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How we entered the age of the strongman

Liberals have consistently misread the present – and their complacency is pushing us into a new authoritarian era.

That the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is now the principal opposition party in the most powerful country of the European Union has produced remarkably little reaction in Britain. In September of last year the then German foreign minister and vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, told Der Spiegel that if AfD made it into the Bundestag, Nazis would speak in the Reichstag for the first time in more than 70 years. The German political system was constructed after the end of the Second World War to make any such recurrence impossible. It has now happened, and yet liberals in this and other countries seem largely unmoved. Last year Angela Merkel was being celebrated as the leader of the Western world, and the dull stability over which she presided lauded as a model that Britain would do well to emulate. More than any other European country, we were assured, Germany had rid itself of the ugly nationalism that had disfigured the continent in the past.

Why is it that liberals keep misreading the present? They deplore the AfD – just as they do the rise of similar parties in Poland and Hungary, Austria and Italy, for example. But they do not ask themselves what it means for their view of history or the political projects they hold dear. Just as they have done throughout the post-Cold War era, they treat such developments as passing difficulties on the way to a world without precedent. In this imagined future nationalism and religion will no longer be deciding forces in politics and rivalry for territory and resources will have been left behind. Basic freedoms will be protected in a universal framework of human rights.

Lying behind this confidence is a faith in global convergence. Despite many regressions and diversions, most societies are moving towards a Western model of liberal democracy. As Tony Blair told this magazine in November 2016: “Of course, history has a direction. There is progress, we are making progress…” Blair is distinctive in affirming explicitly an assumption that was tacitly accepted across the political spectrum throughout the post-Cold War era. Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, François Mitterrand, Gordon Brown and David Cameron all believed a type of “democratic capitalism” was spreading throughout the world. If it is now in retreat, these liberals tell themselves, the reason is not that it is somehow flawed. Provided the model is pursued consistently and single-mindedly, history will soon be back on track.

In this view the default condition of modern times is a process of gradual movement towards liberal values. The election of Donald Trump, the ascent of Xi Jinping to president-for-life in China, Vladimir Putin’s elective autocracy and Erdogan’s neo-caliphate are blips; pauses in an advance that has an irresistible long-term momentum. The ongoing march of authoritarianism signifies only that the transition will take somewhat longer than expected. For post-Cold War liberals, as for the Marxist Antonio Gramsci writing in his Prison Notebooks in the early 1930s, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old world is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Mixed with expressions of bafflement and episodes of panic, this view of the world is shared by the liberal tribes of London, New York and assorted European capitals. These tribes may differ on a number of points. Some among them have learned that forcibly installing liberal regimes in countries where they have never existed before does not work, others cling to the belief that regime change could have been successful if it had been better planned and implemented more determinedly. They also differ in the degree of their enthusiasm for the free market. But all of them view the mix of capitalism and democracy that seemed to be triumphant at the end of the Cold War as the only regime that can secure popular legitimacy at this juncture in history, and therefore as a model for the entire world. Rather than being the victor in a historic contest with another Enlightenment ideology – communism – a late 20th century brand of liberalism embodies the only possible future of humankind.

That the expected transition to liberal democracy has not occurred in most of the post-communist world is left unexplained. So too are the movements that are undermining liberal democracy from within.

Nearly all liberal regimes are confronted by a two-headed internal threat. On the one hand are the forces usually described as populist – movements on the far-right and left that challenge the post-Cold-War model. Corbynite Labour falls into this category, as well as the alt-right in the US and the neo-anarchist Five Star movement in Italy. On the other hand there is what might be called alt-liberalism – a mutant version of liberal ideology that repudiates the Western civilisation that gave birth to a liberal way of life. Embedded chiefly in universities, where they shape teaching in the humanities and social sciences, alt-liberals may appear an insignificant force in politics. But while they cannot command a popular majority in any democratic country they shape the agenda on sections of the left, and weaken parties of the centre to which many voters were attached in the past.

Alt-liberal influence on the American Democrats has been one of the principal factors in the rise of Trump, and in continental Europe the way has been cleared for the far-right by the collapse of centre-left parties that follow alt-liberals in viewing tighter controls on immigration as inherently racist.

The post-Cold War liberals who still occupy leading positions in mainstream parties and among opinion formers have no explanation for this double-headed threat to liberal values that has emerged from within liberal societies themselves. Some – neglecting the fact that in much of continental Europe young people are as likely as older people to vote for extreme parties, in some cases more so – imagine that populism is simply a generational protest of the old against the young. Others prognosticate on what they consider the rise of nativism as a failing of democracy itself – passing over the fact that anti-Semitic racism, for example, is concentrated in their own leafy metropolitan suburbs, not the post-industrial towns and cities that voted for Brexit.

