When the wall fell in Berlin a quarter century ago, the path seemed clear for liberalism to be the dominant political ideology of the new millennium that was fast approaching. It did happen, until 'angry nationalism' set in and totalitarianism started gaining ground all over the world and liberalism found itself in retreat. Even the most sceptic person won't say liberalism is dead, nor would anyone agree that it is on its last leg, but the sudden resistance from the countries that invented it calls into question the future of the idea that has powered the west for three hundred years.
In eighteenth-century Europe, the age of enlightenment ushered in new political thoughts, ones of universal suffrage, liberty and exercise of free will. Keeping individual freedom and extending a set of inalienable rights to all, liberalism survived the fall of empires and found itself in the winning side of two world wars. The decades that followed saw a seemingly unending run of liberal ideas as authoritarian regimes were getting toppled all over the world and comprehensive welfare states were being built in Europe.
The universalisation of liberal democracy has always been seen as a victory for the west. There were compelling reasons to believe so in the past. But the core ideas behind liberalism are so aligned with that of common human interests that it undoubtedly becomes the best option for all humans and for all ages. Liberalism protects the individual from tyranny, grants them certain indefeasible rights and promotes uninhibited pursuit of knowledge. But fallacy and prejudices are so interlaced with human nature that injudicious acts are the most common outcome.
Hence the recipe for such unmitigated disasters, which had been shelved for so long has come into play. Anti-rationalist forces have teamed up across regional boundaries and rule of law under representative governments have been rooted out. Russia and Turkey have slid back into being authoritarian regimes. Vladimir Putin crafted a new Soviet-style domineering state which suppresses dissent and tramples on civil liberties. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has undone most of the seculariszing and modernising reforms of the country's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. After the failed coup attempt in July, Turkey's democratic reversal has accelerated and expanded. The Arab Spring, the promise of a liberal Middle East ended in despair as the countries embroiled in civil war.
To be fair these countries weren't liberal utopias in the past. What strikes the liberal conscience most is the rise of anti-establishment, populist movements in countries that enshrines liberal principles in their society. Increasing role of ethnicity in politics does not bode well for the future of any country but it has a place in Donald Trump's America and in Marine Le Pens' France. The crippling refugee crisis has flared up far-right sentiments in tolerant Germany and famously liberal Sweden.
The eurosceptics handed Prime Minister Mateo Renzi of Italy a crushing defeat in the referendum last Sunday (December 11). The Five Star Movement (M5S) is planning another referendum on whether Italy should stay in the Euro area should they come to power in the next elections. France, Germany and Netherlands go into elections when nationalistic surge threatens to tear the European Union (EU) apart.
Nevertheless, the liberal democratic experiment didn't fail. Nor did nationalism charm its way back into the political sphere. Rather, it forced its way in. Europe-wide revival of nationalism is nothing but the manifestation of the deep-seated resentment people feel in their bones. Growing concerns over mass digitisation, globalisation and free trade resulted in the resurgence of protectionism. Therefore, reorienting globalisation should be the first priority. Trade treaties should not be negotiated just for the sake of free trade and nothing in exchange. Customs duties and commercial barriers cannot be reduced without addressing climate change and prompt fiscal solutions to offset the losses incurred by all the contracting parties.
In all fairness political discourse around globalisation has to change. Trade is good but it should be used only as a means to a higher end. Critics of liberalism are right in that it has stopped working for the poor and the middle class. This disenfranchised group gives rise to nationalist movements in troubled countries.
Liberal ideas spread when people have an unreserved acceptance of multiple and often incompatible truths. It requires the collective denouncing of demagoguery and populist sentiments. In absence of these intolerance and unwillingness to compromise ensue. Liberals now face severe backlashes from opposite sides of the political spectrum. The extreme lefts' criticism of capitalism and the extreme rights' unwavering stance on immigration have left liberals somewhat lifeless. It is surprising since commonly held belief is liberalism flourished after all viable alternatives have been exhausted. A renewed attention to persistent crises that the establishment political parties and democratic institutions have failed to address will inevitably put it back on top.
A period of sustained expansion throughout the 20th century did not consolidate the victory of liberal views over anti-rational bigotry. The answers to the current outrage do not lie in nationalism. The world has seen its incomparable destructive forces twice in the last century. So, more needs to be done to heed the feeble battle cry of liberalism. Nothing is more important to human dignity and prosperity than this.
The writer studies Civil Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering & Technology (BUET).
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