As war rages in Ukraine and China challenges democracy, where is liberalism – and what does it mean?
Ukraine’s brave defenders are hailed as fighting not just for their homeland, but for a way of life. It is a fight, we are told, for us.
In this story, Ukraine is at ground zero in the battle for the 21st century. What US President Joe Biden presented as a competition between autocracy and democracy.
This begs the question: what is this fight for?
The United States is hardly a bastion of democracy itself. The last election tipped over into lies and conspiracy. Rather than a peaceful transfer of power, Donald Trump’s supporters ransacked the Capitol building, the very seat of American democracy.
Elsewhere, democracy has fallen prey to strong politicians, populists and demagogues. They took power through the ballot box on a divide-and-conquer platform.
Democracy around the world has been in free fall for more than a decade. Every year there are fewer and fewer free and democratic states.
Rather than a struggle between democracy and autocracy, autocracy itself thrives within democracy.
A question without answer ?
What democracy advocates are talking about more specifically is liberalism. A living idea of democracy that claims individualism, freedom, human rights and the rule of law as its main virtues.
Nice in theory, but they haven’t always delivered or proven strong enough against assault.
Liberalism is sometimes presented as a fighting faith, but it is just as often derided for its timidity, even its complicity, in the face of tyranny.
To its detractors, liberalism is an unanswered question – a torrent of meaningless words.
German jurist and former Nazi Carl Schmitt poked fun at liberalism, calling it “a never-ending conversation”. Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky called it a “debating society”. Friedrich Nietzsche said it made people “cowards”.
Liberalism’s penchant for tolerance was seen as a weakness.
As the poet Robert Frost wrote, “A liberal is too broad-minded a man to take his own side in a quarrel.”
What it means to be liberal
In the 21st century, liberalism – like democracy – is in crisis. What does that mean?
It has been the fate of liberalism, to swing from crisis to triumph and back to crisis.
Liberalism was a response to the terror of the French Revolution. In the first decades of the 20th century, it was beset by war, revolution, communism and fascism.
Then as now, liberals wondered what it meant to be a liberal. Could liberalism withstand a violent challenge without becoming violent itself?
Isaiah Berlin called it the “liberal predicament” – staying true to liberalism may be failing liberalism.
Political scientist Joshua Cherniss picks up where Berlin left off in his new book, Liberalism in Dark Times.
He identifies the core of this predicament: liberals face uncertainty while authoritarians have no doubts. To quote William Butler Yeats:
“The best lack conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The “worst” believe that history bends to their will. Historicism, as it is called, posits that humanity is set on a course and atrocities are excused in order to deliver us to that fate. It can be an apocalyptic vision.
The father of historicism, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, said: “History is a slaughter bench” on which each of us is sacrificed.
As Cherniss says, “The story became identified with a story of purifying moral transformation between the children of light and the children of darkness.”
Liberalism was deemed insufficient, clinging to the virtues of a humane society while, as Cherniss writes, failing to “recognize the reality of politics”.
As he damningly puts it, “While liberals cherished dreams of civility and innocence, the masses groaned and the world burned.”
Is it redeemable?
Cherniss writes not to bury liberalism but to redeem it. What does history tell us?
It identifies several figures who, in dark times, spoke of a different liberalism. Those philosophers and writers who identified the liberal situation.
They saw the weakness of liberalism but also the dangers of liberals staining their hands with blood, fighting authoritarianism by becoming authoritarians themselves.
Cherniss says these thinkers offered a “tempered liberalism”; “an awareness of the disadvantages and defects of liberalism”.
Temperate liberals embraced uncertainty, avoided simple answers, but stood firm in what they stood for.
As Cherniss puts it, they approached politics with an “ethic.” The antidote to cruelty, says Cherniss, “lies in the cultivation of a particular philosophy.”
It is a way of being, informed by values but not fixed or permanent. Cherniss says these thinkers sought “disagreement and ambivalence.”
Cherniss quotes Bertrand Russell defining temperate liberalism as “not in what opinions are held, but how they are held”.
Another was the French writer Albert Camus who saw the quality and style of public debate as essential to the success of liberalism. Camus’ liberalism is “marked with modesty”, balancing “demands and extremes”.
Camus wrote his novel, La Peste – a pandemic ravages a city, while people are shut down – as an allegory for authoritarianism.
He appropriated the myth of Sisyphus, condemned forever to roll a rock up a hill to come back down, as a way of responding to the certainty of historicism.
Camus saw the danger in certainty. “We suffocate among people who believe they are absolutely right,” he writes.
He had flirted with Marxism, but ultimately rejected its idea of ”finality”. Camus was eventually expelled from the Communist Party in France.
Cherniss admits that Camus does not fit easily into the ideas of liberalism, but he offered a moderation that avoided absolutism or fanaticism.
It was not, however, a moderation that seeks to find a balance or a resolution – it was not a liberalism for “lukewarm souls” but for “burning hearts”. “Modest but not sweet”, a liberalism that stands up to extremists and sets limits.
Camus’ tastes were forged in the fire of revolution, war and persecution. They sought to find light in dark times.
Has liberalism failed, or liberals?
In the second half of the 20th century, liberalism often became the prerogative of the wealthy, captured by the elites.
It turned into neoliberalism and the dominance of markets over society. After the end of the Cold War, liberalism fell prey to hubris and triumphalism.
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama, channeling Hegel’s historicism, declared the “end of history” – that liberal democracy was the final destination for all mankind.
Fukuyama is now grappling with the latest crisis of liberalism. In his latest book Liberalism and Its Discontents, he admits that liberalism is under attack from the political left and right.
Liberalism, he says, may appear to some as “an old and worn ideology that fails to meet the challenges of our time”.
Fukuyama is still a believer. It is less liberalism that has failed than the liberals themselves. We need more and better liberalism, not less.
Others, like the philosopher Judith Shklar, warned in the 1950s that liberalism had lost its moral center. It was used by the powerful against the weak.
This was Shklar’s “liberalism of fear” – the willingness “to inflict pain…in order to cause anguish”. Shklar adopts a skepticism that does not reject liberalism, but wants to open it up to voices that have been silenced for too long.
As war rages in Ukraine and Chinese authoritarianism challenges democracy, where is liberalism?
Do the voices of the 1930s and 1940s – the voices of moderate liberalism – speak to us?
Joshua Cherniss says it’s “fashionable to hail the ‘wreckage’ of liberalism – and profitable to join in the looting of the wreckage”.
He says we are again being suffocated by those “who believe they are absolutely right; we again stand idly by as humanity is outraged”.
The West is less sure of itself and common ground is more difficult to find. The authoritarians present themselves with certainty.
That’s the appeal, says Chermiss, of “political strongmen speaking the language of greatness.”
There is a need, he says, for ethical resistance and resilience. We must embrace “heroic ambitions”, as Judith Shklar puts it, “not the courage of the armed, but that of their probable victims”.
In Ukraine, we see courage. Ukrainians may well be thinking only of survival, not of the task of saving liberalism for all of us.
But when the guns finally fall silent, Ukrainians, like all of us, will ask themselves what is this liberalism we are fighting for?
Stan Grant is ABC’s international business analyst and presents China Tonight Monday at 9:35 p.m. on ABC TV and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC News Channel, and co-anchor of Q+A Thursday at 8:30 p.m.