Talking almost exclusively with one another, none of them has explained why the type of politics they represent – in which the chief function of government is adapting to the imperatives of globalisation – has been rejected by so many in democratic countries. If all of humankind yearns for the post-Cold War regime that existed in Western countries, why have voters in these countries turned to extreme parties?

Invoking Russian meddling and the machinations of big data companies denies the origins of this shift in the world to which these liberals long to return. Undoubtedly there has been covert interference in democratic elections in a number of cases. What such interference cannot explain is the scale and depth of popular discontent and its source in the era that has now ended.

The recent age of progress, whose passing liberals mourn, included unending war in Afghanistan, a European migrant crisis rendered intractable by anarchy in countries where Western intervention destroyed the state, a global financial crash and decades of stagnant or falling living standards for swathes of the population in many Western countries. Unfolding disasters such as the American opioid epidemic and attendant fall in life expectancy have their roots in the corporate predation and ravaging of communities that occurred under the regime over which liberals of one kind or another presided. But they can comprehend the disorder of the present only on the basis that they had no part in creating it. They continue to believe their hegemony was a reflection of their superior rationality. The current hiatus can only be a passing spasm of unreason and the prelude to a state of normalcy returning in which they are once again in charge.

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The denial by liberals of any responsibility for the conditions that have fuelled rising anti-liberal movements is the cardinal fact of contemporary politics. What this denial presages is not any higher phase of history – a revamped liberal order, or some purer version of socialism – but a new authoritarian era. The world has reverted to a condition not dissimilar to that which prevailed towards the end of the 19th century. Harnessing unchanging human needs for security and identity, great powers are deploying new technologies in the pursuit of primacy and survival.

As during the Cold War, this is a period in which there is no longer any clear distinction between war and peace. But this is not a struggle whose prize is ideological victory. As in the pre-1914 world the goals are power and profit won on battlegrounds of ethnic and religious conflict. At the same time, politics is being shaped by the return of the worst pathologies of the early 20th century. Not only on the far-right but also in progressive parties and movements, political poisons from the past are being recycled in new and virulent forms.

The renormalisation of anti-Semitism is part of this process. In France, Marine Le Pen was able to command over a third of the votes in the run-off in last May’s French presidential election after reverting to the hate-driven politics of her father in the closing phase of her campaign, when she denied French responsibility for the notorious Vel D’Hiv round-up in July 1942, in which 13,000 Jews were arrested and confined in a Paris sports arena before being sent to their deaths in camps.

In Britain anti-Semitism has returned on the left. As Dave Rich pointed out in an article this year on the New Statesman website, there has always been anti-Semitism on the British left, expressed by revered figures such as Labour’s first leader Keir Hardie. Rich could also have cited the co-founder of this magazine, Sidney Webb, who, writing in 1907 on the dangers of “race deterioration”, feared “this country falling to the Irish and the Jews”. Racist attitudes have existed in sections of the British left throughout much of its history. What is unprecedented is that anti-Semitism is now an integral part of a new style of politics promoted by the leader of the Labour Party.

Anti-Semitism has re-established itself on the left partly by way of an ideology of anti-colonialism. Believing Western colonial power to be the worst evil in history – a progressive orthodoxy that has been inculcated in Western education systems for decades – sections of the left relativise the Holocaust, treating it as only one among many crimes against humanity. At the same time, they see Israel as the worst embodiment of colonialism – hence the demand that, alone among the world’s states, it must demonstrate its “right to exist”.

Claims that anti-Semitism is being “weaponised” in an attempt to undermine Corbyn are the opposite of the truth. More than a personal failure, Corbyn’s complicity in anti-Semitism is a symptom of the morbid politics he embodies. But is the British conscience now so lax and coarse that voters are ready to propel into power a party led, and in its current form largely created, by a shifty figure whose most genuine quality is a deep-seated affinity with the politics of conspiracy and hate?

Or – following his revelatory and pitiful response to the Salisbury poisonings and the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime – might we be approaching a point at which this paragon of avuncular authenticity is recognised as the creation of a Trump-like media operation, and the new party he has built begins to splinter and spin out of control? Recent local elections suggest the magic his advisers have woven around him is beginning to fade. What will be the effect if he leads Labour to defeat at the next general election?

Whatever happens in Britain, it will be against the background of a darkening global scene. Trump’s appointment of the uber-hawkish John Bolton as national security adviser and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state mark a major discontinuity in American policy and in global politics. In international contexts, the postwar liberal order rested on the hegemonic power of the United States. Liberals may point to trials of war criminals from the former Yugoslavia by the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague as evidence of a global order based on law. But the trials could be held only through an assertion of hard power – American, not European – in the Balkans. With Trump in office, the axis supporting that power has been removed.

