19 January 2020

What comes afterward? redux: post-liberalisms rising

Given the somewhat worried tone of my non-hagiographical blog posts of late (like Hindsight and foresight, Ideological history, Solovyov and the problem of the post-sæcular), I felt it might be wise to spend some time speaking a bit more dispassionately and analytically about what I’m observing at this point in world news.

I don’t think that the news on that end is all bad; not a bit of it. I am merely asserting that those of us in the West who are sceptical of the legacy of liberalism need to tread carefully because we are setting out onto uncharted territory. It is very difficult for any of us to reference or chart a future without the complex of liberalism-slash-nominalism-slash-capitalism-slash-technocracy hanging over us. We have – and I very much include myself here – a tendency to look to winged visions of prisca theologica and other past manifestations of præ-liberal order in our attempts to envision what a post-liberal order will look like. But what is happening on the global scale, as history keeps proving itself to be very far from a Fukuyama-style end, is both terrifying and exhilarating. Instead of one post- or alter-liberalism popping up to assert itself, we have a whole plethora of them, and some of them are very clearly preferable to the others.

What I’m going to try to do here is to organise them in a systemic way, such that they can be placed in perspective with each other. The ‘liberal international order’ centred in Washington and New York which finds itself still in power but with ever-dwindling reserves of moral or theoretical legitimacy, is also playing favourites. That needs to be very carefully borne in mind. That said, the global backlash against liberalism, the Washington Consensus, neoliberal technocracy and austerity politics has afforded us a moment of fertile experimentation in terms of political organisation. It’s worth taking account of where all these options are coming from, what is prompting their rise, and where they are likely to go.

  1. Illiberal democratic socialism. This ‘option’ is the one I’ve been talking up for a long while now. It combines the œconomic priorities of democratic socialism (including public ownership, public infrastructure, state-mediated wage bargaining, strong welfare-state initiatives) with a strong Tory paternalist streak in social policy. Illiberal democratic socialists tend to be pro-natalist, pro-family, civic-communitarian, immigration-sceptical (but not racialist), classical in their architectural tastes. They also have a penchant for the preservation of wilderness and wildlife. Their star is currently ascendant in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Moldova and Slovakia), and has echoes in the Russkiy Mir’ politics of the Baltic states.

    One of the reasons I’m so bullish on the illiberal democratic socialism of Eastern Europe is because it so easily bears the peculiar Byzantine marks of Yugoslav and Czechoslovak politics that I’ve come to value so deeply. As such, they bear a kin resemblance – not at all accidental, in my own humble opinion – to the Tory socialisms of John Ruskin and William Morris which were so influential on me. At the very least, this illiberal democratic socialism may be a means for Yugoslavs and Eastern Europeans to assert a strong regional identity.

  2. Civilisational realism. This is the option that is being put forward primarily by the state and the leading theorists of Russia. As articulated by Dr Boris Mezhuev, civilisational realism is not so much an ideology as it is a strategy of engagement and an attempt to mitigate the effects of the modern de facto multipolar world order. The civilisational realists are noticeably informed by the conservatism of Karamzin, Il’in and Berdyaev, and very much opposed to manifestations of liberal ideology. But they are nonetheless quite mild and quiet on the topic of ideological issues of any sort, whether œconomic or social. The civilisational realists are not crusaders; they bear neither the Western nor the Islâmic world any animus unless either attacks them. Likewise, they aren’t particularly voluble on domestic issues, apart from critiquing the culture of corruption that has accompanied Russian society since the years of Gorbachev and Eltsin. As I have mentioned before, the intimation of loss is a strong constant undercurrent in the creative thinking of the Rodina. Civilisational realism is an expression of the Russian nation’s desire to be given an autonomy and dignity she (rightly) feels she’s been denied for decades.

    At the same time, though, the civilisational realists are keenly attuned to the questions of particularity and historical contingency that were originally raised by Herder. This is, without a doubt, a legacy of the Slavophil impress on Russian conservatism. Likewise, the willingness to engage the West on positive terms is a deliberate echo of the Slavophil engagements of the early-to-mid nineteenth century. But civilisational realism tends in a very different direction than Slavophilia. It doesn’t bear the messianic marks of the original Slavophils. Its historical awareness has given its proponents a degree of humility that is lacking in the likes of Kireevsky, Khomyakov or Aksakov. They do not pretend to be giving to the world the unique ‘new word’ that Russia was supposed to speak; instead, they are trying to allow Russia time to catch its breath again.

