Forging new identities? The erosion of the social base of the liberal international order

Milan Babic

Anti-capitalist graffiti in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

This blogpost is part of a new blog series, ‘Re-thinking IR’, in which International Affairs contributors weigh in on key theoretical debates.

While the current global public health crisis still rages on in many parts of the world, we can already observe the beginning of social and economic crises in COVID-19’s aftermath. Staggering US unemployment numbers and a looming European recession threatening to break up the Eurozone are just two of the main economic headlines of recent days. Many of these developments are not entirely new, but are embedded in a more comprehensive crisis of the liberal international order (LIO) — crumbling US leadership, a global populist re-orientation towards the nation state, decreasing international cooperation and economic exchange are just some of those phenomena. The current crisis acts as an accelerant to existing trends which I describe in a recent article for International Affairs. In it, I draw on Gramsci to develop a three-dimensional analytical framework which can help to make sense of the ongoing crisis of world order.

Here, I pick out one crucial aspect of this framework that is often overlooked when speaking about crises of world order: the erosion of the social base of a LIO. I argue that a return to a pre-COVID 19 era of neoliberal globalization is highly unlikely, as the crisis only accelerates existing tendencies of eroding support for the LIO. Instead, we need to search for ways in which new global identities can be forged out of the ruins of the old. I motivate this assessment in the following on the grounds of existing research on the eroding social base of world order.

What is the social base of world order?

This social base is located at the societal level and represents the extent of (passive or active) consent citizens and social groups feel and express towards the LIO. Deudney and Ikenberry summarized the social base into the concept of a ‘common civic identity’ that bolsters the LIO from the ground up. For them, this civic identity consists of ‘norms and principles, most importantly political democracy, constitutional government, individual rights, private property-based economic systems, and toleration of diversity in non-civic areas of ethnicity and religion’. This social identity of the western world is closely tied to the embrace of capitalism and the distinct ‘business culture’ it creates. Others speak of a specific neoliberal ‘market civilization’ that formed for a long time the underbelly of an individualistic and economistic identity shared across the developed world. As I describe, this bond of the social base of the LIO with neoliberal globalization creates contradictory and disintegrating tendencies that increasingly undermine this common civic identity. With Gramsci, I characterize them as “morbid”, because those symptoms openly contradict not only each other, but also key aspects of the common civic identity (like economic openness, cultural and religious tolerance, or liberal democracy itself). While many of those tendencies have economic roots, they express themselves often in opposition to the more cultural values of the common civic identity. As Wendy Brown argues, neoliberal marketization imperils core ideas of democratic rule and democratic culture, i.e. the very foundations of a common civic identity. This tendency of neoliberal globalization to undermine key aspects of a common civic identity eroded the social base of the LIO dramatically. As we could observe over the last years, this erosion creates ‘indignation and feelings of rage, which are increasingly interpreted in right-wing populist manner’.

The long-term implications of the erosion of the social base of world order

What does this erosion mean in practical terms? I argue that the current public health crisis only accelerates these trends, which significantly reduces the chances of a subsequent recuperation of neoliberal globalization as we knew it. Such a recuperation — albeit wished for or expected by some observers — is unlikely. One of the main reasons for this is that the described erosion is not a recent trend, but a decades-long development. Recent research demonstrates that the dwindling base of mainstream political parties (which bolstered the LIO) in the western world is linked to a steady decline in the support for the LIO that was the bulwark for neoliberal globalization. The framework in my International Affairs paper suggests that the above-described drivers of morbid symptoms manifest themselves in said developments. This decades-long erosion of the fundamentals of world order is thereby not only a US problem, but a phenomenon across the western world.

At the individual level, new research suggests that the domestic reaction to neoliberal globalization is the decisive factor shifting attitudes vis-à-vis economic openness to the right. The non-provision of economic protection can in this respect also be understood as a long-term failure of states to reconcile neoliberal globalization with the LIO framework after the Cold War. This refusal of core tenets of the LIO shows that the often abstractly claimed incompatibility of democracy and capitalism in this case manifests itself concretely in the lives of citizens.

Where to go from here?

The long-term developments that led to the open refusal of the LIO by many constituencies around the world today are not going away. In fact, they may be accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis, as emergency policy making, new sovereign debt, and the subsequent political fights for distributing the costs of the crisis (which might end in new rounds of austerity) aggravate the current situation. The eroding base of a postwar LIO suggests that mere technical fixes of global governance will not help, as they would not address the deep-seated skepticism of many citizens that has grown over recent decades. This skepticism and rejection are often located in the concrete experiences of people rather than in the realm of world politics. To forge a new social base for a world order after the LIO will be a mammoth task, especially given the constant threat of a looming climate disaster which will require an extraordinary degree of global cooperation and solidarity. A functioning social base for this undertaking is indispensable, but hard to imagine during these times.

On the other hand, the last time such a social base was shaped was after the devastations of WWII, which opened up the historical window for such a project after a collective experience of catastrophe. COVID-19 could also serve as such a collective experience that makes it painfully clear that, to paraphrase Gramsci, the old is clinically dead but the new still needs to be forged out of its ruins. Starting at the social base of world order would be, I argue, the most crucial step in this undertaking.

Milan Babic is a PhD candidate in the Political Science Department of the University of Amsterdam, where he works with the ERC-funded Corpnet research group.

His recent article, ‘Let’s talk about the interregnum: Gramsci and the crisis of the liberal world order’, was published in the May 2020 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article here.

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The official blog of International Affairs, the no.1 ranked journal of international relations. Leading the field for 100 years. Produced at Chatham House since 1922, published by Oxford University Press.

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