Europe and the cultural boundaries of liberalism

Dimitar Vatsov

Europe and the cultural boundaries of liberalism

Neoliberalism and multiculturalism have failed, but this isn’t a failure of liberalism

National-populists, in sync with Russian propaganda, often declare that Europe is in crisis and is about to collapse. In fact, the crises which the EU is sometimes alleged to be in, or which it has actually gone through over the years, are different: financial, debt, migrant, a series of political ones. In the metonymic balloon of populist language, however, those actual and imagined ‘crises’ are indistinguishable: they are apocalyptically fused into a single, general crisis leading to the inevitable downfall of Europe as the victim of a conspiracy (of the US, Soros, Wall Street, or another villain/puppet-master). To this, however, the doomsayers add yet another crisis – moral or cultural-political. Many today have declared a ‘crisis’ or even the ‘failure’ of liberalism.

Such a crisis, however, if there is one, would be fatal. For if liberalism is in crisis – and since by ‘liberalism’ we usually mean the ethical and institutional-political foundation of liberal democracies – then the national-populists are right: then liberal democracy, as a political project of the Enlightenment, is doomed. If liberalism is in crisis, then not only Europe but also the West and modernity are doomed to decline.

Such talk, of course, is sheer nonsense. For although the conclusion in the above paragraph is correct, its premise is wrong: liberalism is by no means in crisis.

‘But this is only your opinion,’ someone will object. ‘Many people, both on the left and the right, believe that liberalism is in crisis. And quite a few of them are tempted to draw the generalized “doomsday” conclusion about Europe.’

Indeed, many people believe so. And this dispute is unsolvable if we don’t clarify the terms involved in it.

Liberalism would have been in crisis if by ‘liberalism’ we understood that which populists today usually understand by this word: an unclear mix of ‘neoliberalism’ + ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘gender’. Regrettably, some ‘liberal’ parties – for example, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in Germany – also provide food for populists by unequivocally taking neoliberal and multicultural positions. But this isn’t what liberalism is!

Of course, not all anti-liberals recognize in ‘liberalism’ the aforementioned mix. Insofar as there is still a distinctly left-wing critique of capitalism, it usually attacks economic neoliberalism while leftists usually support cultural and sexual differences (there have also been some emblematic exceptions recently: for example, Bulgarian and Romanian socialists). Conversely, today many conservatively-minded people oppose the claims of sexual and cultural minorities, while supporting a libertarian economic ideology. Paradoxically, in the national-populist discourses in recent years those two lines of critique of liberalism have merged, whereby the right-wing rhetoric has devoured the left-wing one and ‘liberalism’ has become a peculiar hybrid: the result is the aforementioned mix of ‘neoliberalism’ + ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘gender’. At the risk of oversimplification, we may generalize that today there are at least three types of anti-liberals: left-wing (against ‘neoliberalism’), right-wing conservatives (against ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘gender’), and right-wing national-populists (against all of this). When they attack liberalism, however, all of them attack one of these two things or both: ‘neoliberalism’ and/or ‘identity politics’.

Perhaps to the surprise of all anti-liberals listed above, I – a self-confessed liberal in values – will actually agree with both main theses they support separately or together. I agree, first, that the neoliberal economic politics which were hegemonic in the last few decades now bring more woes and risks than benefits. And second, I also agree that identity politics towards the different cultural, religious, and sexual minorities have failed or, at the very least, exhausted themselves. Liberalism, however, has by no means failed, because liberalism certainly doesn’t mean by definition either ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘gender’, or all three of these.

Still, why is it fair to say that they have failed?

Neoliberal economic politics and cultural politics of identity have developed at roughly the same time: from the 1970s to the present. Although they have often intertwined, let us discuss their trajectories and failures one by one.

Neoliberalism started not with a failure but with a rise. When Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power and imposed a libertarian ideology of government, the withdrawal of the state from welfare functions rather turned out to be something good at that time: the privatization of state-owned resources did not only patch up the holes caused by the ballooning of the welfare system in the previous golden decades but also filled the treasury to the point of enabling new investments in the military industry. It is precisely through the arms race that ‘neoliberalism’ won the Cold War and the Eastern Bloc collapsed – we (Bulgarians, Eastern Europeans) won our freedom. On the other hand, in the 1990s the ideology of the minimal state and of the free market were the main ideological engine of the new wave of economic and technological globalization – the latter would have been impossible without minimizing the political regulations of national markets. In addition, some economic convergence among the separate regions and countries in the world due above all to the relatively open, through the markets, global access to information and technologies, is also among the positive effects of neoliberal politics.

