emerged in the first place.
Today, what used to be a middle ground sits squarely in one camp, retreating from a playing field where fringe movements are free to capitalize on mainstream frustrations and move into the center. Creativity, dynamism, and boldness find themselves almost entirely on the other side of this dangerous divide, whether in the hands of firebrand politicians or within multiplying grassroots initiatives and popular mobilizations. Liberals, rather than distrust and patronize their own societies, must join cause with them, and recognize that anti-elitism and xenophobia flow from the absence of good answers to inequity. Until liberalism takes popular outrage as a chance, not an enemy, politics are indeed up for grabs.
28 January 2019