First this is a bit of a circuitous post, and, second I may be marching confidently into a space where even the bravest angels fear to tread, but an article in Foreign Affairs by Dr Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute caught my eye. It was the headline that intrigued me: “Post-Liberalism, East and West ~ Islamism and the Liberal State.” I self identify as a classical, even a 19th century liberal, someone who, as Shadi Hamid says, holds to “a political philosophy premised on individual choice, non-negotiable rights (especially those of minorities), state neutrality, and constraining the role of “private” religious belief in the public sphere.” Now, my views on non-negotiable (fundamental) rights, which I have often restated, may be somewhat more constrained than Dr Hamid’s but I agree, broadly, with how he describes liberals.
The reasons that real liberals are wary of religions, especially of big, powerful, earnest religions, is that they want, even need, to replace “individual choice” with some form of submission to the edicts of a god as interpreted and explained by other men. As Shadi Hamid says for many religious fundamentalists “true freedom meant the freedom to be as religious as one wished to be—and in conservative societies this tended to be quite religious.” Some (many?) liberals, like me, equate religiously driven politics with the very worst sort of illiberal government. I have, elsewhere on social media, expressed my distaste for politicians who tell me how to pray and preachers who tell me how to vote … both are a total waste of oxygen and both need to be consigned to the socio-political dung heap.
Now, the threat that I perceive to liberalism is not just from illiberal Islam. I believe that Western leaders, as diverse and Jeremy Corbyn, Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump …
… all of whom are stunningly illiberal in their attitudes and approaches to issues, are an equally grave threat.
Shadi Hamid explains that “Despite the hopes of Western observers, liberalism fared poorly in these Arab Spring–era debates. Without a preexisting liberal consensus in Middle Eastern societies, alternatives to liberalism—namely Islamism—weren’t merely considered; in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, they were voted into power … [but] … The outlines of a mythical Islamic society tended to remain vague beyond the general preference for more social conservatism rather than less. Details would always be difficult: Islamic law, revealed as it was in the seventh century, wasn’t designed for the nation-state or, for that matter, the modern international system. Islam, in its original form, assumed that one’s primary allegiance was to a religious community rather than a nation.” Does that mean that a good Muslim cannot be a good democrat, too? No … not as long, anyway, as the good Muslim truly believes that his or her faith is an entirely private matter between him or her and his or her god, while government is an equally entirely public and wholly secular exercise about how many, diverse people can live together, cooperatively and peacefully in a free and open society wherein no group may impose its beliefs on others.
This is not the first time I have been seized with this issue. But the “rise of the right” in America and Europe has sparked renewed debate about the future of liberalism.
I doubt that classical liberalism ~ John Locke, John Stuart Mill, et al ~ will ever find it easy to take root in anything other North-West European soil … even the enlightenment was difficult to transplant from liberal Scotland to illiberal France. The liberal ideas had even greater difficulty finding a home in the Slavic and Orthodox lands and by the 16th century Islam which is profoundly illiberal in its outlook had established itself throughout the Middle East and West Asia.
As I have explained before, the opposite of liberal is NOT conservative, it is illiberal. In terms of democracy I used the example of a gravity well to describe the fate of illiberal democracies ~ think much of the EU ~ and the phenomena that seems to help some liberal and some conservative democracies to thrive. I am not surprised to see illiberal movements on the rise on much of Europe, especially not in South and Eastern Europe nor in Latin America. I was not surprised at the outcome of the Arab Spring. I always thought that the notion that it was the US led West’s duty or destiny to spread liberal democracy ~ see The Project for a New American Century ~ was a pipe-dream by people who didn’t really understand much about democracy. It seemed to me that they, smart people like Paul Wolfowitz, Don Rumsfeld, Francis Fukuyama and John Bolton, really wanted to spread American consumer-capitalism and free market values, not liberalism … it’s not that they are all unrelated it is just that American consumer-capitalism is, largely, a consequence of English liberalism, not part of it. It is possible for some nations, like The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to be models of American consumer-capitalism and still be dangerously illiberal. Compare one of the über-rich Arab states, the UAE, for example, to e.g. Singapore or Norway: they all have similar GDPs ($(S)325 to 400 Billion) and population (5 to 10 million) but they are vastly different when it comes to e.g. governance: Transparency International rates Norway and Singapore as the 3rd and 6th “best” countries in the world in terms of corruption (Canada is tied with the Netherlands and the UK for 8th, the USA is 16th). But the UAE, although it is the “best” (least corrupt) country in the Middle East and North Africa region, is still in the second tier. The UAE has over 9 million inhabitants ~ only 1.5 Million are Emarati citizens, about 8 Million are migrant workers coming, in the main, from India (2.8 million), Bangladesh (1.1 million), Pakistan (950,000), Egypt (715,000) and the Philippines (418,000). The conditions imposed on the migrants workers have been harshly criticized, but they are improving. But it is, likely, an unsustainable situation. The UAE cannot, in any sensible way, be “on the same page” as Norway and Singapore and most other OECD nations. It may be less corrupt than its neighbours but it, an absolute monarchy with near slave labour laws and Sharia ~ including flogging and beheading, is, simply not a trustworthy, modern, 21st century “partner” nation. It may be rich and modern, on the surface, but, underneath the glitz, gold and glamour it is a festering sore.
