Neonihilism and the Failure of Liberalism

Do the disaffected know what they want? Agency is one thing: leadership and direction is another.
Do the disaffected know what they want? Agency is one thing: leadership and direction is another.

Ross Douthat in today’s New York Times declares our time a crisis for liberalism, the left having ‘lost its way’, in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump. It’s been a popular theme. In 1969, Ted Lowi declared the end of liberalism, in favour of interest group liberalism, in part a kind of elaboration on Eisenhower’s theme of the military-industrial complex. The liberalism of which we speak has long been defined in terms of economics and economic goods, how the distribution of resources and the freedom that comes with fair access to those resources, can allow mankind to flourish. Friedman’s classic Capitalism and Freedom from 1962 defined the concept, which was ultimately routed in eighteenth century enlightenment thinking, and in particular the French Revolution. Its progression through International Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the twentieth century brought at its end an essential global consensus: Liberal Democracy was it. This was the end of history.

In the quarter century since the fall of communism, and even since before that time, there has been an acceleration of both income and wealth inequality, famously outlined by Thomas Piketty in 2014. Individual Human Rights have been extended as religious and group ethics have dissipated in Western Society, with the decline of both organised religion specifically, and civil society more generally. Governments have avoided where possible taking sides in moral debates, instead adopting the principle of ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’. We live in a multicultural world, we must respect other people’s opinions, they say. It is not right to be righteous. Liberalism – freedom – have brought us to a place where government has been denuded of authority, while its seemingly benign indifference to moral choice has instead led to a destruction of the liberal principle itself. Liberalism, when it comes to government, means having no opinion on almost anything at all.

Liberalism, and its attendant free-market capitalism, has resulted in lower wages, lower standards of living, higher inequality, and general reactionary sentiment amongst citizens of Western Liberal Democracies. From the environmentalists in Seattle, to the occupy movement on Wall Street, and this year to Brexit and Trump, reactions to liberalism are strangely not directed towards its ideology, but to its effects. Everyone is in favour of a government who allows freedom to people to be whoever they want to be; no one, however, wants to be poor, unequal and disenfranchised. Brexit and Trump were about breaking things. Few – including those in Seattle and Occupy – have realistic, actionable or coherent ideas for how to fix liberalism; only how to attack the other and somehow tip the balance in a zero sum game. Let’s ban Muslims or Mexicans from America. Send Poles back from Britain. Surely, the logic goes, that if it’s just us, then even within an unequal liberal orthodoxy (which we generally approve of) there will be more to go around.

The opposition to Liberal Democracy is a kind of Liberal Democratic Reactionism – it’s still liberal, and still democratic, at least in the sense that it’s not overtly revolutionary. That said, the disdain for the institutions that support the system – courts, parliament, and government – is palpable. The association of liberals with communism, socialism and a preference for indulging minorities is meant in a pejorative way. But there is no ideological alternative, no socialist – in the most positive sense of the word – or positivist nationalist agenda to replace it. There is a longing for the social principles of liberalism, without its economic effects. I do not speak of course of the odious racists, the white supremacists, or the other extreme groups who are most certainly ideological and perscriptive in their opposition to the established order. I speak of the ordinary voters, blue collar workers, civil servants and average industrial workers who have been screwed by the system in recent years. They’ve had enough.

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