The World Order, Social Justice, and Illiberalism
What we’re getting wrong with contemporary political analysis
A journalist once asked Gandhi what he thought of Western Civilization. “I think it would be a good idea,” replied Gandhi — or so the story goes. Whether or not this interaction ever happened remains uncertain (although it most probably did not). Yet, it continues to provide an important perspective into the Western world from an external standpoint. Something that is much needed in these times of shifting power structures and the uncertainties that come with it.
The World Order
We are led to believe that the crutch of the concept of the ‘Western world,’ if such a thing can be claimed to exist, is built on the philosophy of Liberalism. This idea was responsible for unseating the feudal system in Europe and the American colonies, sometimes violently. This transformation did not happen everywhere at once and it did not always happen with the same intensity as say France and the US. In fact, most European countries slowly shifted away from monarchy towards some form of mixed government including parliamentarianism while retaining a royal family. The changes that came with liberalism were also, by no means, sweeping or permanent. For example, Fascism re-emerged in Europe well after these transformations and survived there through Franco’s Spain up until 1975.
As romantically as we like to look at that time of Liberal adoption, it did not spell the end of illiberal ideas such as slavery and colonialism. As a matter of fact, liberal ideals were often distorted to justify these actions. Thus, the socio-ideological divide that took hold at the time was demarcated by ‘civilized’ nations and ‘barbaric’ nations. In more practical terms, this manifested itself in those who were colonized and those who were the colonizers — a division that had a lot less to do with how liberal a country was. Power, more than philosophy, determined what was the ‘Western world’.
This understanding progressed into the 20th century, although it morphed with the advent of the Cold War. The socio-ideological divide shifted from colonizers and colonized towards the ‘free world’ and the Communist world. Like the previous distinction of ‘civilized’ and ‘barbaric,’ being a part of the ‘free world’ had a lot less to do with how much you embraced liberalism as much as it did with how anti-communist you were. As such, several authoritarian regimes were encouraged, propped up and supported in South America by supposed Liberal actors — mainly the US.
Throughout the Cold War, those in international relations spoke of a bi-polar world — a world where the centers of power are found in the two superpowers of the USSR and the US. The US largely led the way with influencing politics through the significant amount of financial aid it provided for the reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan.
After the collapse of the USSR, those working in international relations started talking about a uni-polar world with the US at the center projecting its influence and dominance through strong foreign policy, international institutions such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank, and the presence of its more than 800 military bases around the world.
Following the international relations approach to studying the shifts in global politics, we would be poised to say that we are now moving away from this uni-polar world towards a multi-polar world. This is attributed to the rise of China’s economy, the re-emergence of Russia on the international scene, as well as several other strong players and leaders on the economic and political scene including Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Philippines, India and Germany. This, of course, is being abetted by Trump’s isolationist and protectionist policies.
This shift reveals a funny thing about Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, in that it is built on an assumption that the policies pushed by past administrations did not put the US first. The global approach that the previous administration was taking (and all past administrations were taking the same approach) was to further solidify the role of the US in a more connected and financially interrelated world. Trump’s ‘America First’ policies are helping undo that and are betting on the revival of US industries that have long since become un-competitive or extinct domestically and across the globe.
The fact that the US policy of globalism had been working was proved in the 2008 financial crises which started as a domestic issue in the US and spread to the rest of the world. It was working because China holds most of US debt, which means that China needs the US to succeed if it is to ever get paid back. It is not the case that China now ‘owns’ the US as many posit. Indeed this would have allowed the US to continue being an importer of cheap consumer goods coming out of China as the US shifted its economy towards the future. US centricism also extends to larger ideological debates and the rise of illiberalism. Many continue to link these matters to the election of Trump, even though illiberalism found its own rise in Europe (if one can say it ever really receded in the first place) at least a few years before we even knew Trump would be running.
New World Order
The analysis, of a world moving from uni-polarity to multi-polarity, largely revolves around the international relations concept of ‘balance of power’ politics. It has little to do with the philosophical and political makeup of domestic politics.
As the term suggests, balance of power politics holds power as the ultimate measure of who does what and can get away with it and has nothing to do with the moral astuteness of those actors or the ideology they claim to represent. Yet somehow, this shift in power is being related to a shift in illiberalism as if to suggest that the power of the ‘western world’ had previously emanated from liberalism as a philosophy. As such, we now get headlines speaking of the retreat of liberalism as the dominant world order and the emergence of a new one based on illiberalism.
This has manifested itself most recently in the diplomatic spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, reacting to a tweet put out by the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister criticizing Saudi Arabia locking up a feminist activist, was met with Saudi Arabia recalling their ambassador from Ottawa, expelling the Canadian ambassador from Saudi Arabia and pulling out thousands of their students and patients from Canadian universities and hospitals, as well as freezing all future trade. Egypt, Palestine, and others have joined Saudi Arabia in condemning Canada’s ‘blatant’ interference in Saudi domestic affairs. The US and UK, supposed strong allies of Canada have kept quiet and distant from this diplomatic tussle.
Commentators have been quick to point out the hypocrisy of Saudi Arabia accusing Canada in meddling in domestic affairs. Saudi Arabia is currently embroiled in a civil war in Yemen and has previously used its army to quash a civil uprising in neighboring Bahrain. It is also part of a coalition that has imposed sanctions and a trade embargo on Qatar, placing 13 conditions to lift the embargo.
Saudi commentators on the other hand, to support their unequivocal diplomatic fit, have also rightfully been sharing facts about Canada’s human rights history when it comes to indigenous relations, women's rights, and Quebecois separatism.
