By Kumar David –
New Populism scuttles liberalism but will be wrecked on its own delusions
I have frequently used the term New Populism (NP hereafter). It has not caught on yet outside Lanka, but give it time. I can’t think of a better collective noun for the phenomenon. Brexit, Rodrigo Duarte, Donald Trump, Modi’s sky-high personal popularity paradoxically contradicted by his much ostracised demonetisation, the Five Star Movement’s referendum victory forcing Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to resign, the only marginal defeat of far-right’s Norbert Hofer who polled 47% in December 2016 in Austria’s presidential election (he won with 50.4% in the annulled May election) and the likelihood of Marine Le Penn coming first in the first round of French presidential polls, mark a general trend, not a collection of accidents. Liberal democrats are at sea and wring their hands in dismay. For example Fareed Zakaria (Rise of Illiberal Democracy) in Foreign Affairs Nov/Dec 1997 (sic) wails for a dozen pages. The Economist, theoretical mouthpiece of global capitalism is flummoxed; its exhortations time after time have been ignored by electorates throughout 2016. More on the Economist anon.
This global drift is not without local resonance. Last week I said rumour had it that President Sirisena’s wing of the SLFP is backpedalling on the new constitution. John Seneviratne’s (JS) Sunday Leader (15 Jan) interview confirms and clarifies the game plan. JS, a Cabinet Minister, is a Sirisena minion and he makes bold to say the SLFP-Sirisena squad’s perspectives are: to retain the executive presidency intact and to promote a Sirisena-Gotabaya (President-PM) ticket. He canvasses these ideas as the best options and claims Sirisena will make a statement to this effect “soon”. Would he dare suggest this unless he had a green light from the boss? All the ministers now conniving to retain the executive presidency (JS, SB, Nimal Siripala, AP Yapa and S Premajayantha) were hard-core Mahinda stalwarts up to 8 January. But afterwards greed for Cabinet posts was too much to resist. Now they conspire to smuggle in through the back door that which was rejected at the elections.
The ramifications of these machinations are not my topic today except to add that a Gotabaya PM-ship is the spear on which the Rajapaksa clan will impale pitiable Sirisena if this ticket were to come to power. A Sirisena-Gota axis, if it materialises, will be Lanka’s contribution to the global Trump-Durante-Brexit phenomenon, and in power it will be religion-race inspired authoritarianism. I will have to return to the Lankan angle in the coming weeks as I have too much on my plate dealing the international dimension today.
The intention of this piece is to censure liberals and their ideology; or to be exact, to flay liberal democratic values unless accompanied by radical social democracy and by wealth and income redistribution measures which do not occur naturally in capitalist economics.
Squeezed and angry
I am surprised that learned liberals can’t comprehend why most of the world is turning its back on the status quo. What else is one to expect when eight billionaires have the same amount of wealth as 50% of the world’s population (since 2015 the richest 1% owned has owned more than the rest of the planet); 57 billionaires in India have the same wealth as the lowest 70%; let alone the poor even the global middle class is squeezed and angry. These statistics are from a study issued by Oxfam ahead of the World Economic Forum (WCF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland last week. The titles of some of the WCF sessions betray the summit’s desolation: “Politics of Fear or Rebellion of the Forgotten”, “Tolerance at the Tipping Point” and “Squeezed and Angry”.
And it’s not the economy alone. At no time in history has there been such a pronouncedly complex and toxic intermingling of people, migrants, refugees and faiths. This is creating a deep sense of anxiet6y and animosity; vide Trumps vicious populist-racism, the humiliation of Angela Merkel by large numbers of her own countrymen, the big cheer for Brexit for slamming the door on immigrants and inter-Islamic Sunni-Shia bloodletting in the Middle East. And unless I am wrong by a long chalk at no time in history has terrorism been so globally pervasive. The global system is broken!
Stated plainly there is something unprecedented and enormous happening, politically and socially. Public trust in leaders and institutions has collapsed (Trump’s approval rating has plunged from 45% to below 35% even before his inauguration) and free-market capitalism is rated a failure by a majority even in Europe and America. The state of global politics is worse than it has been at any time since WW2 and more depressing than even in the heyday of Regan-Thatcher neo-liberalism.
