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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Cover Stories
Monday, 24 April 2017

Getting to the Roots of the Illiberal Trends

Andrea Graziosi

The world is experiencing an overt, cumulative and transversal illiberal trend, linked to appeals to the people, to identities, often to the past, and to demands for closed-door policies and order. Trump is the most recent and obvious case. Turkey (Erdoğan), India (Modi) and the Philippines (Duterte), having overturned years of openness, are among the main parvenus, and the former Soviet area has for years been one of its main feeders, with its Putin and mini-Putins (of whom Lukashenko and the Azeri and central Asian leaders were the precursors), with the malaise spreading to central-eastern Europe, to Poland and Hungary.

Brexit is a reminder that western Europe has also been infected by “popular” discontent more than previously believed. Even though the forces of reason will possibly prevail, France’s fate is still uncertain, and the Italian one is fraught with perils: the possibility of a Grillo-Salvini government coming to power in 2018 is real, and it would put at risk the noble, but seriously flawed, liberal-democratic attempt to create a federal Europe.

Far and wide, these appeals to voters and to a past adjusted to fit today’s political needs are based on more or less polished and unified, and therefore by definition illiberal, myths. While in India references are made to Hindutva, and a unity broken by the Islamic invasion is preached, in Russia a vision of the past is presented uniting over time the state and the people without contradictions. The line from Peter the Great to Stalin, up to the revival of power after the “humiliation” of 1991 is presented as an unbroken one, forcing together forces and ideas that actually often violently clashed, and thereby denying plurality and historical openness.

Islamic “Fundamentalism,” with its powerful appeal to a fictitious, religion-based well ordered past, has provided for decades the backdrop to these developments, and so has done China, the most successful and stable “national” and authoritarian political and economic regime of the past decades.

Faced with such a strong, dynamic and widespread trend, it is natural to wonder what its common denominators are. And the first startling consideration is that this trend does not appear to be in direct conflict with the popular vote and appeals made to the people, which are instead interwoven with it. Many of the aforementioned regimes and illiberal movements lay claim to popular and democratic legitimization, and enjoy widespread electoral support. What is opposed, what is experiencing a crisis, is thus not so much  “democracy” but the liberal principles that has for so long been at its core in the West.

One must therefore try to understand the reasons for the support this trend enjoys among large sectors of populations living under very different conditions: strikingly enough, in fact, it seems to unite Western countries beset in past decades by economic and demographic stagnation, and an obvious decline of political and cultural influence, the U.S., where similar problems are much less acute, and countries coming out of startling processes of economic growth.

I will attempt to provide a review of such reasons, in order to raise questions more than in the hope of answering them. Among these reasons there appears firstly to be a generic but strong reaction to the extremely fast changes of recent decades, linked not only and not so much to globalization, but rather to modernization at a global level, of which globalization is but an aspect. One could maintain that the “controlled” modernization cum globalization of the post-war decades has been replaced after 1978-1991 (China, collapse of socialism, opening of India, UE) by a free for all that generated a strong demand for stability, order and security.

This “reaction” has a transversal component in a deep male resentment for loss of power, prestige and authority in modern societies that also symbolically seem and possibly are more suitable for women (but not those who remain bound to the traditional model), and that, more generally speaking, question traditional gender roles.

The demand for  stability, order and security is also fuelled by the perceived need for protection from the political crises and conflicts affecting vast areas of the world, and that every day the media allows us to take part in, as well as and above all by the irritation, in the literal sense of the word, caused by great migratory flows, which speedily undermine habits and certainties.

Nonetheless, however powerful it may be, immigration seems to be a more specific and less transversal factor than the above mentioned ones. It has played and still plays a fundamental role in Western aging (and therefore more easily frightened and exasperated) societies, societies that, paradoxically, have a greater objective need for immigrants. Unquestionably, this role has been strengthened by migrants and refugees, whose very presence makes people aware of the crisis they would like to be protected from, also through the strengthening of order and authority.

Yet, the “reactionary” trend is also present in countries with very little or no immigration at all (and often with high levels of emigration), such as Poland, Turkey (where the recent explosion of refugees does not appear to have caused Erdoğan’s change of direction), India and the Philippines as well as other countries in which most immigration consists of returning citizens, as happened in Russia following the 1991 crisis.

Also the relationship between this illiberal trend and religions and rituals is not linear. While it is true that an important role has been played by Islamic and Hindu schools of thought (to which one could add the Confucian non-religion), as well as by a large segment of the Orthodox hierarchies (which before and more than Catholic ones committed themselves to nationalism after having at first opposed it), the case involving other Christian denominations is different. Of course, also not unimportant sectors of Protestant extremism and Catholic conservatism have contributed significantly to this trend. And yet it is hard to ignore John Paul II’s ecumenism and Pope Francis’ open “pauperism,” as well as the positions assumed by part of the Catholic hierarchies and many Protestant congregations, which have sponsored openness to all those who are different and criticized egoistic and “nationalistic” shifts, indicating that strong religious currents have already taken a stand against the current trend.