But right from the outset, neoliberalism unleashed two well-known, dangerous processes which gained momentum and intensified each other – through them the rise of neoliberalism turned into inevitable failure. Neoliberalism, first, minimized redistribution, thereby widening the gap between rich and poor and increasing economic inequalities (the 1:99% effect); in addition, significant masses of people have lost security in their lives, turning not only into a social but also into a symbolic precariat. Those losers of neoliberal globalization – economically and symbolically – are the actual electoral base of today’s populism.

At the same time, second, once the process of political deregulation of markets has been unleashed, it is very difficult for the political elites to respond, even if they wanted to, by political means to the processes of de-classing in societies because economic globalization has significantly outstripped political globalization. The markets have become global while the instruments for their regulation have remained local, and this can be seen clearly from the constraints which even the new isolationist rhetorics but also policies, including those of the biggest players – of Trump – encounter today.

Thus, the failure of neoliberalism consists in this: that it has unleashed powerful processes of social de-classing against the background of economic and technological globalization but, at the same time, it hasn’t developed political instruments for controlling the global markets: in this regard the political instruments of redistribution – the modern states, even the big ones – have remained anachronous, local, quite powerless.

Neoliberalism as an ideology and policy has forgotten that liberalism is a social project: individual freedom cannot exist not only without legal guarantees against tyrannical government but also without universal education and healthcare, that is, without redistribution. Rejecting the social-democratic extension of liberalism carried out successfully in the 19th and especially in the 20th century, neoliberalism has strategically cut off the branch it is sitting on. Neoliberalism has destroyed the conditions of possibility of liberalism.

Actually, identity politics have indirectly contributed both to the rise and to the failure of neoliberalism. It is an old truth that the politics of recognition of cultural identities are often a perfect ideological smokescreen for the state’s withdrawal from its welfare functions – the state rejects redistribution (cuts spending on universal education, healthcare, and so on) and thus rejects egalitarian socialization of all citizens, shifting the responsibility for socialization on the individuals themselves and, more precisely, on the different cultural minorities and communities in which they are inscribed and which the state now ‘highly recognizes’ (so as ‘not to attend’ to them). On the other hand, the politics of positive discrimination – of special protection, including through material support, of cultural communities aimed at their preservation and further development – often lead to secondary ghettoization and marginalization of these selfsame minority cultural groups. But identity politics aren’t an unambiguously bad phenomenon either. After all, positive discrimination – and we stress this – doesn’t always and necessarily lead to secondary ghettoization – there are also good examples of the opposite (such as an accessible environment for people with disabilities, for example)! Furthermore, nothing entails that the recognition of differences must necessarily replace and revoke social redistribution – on the contrary, there are good examples of effective governmental combination of recognition and redistribution. So cultural politics of identity haven’t necessarily failed, at least not in those aspects. And, besides, multiculturalism isn’t necessarily a smokescreen for neoliberalism; by historical coincidence, however, they enter into symbiosis when identity politics are used in practice as an excuse for welfare spending cuts.

Where, then, have identity politics failed?

The big problem with identity politics is that the accumulation of different demands for recognition, each one of which rejects the diktat of a particular hegemonic cultural norm, gives rise to a cumulative effect of ever new rejections. The result is, so to speak, an inert anarchistic effect even when it isn’t deliberately sought by the participants involved. Insofar as different minorities – religious, ethnocultural, and sexual – constantly identify themselves in opposition to the majority culture, the result is this: ‘Every dominant culture, whatever it may be, is repressive and oppressive!’ This is precisely what the failure of identity politics consists in: they have triggered an extreme left-wing turn in the relevant discourse, where apparently equal recognition is due to every difference, without there being a legitimate common cultural and moral code.

