I reworked my essay ‘From the End of History to 2016’ for Sunday’s Observer, developing the theme of the tension between liberalism and democracy, and of the distinction between the ‘politics of solidarity’ and of the ‘politics of identity’. It was published in the Observer under the headline ‘Liberalism is suffering but democracy is doing just fine’, and was slightly edited down from this original version.
Welcome to 2017. It will be just like 2016. Only more so. This will be the year in which Donald Trump formally enters the White House, and Theresa May (probably) begins Brexit negotiations, in both cases giving institutional form to the two most startling election results of last year. It will be the year in which elections in Germany, the Netherlands and France, and possibly Italy, are likely see rightwing populists gain ground, even triumph.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilder’s anti-immigration, anti-Muslim Party for Freedom (PVV) is ahead in the polls, and may help form the government after elections in March. In France, in May, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National should reach at least the second-round run-off in the Presidential elections, and may win. In Germany, Angela Merkel could possibly hang on as Chancellor after elections in September. But the far-right AfD will almost certainly have dozens of seats in the Bundestag.
And, so, 2017 will also be the year when fears for the future of liberal democracy will reach a new pitch. Such fears will, however, be only half justified. Democracy, on the surface at least, is in rude health. It is liberalism that is in trouble.
Democracy does not require that the ‘right’ result be delivered every time. Indeed, were the ‘right’ always to delivered, it would indicate not the success, but a failure of democracy. The whole point of the democratic process is that it is unpredictable. The reason we need democracy is that the question of what are ‘right’ policies or who is the ‘right’ candidate is often fiercely contested. Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen may be reactionary, and their policies may help unpick the threads of liberal democracy. But their success reveals a problem not with democracy but with politics.
We have become so accustomed to talking about ‘liberal democracy’ that we often forget that there is an inherent tension between liberalism and democracy. At the heart of liberalism stands the individual. Classically, liberals held that any official restraint placed on an individual’s liberty had to be both justified and minimal. Liberals, however, fear also the masses, worrying about ‘mob rule’ and the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as threats to the liberty of the individual. For all the distaste for state restraints, many liberals have increasingly looked to state institutions as means of checking the power of the many. This has inevitably led to ambivalence about the virtues of democracy.
With the end of the Cold War, many liberals expected the tension between liberalism and democracy to be resolved. Liberal institutions, they imagined, could concentrate on governance and the enactment of the ‘right’ policies, while, freed from dreams of socialism, the masses could simply become the electorate, exercising their democratic right at elections, and enjoying the benefits of technocratically-shaped governments.
In fact, the opposite has happened. The tension between liberalism and democracy has become far sharper. Many liberals insist that the only way of defending liberal values is by insulating them from the democratic process. Many who feel politically voiceless in this new world believe they can only assert their democratic voice by challenging liberal values. It is this polarization between liberalism and democracy that created the tumult of 2016, and will create the even greater tumult of 2017.
Democracy is not just about placing a cross on a ballot paper. It is fundamentally about the contestation of power. We might vote as individuals in the privacy of the polling booth, but we can only defend democracy, and assert our political voice, by acting collectively. This requires a robust public sphere, and a democracy that is contested as much in the streets and the workplace as in the polling station. This is the real problem with democracy today. It is not that the events of 2016, and possible events of 2017, show a failure of democracy, but that while people have been able democratically to express their disaffection with the political elite, the erosion of the power of labour organizations and social movements has helped weaken democracy in a broader sense by limiting the possibilities of real social change.
At the same time, the decline of these organizations has encouraged a shift in power away from democratic institutions, such as national parliaments, to non-political institutions, from international courts to central banks. Many liberals view this as ensuring good governance and protecting important policies from the vagaries of the democratic process. Many on the left, no longer rooted in old-style class politics, have welcomed this shift, seeing transnational organizations, such as the EU, as key vehicles for social change. Many sections of the public, however, have been left feeling as if without a political voice.
Having lost their traditional means through which to vent disaffection, and in an age in which class politics has little meaning, many working class voters have come to express themselves through the language of identity politics; not the identity politics of the left, but that of the right, the politics of nationalism and xenophobia, that provides the fuel for many populist movements.
Critics of liberalism have long recognized that its fundamental flaw is that humans do not live merely as individuals. We are social beings, and find our individuality and discover meaning only through others. Hence the importance to political life not just of individuals but also of communities and collectives.
Politically, the sense of the collective has been expressed in two broad forms: the politics of identity and the politics of solidarity. The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The difference between leftwing and rightwing forms of identity politics derives, in part, from the categories of identity that are deemed particularly important. The politics of solidarity draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as the left has declined. For many, the only form of collective politics left is that rooted in identity. Hence the rise of identity-based populist movements.
Such movements often link a reactionary politics of identity to economic and social policies that once were the staple of the left: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. Consider next year’s French Presidential elections. The two candidates likely to make it through to the second round are the centre-right François Fillon and the far-right Marine Le Pen. Fillon is socially conservative and economically ‘liberal’. He wants to crush what remains of the French ‘social model’, cutting state expenditure and slashing workers’ rights. It is Le Pen who poses as the champion of the working class, hostile to austerity and supportive of the welfare state.
Populists pose, too, as champions of liberties and freedoms. Geert Wilders was found guilty last month of ‘inciting discrimination’ by asking a crowd of supporters whether they wanted ‘more or fewer Moroccans’ in the Nertherlands. Rather than challenge his bigotry politically, liberals are content to damn it legally, allowing Wilders to promote himself as a martyr for free speech, despite his deeply illiberal views, including the demand that the Qu’ran be banned.
Figures such as Le Pen and Wilders have marched on to the terrain, and speak to the constituencies, that the left has abandoned. The failure of the left to defend popular sovereignty has enabled the far-right to frame such sovereignty not in terms of the politics of solidarity, but in the language of nationalism and bigotry.
The polarization of liberalism and democracy shows how the fundamental aspects of a progressive outlook have been ripped apart. Those who rightly bemoan the corrosion of collective movements and a sense of community often see the problem as too much immigration or too great a stress on individual freedoms. Those who take a liberal view on immigration, and on other social issues, are often happy with a more atomized society. Until we find a way of establishing a new politics of solidarity which links liberal ideas about individual rights and freedom, including freedom of movement, with progressive economic arguments and a belief in the community and the collective, we may welcome 2018 in the same fashion as now we are welcoming 2017, only more so.