One extremely important common element is instead the Western leaderships’ undeniable loss of rank, prestige and economic and political (as well as diplomatic and military) importance. The “world” no longer feels the compulsion to look up to these leaderships, although the power of attraction of the countries they govern is still strong, as is the wellbeing and standards of living they enjoy.

The collapse of the socialist economic model (but in China its political party-state counterpart still stands fast) was quickly followed by a crisis in the Western development model, which in 1991 seemed triumphant. In this case the crisis does not  seem to depend on an inability of its market “core” to act as a  driving force (on the contrary, markets worked effectively also in very different conditions). Rather, the crisis appears to be the consequences of this model’s very success.

Leaving aside the albeit important ecological aspects, which in their turn also provided the ground for not negligible  reactions and conservationist culture, it seems possible to state that the Western model is unviable because it is based on centers (initially urban centers and then over time regional, state and even “continental” ones, as in the case of Western Europe) that “quickly” (in a historical perspective, that is over many decades) lose their own biological reproductive capability, and therefore  capacity for generating energy. These centers can thus only reproduce and survive by attracting people and energy from areas set in motion by development, but not yet fully developed.

This energy firstly came from rural areas more or less homogeneous to the centers of attraction: therefore, although it increased social tension, such immigration  did  not result in acute identity and “cultural” conflicts (religious, linguistic, “racial”), capable of bonding with social issues and thereby of escalating them.

As time goes by, however, the deepening of “central” demographic crises and the depletion of the closest energy depots, set the premises for the explosion of long range migration, increasingly less homogeneous in terms of culture, religion, behaviors, etc. to the populations of the rapidly aging centers of attraction, where such migration started to feed fear and anxiety.

This has meant the widespread reproduction, under new conditions, of the population mixing phenomenon, which, as scholars of central-eastern Europe know all too well, has seriously obstructed the path to liberal-democracy in vast areas of the Old Continent, generating powerful and unpleasant forces that were both “democratic” (that is based on appeals to the “people” and its will) and persecutory as far as the “aliens” are concerned.

The crisis experienced by the Western model, signaled especially in Europe by decades of relative stagnation compared to a world developing at high speed, has undermined per se the authoritativeness of the values associated to it and to the leaderships representing them. This not only in the eyes of those on other continents who had chosen to follow—albeit on their own terms—such a model, but also in the eyes of segments of the very Western populations that originally enjoyed the advantages of that model, and now feel inexplicably and increasingly deprived of the benefits that it once seemed capable of guaranteeing.

Another very important common factor is the increased self-referentiality and thus the intellectual weakness of many of the liberal elites and of their discourses. Understandably satisfied with the goals achieved, and proud of their persuasions, they seem to have been living for years in a sort of “bubble” of culture, values and wealth with strong transnational characteristics, concentrating on the problems that arise within it. Albeit enlarged by 20th century victories and progress, however, this bubble is still not sufficiently large and is far from containing the world, or representing most of it even in the most “developed” countries.

These elites have therefore at least partially lost their capacity to listen to those living outside their bubble and above all to speak to them, that is their ability to communicate beyond their own world. They have at times replaced this ability with conceit and impatience, that can be perceived as disdain even when inspired by a desire to “improve” the conditions of others, always from above and by condescension.

This is, albeit with significant differences, the situation in the United States (where the aforementioned bubble is relatively larger), but also in Europe, in Russia (where liberal public opinion represents a relatively large group, but one which is incapable of communicating with the rest of society), and in India, where an important linguistic dimension is added, since its elites speak a language—English—whose knowledge, albeit growing, is still limited among the population.

Even at first glance, therefore, nuances and differences emerge in a trend whose strength and pervasiveness must be questioned. If one looks closer, such nuances and differences becomes even stronger, emphasizing how what seemed (and is perceived as) a general trend, actually consists of a varied and complex mix of different currents. The fact that they all point in the same direction, not only apparently but actually fuelling one another, is an extremely worrying element for the liberal culture. However, it is counterbalanced by the fault lines and elements of fragility inevitably linked to such complexity.

It seems possible to distinguish and debate at least five macro areas with different dynamics and problems, to which one should add Latin America:

- The West, that should in turn be divided into the Old and New World, since European dynamics differ from North American ones and are far more worrying. This is proved by the more acute demographic crisis; the comparatively greater loss of both cultural and political centrality; the fragility of European “confederal” institutions compared to American or Canadian federal ones; the significantly greater power of “populist” groups fuelled by a more significant economic crisis (which has been such only in terms of an end of what seemed to be constant and guaranteed improvement, and was instead also a relative privilege). These groups consider a return to the past and to “national” order  the solution to all problems, and thus could in fact set in motion the implosion of the “confederal” European framework, as well as that of at least two other great political unions, the United Kingdom and Spain.
This crisis seems to have structurally weakened the elite-population relationship, as well as the very existence of a liberal and progressive democracy, rather than democracy tout court. In Western Europe a very different era followed one in which all issues, even the most complex ones, had “simple” answers (mistakes made with bad ones had no consequences because their costs were immediately compensated by development) and were thus actually “simple,” legitimizing elites however presiding over continuous improvements. In our new times, instead, difficult questions require difficult and often unpopular solutions, breaking the link between representatives (called upon, if  they want to act responsibly, to make choices that represent costs for their populations) and the represented (who feel cheated and are therefore attracted by those preaching simple answers that however involve rather quick retribution).

