Wednesday, August 03, 2005

some notes on liberalism *now*

From here (courtesy of wood s lot):
RR: The best restatement of liberalism I have read recently is Timothy Garton Ash's Free World. I do not see that it is "full of contradictions". It restates the ideals of the French Revolution in terms appropriate to the current set of socio-economic problems, just as writers in 1900 restated those ideals in terms appropriate to the problems that were urgent then. Ash insists (rightly, in my opinion) that the aspirations of people in Shanghai and Bangkok are the same as those of people in Chicago and Bratislava -- that liberals need not worry about the difference between "eastern" and "western" values.

BE: Historically, liberalism emerges when there is a space for reasonable discourse regarding social priorities. And if there is open debate about the need to moderate demands for greater individual freedoms, as well as demands for greater economic freedom, the pressures on liberalism will only be internal. Its main problem is that while a free market economy is a powerful engine for generating national wealth, it tends to ensnare individuals in a vicious cycle of consumption-production, thereby thwarting human development.

RJ: Yes, it is impossible to speak of "liberalism" as if it were a static thing. Indeed, liberalism, in order to remain true to itself, must change; it must respond to historical shifts. For instance, guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression meant one thing in the eighteenth century and another in the twenty-first. To be sure, there are invariables. In the past as today, theocratic regimes and their supporters would circumscribe free speech. Today, for much of the world that has not changed; you are evidently at risk for what you say or publish in Egypt or North Korea. Yet the forms or shapes have altered elsewhere. In North America and Europe, "classic" cases of the government censoring or trying to stop the publication of a book or newspaper rarely happen. On the other hand, efforts to censor or control what teachers teach -- about evolution or religion -- are common. Nor does this mean that some of the "classic" battles no longer take place. The basic protection against unlawful detention (habeas corpus) has often been flouted by the Bush administration; it keeps prisoners off the mainland of the US (on a military base in Cuba), for example, to avoid court appearances where it would have to justify imprisonment.

The bane of liberalism is its economic dimension. In the absence of secure and decent lives, people have little interest in or commitment to political liberties: this is as true in the advanced industrial countries as in the underdeveloped world. This is the difficulty and plight of liberalism today: appeals to rights or free speech or equality between men and women fall on deaf ears when daily life is constantly threatened. Real or imagined dangers of terrorism or simply unemployment, undrinkable water, and decaying schools displace political liberalism and its world of rights and freedoms. The problem is that on the plane of economic ideas or plans the left is both clueless and disheartened, while conservatives are all-knowing and confident. Conservatives believe that the collapse of communism proves the truth of unfettered capitalism. Yet the undeniable vitality of capitalism -- a vitality that Marx himself celebrated -- does not translate into a peaceful and secure society. On the contrary...(more)

And from here (via):
In short: the third–wayish globalisation Garton Ash says is on offer is one thing – but globalisation plus continuing great–power nationalism is quite another. Free World charts many sympathetic hopes and suggestions for the former; but the latter is what is really on offer. The armed, great–nationalist storm has given new life to a “failed” state; and (though we can’t yet be sure) that state may be constitutionally incapable of moderating or repudiating its violence. If this turns out to be true, then the imagination is forced back towards Adrian Leverkühn’s own Todesfuge, the great cosmic lamentation towards the end of Doctor Faustus, where the Devil’s music soars up to voice the eternity of human sorrow, permitting “to the very end no consolation, appeasement, transfiguration”.

Garton Ash's rhetoric is warmly persuasive, but evokes the style of permanent present that suits his moral and ideological approach. He believes in Life after Crisis, but situates his formulae in too recent a historical perspective. His standpoint remains the 1990s, and the emancipation of central and eastern Europe. But it was surely unlikely that all the famous “burdens” of former imperial conflict and world wars would simply vanish, along with the Berlin wall, into Francis Fukuyama’s spellbinding The End of History.

The latter was only an anti–Communist Manifesto, destined for a far shorter life than its great ancestor. Like the heady projections of 1990s, it distracted thought away from what Musil’s historical millipede was up to. The latter went on wriggling, with renewed energy after the long, unnatural chill; since 2001 it has been threshing violently about, as if impatient to burst forth into something else.

No complaint is more commonly heard today than accusations of “mass apathy”, or even cynicism – the wilful popular conviction that politics doesn’t matter, or that they (politicians) are in the business for some self–interested motives, either personal or group, in the sense of party, or élite. What else is to be expected, in a world of “no alternatives” and generalised masochism? Popular indifference is not unconnected with a largely justified sense of being governed by zombies. This isn’t new either. A whole generation had been required to cultivate entropy of such depth and persistence. Jeremi Suri describes how. “At its core”, he argues, “détente was a mechanism of domestic fortification”, on both sides of the cold war boundary...

Yet he still has to conclude, as in his book, that it’s a huge mistake to conclude that “George Bush is the true face of America”, which remains “one country, but two nations”. Hence it will be our self–colonising duty to put up with it, and make the best of whatever the victorious nation chooses to offer – choking back “the bitterest bile” as we do so – since it’s “our enlightened self–interest” to do so, in order to preserve what’s left of the free world and also to “keep faith with the other America”, those he met across black Washington. And in four years time they, and we, will probably get a better US president.

But there is no huge mistake. Of course Bush isn’t all America, or all Americans. What this platitude ignores is that Bush is the American state – including all too much of the constitution that produced this state – and that the tempestuous river of democracy has to be directed against the barriers that have created and still maintain it. While the US opposition continues to follow its embedded rules, rather than striving to replace them, no shift of party rule or president will do other than itself compromise or re–manifest the historical character which has emerged after Bush’s non–election, and the traumatic shock of the 9/11 attack.

Timothy Garton Ash doesn’t perceive this qualitative shift: not just the reaffirmation of a past, inherited national nature, but the decisive formation of a new one, never present in this way in previous American involvements with the outside world. From the Hispano–American conflict, via both world wars and the cold war, US civic–constitutional identity retained a regulative role which – however dubious, and sometimes equivocal, or worse – still restrained the nationalism invited by such developing, and finally dominant, power.

But today the restraints have gone. Keeping faith with Garton Ash’s other America — the “very nearly half who think like Europeans”, as he puts it – demands acknowledgement of the sea–change threatening to drown them, along with the rest of us. He assumes that free–worldly things will somehow just go on, and remain essentially unaltered four years from now. I doubt it. Democracy will now be forced in other directions, underground as well as on the surface, towards destinations unknown to the hidebound Atlantic seaboard world that Free World still defends so eloquently.

Update: There's more here (via).

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