Twilight of Liberals and The Reinvention of History
2016 has been a watershed year for many 'Liberals' - with its paradigm shifting events such as Brexit and Trump - but the writing was perhaps on the wall. And, it is not just an Anglo-American affair: There was Modi in India, Abe in Japan, Putin in Russia and Erdoğan in Turkey, not to mention the muscular turns in China or Philippines. Nor this ends with 2016: That Marine Le Pen still remains the Front Runner in France, the Swedish election is uncomfortably close, there is open racism on the streets of Poland and Hungary, and Italy is all set to go crazy too, indicate that 2016 is some sort of a start. The twilight of the Liberals may have arrived.
'Liberals' is a very imprecise category, and over the years, it has come to mean almost everything, resulting in a confusion who the liberals really were, and what they stood for. The traditional definition - that Liberals are not Conservatives - has long been superseded by a mishmash of agendas, and Liberals came to mean different things - small government advocates and big government advocates, social freedom champions and admirers of Stalin, all in one basket. So, who won and who lost in 2016 is somewhat difficult to define, and it is best to leave those definitional issues to future academic conferences and unreadable papers that would surely be churned. It is better to stick to a more pedestrian sense of the Liberal - those who went down in 2016 (and before) called themselves Liberals and those who hated them called them 'Liberals' too!
However, this definitional issue is not mere pedantry, but of some significance in arriving at an understanding what happened. Commentators, who call themselves 'Liberals' and clearly do not like what happened, are somewhat at a loss, as they see a 'Turkeys voting for Christmas' in real life: Poor people in America voting for Trump, towns in Britain dependent on European aid voting for Brexit or Muslims in Indian Uttar Pradesh voting for Mr Modi's party! Democracy seems to have reached its apotheosis, and, ideologies, even interests, stopped to matter: All electoral politics have been plunged into the deep despair of inexistence of alternatives. There is something the electorate has rejected, and is rejecting, but with limited capacity of self-criticism - which is a dangerous shortcoming when combined with a monopoly of criticism that 'Liberals' claimed to have - there is no way of knowing what is it they have rejected.
Some perceptive commentators see this as 'The Age of Anger', a romantic, emotional outburst against the overtly rationalistic technocracies that we overbuilt. The voter demographies seem to confirm some of it: Poor white voters without college education voting for Trump, the working class voters voting for Brexit, the Hindi heartland in India drooling over Modi, etc. But these pictures are constructed to confirm the theory - that this is an irrational departure - and at least in some cases, like the college-educated women voting for Trump, the Indian professionals in London voting for Brexit or Indian technical and scientific community voting for Modi, the awkward facts are airbrushed out of the conversation. The 'irrational' is the natural opposite of the 'rational', and this construction - that people with limited ability to reason has revolted against reason - provide both an explanation and a hope about the temporality of this departure (and makes sense of the extraordinary predictions game, indulged on by serious newspapers, about how long the Trump Presidency would last).
It is against this explanation, and this hope, that I wanted to offer my criticism, and claim that the events of 2016 - or, more broadly, the 'populist turn' - is not a romantic revolution, nor a parade of temporary self-destruction of the uneducated, and there may be no apocalypse, or even, a mild 'I-told-you-so' moment of self-gratification, in the end. What went before, if we call it the 'Liberal' age, is well and truly over, and it is not coming back. This end, of an era of optimism and expansion, set in motion since the 90s, is to be understood first in a self-critical way before we can participate, organise and resist the politics of today.
The politics since the 90s were built, I shall claim, on three fundamental principles: First, globalisation is good; second, there is a political class and then there is the rest of us; and three, technology is destiny. These three together gave us an unique and contemporary vision of modernity, in which history is made redundant and possibilities of self-creation looked boundless, creating, even if for a very brief moment (as it seems now) a phenomena that was made of the stuff of dreams of kings and courtiers: A people without politics! Politics seemed redundant as all politicians spoke the same language, and the forces that control our lives seemed distant and complex.
The 'Liberal' politics, as we call it now after its passing, was one of anti-politics. It was about creating the valences of the rhetoric, to make the political words, such as 'democracy' or 'secular', so expansive and oft-used that they are rendered meaningless. It was about creating a millennerian vision of an end and a new beginning, of old rules and values discarded without trace, of a fatalistic optimism about technological progress in an enthusiastic embrace; of leadership being a distinct craft left to the gifted and of concentrating on little joys of we as consumers instead. The global was to wipe our local clean, technology was to reform our practices, English was to become Lingua Franca (this one is not without irony) and all politics was to converge into a politics of convergence, of the centre, as it was called. The history of us since the 90s was one of not having one.
What people are revolting against now, primarily, is this anti-politics. They have been told - leave it to us - and they did; and life has not got better. They have been told about the dire consequences of not doing what they were told to do, but they were told, perhaps, just too many times. The revolt now is one of revolt itself, of politics against the lack of it, of local against global, of history - what else can you call Brexit - against not having one. The Liberal failure is not one of not educating people, but of making education all style and no substance. It is about promoting a future that is independent of politics, and of responsibility. Once we edited out the stories of all the trouble people took to gain their freedom, of all those painful steps of progress and instead promoted the magic of technology to bring a future into being, we made the world bland, unidirectional, shorn of agency and taken for granted.
What happens now is a return of History. This is that George Santayana moment of being doomed to repeat history because of our ignorance of it. The politics-less of our being is being swept away by an urgency of political action, of false hopes first, and then of activism. This has been the course of political change, so many times in history. This is a point of realisation of the futility of millennial promise - that History can plausibly end - and a return of possibilities in our political lives. It matters who you call Liberal: Those who look to build the future should rejoice the moment and give a hand in reconstructing the possibilities.