20th Century Liberalism is dying, there is no third way (and there never was)

For those who perhaps haven’t been following the US primaries too closely (although I doubt it on this site) the election came alive on Tuesday night. Whilst the Republican contest is still all to play for – with Cruz, Trump and in spite of everything, not least himself, Jeb Bush all in with a reasonable shot at victory – the Democratic race is now far more interesting, and frankly significant.

A week after failing to grab Iowa, as I thought he probably needed to he, not only did Bernie Sanders win in New Hampshire – but he won by a landslide. The scale of his victory by 22 points and his dominance over almost every demographic with the exception rich, old, white people – among other surprises he took 55% of the women’s vote – has radically changed this election. For the first time it’s a credible proposition that Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘shock’ Labour victory could be replicated in the US.

The mainstream liberal media in the states and elsewhere can’t get their heads round the Sanders’ surge. This is scarcely a surprise given that the British press are still yet come to terms with Corbyn’s win, or perhaps more accurately, continue to have no interest in doing so (a lot of Americans one suspects are about to discover the real values of some their supposedly progressive papers). The true reasons of course aren’t difficult to grasp or explain.

I’ve read reams of political coverage, mainly from the liberal centre, that divides neatly between narrow, often data heavy, analyses that though sometimes interesting, are more often a measure of symptoms than causes, and caterwauling, baffled jeremiads that accuse Sanders’ supporters of being either angry militant iconoclasts, the flipside to Trump’s moronic horde , and simultaneously hopelessly deluded dreamers; fantasists without no conception of how power really works, often in the same cognitively dissonant paragraph. That or they simply blame Hillary for her lack of charisma and judgement, before with no apparent trace of irony, putting forward Joe Biden as a replacement.

Amongst all the coverage however the one line that struck me more than any other was uttered by a Clinton campaign donor who simply moaned to journalists, “We have no message.” And it’s true, beyond her possession of a vagina Clinton would bring nothing novel to the presidency. Defending Obama’s few scarcely revolutionary successes alongside another stab at changing gun laws represents the summit of her ambitions.

The reason for all this – her lack of initiative, her lack of message and increasingly her lack of support – is that liberalism today is dying. And it is dying because it has won all the battles it conceivably could have.

Liberalism has dominated Western governments, of both the nominal left and right, for a generation, in the US as much as the UK. And arguably, in its own limited fashion, at least for the West, this has been on balance a good thing. We are not quite as bigoted as we once were, or at least not in the binary fashion we used to be, while those not on the breadline have greater choice – if not genuine material opportunity – than ever before. Liberalism in the past year has arguably achieved its progressive apotheosis in passing gay marriage legislation, and in so doing demonstrated its values trump those of at least one once culturally dominant religion.

But what other battles do liberals, beyond their anxious desire to retain power, have left to fight? There may outwardly appear to be plenty. You could pick out climate change, inequality, dysfunctional capitalism yet find yourself wondering: do liberals really have the stomach for these

fights? And even if they do, are these battles liberals have any chance of winning? It’s hard now to be an optimist for liberalism. Efforts to mitigate climate change showcase just one of their typically Pyrrhic victories – a cultural consensus achieved but at the expense of an accommodation with mammon that largely nullifies the prospect of effective practical action.

By contrast liberals have ploughed juggernaut free trade deals and the like (from the troika to TPP) past any democratic safeguards – impervious to the consequence that rather than setting people free such deals have acted in the West as a wage depressant and elsewhere, unattached to significant political reforms, have only bankrolled oligarchs. This shouldn’t be a surprise though. When for liberals has equality ever mattered as much as superficial versions of opportunity?

Liberalism is at an impasse. The current world order has been largely constructed by western liberals according to classical liberal values. And to such secure ideologues, happy to accommodate vulture capitalism with a light touch, and uninterested by inequality, it may even resemble a sort of utopia: a society on the march to a better world; a system of progress that cannot be denied (that it is meanwhile at least as remorseless as Stalinism is merely by-the-by). For everyone else however, including probably most significantly increasing numbers of young westerners, liberalism’s hallmarks are insecurity and inequality.

The rebels now are everywhere. Some are natural Conservative nostalgists anxious to reset their worlds into the static hierarchies that never quite existed to begin with. Some are liberals themselves who have wandered into the cul-de-sac of identity politics unable to distinguish symptoms from causes. But for the more rational considering liberalism limits – its failures particularly to uphold global egalitarianism, to acknowledge that all human lives have truly equal value and to face up to the fact that the divisions between classes across the globe are growing with an impact that cannot be left to self-correct or that can even be managed gently – socialism is back on the table. A time of reckoning now approaches. Liberals, though they do not want to, will have to choose between joining with a left that wants to close class and economic divisions (quite possibly by illiberal methods) – or of coming to an accommodation with the nascent stirrings of fascism, re-emerging in its usual demagogic fashion in the Donald Trump’s of every country calling out for walls and state powers “much worse than waterboarding” – men will police the divisions without mercy. There is no third way. There never was.

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