Does migration herald the demise of the liberal idea?


Icon of defiance. Carola Rackete, the 31-year-old Sea-Watch 3 captain, disembarks from a Finance police boat and is escorted to a car in Porto Empedocle, Italy, July 1. (Reuters)

Everywhere, the inoffensive liberal message is portrayed as a mortal threat to the greater common good.

A German ship’s female captain was briefly detained in Italy for docking in an Italian port with a boat carrying migrants rescued off Zawiya, Libya. Was the captain a dangerous liberal? Was she pursuing an obsolete ideology that places a premium on saving lives, even of those to whom we owe nothing?

Just days ago, people on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides marked the first anniversary of their first mosque, which caters to approximately a dozen Syrian refugees. Were the islanders wrong to have embraced multiculturalism? Had they made a cardinal mistake?

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently used those very words to explain his view of the world. It was a “cardinal mistake,” Putin said in an interview with the Financial Times for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to have taken in approximately 1 million Syrian refugees in 2015. He pronounced the liberal idea as having “become obsolete” anyway because “it has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.”

Liberalism, Putin said, is determined to protect multiculturalism and migrants rather than “the interests of the core population.” Migrants, he added, “kill, plunder and rape with impunity.”

Ergo, kindness to migrants is not in the interests of the host country and its people. It only serves an obsolete liberal ideology, which in itself, Putin said, goes against “stable… traditional values.”

Is that true? Are “traditional values,” East or West, within Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, so narrowly focused? Is political liberalism, a system based on the rights of individuals and civil society, out of sync with the times in which we live? Is social liberalism, which revolves around the protection of minorities and vulnerable groups, a namby-pamby idea inconsistent with the national interest? And, if so, is national interest solely to be taken as the perceived psychological and physical benefit of the majority of citizens of any one country?

Any answer to these questions must take into account two basic facts. First, Putin is in a commanding position after nearly 20 years at the very top of the Russian government. He has intervened in Syria and brutally dealt with Chechnya and Crimea. Second, the rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency is helping Putin’s attempt to enshrine a new, post-democratic paradigm that goes against values hitherto supported by the Western world.

The retreat of liberalism as an idea that drives human progress as well as mankind’s best instincts cannot be denied. In the United States, for instance, white evangelical protestants have declined as a share of the population in elections from 2004–18 but risen as a share of the voting population. This is seen by political analysts as a concerted attempt to roll back the liberalism marked by the election of Barack Obama.

In Poland, once a poster child of post-communist transition to the European Union, a conservatism based on supposedly Roman Catholic traditional values has taken hold. Young Polish voters cleave to the governing Law and Justice party’s promise of security in the face of exaggerated fears of a “Muslim invasion” of Europe.

Then there are the other usual suspects, which pop up on any list of Western countries now openly or covertly expressing contempt for the liberal idea. Hungary. Italy. Austria. There are also relatively prominent anti-Muslim, anti-migrant political parties in Britain, France, the Netherlands and Germany. Everywhere, the inoffensive liberal message is portrayed as a mortal threat to the greater common good.

Even so, it may be premature to compose an elegy to liberalism. Better perhaps to consider why anti-liberalism is on the rise. Not too long ago, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel explained the anti-liberal tide as a search for justice in a time of growing inequality. Sandel said that with the top 1% of the US population having more wealth than the bottom 90% combined and the average CEO making more money in a day than the average person in a year, ordinary people were hungering for a reckoning as well as a level playing field.

After Reaganomics and Thatcherism, which posited that the market could fix everything, a new clutch of centre-left leaders took charge in the 1990s, Sandel said. However, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder didn’t really change the system. Crucially, they did nothing to make the social system fairer and more just.

This meant, in Sandel’s words, that we went from being market economies to “market societies,” a wholly soul-less and value-less status that does not allow man to dream securely within a structured order. Nationalism, i.e. a search for values and belonging, is the response. And Putin can claim liberalism is obsolete

It may very well be if it doesn’t provide justice.

Originally published in The Arab Weekly