A darkening horizon

As the liberal order declines, a polarised world full of majoritarian, intellectually insecure angst looms.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: November 2, 2018 12:05:03 am
liberals, liberalism, right wing, left wing, militarism, angela merkel, brazil elections, germany elections, political polarisation, politics, indian politics, us politics Universities across the world will be constructed as purveyors of ideas that above all are contemptuous of the ordinary sensibilities of the majority. (Representational Image)

As the recently much derided “liberal order” ebbs away, what is the ideological constellation that will replace it? The liberal order was often more an idea than a reality and in international politics, often not very liberal at all. But it operated within a series of normative horizons — economic centrism, openness to trade, multiculturalism, and so on. The flagbearers of that order are losing credibility all across the world, for a variety of reasons. Deep misjudgements on inequality, issues of identity and structural corruption made liberal, centrist politics lose its sheen. Of course, each country from India to Brazil, Hungary to the United States has its own historical specificity. But there are still common tropes that are running through the politics of these countries. Do these common tropes signal a new set of normative horizons? Here are some elements of the new constellation that will characterise the politics of more countries.

First, greater polarisation between Left and Right. The only object of consensus in global politics seems to be that relatively status-quoist centrist politics is anathema. That middle of the road “third way” that was the dominant ideological current in most countries, is seen as not being much in the middle by some, or being so much in the middle that it is being run over by both the Left and the Right. The US will see the sharpening of the Left-Right polarisation; in some ways, the Brazilian election is an extreme version of that. As Angela Merkel steps down in Germany, arguably both the Greens and AfD could gain at the expense of the centre. Whether this sharpened conflict will produce a new dialectic of reform or whether it will make it harder to mediate social conflict will depend on particular national histories. But much sharpened ideological conflict is on the cards, with perhaps more radical swings in politics.

Second, the rise of majoritarianism. One of the challenging trends in world politics is the anxieties of dominant cultural majorities in most countries about their ability to maintain their hegemony. This issue is manifested in the debate over immigration. But this anxiety is more subtler and far reaching than that. It is borne of the thought that while multiculturalism recognised the rights of cultural minorities to maintain their culture, the majority culture is now either demographically under threat, or simply derided as hegemonic and oppressive. The idea of rights of existing majorities to shape the course of their culture can manifest in horrendous forms of nativism, or more subtly in the contest over national narratives. But “the majority in danger” is likely to remain a potent rallying cry.

Third, expect more attacks on intellectual and cultural life. Though politically not significant, culturally the assault on universities will grow. Universities across the world will be constructed as purveyors of ideas that above all are contemptuous of the ordinary sensibilities of the majority. They will be accused of a double sin: Conflation of reason with identity, and then privileging some identities at the expense of others. As a description, this charge may be exaggerated. But the expectation that universities return to becoming flagbearers for cultural nationalism against multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism will grow.

Fourth, there will be a rise in militarism. As the international environment moves to a more zero sum game, the pressures to modernise militaries will, of course, increase, possibly unleashing a new arms race. But there will be a subtle rehabilitation of militarism as an ideology — the idea that military style tactics might be needed to keep assorted real and imaginary internal threats to nations at bay will become more acceptable. Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil is the starkest example of this. But this temptation is lurking under the surface in many other countries.

Fifth, on the economy there will be a messy picture. States will want to be seen as more in-charge of the economy. But neither the Right or Left will be quite able to solve their inherent contradictions. The right has often risen to power on the promise that it will not let the fate of nations be decided by anonymous forces like global markets. Markets have to conform to national priorities not the other way round. So it will make a show of this on issues like trade. Yet, its recipe for growth is more deregulation and accelerating those forces that produced stagnation and inequality in the first place. Faced with a more vocal Left, global capital will in most cases likely align with the Right, even if it puts liberalism and democracy at risk. The Right might produce short-term growth, but leave the underlying structure of inequality intact. The Left’s repertoire of ideas will vary from country to country. But they will oddly align with the Right in turning back globalisation. In some cases, the Left is secretly relieved that the Right has legitimised de globalisation: It had been stuck on how to do that without appearing nativist.

Sixth, in many countries, independent institutions will come under even more attack. The liberal order, in part, rested on the conceit that institutional orders can be insulated from politics. The Right has essentially been able to make that argument (which the Left used to make), that insulation is simply a ruse to get particular cultural and technological elites power. They have also been able to make the case that this insulation is essentially protecting those elites from popular pressure. These institutions act as a fifth column for the old order. Therefore, it will become easier to attack institutions.

Seventh, the politics of gender will become even more pronounced, though this is a politics whose political ramifications are not clear. But in some ways, gender equality is the slow but certain revolution that has long been in the making. But like all revolutions it generates a good of psychological anxiety, and possibly counter revolutionary tendencies at least in culture. Whether those find sublimation in a cult of masculine nationalism is an open question.

And finally, there is a civil society: The profound ways in which the new information order constricts or enables political possibilities is still not fully understood. But in the current architecture, even small quantities of poison have an ability to generate political convulsions in ways that are not easy to imagine.

So we are looking at an ideologically more polarised world, full of more majoritarian angst, intellectually insecure, more muscular, confused on economic strategy, less tolerant of fragmentation of power that comes through institutions, suffused with masculine anxiety, and a corrosive civil society. No matter what our national differences or contingent electoral outcomes, the world will have to deal with this darkening ideological constellation.

The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University. Views are personal.

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