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The Truth About Our Libertarian Age

Why the dogma of democracy doesn't always make the world better

It is time, twenty-five years on, to discuss the cold war again. In the decade following the events of 1989, we spoke about little else. None of us anticipated the rapid breakup of the Soviet empire, or the equally quick return of Eastern Europe to constitutional democracy, or the shriveling of the revolutionary movements that Moscow had long supported. Faced with the unexpected, we engaged in some uncharacteristic big thinking. Is this the “end of history”? And “what’s left of the Left?” Then life moved on and our thinking became small again. Europe’s attention turned toward constructing an amorphous European Union; America’s attention turned toward political Islamism and the pipe dream of founding Arab democracies; and the world’s attention turned to Economics 101, our global Core Curriculum. And so, for these reasons and others, we forgot all about the cold war. Which seemed like a very good thing.

It was not. In truth, we have not thought nearly enough about the end of the cold war, and especially the intellectual vacuum that it left behind. If nothing else, the cold war focused the mind. The ideologies in conflict, whose lineages could be traced back two centuries, offered clear opposing views of political reality. Now that they are gone, one would expect things to be much clearer to us, but just the opposite seems true. Never since the end of World War II, and perhaps since the Russian Revolution, has political thinking in the West been so shallow and clueless. We all sense that ominous changes are taking place in our societies, and in other societies whose destinies will very much shape our own. Yet we lack adequate concepts or even a vocabulary for describing the world we find ourselves in. The connection between words and things has snapped. The end of ideology has not meant the lifting of clouds. It has brought a fog so thick that we can no longer read what is right before us. We find ourselves in an illegible age.

What is, or was, ideology? Dictionaries define it as a “system” of ideas and beliefs people hold that motivate their political action. But the metaphor is inapt. All practical activity, not just political activity, involves ideas and beliefs. An ideology does something different: it holds us in its grasp with an enchanting picture of reality. To follow the optical metaphor, ideology takes an undifferentiated visual field and brings it into focus, so that objects appear in a predetermined relation to each other. The political ideologies born out of the French Revolution were particularly potent because they came with moving pictures that disclosed how the present emerged from a comprehensible past and was now moving toward an intelligible future. Two grand narratives competed for attention in Europe, and then around the world: a progressive one culminating in a liberating revolution, and an apocalyptic one ending with the natural order of things restored.

The ideological narrative of the European left was a cross between Prometheus Bound and the life of Jesus. Mankind was assumed to be equal to the gods but bound to the rock of history by religion, hierarchy, property, and false consciousness. For millennia that was how things stood, until a miracle of incarnation occurred in 1789 and the spirits of freedom and equality became flesh. The problem was that redemption did not follow. Just as the followers of Jesus had some theological work to do when his return kept being deferred, so the nineteenth- and twentieth-century left developed a revolutionary apologetics to make sense of historical disappointment. It taught that while the French Revolution descended into Terror and Napoleonic despotism, it did prepare the way for the pan-European revolutions of 1848. These were short-lived but they inspired the Paris Commune. That lasted only a few months, but it set the example for the February Revolution of 1917. True, that was followed by the October Revolution and then Stalin and his terror. But after World War II the revolution’s pilgrimage wound its way to China and the Third World, globalizing the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Then there was Cambodia, and the music stopped.

The counter-revolutionary right in Europe, though much stronger politically in the nineteenth century, could not offer a narrative nearly as glorious as the left’s. Formed in reaction and under duress, it was obscure and less inspiring. But in moments of crisis it could be very compelling. The story it told was a cross between the legend of the golem and the Book of Revelation. In the best-known version of the golem story, a rabbi places into the mouth of a clay figure a slip of paper bearing God’s name on it; the figure then comes alive and rages through a Jewish ghetto terrorizing its residents until the rabbi snatches the paper back. If we think of the golem as le peuple, the paper as the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau, and the destruction of the ghetto as the Terror, we have made our way into the mind of the reactionary right. 