The sorry state of liberal aspirations
I will summarise and quote from the leader article of the December 24th 2016-January 6th 2017 double issue of The Economist. “For liberals this has been a bad year . . . globalisation has become a slur, nationalism and even authoritarianism have flourished”. The piece mentions all the cases I have spotlighted and adds that “illiberal democracy” has widespread support in Hungary, Poland and Turkey and notes that in the Philippines voters have chosen a president who deploys death squads. The editor laments “faced with is litany, many liberals of the free-market sort have lost their nerve and some have gone on to write epitaphs for the liberal order”.
The editorial goes on to say that liberalism has had it too easy for the last quarter century and “decayed into laziness and complacency”. Amid growing inequality the winners told themselves that they lived in a meritocracy and their success was deserved. Those running the economy marvelled at their own brilliance until the house of cards collapsed – which is now. Well one can go along with most of this except that it seeks purely subjective rationalisations. It is all a ‘they did this, they didn’t do that so the process unravelled’ kind of explanation. It is not false, but in laying out the superficial causal forces that drive economic and social processes it could not have been otherwise. If it is to be free and untrammelled, or largely untrammelled capitalism, then it could not have been otherwise. Any and every economic arrangement has certain basic mores, rules, laws, conventions or what you will by which it functions and far capitalism to be capitalism the drive to profit, competition, surplus value extraction and reinvestment, accumulation and growth are all sine qua non.
But if that’s the way it HAS to work, then all the stuff that Oxfam laments and the folks at Davos shed crocodile tears about is as inevitable as night follows day. It is the inevitability of the hard logic of capitalism that the liberals delude themselves about. The very meaning of market capitalism is that it is allowed to develop in consonance with this logic. Regulation must be with a light touch. The unending refrain of the market is that regulation and state interference shackles the economy and undermines growth. Isn’t “reform” (wage and benefit restraint) the chorus of the liberal bourgeoisie? Only the most essential rights for protection of person, property and society must be allowed to interfere with the free-market, this is the creed of liberal capitalism. There is no denying that the obscene wealth and income gap, the anger of the mass of people at being left out in the cold and the roots of New Populism itself are squarely anchored in the prevailing economic order and how it (how it has to) function.
The con-solutions offered by the Economist
The “solutions” proposed editorially are pathetic; it must have been obvious to the author that he/she was clutching at straws; the style betrays it. But my intention is not to take a shot at a magazine much venerated by my liberal friends, but rather to heckle these friends and interlocutors themselves; the Economist is a surrogate target. Can you ease the problems of a “world that is disintegrating and polarising” (WEC founder Klaus Schweb’s words) by dilettante frolics of run-of-the-mill liberals and their intellectual standard bearers such as The Economist? The great magazine proposes as follows and though abbreviated I quote nearly verbatim:-
- Explore avenues that technology and social needs will open.
- Devolve power from state to cities.
- Politics should escape sterile partnerships using new forms of local democracy.
- The labyrinth of taxation and regulation should be rationalised.
- Education must be transformed to suit brand new industries.
- And I can’t resist this riposte: “We must all fiddle while Rome burns”.
“The possibilities are as yet unimagined” The Economist proclaims but in truth what is incredible is the pointlessness which misses the mark by leagues. I say: You creeps the problem lies a not in (a) to (e) but in a massive inequality of wealth, an orders of magnitude disparity in incomes, a sense of hopelessness alienation in a modern market-driven economics, and a petty consumerist value system that is the moral side of a society so organised.
Let me be blunt about it. The liberal prayer (a) to (e) and much else trivia that the liberal press and economists invoke the gods to grant (they don’t smash coconuts in those countries) are beside the point. The priority has nothing to do with any of this and at the price of annoying you please permit me to repeat: Its about inequality of wealth, gross disparity of income, alienation of people and the absence of power to influence social life since all power is usurped by the uppermost, and about escaping from the inanity of a value system and crass consumerism whose raison d’être is the supremacy and dominance of a wholly market-driven order.
The moral foundations of liberalism are decent,; tolerance, open-mindedness, secularism in public life and the free exchange of goods and people. It is when liberalism does not correspond to the material conditions of social life, when liberalism is not at the same time social democracy, that it becomes impotent. That is when a good intentioned but narrow in socio-economic perspectives political programme goes belly-up. Social democracy in a sense is the attempt to integrate the best and open values of liberalism with socially fair economic practices.