04 March 2014

Liberalism and mob rule

Not so long ago, mob rule was the antithesis of liberalism: violent, coercive, non-deliberative and presumably unrepresentative. Yet this year we see liberals cheering on mobs in Kiev -- as long as they oppose Russia -- a year after they cheered on the mobs in Cairo protesting against Islamism. Some are probably cheering for mobs in Caracas, though that depends on whether or not a liberal also views himself as a progressive, in which case social justice, as presumably represented by the Maduro government, takes priority over civil liberty, as represented by the mob. Few liberals, most likely, understand Thai politics enough to know whether to side with the mobs in Bangkok or not. When did liberals learn to love a mob? Most likely during the 1980s, when mobs of protesters rose up against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and the idea of "people power" was born. Marcos was seen as a pro-American ruler, so at first the formula wasn't as simple as "a mob is good when the ruler is anti-American." Still, as "people power" brought down the Soviet Bloc at the end of the 1980s, I suspect that an idea developed in which mobs were the necessary substitute wherever an "authoritarian" or "totalitarian" state suppressed "civil society. Some liberals may now grant mobs the benefit of the doubt, much as they grant it to dissidents in general, so long as the government the mob opposes can be seen as "authoritarian" at least. As some skeptics have observed, liberals would not feel so sanguine if hundreds of thousands of Tea Partiers converged on Washington D.C. to demand President Obama's resignation and got into fights with police in the process. But does the analogy prove that the mobs in Kiev should be accorded no legitimacy, as President Putin suggests? The answer can't be an absolute one. It remains possible to imagine scenarios in which citizens should take to the streets to protest and pressure their governments, and even to demand a government's immediate ouster. The problem with Ukraine is that many liberals automatically reached the conclusion that the mobs were legitimate, based on mixes of knowledge and assumptions about the nature of the Yanukovich government. Liberalism today regards dissent as the health of the state; the best proof of our freedom is hearing someone disagree with the government. For some liberals, it seems more important to hear disagreement than to judge whether the disagreement is justified. In giving the benefit of the doubt to dissent unconditionally, liberals show bad faith toward governments and politics in general, whether they realize it or not. The remedy isn't blind faith in governments, but the problem is blind faith in dissent as an end unto itself.


Anonymous said...

"Liberalism today regards dissent as the health of the state"

It would seem to me that a truly healthy state would have very little dissent. I think dissent is necessary as a form of feedback between two sides of the social contract, when it becomes necessary for mobs, things have already gone too far and the government has proven itself incapable (or weak) in dealing with problems.

Samuel Wilson said...

Your view reflects common sense: a healthy state presumably satisfies citizens, who are thus content. Perhaps liberals distrust the appearance of contentment in a present world of obvious inequality, deprivation etc., but they may also be losing the ability to imagine a contented world.

Regarding Ukraine, the difference of opinion outside the country is between those people who feel that the appearance of mobs in Kiev proved Yanukovich incapable by the standard you suggest, and those who insist on questioning the necessity of mob action, arguing that the mobs were inspired or supported by foreign agents who wanted Yanukovich gone for their own reasons.

Anonymous said...

I can easily accept your second option regarding Ukraine. Far too often, too many foreign interests feel they have a right to dictate the course of another sovereign nation's future for their own material benefit. This should not be allowed. Not by the citizens of the affected nation, not by any nation that claims to uphold any standard of democracy.