In the legend, the rabbi tames the golem. The forces of reaction, though, never could control the forces of revolution in the nineteenth century, which were scientific, economic, and technological as well. Railroads crisscrossed the unspoiled landscape. Cities replaced villages and country estates, factories replaced farms, secular schools replaced religious ones, unshaved politicians replaced dukes and earls, and the peasants became an undifferentiated mass of brutalized workers. As the century progressed, a romantic right dreaming of a restored age of sweetness and light was transformed into an apocalyptic right convinced that it was living through the Great Tribulation. And when the improbable Russian Revolution succeeded, and Marxism went from being a small sect to being a powerful global force, the face of the Antichrist was exposed for the world to see. The final battle had begun, and into it leapt nationalist redeemers who ruled their peoples with iron rods and “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15). We have now made our way into the mind of fascism. 

To speak about such matters is already, two decades on, to conjure up a lost world. Try to convey the grand drama of political and intellectual life from 1789 to 1989 to young students today—American, European, even Chinese students—and you are left feeling like a blind poet singing of lost Atlantis. Fascism for them is “radical evil,” hence incomprehensible; how it could develop and why it appealed to millions remains a mystery. Communism, while of course it was for “many good things,” makes little sense either, especially the faith that people invested in the Soviet Union. Students simply do not feel the psychological pull of ideology today, and find it hard to imagine a captive mind. They find it easier to enter the mental universe of Augustine’s Confessions than that of Dostoevsky’s and Conrad’s political novels.

That is a mixed blessing. Many of us over the age of fifty remember arguing with communists and their Marxist fellow-travelers, and marveling at their impressive—and, in the end, repulsive—adeptness. With an air of forbearance they would explain that what we took to be significant facts were actually quite insignificant, and that what seemed trivial was in fact the crux of the matter. They did not appear to be wearing blinders that blocked out reality. On the contrary—and this was the problem—they saw absolutely everything and how it was all connected by occult forces operating at tremendous distances. When embarrassing events happened, they instinctively fell into denial. But very soon the casuistic explications would begin, defending everything from the Berlin Wall to the Red Brigades, delivered with all the confidence of a Jesuit in his robes. 

Such people are rare today, and good riddance to them. But it must be admitted that some valuable intellectual qualities that we developed to confront them have been disappearing as well. Curiosity, for example, and ambition. Anti-communist intellectuals used to make the case that history cannot be mastered by a system or an idea. Societies are too complex, human motivations too various, and institutions too opaque for us to get a static picture of reality or discern the invariable laws governing it. But none of the leading cold war liberals—Raymond Aron, Daniel Bell, Leszek Kołakowski, Isaiah Berlin, Ralf Dahrendorf—thought that the problems Marxism addressed were imaginary or beyond human reckoning. They resisted Marxist theory because it was, in the end, inadequate to the task it took up, not because its ambition was wholly misguided. (They were not, it bears repeating, conservatives.) Bell imagined that the end of ideology would free up minds to investigate the subtle and unexpected interactions between the political, economic, and cultural spheres of modern social life as they develop over time. He did not imagine that the will to inquire would itself wither. But it has.

This is not how the left of the left sees it. It thinks that the age of ideology never ended and that a new “hegemonic worldview” has simply replaced fascism and communism. Americans call it democratic capitalism and are delighted with it; Europeans call it neoliberalism and are unhappy with it. There is a good deal to this. It is hard to deny that the concept of democracy, however misunderstood and traduced, is the only political form that can claim global, if not universal, recognition today. And it is true that economic growth is the one common aim of governments around the world, pursued more often than not with unreflective faith in the cost-free benefits of free trade, deregulation, and foreign investment.

I would go even further. The social liberalization that began in a few Western countries in the 1960s is meeting less resistance among educated urban elites nearly everywhere, and a new cultural outlook, or at least questioning, has emerged. This outlook treats as axiomatic the primacy of individual self-determination over traditional social ties, indifference in matters of religion and sex, and the a priori obligation to tolerate others. Of course there have also been powerful reactions against this outlook, even in the West. But outside the Islamic world, where theological principles still have authority, there are fewer and fewer objections that persuade people who have no such principles. The recent, and astonishingly rapid, acceptance of homosexuality and even gay marriage in so many Western countries—a historically unprecedented transformation of traditional morality and customs—says more about our time than anything else.

It tells us that this is a libertarian age. That is not because democracy is on the march (it is regressing in many places), or because the bounty of the free market has reached everyone (we have a new class of paupers), or because we are now all free to do as we wish (since wishes inevitably conflict). No, ours is a libertarian age by default: whatever ideas or beliefs or feelings muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. There were no public debates on this and no votes were taken. Since the cold war ended we have simply found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not. The only freedom we are losing is the freedom to choose our freedoms.