Negotiating with North Korea and tearing up the Iran nuclear deal are two sides of the same unilateralist coin. Whatever the results in either case – a breakthrough or continuing stalemate in Korea, a crumbling regime in Iran or a major regional war – the American-led world order is entering its last days. And there is a serious risk of trade war. Trump’s threats of further and larger tariffs may be feints enabling him to claim credit if he succeeds in extracting better terms of trade from China and the EU. But no one should doubt his readiness to scrap the existing trade order. Whether he defies the WTO or bypasses it, the rules-based international system built up after the end of the Cold War is history. China is taking up the leadership role the US has vacated, and if a Sinocentric world emerges it will not be remotely liberal.

 Modern despots: Putin and Xi, pictured in the Kremlin in 2017, are at odds with the liberal West. Credit: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty

Here a weakness in the public doctrine that has guided the West since the end of the Cold War becomes clear. For at least a generation, Western thinking has been shaped by the theory that law can trump politics. Such was the message of John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and their multitudes of academic followers, whose rights-based version of liberalism dominated political philosophy for much of the past 30 years. Always far-fetched, this liberal legalism has as much contemporary relevance as a dated crossword puzzle.

Determined to effect regime change in America, Trump is stacking the judicial system with nominees who will further his agenda, and if he wins a second term there will be not much to stop him adding the US to the growing list of the world’s illiberal democracies. Whether he can bring this about will not depend chiefly on the results of the Mueller investigation, lawsuits from the porn star Stormy Daniels or information gleaned from the raid on Trump’s personal lawyer. Low-down and dirty politics in the mid-term elections and beyond will decide the future of the American republic.

Liberal regimes are not free-standing structures of law and rights but political constructions that depend for their survival on hard power and popular acceptance. No constitution can prevent liberal forms of government being overthrown when these supports are lacking.

The liberal mind cannot help seeing the advance of authoritarianism as a rejection of the modern world. But the West is not all of one piece in its response to modernity. It is commonly assumed that modernisation and secularisation go together. But while in Europe religion – particularly Christianity – is waning, in the US it remains as strong as
it was when Alexis de Tocqueville visited the country in the early 19th century and found it a hotbed of sectarianism. Nor is opposition to the West all of one kind. Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China are both modern states, but in quite different ways.

The two countries have very different economies, one smaller than that of New York State, shrinking and based in the extractive industries of the past; the other huge, expanding and deploying the most advanced new technologies. More
fundamentally, Putin’s Russia promotes a counter-Enlightenment project while Xi’s China is best understood as a neo-Confucian variation on enlightened despotism.

After a period following the Soviet collapse in which much of the Russian population was ardently pro-Western and Putin spoke of himself as a European, Russia has tilted towards viewing itself as a Eurasian power. Rather than absorbing the European Enlightenment, as did Russian modernisers from Catherine the Great through to Gorbachev, Putin is reasserting Russia as the centre of a civilisation founded on Orthodox Christianity. At the same time he is deploying ultra-modern techniques of hybrid warfare – a shifting blend of dis-information, irregular military operations and cyber-attacks – to exploit the vulnerabilities of the West.

It has proved an effective mix. Despite all that has been written about crony capitalism, organised crime and rigged elections, Putin probably commands greater popular legitimacy than any leader in a Western country. It would be unwise to assume a successor to him would behave much differently. Russia seems likely to view itself as a separate world, at odds with the West, for the foreseeable future.

i’s China is also reasserting itself as a distinct civilisation, while at the same time absorbing ideas from the West. But it is the illiberal West from which Xi draws inspiration. With the aid of the all-seeing internet, a high-tech version of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon is being built that covers all of mainland China. The early 19th century British utilitarian intended the ideal prison as a model for omnipresent surveillance. Radical transparency in society, he believed, could be used to create a more productive way of life.

Having corresponded with the Empress Catherine on the subject, Bentham would be delighted that China’s new emperor is realising this progressive Western project. At a time when Western countries are seized by the politics of emotion, China appears an exemplar of rationalism.

Both China and Russia pose a challenge to what remains of the liberal West. But China’s pole position in the world economy gives it leverage over the West that Russia will never have. Western analysts may be making too much of Russian economic backwardness; it has not prevented Russia from upgrading sections of its military forces, and replacing the US as the pivotal player in the Middle East after its intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. Again, Europe is more heavily reliant on Russian energy supplies than ever. While the UK obtains nearly all of its gas from Qatar and Norway, Germany depends on supplies from Russia – a dependency that will increase as German nuclear and coal facilities are shut down. Even so, Russia has nothing like China’s capacity to upend global markets.

