This essay, on the crisis facing liberalism, and why it is not the one that Vladimir Putin thinks it is, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 30 June 2019, under the headline ‘Liberalism is facing a crisis. But it’s not what Vladimir Putin thinks’.
‘What we may be witnessing is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’ So wrote Francis Fukuyama in his 1989 essay, The End of History?, as he surveyed the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Thirty years on, the argument seems to have been turned on its head. As Vladimir Putin, virtual tsar of the Russian nation that has emerged from the debris of the Soviet Union, declared on the eve of the G20 conference in Osaka, it’s not history but liberal democracy that seems to have ‘outlived its purpose’. Liberalism, he told the Financial Times, has ‘come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population’.
Putin’s vision of liberalism is, of course, a caricature. The ‘liberal idea’, he suggests, ‘presupposes that… migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights… have to be protected.’ Liberals ‘claim now that children can play five or six gender roles’.
Nor is it true that social liberalism has been rejected by ‘the overwhelming majority of the population’. In some countries, such as Russia or Brazil, attitudes to immigration or gay rights may have hardened. But in others, including Britain, social attitudes have become more liberal, even as they have become more polarised. In Donald Trump’s America, for instance, people have become more supportive of immigration, but also more partisan.
But however warped Putin’s vision of liberalism, it is incontestably facing challenges it rarely has before. From America to the Philippines, the rise of populist movements reveals a yearning for belonging and identity that liberalism cannot satisfy. The emergence of non-liberal economic powers such as China calls into question the postwar ‘liberal order’. Putin, FTeditor, Lionel Barber, told Radio 4’s Today programme, ‘feels he is on the right side of history’. Many liberals fear that, too. Hence the global impact of Putin’s comments.
The real issue, though, is not that social attitudes have become more illiberal, but that liberalism has been unable to address the fundamental issue of the relationship between the individual and society even as that issue has become one of the most salient.
As a philosophy, liberalism exists in many, often competing, forms. At the heart of most forms, however, stands the individual. Humans, wrote John Locke, the 17th-century philosophical founder of liberalism, naturally exist in ‘a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions… without asking leave, or depending on the Will of any other Man’. Classically, liberals held that society comprises free individuals who come together in voluntary rational agreement. Any restraint placed on an individual’s liberty, including the right to own property, had to be both justified and minimal.
Critics pointed out that humans do not live merely as individuals. We are social beings and find our individuality and discover meaning only through others. Hence the importance to political life not just of individuals but also of communities and collectives.
The critique of liberal individualism wore both conservative and radical garb. Conservatives saw history, tradition and the nation as the means by which the individual became part of a greater whole. A nation, as Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, wrote, is found not just in a set of values but also in ‘an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space’.
For radical critics of liberalism, particularly socialists and Marxists, an individual realised himself or herself not through tradition but rather through struggles to transform society, from battles for decent working conditions to campaigns for equal rights. These struggles created organisations, such as trade unions and civil rights movements, which drew individuals into new modes of collective life and forged new forms of belonging and common purpose.
Conservative and radical ways of thinking about belonging have long coexisted in tension. The idea of a community or of a nation inevitably draws upon a past that has shaped its present. But the existence of movements for social change transforms the meaning of the past and of the ways in which one thinks of identity. ‘Britain’ or ‘Russia’ means something different if defined in terms of what we want the nation to be, rather than just of what it has been.
The tension between liberalism and radicalism has been even more important. Liberalism ensured that the issue of individual rights and liberties remained central to many strands of the left, even as socialists rejected liberal notions of private property. Radicalism injected into liberalism a social conscience. Over time, many strands of liberalism modified both the classical attachment to private property as sacrosanct and the distaste for state intervention.
The relationship between liberalism, radicalism and conservatism began to change in the last decades of the 20th century, largely as the left disintegrated. The idea of an alternative to capitalism seemed to many chimerical, more so after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even before the Berlin Wall had come down, a new kind of economic liberalism, unstitched from the restraints of social need, had emerged – what many now call ‘neoliberalism’. At its core was a philosophy of deregulation, privatisation and the introduction of market forces into virtually every nook and cranny of social life.
At the same time, the organisations that had provided working-class people with hope and dignity crumbled. Trade unions were crushed and radical social movements eroded. Societies became atomised and much of the social architecture essential for people to flourish was dismantled. It was a process not confined to the West, but visible across the globe.
Against this background, many of those looking to recreate a sense of social solidarity have been drawn to conservative, even reactionary, ideas of belonging, rooted in nation, tradition and race. And, in an age in which there exist few transformative social movements, many have turned to strongmen to do the job. In the 2016 US presidential elections, just a quarter of Trump voters thought their candidate had ‘good judgment’, but four out of five thought he could ‘bring about change’. Much the same is true of authoritarian leaders across the globe, from Putin to Erdoğan, from Salvini to Duterte.
The irony is that the problem faced by liberalism is less the retrenchment of social liberalism than that the retreat of the left has allowed for the success of the ugly side of individualism. The irony, too, is that what is exposed by this is not simply a problem for liberalism, but an even bigger problem for the left.
The photographs are of Vladimir Putin addressing a session of the 2017 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum via video link (photo © Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters) and Putin and Donald Trump at the 2019 Osaka G20 conference (photo © AFP).