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Can the liberal worldview survive?

15 November 2016

4:19 PM

15 November 2016

4:19 PM

There is a latent consensus among political scientists and highbrow columnists that the liberal era is over and that, following Brexit and Trump, we are entering a period of neo-nationalism. This consensus will develop further if, as I suspect she will, Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election next May. Two recent editorials in the Economist demonstrate how quickly this is happening. In July, it was argued that ‘the new divide in rich countries is not between left and right but between open and closed’. Last week, we were told that ‘the long, hard job of winning the argument for liberal internationalism begins anew’.

The challenge to liberalism is still seen as an argument to be won rather than an irreversible sea-change. But, if anything, the scale of the problem has been understated. The core tenets of liberalism are freedom and equality, ideas that are under siege. They are undermined by globalisation, technology, automation and the pursuit of social justice (as it’s variously interpreted). Not to mention radical Islam which, in comparison, seems almost trivial.

Most academic economists argue that globalisation increases equality, both globally and within nations. Even if they are right, it has a serious perception problem. In key constituencies it is seen as a destabilising force, and the democratic backlash against it is real enough. If people believe that jobs are going to India or China, then they may as well be.

Technological progress is such that those who do still have a job can’t be sure it’s safe from automation. Synthetic intelligence will disrupt some economic sectors faster than others, but no industry is entirely insulated. Workers in the transport industry are aware of the existential threat posed to them by technology. There is a striking correlation between states that voted Republican and those where truck driving is the most common profession. This makes sense, given that there are at least 33 companies working on driverless technology, and automated trucks are already starting to roll off production lines in Germany.

Other sectors are less prepared. Animal agriculture will be upended when the first palatable and economically viable lab-grown meat is developed. Several start-ups are competing to be the first to solve the problem. As of 2014, 47 per cent of soy and 60 per cent of corn produced in the US is consumed by livestock. This shows just how many farmers are at risk of imminent redundancy. The current global dogma on climate change will ensure that most of them are put out of business; by some estimates animal agriculture contributes more to total greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transport combined.

These are examples of areas in which technology will reduce employment, but there are other ways it will increase cultural inequality. Tech-evangelists promise us that in the near future those who can afford it will be able to travel to space, live vicariously in virtual worlds and extend their lives with the aid of bio-technology. What happens to the notion of equality in a society in which the wealthy can buy longer lives?

Freedom is also being undermined by regressive social movements. University campuses across the Western world are stuffed with young people who are willing to sacrifice freedom – the freedom to offend, for example – for the ‘greater good’ of social justice. Yes, students tend towards radicalism, but they have a nasty habit of growing up and taking over our institutions, too. Mock the ‘snowflakes’ – or their opponents in the ‘alt-right’ – at your peril.

The liberal worldview is powerless in the face of this perfect storm. How does nationalism address these problems? It doesn’t, nor does it have to. It’s the only other game in town. Nationalists (like the liberals they depose) have no answers to the challenges of the early 21st century. But they have charismatic leaders, cheap slogans and bogeymen on the other side of the border. For an increasing number of people – From Ankara to Edinburgh to the American midwest – that’s enough. Liberals should take the words – the threat – of Florian Philippot, the vice president of France’s Front National, very seriously indeed:  ‘Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built’.


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