Not everyone is happy about this. The left, especially in Europe and Latin America, wants to limit economic autonomy for the public good. Yet they reject out of hand legal limits to individual autonomy in other spheres, such as surveillance and censorship of the Internet, which might also serve the public good. They want an uncontrolled cyberspace in a controlled economy—a technological and sociological impossibility. Those on the right, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere, would like the inverse: a permissive economy with a restrictive culture, which is equally impossible in the long run. We find ourselves like the man on the speeding train who tried to stop it by pulling on the seat in front of him.

Yet our libertarianism is not an ideology in the old sense. It is a dogma. The distinction between ideology and dogma is worth bearing in mind. Ideology tries to master the historical forces shaping society by first understanding them. The grand ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did just that, and much too well; since they were intellectually “totalizing,” they countenanced political totalitarianism. Our libertarianism operates differently: it is supremely dogmatic, and like every dogma it sanctions ignorance about the world, and therefore blinds adherents to its effects in that world. It begins with basic liberal principles—the sanctity of the individual, the priority of freedom, distrust of public authority, tolerance—and advances no further. It has no taste for reality, no curiosity about how we got here or where we are going. There is no libertarian sociology (an oxymoron) or psychology or philosophy of history. Nor, strictly speaking, is there a libertarian political theory, since it has no interest in institutions and has nothing to say about the necessary, and productive, tension between individual and collective purposes. It is not liberal in a sense that Montesquieu, the American Framers, Tocqueville, or Mill would have recognized. They would have seen it as a creed little different from Luther’s sola fide: give individuals maximum freedom in every aspect of their lives and all will be well. And if not, then pereat mundus

Libertarianism’s dogmatic simplicity explains why people who otherwise share little can subscribe to it: small-government fundamentalists on the American right, anarchists on the European and Latin American left, democratization prophets, civil liberties absolutists, human rights crusaders, neoliberal growth evangelists, rogue hackers, gun fanatics, porn manufacturers, and Chicago School economists the world over. The dogma that unites them is implicit and does not require explication; it is a mentality, a mood, a presumption—what used to be called, non-pejoratively, a prejudice. Maintaining an ideology requires work because political developments always threaten its plausibility. Theories must be tweaked, revisions must be revised. Since ideology makes a claim about the way the world actually works, it invites and resists refutation. A dogma, by contrast, does not. That is why our libertarian age is an illegible age.

Consider two examples.

Since the 1980s, the European Union’s project of economic integration has been governed by neoliberalism, a powerful form of contemporary libertarianism. There were concrete reasons for this, having to do with certain failures of the welfare state and the sluggishness of economies held down by state-run enterprises, over-regulation, and powerful unions. But as time passed the reasons were forgotten and neoliberalism became what it is today: a dogma that obscures its real-world effects, which are not just economic.

It is shocking, for instance, to see how slow Europeans have been to recognize how seriously the EU neoliberal approach to economic integration jeopardizes the principles of democratic self-government that were recovered after World War II. Democracy is about self-determination, collective and individual; and until now modern constitutional democracies have developed only within the context of sovereign nation-states. There is a reason for this. The nation-state represents a compromise of sorts between the politics of empire and the politics of the village: it is large enough to encourage people to think beyond their local interests, but not so large that they feel they have no control over their lives. It provides a clearly demarcated arena of political contestation and collective action by citizens who identify with it, and gives them the means of calling governments to account. Historically speaking, this is a very hard trick to pull off.

From the start there never was any consensus about just what sort of trick the EU was supposed to be, apart from a machine to keep the peace and generate prosperity. All agreed that this would require a diminution of national sovereignty. But at the beginning very little thinking went into establishing democratic procedures within it, in part because after the experience with fascism the Founding Fathers did not fully trust le peuple. Even less thinking went into how to build public identification with the project—how to turn Scots and Sicilians into compatriots who feel they share a destiny and recognize the same institutions. The result is that ordinary Europeans today do not know what to make of the “European project.”

