Gaping cracks in liberalism

“Bernie Sanders won’t beat Hillary” Clinton. And “Jeremy Corbyn probably won’t be Britain’s next prime minister.” All the same, “liberalism is living dangerously,” and you would be wise to “hedge [your] bet” against its demise. After all, “all orders pass away.”

I was floored by these year-end thoughts of Ross Douthat, a right-wing columnist for the New York Times. Douthat has been a card-carrying apologist for liberalism. Classical liberalism, that is. The ideology that says  the right to life, liberty, property and social equality has been bestowed on us by nature. Not the “liberal” label that Donald Trump or Newt Gingrich would use to demonize Sanders, Noam Chomsky or Paul Krugman.

A traditionalist Catholic, Douthat resents Pope Francis’s “ostentatious humility.” He believes that the pope’s humble lifestyle and progressive words and deeds are a ruse to camouflage a “plot.” That plot is meant to recognize the remarriage of divorced Catholics, give them the sacrament of the Eucharist, and sidestep other long-established Church rules. The columnist opposes any dramatic deviation from the Catholic tradition.

For all his worries about liberalism, Douthat remains its inveterate defender. He points out, proudly, that liberalism’s past ideological rivals such as fascism and communism have failed.  So would, he predicts, the “vision of a new Islamic empire,” proclaimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS).  So would Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “Stalinist nostalgia.”

What, then, is bothering him?  Why wouldn’t he bet on the survival of the liberal, capitalist system? Well, the Harvard alumnus says he sees some “cracks in the liberal order.”  What are they? The Black Lives Matter movement continues to show its “potency.”  Trump is drawing big crowds, despite his “boastful authoritarianism” and bizarre antics. Streams of Democratic voters, on the other hand, are romping and whooshing to “crypto-Marxist” Sanders’ rallies, as though mesmerized by his socialist rhetoric. More worrisome, polls are showing Americans’ “declining faith in democracy.”

The spectacle is as bleak in Europe, according to Douthat. The European Union project is wobbling from a surge of ethnic nationalism, separatism, and economic crises, especially in Greece, Hungary and Poland.   If that was not all, Angela Merkel’s decision to accept “a million Middle Eastern refugees” jangles his mind with the specter of an Islamized Europe, as envisioned in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission.

Douthat’s concerns are legitimate, except that he is rather late to recognize them.

A host of other Western intellectuals and polemicists already have. They are dismayed by the havoc the liberal capitalist order is wreaking everywhere. The top 5% of Americans are soaking up of most of the national income and wealth. The incomes of most people in the lower rungs of American society are dropping or stagnating. Families and communities are breaking down. Carbon emissions threatening the existence of the human species. And so on.

By and large, liberals seem to have become tone deaf about it. They continue to cherish in the old-line liberal mantra that you can solve the world’s problems and improve human conditions everywhere by holding on to and spreading liberal values and institutions (democracy, secularism, nationalism), and capitalist tools and processes (technology, trade, production and consumption). If free trade is costing American jobs and depressing American wages, charge ahead with it, anyway. Never mind democracy is facilitating, instead of stopping, capitalist greed and social injustices in the West. Spread it around, nonetheless. Except for a circle of sociologists and philosophers (among them Peter Berger, David Martin, Grace Davie, Daniele Herview-Leger, and very lately Jurgen Habermas), most Western scholars and intellectuals are caught up in this charade.   They react to the blowbacks of what has been called the “crisis of liberalism” with clichés and canned answers from received knowledge.

Question: Why are Greek and Hungarian economies in a mess?

Answer: Well, their leaders are irresponsible and have not learned the rules of capitalism and the market economy.

Q: Why are xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia surging in Europe?

A: Europeans are scared stiff by “the invasion” Muslim workers and refugees. These Islamic reactionaries would not assimilate into their host societies and threaten to tear up the liberal order in Europe. Naturally, people are losing patience with them.

Years ago I read in a medical journal that people afflicted with terminal cancer go through several stages before reconciling with their fate. The first is the stage of denial: The prognosis can’t be right. Let us have a second opinion. It follows spasms of anger: Why me? Why couldn’t my doctors find it out before it spread?

There is no denying the fact that the Enlightenment, the harbinger of liberalism, has changed our world, mostly for the better, beyond the imagination of our ancestors. As Isiah Berlin aptly said, “The intellectual power, honesty, lucidity, courage, and disinterested love of the truth of the most thinkers of the eighteenth century remain to this day without parallel.”  The problem is that they went a bit overboard with their mission. The mission to create a brave new world with the flawed premise of universality of rationalism. They revolted, rightly, against the abuses and corruption of the Roman Church. But they lost sight of the ennobling teachings of the Christian faith that Jesus and Paul brought to the world: humanity, compassion, community, and aversion to greed and materialism. They threw the baby out with the bath water.

The Enlightenment’s Achilles’ hill has been a basic misconception about human nature. The belief, which is credited to Rene Descartes but can be traced to Plato, is that we are all alike in our basic mindsets and style of reasoning. That our deeds and proclivities can be ascertained with the kind of scientific methods that Isaac Newton used to determine the laws of motion. This old argument has been challenged by curious minds since the dawn of ontological thinking – from Greek sophists to David Hume  to  Giambattista Vico to Richard Rorty to my friend George McClean, professor emeritus of philosophy at Catholic University in Washington. They all maintain that we are cultural products, that our thought processes and value judgment are conditioned by our cultural environment, not by any universally applicable standards. “[T]here is no such thing as a human nature, independent of culture,” as Cliffort Geertz puts it presciently.

Liberal rationalists reject this view and hold on to their a priori notion that liberal recipes for progress and fulfillment would apply everywhere.  Among the latest disasters caused by this belief and attitude was the Iraq war. The invasion of Iraq was planned by neoconservative Ph.Ds. to plant Western-style liberal democracy in Iraq’s traditional Muslim society. From there, they said, such democracy would spread to other Muslim countries.  The devastation of Iraq, loss of nearly a million Iraqi lives and the birth of ISIS have been among the outcome of this experimentation.

Liberalism is all about methods. It does not relate to the sources of realities. Newton saw an apple falling from a tree, and discovered the law of gravity. One of the most momentous, epoch-making scientific discoveries ever. Humanity will forever remain indebted to him for it. The questions that Vico would have asked the renowned physicist, and remain unanswered to this day: Why was the gravity there? Or the apple?

Our friend Douthat is worried about the “cracks” he sees in the liberal social and political model, and appears to be getting reconciled with the prospect of its demise because “all orders pass away.”

Would he ever wonder why?

Maybe we should follow up on the question another day.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com).