Living in a Ghost Town: the Decline of Western Liberalism

Photo by Sarah Lachise

When I was growing up everyone was engaged in politics and, generally, people felt that they had some say in what happened to them. That has diminished significantly. And we now find ourselves living in an era in which power has been severed from politics, with disastrous consequences. The vast discrepancies in wealth we now witness is but one by-product of the diminished vision of human existence that now constitutes Liberal society. And it is the diminished nature of that vision that tellingly reveals that Western Liberalism is in its terminal phase.

The quality of human life has become degraded as a result of grotesque forms of exploitation. As all of our responsibilities and relationships and even our identity have been infiltrated and dissolved by the market in its constant search for more profitable ways to re-order human existence. We are, thus, caught up in a meaningless flux of dissolution and re-appropriation, constantly trying to adapt and reshape ourselves to fit the needs of the market. And because economic concerns have become primary, what is now permitted to constitute our moral compass is largely derived from the market. As Zygmunt Bauman points out in ‘Liquid Modernity’, “any imaginable mode of human conduct becomes morally permissible the moment it becomes economically possible.” Which means that all protest is not only impermissible, it’s immoral.

The fact that Liberalism has thrown in its lot with advanced capitalism and led us to this nihilistic impasse should not surprise us. The Liberal doctrine was always more about constraining and diverting the demands of the working class than helping to realise them, usefully serving the moneyed folks as a bulwark against democracy. Dewey recognised this ambivalence back in the 30s. Writing in ‘Liberalism and Social Action’ that a liberal is “one who gives approval to the grievances of the proletariat but at the crucial moment invariably runs for cover on the side of the master of capitalism.” They may be the middle of the proverbial sandwich but they know which side their bread is buttered.

However, the moment of change, when the Liberalism we recognise today really got into its stride and morphed into Neo-Liberalism was 1989. Because, when Communism fell, there was an intellectual contraction of the Left. And what emerged in the place of radical politics, was the Liberal notion that there was a politically acceptable level of exploitation. This was a notion that was enthusiastically explored as globalisation took off and real wages plummeted. At that time Intellectuals began to abandon utopian thinking and former leftists sought out soft jobs in corporate-sponsored think tanks. In short what emerged was ‘A socialism suitable for capitalism’, as Russell Jacoby neatly puts it in ‘The End of Utopia’. Former representatives of the working class now accepted the dominance of the market and offered piecemeal suggestions about how to grow the pie and share it out more equitably. But without a strident Left to criticise and goad it, Liberalism started to become flaccid and uninspiring. It lost any sense of a future vision and it also lost its appreciation of human dignity, which had been a deeply-held commitment in working class politics. And it is this Neo-Liberal conception of human nature as a resource to be utilised and remade that has become of crucial importance in international relations. Because, notwithstanding the insistence of Western Liberal democracies that human rights are inviolable, the reality on the ground has looked very different. And it is therefore hardly surprising that the West’s insistence that its particular interpretation of human rights is a universal value which all countries must adopt should come up for examination.

The challenge seems timely, coming as it does at the end of an era of considerable Liberal over-reach. In which many of the values formerly associated with Classical Liberalism such as freedom of speech and tolerance have been noticeably absent, leading to the serious impoverishment of wider culture. Such failings were only compounded during the pandemic when a number of Western governments threatened and abused their citizens, ignored the rule of law and abandoned their constitutions. Maybe Liberalism has had its day. Maybe the loss of visionary politics has fatally compromised it. Because, what appears to have emerged is an easily corrupted, triumphalist form of Liberalism divested of any vitality, direction, or moral constraint. Which certainly raises the question whether this tarnished Liberal vision is adequate to serve as a guiding light for emerging capitalist economies. Of course, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the world was firmly unipolar and globalisation appeared to be on track, it is doubtful that Western democracies gave much thought to the quality of the rights enjoyed by their citizens. They didn’t have to. The moral order shaped by corporate America was the only game in town. But that is no longer the case.

Shortly after the invasion, political theorist Francis Fukuyama, penned an article in the Financial Times, entitled, ‘Putin’s War on The Liberal Order,’ in which he sought to rally support for Liberalism, asserting that “Putin’s Russia is seen clearly not as a state with legitimate grievances about NATO expansion but as a resentful, revanchist country intent on reversing the entire post-1991 European order.” However, that does not appear to be the case. The rest of the world is not observing events through a Western lens, if they ever truly were. Two UN votes, which the Western powers hoped would see Russia roundly condemned failed to muster the necessary numbers to justify such a conclusion, notwithstanding the fact that Russia’s request for a secret ballot was denied.

Later in the article, Fukuyama asserts the need for us all to fight for liberal values. One difficulty he may face in that regard, however, is that under Liberalism many citizens have had their freedoms seriously curtailed and may not be that motivated to defend the order that constrained and abused them. A further problem he has goes to the heart of Liberalism itself; certainly in the form in which it now exists. Which is that Liberalism has been used to sublimate political desires and replace them with something less taxing. In the past Fukuyama celebrated the fact that within Liberalism’s embrace satisfying consumer demands has become the top priority, all the while acknowledging that by such social engineering people may come to lose their courage, daring and imagination. It is therefore a bit rich to dig the values of Classical Liberalism out of the closet in an attempt to stir the populace into action when it is precisely those values that have been ignored by the West in the neoliberal era. When globalisation was on the cards, it didn’t matter that people’s visions were narrowed and their lives exploited. It didn’t matter that freedom was reduced to mere performance because those people were no longer needed as citizens. Ever-exploitable blobs of consuming matter was all that we needed to be.

In the final paragraph of ‘The End of History’ Fukuyama provides a wild west inspired allegory illustrating his vision of geopolitics. He describes the countries of the world as wagons in a wagon train, travelling on a road heading for a town. “Some wagons will be pulling into town sharply and crisply, while others will be bivouacked back in the desert, or else stuck in ruts in the final pass over the mountains.” Some may go the wrong way, only temporarily though, according to Fukuyama, as a result of a momentarily lost sense of direction. Others may get attacked by Indians and not make it, (he doesn’t say whether the Native Americans had a wagon). Some may not even want to go to the town, he acknowledges. Nevertheless, “the great majority of wagons will be making the slow journey into town, and most will eventually arrive there.” Because for Fukuyama all the wagons are essentially the same. Any apparent differences are due to their position on the road. The ones who pulled in ‘sharply and crisply’ are simply more historically advanced than those who are lagging behind. There is a lot that could be said about Fukuyama’s allegory, but the most striking aspect of it seems to me to be the importance of momentum: all the wagons are on the move. They are all already on the road, supposedly seeking a destination. Globalisation kicked off this process, the West set the wagons in motion and now it must draw them into town. The reputation of the town, and perhaps even its economic survival depends upon it.

Only the momentum has now stopped. Because Russia’s wagon has pulled up on the roadside, looked down the mountain at the town and decided that it doesn’t want to go there. It is confident of its own destination and anyway, it doesn’t like the bullying sheriff. The problem for the town is that other wagons are now stopping too. They no longer accept that they have to go to the town either – the imagined superiority of Western values is over. Wagons are now realising that other destinations are available. The Unipolar moment is over. What that means for the people already in the town, who knows? Maybe some of them will get fed up shopping and start checking out alternative destinations. Maybe some will even build a wagon of their own.

Susan Roberts is a lecturer in moral philosophy and animal rights.