Western policies continue to be based on an expectation of eventual convergence between market liberalism and Chinese state capitalism. But the Western model on which the world is supposedly converging hardly exists any more. Why would China abandon its market-Leninism, when it is outpacing the West in so many respects?

In any case, it is far from clear that the West would benefit from radical change in China. It was Chinese credit expansion that saved the West in the 2007-08 financial crisis. Today China’s economy is supported by an enormous debt bubble, a sudden puncture of which would be a brutal shock to market capitalism. The West has a big stake in the stability of Xi’s regime.

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The threat from Islamism is in a different category. Continuing terrorism in Europe and the US, worsening Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East and nuclear proliferation are real dangers. Western expectations that these conflicts will diminish as the region modernises are based on groundless assumptions. If Islam undergoes a Reformation and an Enlightenment like those that created the modern West, it is often claimed, the Islamic world will become more Western, liberal and democratic. But these were episodes in cultures shaped by Judaism and Christianity, which together engendered the liberal way of life.

Why should Islamic societies be expected to replicate any Western path of development? The liberal West was the product of a particular history, not a universal process of political evolution.

The most serious threat to the West comes from its own intellectual inertia. In the contest between liberalism and authoritarianism there can be little doubt which side is smarter. In elections in Hungary in April, Victor Orbán achieved a landslide victory, winning a third term in office and the “super-majority” in parliament he needs to enact further constitutional changes that will entrench and strengthen his powers. The anti-liberal regime he has installed is not a replay of interwar European dictatorship. For one thing, its methods of mobilising the population are more subtle. Economic sanctions – the non-renewal of contracts in public institutions and take-overs of independent media by business interests tied to the government, for example – are more effective in marginalising opposition than rounding up and jailing dissidents. As in government-orchestrated campaigns against the billionaire financier George Soros, minorities can be demonised without being explicitly targeted. An astute mix of tax cuts with economic nationalism has solidified support among affluent as well as hard-pressed voters. Yet none of these strategies, singly or collectively, accounts for Orbán’s continuing success.

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The rise of the far-right in Hungary, Poland, Austria, Italy and Germany is inextricably linked to the European project of creating a transnational polity without internal borders. Large-scale immigration is a force for rapid change in societies already struggling to adjust to globalisation and the increasing redundancy of human labour. But the policing of borders is rejected as regressive, and the solution proposed for the social problems that go with over-rapid change is to increase its speed further.

Many liberals have invested large hopes in Emmanuel Macron; but whether the French president’s combination of opposition to racism with intensely unpopular market reforms can check the advance of extreme parties remains doubtful. Even as integration is pushed forwards, the continent is being balkanised at an accelerating pace. Beneath airy visions of integration, European politics is becoming daily more putrid.

Mesmerised by fading visions of a global transition to liberal values, the West has failed to recognise the transition that has in fact occurred. The Western model on which the rest of the world was supposedly converging has morphed out of shape. The new tribe of alt-liberals reject the historic inheritance of liberalism as an obstacle to progress, with free expression attacked as a bulwark of oppression. Culture wars divide society and the generations, making long-term strategy impractical.

Putin, Xi and Orbán perceive the morbid condition of Western societies, as do Trump and his former strategist Steve Bannon. Dorian Gray-like, liberals turn their faces from it. Plainly, the avowed enemies of liberalism perceive liberal societies more clearly than do liberals themselves.

In a plausible scenario, the decisive conflicts in coming years will not be between liberal and authoritarian states but among oligarchies within each of them. Will Trump continue to be swayed by the billionaire Mercer family, or will other American oligarchs become more influential? Will the spoils system Putin has established in Russia be destabilised in an intensifying succession struggle? Could the anti-corruption drive through which Xi is cementing his position in China provoke a backlash from oligarchs it threatens? Whatever the answers to these questions, there is little reason to expect any move to more liberal values. Societies that are progressively discarding the freedoms by which liberalism was once defined are ill-equipped in the contest with advancing authoritarianism.

Anyone who still cherishes tolerance and individual freedom must face the challenge of finding ways of defending these values as the liberal order continues its decomposition. It is a task that requires unsparing realism and unwavering determination, together with a readiness for new thinking.

Liberals need to shake off their sickly nostalgia for an irrecoverable past, whose flaws and contradictions created the world in which we find ourselves. Instead the intellectual remnants of the post-Cold-War era fall back on a narcissistic fantasy in which all will be well once the vanishing regime they embody is back in place. When liberals see the current condition of politics as an interregnum, they demonstrate their failure to recognise the new authoritarian hegemony that they helped to establish. 

John Gray is an NS contributing writer. His most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman