Sleepwalking into illiberalism?

Tarek Osman
Friday 28 Aug 2020

As far-right political parties extend their influence in many Western societies, there is a risk that the achievements of liberal democracy could eventually disappear

The US presidential elections are drawing nearer, and the countries of the European Union are rethinking politics now that the Covid-19 has become part of life, especially as important elections in Germany and France are on the horizon.

There is also the major question of whether the far-right will continue its rise.

Most answers to this question link it to temporary issues of economics, but this would be a mistake. Standards of living have been declining in most Western countries, and the causes are a combination of diminishing labour competitiveness at home, a corresponding increase in the competitiveness of the Asian economies, and the arrival on a mass scale of transformative new technologies that are gradually eliminating scores of jobs, all in a highly globalised world.

These economic conditions appear to be permanent, and they bring about fears within large social groups in many Western societies.

Fear stirs knee-jerk responses, with the fearful social segments blaming the leaders of their countries for allowing conditions to deteriorate so far. Worse, many see them as colluding with the beneficiaries of these economic and technological changes. Many ask, with good reason, if the austerity programmes they have been suffering for over a decade now were matched by the transformative changes in the political economy of the two decades prior to the 2008 financial crisis, which generated immense wealth for a small section of beneficiaries.

But things are much worse even than this, as large sections of these social groups see their leaders and many such beneficiaries as being socially detached from them, talking about values, ways of life and political norms that most of those in these large social segments have never subscribed to. This talking has, over the past decade or so, turned into a prevailing form of “correct politics” that they are expected to adhere to.

For many at the top of Western societies, such developments have meant progress and almost a cultural “end of history” in which they have arrived at the summit of societal and political development. This has been manifested in different ways – in the notion of converging with the ideal of the European Union, in the thinking of the American intellectual Brahmins in the north-east of the United States, in major policies across Europe with noticeable impacts on how society looks and feels, and in the direction technology has taken, envisioning a future for the human race underpinned by dramatic advances in artificial intelligence.

The division that has always separated Western societies from the rest of the world has also become obsolete. Now there is a new division that separates the beneficiaries of the political economy of the past two decades from the rest, whether in Western societies or elsewhere.

True, this new separation is fundamentally economic. But the social and political separation that goes with it has been more problematic. Though there is not a prevailing cultural or value system uniting the beneficiaries of this new situation across the globe, there is, however, a prevailing rhetoric anchored in a certain way of seeing progress. This “correct politics” that originated in the West and that has become the mantra of beneficiaries there has to some extent been (selectively) used by beneficiaries elsewhere.

For the large social segments not benefitting from such developments, to be separated economically from the ruling classes is one thing. It is quite normal, and it has effectively been the order of things since history began. To be separated from the ruling classes by culture, values and ways of living is quite another thing, however, and this has built up feelings of rejection. The fact that within this separation there is a strong current of superiority whereby the prevailing rhetoric implies that the new culture, new values and new ways of living are superior to those of the rest of the population has also turned the rejection into anger.

This is why seeing the rise of the far-right as an economic problem alone is not only mistaken but also dangerous. It presupposes that economic solutions to the declining standards of living in the West are the route to stemming the rise of the far-right. But that route must also be political, where values, a sense of belonging and a serious sense of respect are ingrained in the relationship between the prevailing political system and the largest possible sections of society.

Yet, this is not happening, and the situation is getting worse, for the responses to the rise of the far-right are deluded and insincere.


FALSE SOLUTIONS: They are deluded since, whether in the American centre-left or in most European centre-right and centre-left parties, campaigns in the nascent electoral season are anchored on economic growth and saving jobs.

But these things are not enough. The fundamental questions behind the rise of the far-right will re-emerge every time there are major elections or plebiscites.

The popular rejection of such responses did not disappear with the coronavirus; it was suppressed by an unprecedented development that no one alive today has witnessed before. But it will return at a time when the anger will be that much stronger. As long as the separations and rejection and anger exist, the underlying feelings will trump all economic arguments and attempted solutions.

The responses are also insincere because some mainstream political forces have actually borrowed rhetoric from the far-right in order to compete with it for some social constituencies. Yet, irrespective of the rhetoric, these parties are nevertheless still trying to preserve the political economy of the past few decades.

This is understandable, because the immense and highly concentrated wealth that has been generated over these decades as a result of that political economy remains the key source of finance for most mainstream political parties. This wealth wants to contain the threat of immense change, not by confronting the anger, but by absorbing its force.

However, this will not work, as the gradual movement of large social groups towards the far-right has, as explained above, been stirred by strong feelings, not utilitarian calculations. These feelings will also not turn into acceptance of the ruling classes as they steer the Western economies out of the coronavirus pandemic.

We should remember that former British prime minister Winston Churchill lost a general election after steering Britain to victory in World War II. A majority of British voters, though highly respectful of and many would say grateful to him, wanted a new leadership for a new period that they wanted to be different. The comparison to the situation today is not exact, primarily because most of today’s leaders are neither respected by the people and nor do the people feel grateful to them.

If attempts at absorbing the force of this anger will not work, what could? The problem here is that some in the prevailing political economy might calculate that “divide and rule” would be a good strategy to preserve and perpetuate the current system. We might thus see even more polarising media messaging, political rhetoric and the creation of new political forces whose only function will be to channel some of the anger and rejection away from its current concentrations.

We might see a further demonisation of the “other” (for example, immigrants to Europe) and attempts to create more “enemies of the people” as a way of dissipating the force of popular anger as opposed to absorbing it. But save for a shock that totally alters the dynamics of political sentiments in most Western societies – a war, for example – this dissipation strategy will also not work.

This brings us back to where we began with the responses of the mainstream Western political parties to the rise of the far-right. They must resist the inclinations, and become free from the tentacles, of some of their main financiers. They must move from the intellectual laziness of mixing far-right rhetoric with policies of temporary painkillers that do not address the problems of the prevailing political economy. They must seriously address the widening gap in culture and values between the elite and the rest.

In the same way that a new cold war has now effectively begun, and geopolitics has returned to a world of confrontations between different blocs, domestic Western politics have moved beyond the unquestioned supremacy of liberal democracy. There is a war of ideas already raging in the West, and to meet it there is a need for a new strategy with the objective of re-establishing respect for the prevailing political system, a system which the largest sections of society still identify with and relate to.

This will likely entail a return to earlier forms of liberal democracy detached from the economic manifestations that have accompanied it over the past few decades. How to do this will be the major question that the West’s centrist political parties must take seriously.

We, as non-Westerners, must also wish them well, for true liberal democracy remains the most successful political system the world has ever known. Its demise in its historical homeland would be a loss for us all.

*The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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