Norway, like Canada is a modern, sophisticated, secular, liberal democracy; Singapore is a modern, sophisticated, secular conservative democracy. Some critics claim that Singapore is a flawed democracy because it has harsh libel laws and restricts e.g. public demonstrations that interfere with the day-to-day business of ordinary, law abiding citizens. Those claims are nonsense. Singapore is more careful of fundamental rights ~ life, liberty, property and privacy than are America, Australia, Britain, Canada and Denmark. The rights to “freedom of speech” and “freedom of assembly” are constrained in many counties, including tiny Singapore ~ there are protests but they are confined to a few, very precious, public spaces and may not disrupt traffic ~ and in other countries, including Canada, the “freedom to demonstrate” has, very arguably, gone to far and permission to march now seems to include permission to riot and commit arson. Just yesterday, for example, in Ottawa, many “ordinary Canadians” were prevented from going about their lawful activities so that some other “ordinary Canadians” could use the streets to march through the city and on to Parliament Hill for a pro-life demonstration. I support the right to protest but I also support the “right” to go about one’s daily business … someone missed making a sale, in downtown Ottawa, someone lost a job because they missed an interview, someone didn’t get to visit a friend in hospital, someone else missed an airplane … don’t their rights matter? Whose “rights” have priority? Why is Singapore wrong? Meanwhile one’s rights to private property are far, far less well protected in Canada than in Singapore.
But my daily reading list is convinced that liberal (and conservative) democracy is on its last legs, under attack from e.g. Donal Trump and Nigel Farage and Martine LePen and Viktor Orbán, as “marginally democratic countries have become increasingly authoritarian … [and] … authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements have grown strong enough to threaten democracy’s long-term health in several rich, established democracies, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.“
I’m not so worried … first, illiberal democracy has been more the norm than the exception for over 100 years … liberal democracy requires a very fine mix of values and institutions and traditions and social cohesion that is, quite simply, too rare in our world. Conservative democracy requires a similar, but somewhat different mix. Many European countries, including e.g. France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Spain, to name a few, never had the right mix and so, while democracy did take root, it did so in a very illiberal garden. The French and the Italians do cherish their individual freedoms and they want to, freely, choose their governments and so on but they also believe, fairly firmly, in the “leadership” of the state in too many areas. But, by and large, despite a too large dose of statism, which exists here, too, especially in Quebec, the illiberal democracies are better and more stable and trustworthy than the various authoritarian regimes ~ absolute monarchies, dictatorships and so on. Plus I think I might just see a reaction to e.g. President Trump in America’s run up to the next elections. The pendulum tends to apply in politics, too … always remembering that the pendulum does not swing just left and right.
Second, and I’m almost at my main point, we need to be conscious of the fact that politics is not just a left vs right or democracy vs dictatorship thing … we can have some very illiberal autocrats leading governments in some otherwise quite liberal democracies …
… and, yes, I do think that President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau are very, very much alike in their highly, even wholly illiberal approach to governing ~ it’s “my way or the highway” for both. The difference is that Justin Trudeau is a progressive illiberal while Donald Trump is a regressive illiberal. But, in their approach to values, for example, there is nothing at all to choose between Prime Minister Trudeau and Brad Trost …
… both believe strongly, even passionately in some issues and both, being wholly illiberal, want to impose their personal beliefs on all of us … as law. There is nothing at all to choose, nothing of any import, anyway, between Brad Trost, Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump … all three are dangerously illiberal politicians trying to subvert liberal democracy.
But, liberalism and liberal democracy are tougher than we imagine … each is like a mighty oak tree, old and hard and solid, with deep roots in Scandinavian and Anglo Saxon culture. Both have survived many, many tests in the past and both will survive Trost, Trudeau and Trump and modern 21st century illiberalism … as long as enough of us, almost all of us being Conservatives in Canada, hold true to real liberal values.