A decade ago, on what was my first and so far last visit to China, I spent four weeks hewing to an established tourist trail: the Great Wall, Xian’s Terracotta Army, the panda sanctuary of Chengdu. But by far the most indelible image of the trip was rather less fluffy. It occurred in Xi Zhan, Beijing’s colossal West Railway Station. On the concourse, amid the raging torrent of people streaming through the entrance, I saw three figures lying on the concrete floor. Their threadbare clothes and piled possessions identified them as peasants, part of the miserable crowd I’d seen earlier, gathered outside the station, who I’d guessed had been drawn to the city for work but now sat desolate on hessian bags, as if waiting for some divine inspiration to show them the way. And here were these three prone — alive or dead, I honestly couldn’t tell — as hundreds of commuters just…stepped over them as if they didn’t exist. And only when I’d been swept outdoors on the human tide did it strike me how horrifying this was, how cold-blooded the indifference of the commuting masses.

This was at a time when the Chinese economic miracle was in overdrive. The economy was growing at 12 percent a year, and new skyscrapers were erupting across the Beijing skyline. The streets positively hummed with energy and opportunity. And when I saw those emaciated bodies on the concrete, I thought, “God, is this what it takes to thrive?”

If you look back over the dominant empires and hegemonies of recent centuries, it is all too easy to identify a common thread in the callousness that seems to go hand-in-hand with political ascension. Throughout history, cultural and economic dominance has been sustained by some form of myth-making, wherein a people rationalize their dominion over others by cultivating a belief in their special status.

Editorial cartoon entitled ‘The White (?) Man’s Burden,’ with caricatures representing the US, UK, Germany, and France as they are carried on the shoulders of non-Caucasian men. Credit: Stock Montage/Getty Images

In the 19th century, the Scramble for Africa was couched in the language of social Darwinism — the ostensible obligation of the Christian world to civilize foreign savages was the “white man’s burden,” a mission mandated by God. The Nazis justified their expansionism by mythologizing Aryan genetic superiority and their entitlement to lebensraum. The American century that followed was propelled by that once unshakable American exceptionalism, the idea of America as the greatest country on earth, where to exist was a privilege to be paid back in graft. And in the early 1980s, Deng Xiaoping awakened China’s inner Gordon Gecko by reforming the country’s communist economy; two decades later, the workforce he unshackled was stepping over the wretched bodies of those left behind. All examples in which prosperity was abetted by varying degrees of chauvinism and sin, where a sense of national mission became a vehicle of effective, often monstrous action.

Now, let’s think a moment about the flip side of this equation. If greed and callousness are preconditions of national success, what becomes of a society that strives to be better? As we take stock of the current crisis in Western liberalism, the question comes into sharper focus: What if liberalism and equality have come to appear synonymous with both psychological and economic decline?

German Lebensraum propaganda card designed to justify the expansion of Germany. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

This idea that the liberal project correlates with stagnation is one that would seem to underscore much of right-wing capitalist ideology today. Conservative thinkers seldom frame it in such Manichean terms, preferring to present avarice and acquisition as a Randian kind of virtue that will eventually uplift the world. But there is no question that, viewed through a certain historical lens, there is a dynamism to self-interest. Patriotism may be, in Samuel Johnson’s famous formulation, “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” but the concept that we are a unique elect, united by a flag, is galvanizing. Such ideas are catalysts for our selfish genes.

The psychology finds perfect analogy, and an extra layer of timeliness, in the potency of individual narcissism. Self-belief is one the greatest weapons in the high-achiever’s arsenal, a facet capable of elevating someone of mediocre intelligence and skill—even, sometimes, rank idiocy—to great success. One could point to the self-anointed “very stable genius” in the Oval Office. But instances of malignant narcissism are ubiquitous throughout the upper echelons of business, media, and politics, not to mention the world of internet celebrity, where fame and fortune are often attainable through little more than determined social media management and some silicone injections.

Pop that delusional bubble and what are you left with? A better person, almost certainly. But one so conscious of their own shortcomings that they are no longer bolstered by the delusion of entitlement.