- A former socialist area, divided between a central-eastern Europe that is more ethnically compact also because of its terrible 20th century history, and Sovietized for less than two generations, and an eastern Europe Sovietized for a longer period. As we have learned from the neo-traditionalist interpretation of socialist regimes, under the guise of a modernization much less intense than it appeared to be, these regimes allowed the survival (and deformation) of traditional societies and mentalities. In the meantime the difficulties of daily life, made worse by the 1988-1991 events and the crisis that followed them, were experienced by many (especially in the East) as a failure, and fed a demand for revanche also among their elites.
In vast areas of two former federal (and semi-imperial) states, the USSR and Yugoslavia, this destabilization intersected with the survival and even the growth (following the policies of their respective centers) of mixed territories having the destabilizing potential that was clearly seen during the 20th century. War is not an improbable option here, as seen in the Balkans, the Caucasus and now in the Donbas, and such a possibility is made more serious by the presence of elites that, unlike those in western Europe, continue to have a vision of the state similar to the one that dominated most of continental Europe until the 1914-1945 tragedy: as an instrument of power of a specific “people” (and thus of their leaders), rather than one for satisfying the wellbeing or the freedom of the population.

- A world once directly or indirectly dominated by the West and featuring ancient and/or relatively recent more or less solid states, in which the dynamics of state development, construction and reconstruction, accompanied by speedy development, has set in motion wide-ranging processes, producing phenomena similar to those analyzed by Barrington Moore in the past. Here too, the theories of state (and society) that prevail are inspired by power and a crude interpretation of the national (hence state) interest. Once again, therefore, power models prevail, as do discourses about real or imagined past glories and “traditions”, not only religious, often manipulated and aimed at an authoritarian and illiberal perspective. Often, these power models, and the stability promised by authoritarian leaders, enjoy the support of the vast strata who benefited from the development, and fear to lose what they so recently gained. Simultaneously, however, the very fast moving demographic, economic, social, “ethnic” and cultural dynamics allow one to envisage possible and rapid changes of direction.

- One entire continent, sub-Saharan Africa, characterized by an extraordinary mix of populations and languages. Here homogeneity is perhaps a chimera even as a unifying discourse, pluralism is perhaps a destiny, and “modernization”, now fully underway, has set in motion explosive dynamics.

- Finally, the vast areas in which state consolidation has not succeeded or is experiencing a serious crisis, as in the Middle East or parts of northern Africa and the Horn. Here there is an understandable demand for order, multiplied by their refugees at an international level. This arises from the disintegration of previous, Western-inspired attempts at state-building and would require adequate international answers.

Against this backdrop, Trump’s United States paradoxically appears to be the less worrying case, although it is probable that the dynamics sparked by his presidency may have serious, unpleasant consequences. Trump’s “populism” won with a minority of votes against a very weak candidate, whose discourse represented the perfect embodiment of the self-referential bubble previously mentioned. However, the United States remains a demographically, scientifically, culturally and economically more dynamic and united society than Europe, even though it will not find it easy to lose the absolute world primacy it enjoyed in the 20th century. The repercussions of this “scaling down” may prove at times to be unpleasant, also at a cultural level, as happened — but only at times—in the equally dynamic, yet equally losing ground France of the 19th century.

The horizon seems therefore to be, and is dominated by the crisis of the liberal and open core of democracies, and by the emergence of illiberal trends and democracies. It is, however, precisely because this apparently widespread movement has different causes that currently amplify its effects and success, that one can envisage that a crisis of one or more of its driving forces is not improbable.

One cannot, however, simply hope such a general trend will spontaneously weaken if not vanish. It is necessary to return to the liberal-democratic discourse its ability to have that grip on reality that it has to a certain extent lost. This is possible only by abandoning the comfortable bubble of good intentions and sentiments in which it has secluded itself, and by accepting to address the often rough and inconvenient issues expressed by those feeling excluded, as well as their needs and problems and freedoms.

I am firmly convinced that because of the different lines of research and debate it has developed over the years (Turkey, the Middle East and Northern Africa, India, Russia, of course the West, etc.), Resetdoc is in an ideal position to play a leading role in this process of renewal of the liberal-democratic discourse. The first step should consist in the fostering of the dialog among these lines, and their protagonists. Once this dialog will have born its fruits, the time will come for Resetdoc to go public.

Photo Credits: Mohammed Abed/AFP

Cover Photo Credits: Guillermo Arias/AFP


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