28 March 2017

Cycles of liberal panic

In the March 20 New Yorker Adam Gopnik writes, "You would think that people who think for a living would pause and reflect that whatever is happening usually does stop happening, and something else happens in its place." This is his criticism of writers who see the election of President Trump and the 2016 Brexit vote, among other phenomena, as the "death of liberalism." Gopnik finds these writers guilty of presentism, which he defines as "the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it." In context, the "death of liberalism" fear errs in assuming that the Anglo-American events of 2016 -- each of which, Gopnik notes, only barely happened -- represent an inexorable trend. Doesn't it look, though, as if the "death of liberalism" camp are the people claiming that something (i.e. liberalism)  has stopped happening? By contrast, Gopnik seems to argue for a cyclical theory of history that does not stop and thus guarantees that liberalism will have another day. Focusing on Pankraj Mishra's new tome, "Age of Anger," he questions the (implicit?) assumption that liberalism -- or, worse, neoliberalism -- is merely an episode of history that has reached its limit because its inherently elitist bias can't address what Gopnik describes as "the truth that men and women want to be members of a clan or country with values and continuities that stretch beyond merely material opportunity." If liberalism is dying, supposedly, it's because different populations are "enraged at being reduced to the hamster wheel of meaningless work and material reward." Gopnik doesn't think anything like this is happening, though he does acknowledge an unusual degree of anger in our world.

Each citizen [sic?] carries on her person a computer more powerful than any available to a billionaire two decades ago, and many are using their devices to express their unbridled rage at the society that put them in our pockets.

Rather than assume that "the way in which our societies seem to have gone wrong is evidence of a fatal flaw somewhere in the systems we've inherited," Gopnik argues, perhaps more fatalistically, that "the dynamic of cosmopolitanism and nostalgic reaction is permanent and recursive." Following Karl Popper, he describes "a permanent cycle of history in which open societies, in their pluralism, create an anxiety that brings about a reaction towards a fixed organic state, which, then as now, serves both the interests of an oligarchy and those of a frightened, insecure population looking to arrest change." Both Islamism and anti-Islamism, from this perspective, are "deep racial and ethnic cultural panics [of the sort] that repeatedly rise and fall in human affairs." He goes so far as to claim that illiberalism "is the permanent fact of life" while liberal moments are the precious exceptions, but he seems certain that there will be more exceptions so long as people take Voltaire's advice to cultivate their gardens. For Gopnik, that means "happiness is where you find it; and you find it first by making it yourself." In more practical terms, "Getting out to make good things happen beats sitting down and thinking big things up." Is that how he thinks liberalism won in the past? It's probably unfair to expect an entire theory of history in a five-page book review, but Gopnik's attempt at a calming wrap-up reads less like Candide and more like Pollyanna. His optimistically cyclical prospect blatantly neglects the strong possibility that modernity's greater awareness of the world's limited resources could well disrupt all historical cycles in decisive fashion. His apparent amusement at the paradox of mass anger amid (admittedly unequal) prosperity willfully ignores all the ways in which people around the world feel increasingly insecure and disrespected amid all our virtual wonders.

It can be argued that Gopnik should take his own advice, yet take a longer view and possibly see something stop that seemed like it could go on forever. On the other hand, I can definitely see a historical cycle in operation, and in the short term there may be a few more cycles to it. People who are scared today see the value of kinship, solidarity and strong authority, and so long as survival remains the overriding self-interest they're willing to submit (their consciences, perhaps, more than anything else) to whatever power might protect them. How much would it really take before some or many of them feel secure and confident enough again to like their chances on their own once more, with all the freedom, openness and liberalism they require? In the short term, Gopnik is probably right to see Trumpism in the most particular sense as a transient thing, especially since people are already predicting its demise less than 100 days into the Trump presidency. Inferring from that that the cyclical transience of liberal democracy remains a permanent principle may be going too far. According to legend, the Chinese revolutionary Zhou Enlai was asked in the 1950s what he thought of the French Revolution. He answered that it was too early to tell. It's definitely too early to tell what to make of Trump's election, and it'll definitely be too early to tell what to make of his presidency after he leaves power in three or seven years. What's certain is that it's too early to say with anything like Gopnik's complacent certainty that it doesn't mean as much as it seems to.


Anonymous said...

There are a couple of related problems. The ridiculous disconnect between current Western governments and the common people as well as the disconnect between the regressive left and reality.

Samuel Wilson said...

Not to mention disconnects among the common people.

Anonymous said...

I never assume the common people are all that well connected to begin with. Given how most of them are clueless as to how the government works, how societies work, what a culture is, what a race is, etc.