Most commentators have assumed, and I would say correctly so, that Saudi Arabia is using Canada as an example to make it clear that anyone who wants to cooperate with them better keep their mouth shut. This has been interpreted by some as being “emblematic of a liberal international system that is wobbling.” But what previously made the international system liberal?
Canada has and continues to supply arms to Saudi Arabia despite its known human rights violations. So has the US and the UK. So as strange as this episode in diplomatic sparring is, it doesn’t really present us with anything new. Saudi Arabia is still the autocratic country it always was, and the ‘Western world’ is still the one trying to preserve its power with perverse trade deals and alliances.
The sort of analysis that suggests that we are now at an end of some liberal golden age presumes, wrongly, that liberalism was the motivating force behind the previous world order. This, though, becomes nothing but an ideological fall back to allow for moral entrenchment in global affairs, a sort of “Yes, we sold you weapons. But at least we’re liberal”. Saudi Arabia is but an example here and we can draw several other examples from history where ‘liberal’ western countries have aided and abetted despotic or illiberal regimes.
Whether or not liberalism existed can also be tested on a domestic level.
The ideals of liberal philosophy focused around democracy, fair distribution of wealth through the provision of education and opportunity, egalitarianism, and most of all, as stated in the US Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.”
It is clear that liberal governments have failed to deliver on these values as indicated by the continuous growth of wealth inequality and the collapse of trust in government. The demarcation line between liberal and illiberal has remained largely idealistic and moral. Globalization and trade led to the spread of this ideal but in practice those who claimed to be liberal were practicing nothing more than a form of ‘elitism lite’. It is for this reason that many commentators welcomed the election of Donald Trump. His election, some think, reveals that the liberalism the ‘Western world’ had touted is nothing but a veneer.
The economic crash put a stop to this ideal (or maybe a temporary halt).This despondence is felt mostly within general publics that, as I have previously written, have been sold this idea of liberalism and have received the globalist education making them believers in the aspirational messages found within it, but now find themselves in a world that cannot meet the very standards it sets.
Absent its ideological kernel, our institutions have become bastardized versions of what they were meant to be, thriving on elitism and power with a veneer of liberalism. Unsurprisingly, they have failed to deliver what they promised and so, to fill the gap that our institutions have left, social justice activism has taken root.
As the name suggests, social activism is concerned with organization on a social level outside the political systems that are in place. Movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, March for Our Lives, and various refugee support and anti-austerity groups have been successful at challenging the way we look at the world and the way we speak about each other. They have come to life from a need unmet by our ‘liberal’ institutions.
These movements are not bound by domestic borders either, reflecting a mirror image of the international nature and failures of the ‘liberal’ system. Their internationalism is more akin to socialist inspired camaraderie. These movements then are pushing to create and live out the true sense of liberalism away from the balance of power politics that have dictated domestic and international governance.
The economic and administrative collapse pushed all politics, not just liberal politics, to take on a social nature.
The rise of illiberalism in Europe is a direct result of the failures of liberalism to take hold in the first place. Many academics have noticed that the countries first to fall to illiberal politics were those that never had strong social bonds to counter a rise in racism and undemocratic sentiment.
Even the reemergence of white supremacy is a sort of social activism — organizing on a social level to achieve what is perceived as justice, of course, in the most fascist of senses. The idea is that there is a white genocide underway because ‘hordes’ of people, who cannot organize in their own countries (as claimed by nationalists), are somehow here to usurp the Western way of life. In the US, similar claims of demographic changes due to illegal and legal immigration are being touted.
The whole of the Refugee crisis, which is what is credited with the rise of illiberalism, is the perfect example of how liberalism was never there. If it was there it would have been impossible that an influx of 5 million (from 2008 to 2017) for a European population of 511 million (2017) would have caused its collapse! The idea that a .9% change in demographics could somehow lead to the collapse of western way of life is absolutely absurd. This suggests that the sudden change in political direction in Europe has much more to do with political opportunism than the crisis itself.
What all of these movements have in common is that they lean more than anything on the same sort of moral superiority of the past. It is an entrenchment into an idea of the purity of a western identity, which is in fact nothing more than a sort of moral chauvinism justified by any concepts necessary like race, religion, and the ideology of liberalism. These are all empty signifiers.
The rise of so called Illiberal democracy is laughed at by those on the hard left. For them, democracy, even in its most liberal forms, was illiberal and always functioned to protect the interests of an elite. The idea of an illiberal democracy then is just another way to create a moral differentiation and justify the way so called liberal democracies always behaved: “Yes we were globalists, elitists, and opportunists, but at least we made it look like we were liberal.”
The conflation of liberalism with a befallen international order is dangerous and inaccurate. It is dangerous as it stands in the way of accurate analysis and solution formulation. It is inaccurate because, although the two are interrelated, the newfound illiberalism and isolationism in the US is leading to a shift in the balance of power. It is untrue that this signifies an overall emergence of illiberal politics, which remains a domestic issue. Politics on the international level will continue to be determined by balance of power politics as long as borders and nations continue to exist.
On the other hand, illiberalism is truly on the rise, but to tie this to a receding internationalism mainly on the part of the US is mistaken as, once again, it assumes that there was a previous benevolent ‘liberal order.’ In reality, the idea of ‘Western civilization’, as Gandhi reportedly said, remains nothing more than a good idea that has failed to materialize on any level. It is a concept that will continue to be used morally to justify a false superiority and illiberal actions and interventions based on power.
With all of this, it will be important to keep an eye on the larger ongoing ideological debates which are being fueled by social movements on the ground. They will point the way out of the failures that our systems have left us to contend with, not the ‘strongmen’ that many have become enamored with.