Understand this and it starts to become clearer why “liberalism” has become such a target for neo-nationalists today. On the surface, the grievances articulated and fomented by alt-right mouthpieces are sophistic if emotive arguments about the dangers of immigration, environmentalism, and globalization. But underscoring all the political point scoring is an almost unspoken suspicion — that in a dog-eat-dog world, where not all of our competitors are playing by the same rules, the West’s adherence to liberal values is cementing our demise.

In many ways, liberalism is best understood as an exercise in cultural self-criticism, but that awareness of our foibles comes at the price of a certain brand of confidence. The slogans emanating from the Trump-Brexit nexus — “Make America Great Again!” “Taking Back Control!” — could not make this any more explicit. When Trump took to the lectern at his inauguration to usher in a new age of “America First,” the subtext was obvious: This country was great when we didn’t give a shit about people beyond our shores. By resurrecting that self-interested ethos, we can make it so again!

A painted mural in Dover, southeast England, by British graffiti artist Banksy depicting a workman chipping away at one of the stars on a European Union (EU) themed flag. Credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

“This country used to have an empire!” one pro-Brexit Facebook friend once shrieked at me when I took issue with his politics. What had, to my liberal mind, seemed to be a source of shame — slavery; global conquest down the barrel of a gun; the exploitation of foreign people’s resources, labour, and cultural treasures on a hitherto unprecedented scale — was to him a cause for pride. And the liberal consciousness, embodied in the EU and the 21st-century British establishment, had stolen it from him. Like millions of others, he saw in Brexit a possible harkening back to that simple period where we, the people, all subscribed to our national myth. The British spirit he remembered was unmolested by the complexities of guilt and introspection. Life in the past may have been blighted by hardship, but you were British, and there was self-esteem, even purpose, in that fact alone.

As late as the 1980s, a decade in which American exceptionalism resurfaced with a vengeance to drown out the soul searching that accompanied the Vietnam War, the foundational myth of American identity still looked unassailable. “America good, communism bad” was the ideological backbone of American hegemony, and it was, in its binary simplicity, an easier world to live in. How much more straightforward things are when the enemies in Top Gun don’t even have faces! How easy it is to cheer for your side, ignoring the mutual humanity of those you have to trample over to get ahead.

This, more so than economic insecurity or xenophobia, is why identitarian politics in the West is on the march: Because national exceptionalism shores up our idea of who we are and our place in the world around us. The great tragedy of liberalism is that its attainment comes at the cost of our certainty. It is, as recent political tremors in the West have made only too clear, a cost that many people are not prepared to bear.

What is the alternative?

Well, the idealistic liberal rebuttal to this conservative belief in the necessity of self-interest is that another, better society is possible just as soon as we redefine our identity predicated not upon its opposition to others, but on broader, humanistic ideals. That pride, and a spirit of social unity and responsibility, can just as much stem from a society’s sense of openness and fairness as from patriotic fervor.

Reaching that point is no mean feat and certainly one that is much easier to embed from the vantage of prosperity. People often eulogize about the prevailing ethos of Scandinavian countries, but progressivism is easier to swallow when you have a GDP of $70,000 per capita and a multibillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund. It is no great insight, though one worth repeating, that 10 years ago the Western world’s preoccupations were ending child poverty and tackling the climate crisis. Everything that came later — the polarization, the atmosphere of instability and roiling anxiety — grew like an unstoppable contagion from a predictable vector: an economic crash and the attending realization that much of our civilizational model was founded on sand.

It is yet more sobering to consider that some of the countries that best embody this determined reconfiguration of national identity have only done so as part of a process of repudiating the unquestionable evils of their recent past. In Germany, a paragon of European social democracy, it required a chapter of industrial genocide. Rwanda, often portrayed as a tale of redemption in sub-Saharan Africa, where the fourth Saturday of the month is national Umuganda Day, in which adults are obliged to clean streets with their neighbors, achieved this more collective spirit through coercion, and in a state of national penance, after tribal divisions erupted into interethnic massacre.

Could it really be the case that every country must undergo some biblical reckoning in order to unify diverse peoples under a common banner? For the sake of our immediate future, we have to hope the answer is no.

Because the siren’s call of self-interest grows louder by the day. And the noblest aspirations of our better nature — peace and prosperity, forever rhetorically twinned but so hard to reconcile — still remain a distant dream.