  3. Marxism. Far from being the dead or moribund ideology that our élites have been telling us it’s been for the past three decades, the Marxist parties of southern India, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Venezuela, (until recently) Bolivia and (yes) China have shown themselves to be resilient, flexible, tough and pragmatic. Whether or not you agree with their outcomes or the means by which they keep power, they have shown themselves to be politically stable in the face of active attempts to bludgeon them into submission or oblivion with sanctions, interventions and colour revolutions.

    More than that: Marxism has proven to be surprisingly dynamic. I can attest from experience that actually-existing Marxist parties operate in an intellectual space heavily-dosed with inaccessible, inane, soporific jargon. At the same time, there is valuable intellectual work being done at the fringes of the ‘big red circle’. Marxism is creatively making contact with environmentalism; with religion; even with culturally-conservative traditionalism – and the results are, to say the least, interesting to watch. Marxism is likely to remain a significant alternative to liberalism for the foreseeable future throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia.

  4. Red Shî‘ism; Black Shî‘ism. The title of Dr Ali Shariati’s article is an apt description of the politics – on both sides of the coin – of the Mihwar al-Muqâwamah. It represents, like the civilisational realism described above, a strategy rather than an ideology per se, and it is a strategy that is shared by both sæcular Arab nationalists and theocratic Persians. But it is an offensive rather than a defensive strategy; a strategy for pursuing asymmetric warfare rather than a strategy for détente.

    ‘Red’ Shî‘ism, informed as it is by the martyrdoms of ‘Alî and Husayn on behalf of the helpless and by the eschatological ideal of righteous kingship inherited from Zoroastrianism, takes a natural and instinctive solidarity with the oppressed and uses it as a revolutionary rallying-cry. The ‘red’ Shî‘ism of Hizbullâh which actively takes up the cause of the Christians in Lebanon, just as readily in the case of Ansârullâh takes up the cause of the starving and deprived Yemeni people. The idea of martyrdom on behalf of the defenceless in Shî‘a Islâm is strong enough that its passion extends to the welfare of non-Muslims.

    But as Dr Shariati notes, ‘red’ Shî‘ism – the religion of the martyrs – turns rapidly into the ‘black’ Shî‘ism of the Safavids – the religion of mourning. There is a certain note of cynicism that creeps in around the edges when Shî‘ism is exposed to the realities of power. Though Shariati is more emphatic on the nature of ‘red’ Shî‘ism and more apophatic on ‘the religion of mourning’, what he doesn’t say about the latter is eloquent. The ‘religion of mourning’ is one in which the fervour for the dignity of the oppressed cools and congeals into a set of theocratic dictums. The cleric takes himself into a masjid beside ‘Âlî Qâpû, his face long with resignation, and expounds with grim necessity the realities of power politics. This is not, I hasten to add, merely an Islâmic problem: we Orthodox Christians, too, have our problems with ‘mourning’ cynicism. But the words of the clerics in Tehran, however just their outward cause, are to be watched with care.

  5. Nationalisme intégral. I have written before, at length, about how Christian democratic politics betrayed their radical roots in the 1950s and 1960s for a rapprochement with the bourgeois politics of ordoliberalism and austerity œconomics. It seems to be something of an irony that when you strip away this discredited layer of œconomic whiggery, what remains is not the humane radicalism of Mounier and Maritain, which has long since absconded, but instead something a good deal bleaker: a positivist, corporatist nationalism recalling that of Maurras.

    The crisis of social solidarity that the European Union suffered with the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008 spurred a massive backlash, particularly in Eastern and Southern Europe. The result in places like Poland (with the election of Duda) and Hungary (with the election of Orbán) was a certain coarsening of the national fibre. Both the PiS and the Fidesz parties lay claim to the Christian democratic mantle, but both of them avidly play to a certain narrative which links the salvation of Christendom to the fate of the nation-state, and furthermore posits the integral party apparatus as the sole means of saving both. This too-close and instrumentalist conceptual linkage between a higher and more primal form of solidarity, and a lower and more contingent one, is actually quite dangerous, and there are good reasons to be wary of it.

    Christians first and foremost should be wary of this kind of integral nationalism. It is not taking root only in Western nations culturally rooted in Christendom. It is also growing roots in India with the BJP under Modi, which self-describes as ‘integral humanist’. And it is also growing roots in Turkey with the AKP under Erdoğan, whose integralist ideology is drawn straight from Qutb’s articulation of political Sunnî Islâm – a connexion which the ‘Little Sultan’ still values in his current policy. The more integralist Hungaries and Polands are cultivated in the West, the more open and vulnerable we leave our brothers in the East to their enemies in places like Turkey and India.