They see that the weighty decisions are made in the Brussels bureaucracy or in the European Commission, whose members are not directly elected. The European Parliament is elected, but there are no pan-European parties to offer comprehensive programs for governing and suffer the consequences if they fail to enact them. Voters must choose from national lists of candidates who can promise nothing and are accountable for nothing, which encourages irresponsible protest voting. As for constructing European identity, one need only point out, as many have done, that the euro note shows not a single historical figure or place or monument that might resonate with citizens from Glasgow to Taormina, and that few are aware of the anthem that the EU has chosen for them. (It is “Ode to Joy,” ironically enough.) Not only has massive immigration shaken Europeans’ national sense of “we,” so has the continual expansion of the EU borders to the east and southeast and, who knows, perhaps one day to the southern rim of the Mediterranean. Since Europe no longer thinks it has an essence, or a core, or a shared history, or even borders, why should it reject for membership any nation that says it, too, is Europe?

It is little wonder that citizens today in both weak and strong nations feel duped and distrust each other. As Greece and other nations have teetered on the edge of insolvency and the EU has demanded austerity, their citizens have rightly sensed that they are losing control over their collective destinies. But this is also true of the restless German public, which worries that it has signed an economic suicide pact with profligates. Nationally elected officials in the weaker states, hoping to stay in office while having to impose austerity, point to the Germans; the Germans shift blame to the EU solvency rules. The EU then points to the omniscient financial markets, which refer you to American bond-rating agencies, which are staffed by MBAs working in cubicles who have become, faute de mieux, the new sovereigns of Europe. And what they demand is less democracy and more reliance on technical governments and economic experts. 

Defenders of the European Union remind us that it has successfully maintained peace for two decades, and warn that nations must relinquish even more sovereignty if Europe is to cope with volatile global financial markets and compete with economic behemoths like China and the United States. This may be so. A pacified Europe is a precious thing, and a more powerful EU may very well be a necessary thing. But they are not democratic things.

While Europe has been quietly chipping away at the foundation of its postwar democracies, the United States has been trying to build new ones on sand. 

Historically, Americans have been better at living democracy than at understanding it. They consider it a birthright and a universal aspiration, not a rare form of government that for two millennia was dismissed as base, unstable, and potentially tyrannical. They are generally unaware that democracy in the West went from being considered an irredeemable regime in classical antiquity, to a potentially good one only in the nineteenth century, to the best form of government only after World War II, to the sole legitimate regime only in the past twenty-five years.

The American political science profession suffers from the same amnesia. During the cold war, scholars convinced of democracy’s absolute and unique goodness abandoned the traditional study of non-democratic forms of government, such as monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, and took instead to distinguishing regimes along a single line running from democracy (good) to totalitarianism (bad). The academic game then became where along that line to put all the other “authoritarian” states. (Was Franco’s Spain to the right of Suharto’s Indonesia, or the other way round?) This way of thinking gave rise to the naïve assumption that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries would naturally begin making “transitions” from dictatorship and authoritarianism to democracy, as if by magnetic attraction. That confidence has now evaporated, and our political scientists have seen that under the cloak of elections many unpleasant things can grow. But they still want to hold on to their little line and so they write articles about electoral authoritarianism, competitive authoritarianism, clan authoritarianism, pseudo-democracies, façade democracies, and weak democracies. And, just to cover the bases, “hybrid regimes.”

But in the mind of America’s political and journalistic classes, only two political categories exist today: democracy and le déluge. If you assume that democracy is the only legitimate form of government, that is a perfectly serviceable distinction. “What should not be, cannot be,” wrote the German poet. Unable or just unwilling to distinguish the varieties of non-democracy that exist today, we instead speak of their “human rights records,” which tell us much less than we think they do. We turn to organizations such as Freedom House, a think tank that promotes democracy and publicizes human rights abuses around the world. It produces an influential annual report, Freedom in the World, which claims to quantify levels of freedom in every country on Earth. It gives them marks on different factors (rights to political participation, civil liberties, the press, etc.) and then combines those figures into a composite index number that indicates whether that country is “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.” The document reads like a stock report: “this marks the seventh consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements.” In 2013, readers were confidently told that, based on the numbers, the “most noteworthy gains” in freedom in 2012 had been in Egypt, Libya, Burma, and Côte d’Ivoire. One hardly knows where to begin. 

