There is a war going on against liberalism, asserts my newspaper today, reviewing a book (The Shipwrecked mind) by a US historian (Mark Lilla). The attackers are the “neo-reactionary” right-wing populists, including Putin and radical Islamists, who all “have a contempt for liberal values”.
There’s just one hitch: liberalism is in itself to a large extent responsible for propagating the right-wing populist movements.
Today’s liberalism is perplexed and ostensibly unable to understand what happens. Its pundits mostly confuse surface with content, thus wasting energy and media space on futile “analysis”. (But it would be somewhat premature to conclude that their pseudo analysis is purely unintentional.)
The Trump phenomenon sparked the latent interest in right wing populism and extremism in liberal media., whose prime tactics has been to condemn the leaders and supporters of these movements (which has had the anticipated effect of instead strengthening them).
Well-intentioned liberal writers and thinkers try to teach the uncultured the importance of accepting immigrants, gays, feminists, colored people and other deviant individuals. They also devote their didactic skills to avert online abuse in the form of hate comments, fake news and deceptive information from “enemies”.
All this will lead nowhere, and I presume intelligent liberals are aware of that, and the reasons are obvious. Right wing extremism doesn’t come from nowhere, it has real roots in the real world. Apart from the fact that humans have some innate tendencies to xenophobia and racism, it normally requires real grievances for people to abandon what they know is good behavior. Those grievances are today created by neoliberalism.
There is consequently a need for abolishing dysfunctional manifestations of the capitalist societies, and that is something liberals won’t do. Their very function in our societies is to defend and protect the established order and its masters. They are assigned to herding in the more mild-mannered citizens, while real conservatives take care of the more hard-core (and religious) part of the population.
The 1970s can in many ways be regarded as the peak of western capitalism. Economic growth had been record high since the war, and the growth was distributed quite equally between labor and capital. Ordinary workers in North America and (northern) Europe could live comfortable lives, their organizations were usually strong and there was a sense of parity in the social fabric.
Temporarily baffled by the popular and democratic break-through these years, the owners of the world eventually realized that they had the economic power, that overrides other forms of power, and launched a counterattack on all fronts: think tanks, media, politicians etc. Soon the right-wing tide drenched all resistance. Liberals (and even Social Democrats) betrayed their constituencies and removed obstacles to unfettered capitalism by means of deregulation, privatization, cutting of social spending and much more.
Neoliberalism put its gloomy hand over the lives of ordinary people, while those who didn’t need more money got perversely rich. That’s in one sentence the basic motivation behind right-wing populism. Liberals denied people the means to oppose this detrimental development by refusing to respond to the grievances in any other way than to enhance them. The only answers people got were from crackpots who told them to blame immigrants, minorities, gays, liberals, anti-Americans and all the rest.
Why the liberals chose this way is no mystery. They serve their masters by sheer instinct, and that decides their highest priority: oppose everything “left” that breeds from the moral insight that we should care for each other through solidarity, welfare and preservation of the common good at large.
We have been through this before, most notably in Weimar Germany in the 1930s. The liberals of that time helped the Nazis to power with the expectation that Hitler would take care of the communists. We know how it ended. Our liberals are again playing with fire, and for the moment we don’t know how it will end.