Is the liberal order falling apart?

Is the liberal order falling apart?

 I came to the “capital of the world” for a panel at Columbia University on a new and highly interesting book: “The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions.” Penned by the prominent academic Michael Walzer, it is a book that explains how the secular parties that founded most post-colonial states were soon challenged and even defeated by a religious revival. Examining the three separate yet somewhat similar cases of India, Israel and Algeria, Walzer shows us why and how the “progressive” visions at the founding of these young republics were soon challenged by what he calls “zealots”: Hindu nationalists in India, the religious right in Israel and the Islamists in Algeria. 

As you can guess, this pattern has something to do with Turkey as well. In Turkey, too, the secularist vision at the founding has also been replaced by a religious revival. This revival first looked like “democratization,” and it indeed was, but it soon proved to be “democratic” only in a very illiberal sense: the religious majority “got their country back” from the formerly authoritarian secular elite, but only with an urge for vengeance and an intoxication with power. And we don’t yet know how far they will go in deepening and consolidating their newfound hegemony. 

Moreover, Turkey is still a heaven on earth when compared to the political disasters that have hit its neighborhood in the past five years. The “Arab Spring,” which gave many people, including myself, many hopes, only turned out to be a complete disappointment. With the notable and invaluable exception of Tunisia, Arab countries touched by the “spring” devolved either into civil war, as in Syria, Libya and Yemen, or turned into even more repressive tyrannies, as in Egypt. 

When you look at the global scene, the picture is again bleak, in a far cry against the optimistic hopes of the near past, such as “the end of history” suggested by Francis Fukuyama at the end of the Cold War. Since communism clearly failed, Fukuyama reasoned in the early 90s, its only major alternative, liberal democracy, would now win the world. Quite the contrary, however, new alternatives to liberal democracy emerged.

Russia and China let communism go, at least in the economic sense, but preserved their authoritarianism and kept promoting it around the globe. Meanwhile, nativist authoritarianism emerged in many cultures, in a dynamic that Walzer’s book partly seems to capture. 

Worse, liberalism is now being challenged even in its homeland: the West. Here in New York, I listened to not only liberal academics but also the new big celebrity Donald Trump, who was on air almost every time I turned on the TV. What is incredible is not just the man’s hate-mongering, but the fact that it is applauded by so many Americans. 

The big problem, in my view, is that the two major dynamics of our age, globalization and democratization, do not always serve liberalism. Globalization brings cultures face to face, and people don’t necessarily like what they see. Hence they want barriers, defenses and even defensive offensives. Democratization, on the other hand, makes these fearfully insular people empowered, often at the expense of their more cosmopolitan elites. 

Does this mean that the liberal order is falling apart? Not necessarily; but it is seriously challenged. It hence needs a lot work, and thought, to survive.