Clearly, the big surprise in world politics since the cold war’s end is not the advance of liberal democracy but the reappearance of classic forms of non-democratic political rule in modern guises. The break-up of the Soviet empire and the “shock therapy” that followed it produced new oligarchies and kleptocracies that have at their disposal innovative tools of finance and communication; the advance of political Islam has placed millions of Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s population, under more restrictive theocratic rule; tribes, clans, and sectarian groups have become the most important actors in the post-colonial states of Africa and the Middle East; China has brought back despotic mercantilism. Each of these political formations has a distinctive nature that needs to be understood in its own terms, not as a lesser or greater form of democracy in potentia. The world of nations remains what it has always been: an aviary. 

But ornithology is complicated and democracy-promotion seems so much simpler. After all, don’t all peoples want to be well governed and consulted in matters affecting them? Don’t they want to be secure and treated justly? Don’t they want to escape the humiliations of poverty? Well, liberal democracy is the best way of achieving these things. That is the American view—and, true enough, it is shared by many people living in non-democratic countries. But that does not mean they understand the implications of democratization and would accept the social and cultural individualism it would inevitably bring with it. No peoples are as libertarian as Americans have become today; they prize goods that individualism destroys, like deference to tradition, a commitment to place, respect for elders, obligations to family and clan, a devotion to piety and virtue. If they and we think that they can have it all, then they and we are very much mistaken. These are the rocks on which the hopes for Arab democracy keep shattering.

The truth is that billions of people will not be living in liberal democracies in our lifetimes or those of our children or grandchildren—if ever. This is due not only to culture and mores: to these must be added ethnic divisions, religious sectarianism, illiteracy, economic injustice, senseless national borders imposed by colonial powers ... the list is long. Without the rule of law and a respected constitution, without professional bureaucracies that treat citizens impartially, without the subordination of the military to civilian rule, without regulatory bodies to keep economic transactions transparent, without social norms that encourage civic engagement and law-abidingness—without all of this, modern liberal democracy is impossible. So the only sensible question to ask when thinking about today’s non-democracies is: what’s Plan B? 

Nothing reflects the bankruptcy of today’s political thinking more than our unwillingness to pose this question, which smacks of racism to the left and defeatism to the right (and both to liberal hawks). But if the only choices we can imagine are democracy or le déluge, we exclude the possibility of improving non-democratic regimes without either trying forcibly to transform them (American-style) or hoping vainly (European-style) that human rights treaties, humanitarian interventions, legal sanctions, NGO projects, and bloggers with iPhones will make a lasting difference. These are the utterly characteristic delusions of our two continents. The next Nobel Peace Prize should not go to a human rights activist or an NGO founder. It should go to the thinker or leader who develops a model of constitutional theocracy giving Muslim countries a coherent way of recognizing yet limiting the authority of religious law and making it compatible with good governance. This would be a historic, though not necessarily democratic, achievement.

No such prize will be given, of course, and not only because such thinkers and leaders are lacking. To recognize such an achievement would require abandoning the dogma that individual freedom is the only or even the highest political good in every historical circumstance, and accepting that trade-offs are inevitable. It would mean accepting that, if there is a road from serfdom to democracy, it will, in long stretches, be paved with non-democracy—as it was in the West. I am beginning to feel some sympathy for those American officials who led the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq ten years ago and immediately began destroying existing political parties, standing armies, and traditional institutions of political consultation and authority. The deepest reason for this colossal blunder was not American hubris or naïveté, though there was plenty of that. It was that they had no way of thinking about alternatives to immediate—and in the end, sham—democratization. Where should they have turned? Whose books should they have read? What model should they have relied on? All they knew was the prime directive: draft new constitutions, establish parliaments and presidential offices, then call elections. And after that, it was the deluge indeed.

The libertarian age is an illegible age. It has given birth to a new kind of hubris unlike that of the old master thinkers. Our hubris is to think that we no longer have to think hard or pay attention or look for connections, that all we have to do is stick to our “democratic values” and economic models and faith in the individual and all will be well. Having witnessed unpleasant scenes of intellectual drunkenness, we have become self-satisfied abstainers removed from history and unprepared for the challenges it is already bringing. The end of the cold war destroyed whatever confidence in ideology still remained in the West. But it also seems to have destroyed our will to understand. We have abdicated. The libertarian dogma of our time is turning our polities, economies, and cultures upside down—and blinding us to this by making us even more self-absorbed and incurious than we naturally are. The world we are making with our hands is as remote from our minds as the farthest black hole. Once we had a nostalgia for the future. Today we have an amnesia for the present.