Russian president Vladimir Putin’s assertion last week that Western liberalism was obsolete provoked some strident rebuttals. A contemptuous silence might have been preferable, saving us Boris Johnson’s invoking of “our values,” or European Council president Donald Tusk’s claim that it was authoritarianism that was obsolete.
Such rhetoric from both sides felt like a rehash of the cold war, and with the same purpose: to conceal the failures and weaknesses of both systems.
One function of Russia’s communism in the past was to make its capitalist opponents look vastly better. Centrally planned command economies failed spectacularly, revealing that communists had no economic solution to the modern riddles of injustice and inequality, and were, furthermore, blind to their own environmental depredations.
Wealth-creating capitalist economies, on the other hand, can hardly be said to have resolved those problems or made the world more inhabitable for future generations. Their advocates made extravagant promises of freedom, justice and prosperity after the collapse of communism, claiming that capitalism was the only viable model left standing at the End of History. Then their feckless experiments in free markets set the stage for the authoritarian movements that now dominate the news.
It should not be forgotten that the shock therapy of free markets administered to Russia during the 1990s caused widespread venality, chaos and mass suffering there, eventually boosting Putin to power. That’s why it won’t be enough to invoke, against Putin, the most flattering definition of liberalism: as a guarantee of individual rights and civil liberties.
To be sure, the liberal tradition that affirms human freedom and dignity against the forces of reactionary conservatism and social conformism is profoundly honourable, and ought to be always defended. But there is another liberalism that has been bound up since the 19th century with the fate of capitalist expansion, concerned with advancing the individual interests of the propertied. This is the liberalism, unconcerned with the common good, popularly denounced today as “neo-liberalism.”
In fact, the two liberalisms — one offering genuine human freedom, the other entrapping humans in impersonal and often ruthless market mechanisms — were always fundamentally in conflict. Still, they managed for a long time to coexist uneasily because the West’s expanding capitalist societies seemed capable of gradually extending social rights and economic benefits to all their citizens.
That unique capacity is today endangered by grotesque levels of oligarchic power and domestic inequality, as well as formidable challenges from economic powers such as China that the capitalist West had once dominated and exploited. In other words, modern history is no longer on the side of Western liberalism.
The devastating loss of its special status has exposed this central Western ideology to mockery from the likes of Putin and the Hungarian leader Viktor Orban. They’re joined by men of the hard right in the West who also zero in on liberals’ always vulnerable faith in cultural pluralism, denouncing immigrants and multiculturalism as well as sexual minorities.
To be sure, the liberal tradition that affirms human freedom and dignity against the forces of reactionary conservatism and social conformism is profoundly honourable, and ought to be always defended
In a much-circulated recent article, Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, complimented Donald Trump for shifting the national conversation from liberal notions of individual freedom to “order, continuity, and social cohesion.” But, as the intellectual historian Samuel Moyn put it last week, “the political system based on individual liberty and representative government doesn’t need to be celebrated or repudiated. It needs to be saved from itself” — from an obsession with “economic freedom that has undercut its own promise.”
Certainly, it won’t do to double down on shattered verities: to claim superior values, or to insist, as the Financial Times did, that “the superiority of private enterprise and free markets — at least within individual nations — in creating wealth is no longer seriously challenged.”
That seemingly last-minute qualifier, “at least within individual nations,” tries to conjure away the buffeting of national economies by opaque global forces. And it betrays the uncomfortable truth that, these days, even liberalism’s self-appointed defenders are not wholly convinced of their cause.
Perhaps, instead of mechanically asserting their superior status, they should examine their reflexively faith in market mechanisms. They should trace how the once-expansive liberal notion of individual freedom narrowed into a rigid principle of individual entrepreneurship and private wealth-creation. Indeed, such self-criticism has always defined the finest kind of liberalism. It is the best way today to renew an important tradition and convincingly defend it from its critics.
Pankaj Mishra is a public intellectual, columnist and author. His books include Age of Anger: A History of the Present, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.