Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The crisis in the West because liberal democracy is under attack?

I was an eager-beaver graduate student when Francis Fukuyama's the "end of history" article was one of the biggest ideas that we wannabe intellectuals were all excited about.  And for a decade, it seemed like his thesis was a clear articulation of the future liberal democratic world that would blossom.  The collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the shaky Chinese system that was recovering from the Tianmen incidents gave us plenty to rejoice.

But then, with 9/11 and its aftershocks, with China's Communist Party tightening its grip on politics, and Putin becoming a tsar, everything changed and even the most ardent fans of Fukuyama's thesis have to wonder whether liberal democracy is indeed winning.  And now we have more to worry about with new agents like ISIS.

So, where are we today, twenty-five years into Fukuyama's thesis?
Today, it’s hard to imagine Fukuyama being more wrong. History isn’t over and neither liberalism nor democracy is ascendant. The comfy Western consensus he inspired is under threat in ways he never predicted. A new Cold War has broken out. China’s “Marxist capitalism” suggests you can have wealth without freedom. And the advance of ISIS may herald a new, state-oriented Islamic fundamentalism.
Were we a tad over-confident in celebrating the coming global liberal democracy?
The problem is that hubris has blinded its defenders to the crisis consuming liberalism’s identity, leaving them unable or unwilling, to respond to pressing challenges around the world.
So, what should we do?
If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant.
It does sound crazy that we have to get into this all over again.  We have to start explaining what liberty is and debate and defend it?  Have we not been doing this for, well, forever it seems like?
Liberalism will not work if too much emphasis is placed on total human autonomy at the expense of all others, nor if it is obsessed with materialism and consumerism. In contrast to the Fukuyama model of yoking liberal values to economic self-interest—a combination that, when given free rein, has often damaged society at large in recent years—a model that emphasizes human dignity allows for a more positive, relevant kind of politics that constantly struggles to assert itself. Instead of encouraging us to rest easy in the assurance that liberalism will certainly triumph, a conception of liberty based on human dignity recognizes that there is nothing inevitable about its success. While each of us may wish to be free as an individual, it shows that individual freedom is dependent on us all being free; and that means that we all have to cling to our shared humanity, our shared dignity.
I agree with the point there that one of the big problems was with how American politics began to equate liberal democracy to unfettered market interactions, which was not a free market anyway with all the ugliness of crony capitalism.

Does it mean that the Western liberal democracy project is under threat of being overrun by Putinism or the Chinese "communist capitalism" or the theocratic ISIS?

Liberal democracy is not under any threat by any means in the West.  However, the advance of liberal democracy has been halted, and is also being pushed back.  All the crisis in the West is, in the grand scheme of things, something like what President Truman's mother supposedly told him, which I paraphrase to "if that is your biggest problem, then consider yourself to be very lucky."
Pessimism has its advantages: to predict the worst—and, in the event of catastrophe, to boast of having seen it coming—pays off. Optimism is more perilous, since it requires looking at the horizon and discerning positive developments, while risking being called Pangloss, whom Voltaire ridiculed for believing that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. The optimist is also shadowed by the temptation to set aside unexpected events that don’t corroborate his original theory. At every moment, he must ask if it is reasonable to stay optimistic; he must also be a skeptic. This is no contradiction
Ah, yes, to be a skeptic. This blogger is always proud to display his skepticism, even while being optimistic.  It is the cautionary stance, that skeptic view, that makes sure we don't fall victim to the prevailing sentiments of any mob.
Crisis and freedom are surely bound together, since the West is essentially driven toward self-criticism and what economists call “creative destruction,” an expression that really should apply to all aspects of our society. To a Chinese person oppressed by tyranny, creative destruction is eminently desirable. Perhaps, then, it’s time to love the West, and our times, more, as others envy us so much. 
It is not jingoistic flag-waving, and prostrating before our governments, that we need to do in order to demonstrate our love of liberty and liberal democracy.  In fact, those acts of obedience are exactly how we have internally weakened the glorious liberal democracy.  We need optimistic skeptics instead.  Easier said than done when people can get so easily distracted by videos of cats playing the piano or by the news of nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence.  Oh well, no wonder we have a crisis in the West!


2 comments:

Ramesh said...

Are M/s Stanley and Lee academicians by any chance. Their essay is peppered with "Historical determinism", Pangloss and Voltaire - ready to instantly turn me off.

I am only going to object to the conjoining of liberalism and democracy. Liberalism; a big YES. That's a way of life. But democracy is simply a political institution. That one I am ambivalent. Why do the two have to necessarily be conjoined.

By the way "Chinese oppressed by tyranny" ?????? Which world do M/s Lee and Stanley inhabit ?

Sriram Khé said...

I live in that same world where we do not hesitate to call the Chinese political system as tyranny.
If the Chinese were free, then we would not be witness to the huge demonstrations in Hong Kong where people want to continue wth the level of self-rule, which Beijing wants to take away, right?
If the Chinese were free, then the Uighurs or the Tibetans won't have reasons to protest, and thinkers like Liu Xiabo won't be in prison, right?

Democracy is the only process that we know of that can uphold a liberty. Hence, liberal democracy. There is no "Chinese liberalism"

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