  6. Fascism. Speaking of far-right nationalisms, here’s another one that’s come slithering up from the gutter of the twentieth century’s mechanised total wars of ideology. Never mind, of course, that fascism is rooted in transhuman futurism and avant-garde æsthetics. Never mind that the resurgent alt-right shares similarly haute-moderne and post-moderne roots. It is still going to pretend to be the alternative to liberal decadence that Europe (and Latin America) has been missing. And, unfortunately, it looks likely to gain more than a mere handful of followers.

    I want to be very clear that I am using the term ‘fascism’ in a very narrow and technical sense. Fascism is not merely a byword for just any far-right nationalism with corporatist characteristics. It is not the same thing as the nationalisme intégral that I mention above, though it is a kissing-cousin. Intégrisme has problems, but it stops well short of claiming to regiment and militarise all aspects of social and individual life. Even in this strongly-restrictive definition, though, fascism is present enough in places like the Ukraine, Brazil and now Bolivia to be dangerous and worthy of mention as one of the illiberal ideological forces rising in liberalism’s shadow.

  7. Salafi jihâdism. This fundamentalist ideology has been a distinctive danger around the globe since well before the World Trade Centre attacks on the eleventh of September, 2001 – arguably it’s been so since the late 1980s in Afghanistan. Now the fanatical toxin is spreading from Nigeria to Bosnia to Xinjiang and the Philippines. In Nigeria, Christians are being persecuted as never before. The headloppers of Dâ‘iš and al-Qâ‘idah are unfortunately a ubiquitous presence from Libya to Iraq, with Syria having borne a great brunt of the terrorist damage in recent years.

    The Salafis may receive aid from the United States intelligence services. However, they think of themselves as the ‘purifiers’ of Islâm from all the modern dross that has accumulated around centuries of Islâmic cultural practice throughout the world. That includes anything in the visual arts or in literature that does not conform to a rigid standard of Muslim piety. They adhere in lockstep to the most stringent and literal of textual interpretations of the Qur’ân and hadith, and increasingly they believe that the only right way to rectify Islâm is by the creation of a state purely founded on Islâmic law, which is to be rigidly and ruthlessly enforced uniformly across the entire body of believers and subject peoples. They are the Islâmic equivalent of the equally-literalist fundamentalist evangelicals in the United States.
Now, it should be crystal clear to the gentle readers of this blog that I harbour some robust partizan preferences among these options. I am avowedly a very strong supporter of the syncretic paternalistic leftism that has arisen in Eastern Europe: the closest thing on offer we have to the High Toryism of Britain’s better days. I also have strong sympathies toward the ‘civilisational realism’ of Russia’s conservatives. I have long felt such realism to be a healthy counterweight to the foreign policy we conduct here, based as it is on outdated ideologies on autopilot and a morass of private interests anchored in the military-industrial complex.

I have also been known, on occasion, to comment positively on political Shî‘ism and on Chinese Marxism. However, my true loyalties lie with Mosaddegh and the National Front in Iran’s case; and with the Democratic League in China’s case – both socialist-leaning organisations with healthy respect for tradition.

So it should come as no surprise as I finish this analysis, that I am deeply invested in what form the post-liberal order in the world will take. I do not want to live in a world dominated by the picayune hatreds and petty spats of a gross-odd bickering nation-states, each headed by the most clownish of bourgeois buffoons their pandering mass-medias can conjure to the baying rabble. It is an insult to lions to have to be governed by such rats. Neither do I want to be governed by a dour, joyless puritanical religious élite who would snatch the Christmas eggnog out of my hands and expect to be thanked for the favour. At the same time, it’s clear to me that actually-existing liberalism, exhausted as it is in a moral and intellectual sense, can no longer pretend to offer to the world a set of coherent rules for the pursuit of the good. That task now falls to others. But which others: that is a question that matters deeply.

It strikes me that all of these options have a certain investment in questions of theopolitics. That is not a surprise. The Enlightenment project was by and large a separation of the political sphere from the questions of ultimate meaning, and the relegation of those questions of meaning to the purely private sphere and the realm of the conscience. It is therefore no surprise that the ideologies now jockeying to take the place of liberalism are attempting to reconnect questions of governance to questions of meaning in various ways. Once again I have to reiterate: I agree with the religious intégristes on the stakes involved here. I also agree with them on two of their three sentences. But there are clearly a number of different ways in which the temporal and the æternal ends of man can be configured, and we would do well not to choose one which seems too easy or too glib.

No comments:

Post a Comment