A liberal society is a delicate flower with a seductive perfume. There are a set of presumptions in it that you can travel where you want, say what you want, publish analogue or digitally what you want, worship what you want, love who you want, belong to whatever you want, shop for whatever you want, have an expressive good time, and in doing all of the above be free from being arrested, having your lights punched out, humiliated by state instruments, or if you have, then there will be powers available to hold officials accountable.
That’s possible in fewer and fewer countries now.
In Russia, China, India, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, and in the United States, we see the rise of authoritarianism or a yearning for a strong leader who will sweep away anxiety. In parts it’s not helped by too much democracy, and in others by democracy breaking down altogether with existing authoritarian regimes becomes less transparent and responsive to citizens.
We have been told since World War Two through postcolonialism, and reminded since the fall of the Iron Curtain, that if dictators kept falling and more states had elections, defended free speech, implemented the rule of law, adopted competitive markets, and joined the E.U. (and/or NATO) or other major trade bloc, that then a vast zone of peace would be created, prosperity would spread, and a great liberal order would sort out remaining disagreements through the W.T.O., or the World Criminal Court, or the U.N.’s peacekeepers. So the first way to collapse the liberal world order is to oversell it.
The second way to collapse the liberal world order is to rely solely on the formal institutions of democracy. Sustaining a liberal society also depends on a broad and deep commitment to the underlying values of liberal society, particularly: tolerance – and to be incredibly explicit about where the limits to tolerance are. Cultural and normative commitment can’t be developed overnight. It can’t be enforced with drones, special forces, or smashing in the doors of the newspapers (You’ll have your own list of what it isn’t helped by, and who are the worst offenders).
The next way to put the liberal order we’ve been used to into the ground is to rely on the young to renew it. We know how under-thirties have a fast decline in the belief in sustained political change through institutions. While the young have no special virtue, by and large they don’t vote even if they did. Since 1968’s cultural revolutions into a revived feminism, environmentalism, pro-gay, post-colonial, and anti-war movements, and massive aesthetic diversity, there’s been an undeserved moral premium to assume that society will be perpetually renewed through a natural virtue of the young to invent fresh expressive forms and fresh activist movements. Young people, however, are more interested in Warcraft, Farm Heroes and Pokemon, let alone ISIS or Occupy, than in sustainable renewal within established political party frameworks. Whereas the old-and-getting-older nominate the candidates, prefer nationalist causes like BREXIT, and vote for their own established self interest in low taxes on capital and high superannuation.
The remaining liberal societies are in trouble today because they are vulnerable to being hijacked by those who take advantage of the very freedoms upon which liberal societies are based. As Trump, Le Pen, Erdogan, Wilders, Netanyahu and others have shown, the democratic and media instruments of an open society actually accelerate demagoguery and political bullying. As the leaders of France and Belgium are finding, it’s less and less likely that unconstrained liberal freedoms will remain unconstrained if you can’t sit in a cafe without risk of being machine-gunned or walk down a boulevard without being purposely run down by a truck, by anti-liberals who enjoy the full freedoms of liberal society. It’s not reconcilable.
We can count the remaining member countries of liberal society on our fingers and toes. It’s getting cold.
My message is a defensive one about altering our mindset. We must remove from our minds the remaining idealist speck of an assumption that the liberal society is expanding and will overcome all, or is even at a plateau just catching its breath.
Liberal society is in decline world wide. It’s beyond saving by any one leader, party, country, or movement. The task of the remaining liberal is to stop it from getting worse, or slow down its decline.