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).

 

 

 

 

GOP win to prompt new wake-up call

Tuesday night’s Republican electoral victory poses an insidious threat to freedom and democracy in America.

Yet if you believe in the American democratic system, you have to accept the argument that a majority of the American voters wanted to freeze the minimum wage at its starvation level, allow unbridled carbon emissions and deny healthcare to millions of Americans.

These were among the campaign pledges made by the newly minted Senate majority leader, Mich McConnell, and a lot of his fellow Republican congressional candidates. While celebrating victory, McConnell has vowed to “pass legislation” to put those pledges into effect.

I don’t believe, though, that most Americans would want to see the cruel Republican agenda carried through. I agree with the New York Times’ interpretation of the elections.

“Republicans ran on no message,” wrote the Times‘ editorial board, “except that [President] Obama was always wrong, and voters on Tuesday said they were angry with the country’s direction and political gridlock, taking their fury out on the president’s party because he is in charge.”

I bet the incoming Senate majority leader will have a rough time getting most of his agenda off the ground. In post-election statements Obama has asserted that he wouldn’t let the healthcare law be repealed or minimum wage kept frozen, and that he will push hard for immigration reforms and stand firm on his other key priorities.

But yes, a majority of American voters voted for the Republicans who ran on their sock-it-to-em, pro-Wall Street agenda.  And that agenda threatens America’s founding principles of equality, and indeed, freedom.

Freedom includes freedom of opportunity, which lends it any meaning at all. We’re familiar with the statistics of shocking income inequality in America. In 2012 the top 1% of American households (making $394,000 a year or more) scooped up a fifth of the national income. The figure broke the previous record set in 1928, the eve of the Great Depression. America today offers fewest opportunities for upward mobility in the Western civilization.

Studies show that only 6% of children born in low-income American families will make it to the top income ladder.  The current generation of American youth is going to be the first in American history to earn less than their parents’ generation.

Corporate corruption and plunder, abetted mostly by Republicans, have dried up many of the opportunities that make freedom a reality. We still have some of what metaphysicians call “negative freedom,” meaning absence of barriers to doing things we want to do.

Let me try to illustrate this through an anecdote about a boisterous party arranged by a group of American soldiers in Germany at the end of World War II. They were celebrating President Harry Truman’s announcement that they would soon be returning home. They had invited to their party some Soviet troops who also had been fighting the Nazis.

As the American revelers got a bit tipsy and wild, one of the Soviet soldiers asked why they had to get so crazy about their demobilization.

“Hey,” retorted an American G.I., “We’re going to be free in our land of freedom! You Commies are used to living under Stalin’s tyranny. You’ll never understand what freedom means.”

“Tell me what freedom means,” asked the Soviet Communist.

“It means I can yell in front of the White House: ‘Truman is a jerk!’” You, buggers, will be shitting in your pants at the thought of saying anything like this in the Kremlin.”

“Sure,” replied the Soviet soldier, “I can yell in front of  the White House and at the Kremlin that ‘Truman is a jerk!’”

The point is the Communist didn’t have the “negative freedom” to call Stalin a jerk in the Kremlin. Legal and social barriers had suppressed his freedom of expression, which Americans, mercifully, didn’t – and don’t – have.

The things that really matter in life, however, require “positive freedom,” which entails the availability of the wherewithal to fulfill what we freely desire.

Larry Ellison or Charles Koch can hop in his private jet and enjoy a fabulous weekend or month in the idyllic Alpine valley of Interlaken, or try to savor “eternal bliss” in India’s sub-Himalayan fairyland of Garhwali. But most of the bottom 90% of Americans also would like to do that. Surveys show that their real incomes are less today than were in 1987, and that they’re struggling harder to pay their home mortgages, car insurance and utility bills. They can’t materialize their freedom to spend a weekend in an Alpine or Himalayan Shangri-La because they don’t have the positive freedom, the resources, to do so.

The fading of freedom in America has accelerated since the Republican “Reagan Revolution” kicked off the current era of wanton corporate loot. Americans businesses and corporations have been maximizing their profits by racing for automation, throwing workers out of jobs; freezing wages; curtailing employees’ health and retirement benefits; and other tools of exploitation. All these have drastically shrunk Americans’ ability to enjoy comfortable and meaningful lives, which they’re theoretically free to do.

The erosion of freedom in America, and the consequent impoverishment of the human condition here, has been aggravated by the hijacking of the democratic process by the Wall Street. The right-wing majority in the Supreme Court has helped speed the process with its Citizens United judgment. Thanks to that ruling, Tuesday’s congressional elections were the most expensive in American history, most of the campaign funds being dished out by the corporate tycoons. Seven decades ago H.L. Menken had said, “We have the best Congress money can buy.” And the Wall Street was the highest bidder for the incoming Congress.  In fact congressional support for or indifference to The Wall Street’s unbridled depredation has turned American democracy into an oligarchy.  The point was underscored by a <a href=http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746/>Princeton University study</a>, put out in April.

Republicans in the 113th Congress will surely try to lavish on the Wall Street the goodies it paid for through their campaign coffers. Those goodies would include freezing of the minimum wage, loosening curbs on environmental degradation, denying healthcare to many Americans, and so forth. Obama will, as I mentioned, resist their retrograde actions, but the control of Congress has, at least for now, made them a stumbling block to freedom and justice in America.

All the same, I remain an optimist about America’s future.  I’m hoping that the fuddy-duddy, mostly clueless, GOP back numbers on Capitol Hill will mess things up badly, giving Americans a fresh wake-up call. The last wake-up call was given them by the Great Recession. It was precipitated the reckless deregulation, budget cutting and war spending of Republican George W. Bush administration. And in 2008 irate voters gave the progressive Democrat Obama a rounding mandate to embark on bold, progressive reforms.

Sadly, however, the 44th president didn’t seem to have much of a vision or the backbone, and he got bogged down in his futile drive to win Republicans’ goodwill, instead of pushing hard the popular mandate he had got from Americans. Later, when he tried to salvage some of his election mandate, it was too late. He had lost much of his political capital and with it the ability to persuade congressional Republicans to cooperate on his agenda.

Well, few societies have reformed themselves, economically or politically, in one go. Hegel has been wrong about many things, but history has vindicated his “dialectic” process of social evolution time and again.  Simply put, it says that a social or ideological model triggers a contradictory one. The two models clash inevitably, only to produce a more dynamic and progressive third formation, synthesizing the good elements of both mutually antagonistic systems.  Polls have shown that Americans are getting increasingly peeved at their economic and political institutions catering to the top social ladder, which has been exploiting them. I believe it’s only a matter of time before the bulk of the bottom 90% Americans will decide they’ve had enough of the Republican-Wall Street skullduggery, and try again to cut it out through the electoral process. They may have to repeat the process several times until they succeed. And they have to succeed if freedom and democracy should endure in America.

 Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom.’