Liberalism and intellectualism are under attack

, by Marc Nikolov

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Liberalism and intellectualism are under attack
Populists politicians, tabloïds, fake news outlets and a fierce Russian disinformation campaign are feeding anti-intellectualism and illiberalism across Europe and beyond. But the underlying issues – social exclusion, inequalities, TINA politics – are very real.

For decades, neo-liberal globalisation has brought material progress to most, but has left behind sizeable chunks of liberal societies. 2016 has witnessed the forgotten ones returning to the forefront of national and international politics, led by populist politicians and galvanised by new “alternative” media outlets that lend credence and legitimacy to all kinds of speeches and conspiracy theories. Populists’ views – on nation states and the international system – align with Russia’s, and the latter’s interference in Western democracies has not gone unnoticed. Yet, while some fear for democracies’ health, future generations provide a reason to remain optimistic.

Not even thirty years ago did Francis Fukuyama predict the “End of History”: having defeated the evil brown and red -isms of the 20th century, liberalism – political and economic – would be the evident model of organisation for the world, and the future would be an endless progress of liberal democracy – eventually encompassing all of humankind. Nowadays, one smiles at these words – either out of tenderness for past naivety or out of schadenfreude as the status quo is threatened. For not only has History not ended, it is taking an unpredicted – though with hindsight, predictable – turn. Across liberal democracies, a phenomenon is gaining importance: dubbed “populism”, its emanations are the Leave victory in the United Kingdom, Trump’s in the United States, Viktor Orban’s in Hungary, the PiS’ in Poland, the Front National in France, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the Freedom Party of Austria, and others. These forces have in common the rejection of political correctness, of experts, of “the elites”, of foreigners and other cultures, of political liberalism. They are against open societies, and would rather divide the world in homogenous, hermetically separated nation-states.

Globalisation and creative destruction

These forces also have similar electorates: those people whose jobs – and indeed their very dignity – have been taken away by globalisation and whose skills are no longer required. Those withering towns which witness powerlessly the progressive departure of what made them vigorous communities – post offices, bakeries and butcheries, tobacconists. Those whole regions that see activity moving elsewhere, only to be replaced by emptiness – physical emptiness, and emptiness of purpose. In short, those who have been forgotten, indeed abandoned, by the march of the future. This decades-old phenomenon – often called “deindustrialisation” – of the progressive destruction of old economic structures to the benefit of new ones is not new, and can be intellectually traced back to Schumpeter’s concept of innovation-induced “creative destruction”. Indeed, while the economic neo-liberal paradigm would have us believe that globalisation and free trade benefit the world as a whole, increasing global output, it fails to mention that those benefits are far from evenly distributed, and that some are actually worse-off. Globalisation creates winners and losers, and the losers, disenchanted by politics and abstaining at elections, had almost vanished from the visible and the audible. Whether in eastern England and in Wales, in the American rust belt, in North-Eastern France, in Germany’s eastern länder, or in the whole of Austria bar the largest cities, the losers are awakening and demanding a reversion of this creative destruction, of the political and economic order that has not served them well.

Fakes news: the mainstream-isation of conspiracy theories

Empowered by “populist” politicians who have told them what they so desperately wanted to hear – in essence, that they do exist, that their concerns are justified, and that the solution is simple – the losers share a profound distrust of everything mainstream, ranging from politicians to media, through intellectuals, bundled up in the phrase “international elite”. For if they all agree that liberalism, free trade, globalisation, and European integration are good, then surely they must be conspiring – against culture and traditions, against national independence, and/or for their own material benefit. If not, they are simply “disconnected from reality”. There is a bitter-sweet irony in this, since many have turned either to the (foreign-owned) British infamous tabloids, to social media which tend to perpetuate one’s beliefs and strengthen one’s bubble, or to shady online media outlets pretending to offer a point of view dubbed “alternative”, as if it were neutral rather than hostile to liberalism (e.g. Breitbart “News”). A first problem is that while their point of view is indeed “alternative”, so are their facts: as a result, a growing number of people read fake news (or “disinformation”) and believe them to be true, or at least more trustworthy than actual journalists. An alternative reality is being crafted, one in which the EU dictates the shape of bananas and obeys to Germany, Hillary Clinton is a cold-blooded murderer, refugees are terrorists and/or invading Europe and/or replacing national cultures and/or mass rapists. How can one have a sensible argument with someone who believes in an alternative reality and dismisses facts (such as the positive impact of immigration on receiving countries’ economies, or the fact that the UK does not send £350M a week to the EU) as leftist propaganda?

The Kremlin’s (almost) invisible hand

A second issue with these “alternative” facts that portray Western foreign policy as disastrous and imperialist, foreigners as a threat, and the EU as some sort of communist and/or fascist elitist project, is that this “alternative” strangely resembles Russia’s attempts to be an alternative model of democracy – a “managed” one – and to portray the US and the EU as imperialist forces supporting a fascist junta in Kiev. It is no coincidence that some of these fake news outlets are directly controlled by the Kremlin, such as RT, previously Russia Today, and Sputnik International, known until 2013 as RIA Novosti. And it is no coincidence that the Kremlin has political and financial links with these far-right parties, providing funding and receiving praise. Not a coincidence either that Russia hacked the Democrats in the US while maintaining contact with Trump’s campaign. There are fears in Germany that next year’s election will also be interfered with by the Kremlin. It seems to be a deliberate strategy by the Kremlin to destroy the EU and destabilise Western societies: in the “information war” that the Kremlin has been waging in Ukraine, the front is now at home.

The end of a world or a temporary phenomenon?

The consequences are multi-fold. French ambassador to the US Gérard Araud may be right when asserting that “it is an end of an era, that of neoliberalism. It remains to be seen what will succeed it.” The progress made in the last decades can always be undone and national economies can always become un-entangled, to some extent. It is probably too soon to say. Perhaps democracy itself is in danger – it very much appears to be – but it is probably too soon to say either: after all, the far-right has just been defeated in Austria. Perhaps the world order – underpinned by the UN, the WTO, the IMF, the dollar, NATO, the EU – will unravel and make place for a lawless, multipolar world divided into spheres of influence (also see John Sawers’ view). But optimism is warranted when one looks at the younger generations and at cities, overwhelmingly favouring an open society. For time is on our side, and what we are witnessing today may be the losers’ last stand, a last-ditch attempt to escape a fast-moving world in which they have lost their place. Indeed, it is time for the silent majority of winners to realise that our rights, security and prosperity cannot be taken for granted. It is time for the silent majority to find another way, one that guarantees everyone dignity and a place in their community, one that does not close its eyes on a fifth of the population. In the meantime, however, the envious, bold and loud minority that has lost touch with facts and reality cannot be allowed to succeed. The global liberal order may be coming to an end, but democracy and political liberalism remain solid in our societies, and remain worth fighting for.

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