Liberal democracy and its discontents

Paul Berman thinks the Russian incursion into Georgia marks the end of “the age . . . of democratic revolutions,” which by his reckoning began in 1989.  The revolutions Berman has in mind are the overturning of Soviet-supported puppet states in 1989, the “color revolutions” in the Ukraine and Georgia, and the stirrings of the 2005 Arab Spring, particularly in Lebanon.  He observes, rightly, that “each new wave [was] weaker than the last” and, more speculatively, that with the invasion of Georgia “the tide rolls out.”

Conversely, Brian Micklethwaite of Samizdata believes the illiberal left has suffered a “big ideological defeat,” partly masked by their constant crisis-mongering on climate change.  Micklethwaite’s point is that socialism can offer no positive alternatives to free enterprise.  Remove “the hysteria whipped up around the changeability of the climate,” and it becomes clear that the left has “no other arguments against a more-or-less capitalist, more-or-less free market world economy.”

On the surface, no contradiction exists between the political retreat of democracy and the ideological triumph of capitalism.  It may portend the rise of a brutally competitive, no-holds-barred world:  let China stand as an exemplar.

At a deeper level, it seems strange.  Democracy and free enterprise are two important elements of that transformational witches’ brew we call liberal democracy.  That a people could be free to invest and produce and spend securely, yet unfree to choose their rulers, would require a Platonic class of tyrants never yet seen in history.  Otherwise, the lack of balance will lead to a tipping point:  freedom or unfreedom on both sides of the equation.  The Chinese model is unsustainable.  One recession will sweep it away.

Berman and Micklethwaite, I believe, are scrutinizing tea leaves, trying to forecast the future of liberal democracy.  Berman sees a retreat, Micklethwaite an approaching victory.  Both misunderstand the relation between a mode of organizing communities, such as liberal democracy, and actual human populations.

Liberal democracy isn’t a controlled experiment to determine the viability of individual freedom.  It’s a set of moral propositions:  a way of life.  Its advance will depend less on revolutions than on virtue and persuasion; its retreat won’t be driven by ideological alternatives but by the superior moral zeal of its opponents.

Of the two great organizing principles — roughly, top-down and bottom-up — liberal democracy is the more recent by far and the less stable.  It requires moral traditions sturdy and adaptable enough to survive the frenzy of creative destruction.  This takes constant watchfulness and recalibration, and often enough a major shift in how a tradition is understood.  Equality, for example, isn’t a question of laws but a moral perspective, and in the US this perspective has expanded to embrace categories of people — women, blacks — not originally included.

The moral traditions of liberal democracy are essential because they guide the community through the whirl of change stirred up by the system.  And let’s be clear about this:  liberal democracy relentlessly tears apart ancient customs, habits, and relations, and is loathed by established elites everywhere, including the US.

The ignorant and foolish get equal votes with the learned and wise.  The poor look the rich in the eye — may become newly rich and look down on their betters.  Hierarchy becomes competition, obedience turns into questioning, the value of leisure is degraded in favor of hard work.  Information escapes even the possibility of control.  Children are exposed to disgusting material, housewives are allowed to become sexually desperate, the young mock the old.  If the last 25 years have been an age of anything, it has been of disruption.

To survive, liberal democracy requires a passionate commitment to the civic virtues:  self-reliance, self-rule, public-mindedness, courage, integrity, etc.  A people can only internalize these virtues after long, confusing struggles in the realm of events — forty years in the wilderness, and a promised land which must be reconquered every generation.  While despotism might crumble overnight, events since the French Revolution have shown that liberal democracy can only become a moral imperative in small, often stumbling, steps.

There was never an age of democratic revolutions.  Berman is a brilliant theoretician of liberalism, but in this instance he is mistaken.  After the fall of communism in Europe, former puppet nations sought to put as great a distance as possible between themselves and Russia, strategically and ideologically.  They asked to join NATO and often held elections that overthrew Russian-supported regimes.  The moral passion was inspired by nationalism and a hatred of the Russian empire.  Liberal democracy was important only in relation to these.

In countries like the Czech Republic, which had nourished the civic virtues before Stalin’s troops marched in, democracy took root.  In others where no such traditions existed, such as the Ukraine, democracy remains a dicey proposition — at best, a liberalism in the egg, unborn and uncertain in life expectancy.

Similarly, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon was driven by the hatred of Syrian rule felt by a segment of the population.  Once the Syrians departed, the revolution petered out.  The establishment of a true liberal democracy, with proportional representation and the rule of law, is probably desired by not a single political group in the country.

The opponents of liberalism have always included the power elites who saw themselves as a Platonic guardian class, the intellectuals who longed for government by rationalistic formulas, artists and writers nostalgic for heroism in daily life, and moralists who distrust private persons to choose good over evil.

For the last 200 years these groups clustered around various forms of socialism, which inspired them and provided an attractive alternative to liberalism.  It also constrained their behavior:  beyond criticizing the status quo, socialists needed to explain why Stalin purged so many party members, why Khruschev invaded Hungary, why Germans, Cubans, and Vietnamese all fled their socialist homelands by the millions.

The failure of socialism has removed all contraints.  The groups listed above, inspired by deeply and sincerely held moral passions, still hold liberalism in contempt.  That might change with the passing of the baby boomer generation, or it might not.  What is certain is that the critique of liberal democracy can today be conducted in a wholly nihilistic mode — because, unlike the old socialists, the new zombie socialists no longer expect to inherit the earth.  They have nothing to protect or defend, and can surrender without risk to the joys of vandalism.

So Micklethwaite, too, is mistaken.  The lack of alternatives to liberalism will not lead to the mass conversion of former socialists, or even to an admission of defeat.  Instead, they will engage in increasingly irresponsible attempts to bring down the temple on their own heads, and rejoice in the destruction.

The argument between those who identify government power with the community and those who believe in personal freedom will never be terminated by some conclusive piece of evidence.  Being moral in nature, it is in fact not an argument at all, but a struggle between hostile ways of life.  Those of us who support and defend liberal democracy should always keep in mind how difficult its virtues are to internalize, and how implacable the moral rage of its enemies must necessarily be.


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