Another thing in which identity politics often fail is that they often demand special group rights which either turn out to be an exception from the universal right (thus fragmenting it and destroying its universality) or enter into contradiction if not directly with other rights, then at least with the hegemonic interpretation of universal formal law, maintained by the cultural majority. An anecdotal example of the former is the specific, exclusive right, won by the Sikhs in the UK, to ride motorcycles without helmets so that they won’t have to remove the turban, which is part of their identity. The attempts, however, to grant other specific group rights – such as administering family justice according to Sharia law for Muslims – are often not so anecdotal in their failure. The demands for recognition of same-sex marriage, for their part, do not seek some specific sphere in which homosexuals will have a limited cultural autonomy of their own – those demands not only enter into contradiction with the widely dominant heterosexual cultural norm, they also want homosexuality to be recognized as a public norm equal to the heterosexual one. In all those cases, however, we see a transcendence of the classical liberal principle of tolerance, according to which the subject of equal treatment by the state are all individuals who, without external coercion, may profess all sorts of group identities in their private lives and even practice them in public space without, however, turning group identities into a public norm. The demands for turning cultural differences into a public norm – and especially when this requires introducing group rights in place of individual rights – are precisely that through which identity politics blur the cultural boundaries of classical liberalism. But it is also precisely here that we can see that through the demands for group rights, identity politics transcend liberalism and sometimes enter into contradiction with it – identity politics aren’t liberalism.

Both the excessive left-wing turn in the relevant discourse and the demands for group minority rights often have a boomerang effect. Today the cultural majorities in many countries have started to feel endangered: not only have many members of the majority been left out, hurt or marginalized by globalization, not only are the majorities indeed shrinking demographically but, to add insult to injury, someone is constantly contesting their identity and culture in order to defend the ‘gypsies’, ‘homosexuals’, ‘migrants’, and so on. Contemporary nation-populisms, of course, are a response to this spectrum of fears – an extreme response that is following in the footsteps of fascism and most often simply inverts the identity politics, privileging the identity of the majority in opposition to the minorities. Now it isn’t ‘the gypsies’ but ‘we Bulgarians’ – or ‘we Americans’ from the Rust Belt, ‘we French’ in yellow vests – ‘we’ are demanding social and cultural privileges and special protection (i.e., positive discrimination) because globalization has made us feel endangered economically, demographically, and culturally. Under pressure from neoliberal globalization and multiculturalism, the majorities felt vulnerable minorities and blamed this on those who are weaker than them themselves – their own minorities. A direct effect of this is the threatening rise of xenophobia and homophobia found, albeit to a different extent, in almost all countries by the European Values Study in 2018 – as compared with the previous wave of 2008.

Of course, national-populisms certainly cannot solve the problems in response to which they themselves have risen. That is at the very least because problems that have already become global cannot be solved by means of isolationism and self-withdrawal. Isolationism cannot lead to global regulation of markets and respective redistribution, nor can it help avoid the risks of a racist and fascist hardening of the cultural codes. In the best-case scenario, national-populisms turn into an instrument of the local oligarchic clans for state capture and for securing personal gains, from which the ordinary people marginalized by globalization don’t stand to gain in the least.

Today liberalism needs to be rethought anew at the global, but above all on the European level. Not just because Europe is the historical birthplace of liberalism but because today the EU is the only quasi-global multinational political project in which supra-national consensuses are achieved precisely on a ‘liberal’ – multinational – basis.

In my view, liberalism must be rethought along two main lines:

It must be freed from the straitjacket of economic neoliberalism so as to return to its social fabric – to solidarity as a condition of possibility of individual freedom and of the individualized lifestyle we are accustomed to. At stake here is the elaboration of new forms of supra-national redistribution at the European, and hence – possibly – at the global level, too.

Liberalism, furthermore, must also be freed from the excesses of multiculturalism and gender politics so as to return to its cultural foundation, to the basic liberal consensus – that rights are above all individual not group, and that the political community that guarantees them is above all civic not ethnic or religious. But liberalism must also reassure the majorities that despite the imperative of tolerance and protection of minorities, liberalism is and remains democratic – and in a democracy it is the majorities which determine the dominant cultural code and limits of admissible variation of identities.

Translation into English:

Katerina Popova