The Dying Days of Liberalism
How Orthodoxy, Professionalism, and Unresponsive Politics Finally Doomed a 19th-century Project
What a sight to behold. These are the dying days, counting down soon to the final hours, of the defeated political project of liberalism, inherited from the 19th-century. The centre—if there ever was one—could not hold after all. What a thing it is to watch one of the dominant, cornerstone ideologies of the international system, which has strutted its stuff with such swagger and certainty since the end of the Cold War, finally fall face forward into the dustbin of history. It has fallen with the same force as if shoved from behind by a stampeding mob, although its defenders will claim that mere “mistakes” were made, as if they accidentally slipped on history’s largest ever banana peel. And what a scene: who would have expected such a lack of dignity, such pathetic hysteria, such baseless smears, such empty threats, coming from those who otherwise elaborately preened themselves as gallant statesmen, who spoke as if they had cornered the market on “reason”. While the fall could have been worse, there has not been an absence of violence, threats, boycotts, and even calls of treason designed to delegitimize the voters’ choice.
Liberal democracy has been reduced to a shell, more a name than a fact that deserves the name. For many years, liberalism has been liberal authoritarianism or post-liberalism or neoliberalism, with a high elitist disdain for democracy and a fear of the masses everywhere. Promises of inclusion, fairness, and welfare, were replaced by sensitive-sounding rhetorical tricks and tokenism. Moral narcissism, virtue signalling, identity politics, and building patchwork quilts of diversity were the order of the day. Protests were encouraged abroad, against target nations, in the name of democracy promotion—but at home, protests were shut down by an always more militarized police. Nations around the world were lectured about transparency and accountability, but at home it was all about mass surveillance, domestic espionage, and a crackdown on whistleblowers. Liberal leaders claimed to be upholders of peace and order, while multiplying the number of wars. Obama himself is personally responsible for the killing of thousands, many of them civilians—in 2016 alone, the US dropped 72 bombs every day on average, in wars in seven countries. Obama oversaw the rapid acceleration of wealth transfer, and heightened domestic poverty, and then he is praised by pseudo-left liberal scholars and writers for having “governed well” and doing so with a professional, graceful demeanour. The North American and European left, which made its peace and came to a bargain with liberal imperialism, sinks with those who in the end rewarded them with so little. Once again leftist social imperialism results in failure as it lays the foundations for its replacement.
It’s not a small thing that has fallen here, not merely the defeat of Hillary Clinton and Americans rejecting Obama’s “legacy”. We are dealing with a series of institutions, an expert class, and a network of political and corporate alliances, that is being shaken beyond repair. We are in the earliest days of a historical transition, so it’s not clear what is coming next, and the labels that have been proliferating demonstrate confusion and uncertainty—populism, nativism, nationalism, etc. Closer to my professional home, we can start to witness the fact that as part of the ignominious defeat of the expert class, US anthropology—exercising its hegemony on an international scale—will not be spared either. Within a few years, professional and institutional anthropology will approach the zero line that this site has talked about for several years now, the line at which power and influence disappear as the imperial supports for US anthropology weaken or fall away.
Surely, liberalism will not disappear outright, and not instantly. Ideas don’t ever really die, they’re just archived. Liberalism will remain available in texts on library bookshelves, will be remembered and defended by its living upholders, and specific elements of its vocabulary may live on. Some will try to revive the liberal political project, and in some quarters it will even look like it is making a comeback, but such efforts will be isolated and relatively short-lived.
What Francis Fukuyama hailed as the “end of history” ended up being more of a swan song for liberalism, though nowhere near as beautiful. If as the dominant historiography would have it, “communism failed,” then liberalism would be next. Despite every laboured effort to misappropriate the meaning of “fascism” and assign it to Trump, fascism is also not present as a viable movement. Rather than the end of ideology, it looks more like the opening to something new—no wonder many of us have noted that much of the current debate transcends left vs. right, with the pivotal issue being globalism vs. nationalism. For now, I just want to look at the present moment, and try to organize and analyze the main features of this collapse.
A Grand Failure to Convince
The Democrats, a party that tied its “fortunes” to those of liberalism, seems lost in a spiral of denying responsibility for its electoral defeat coupled with a denial of reality. Party leaders brushed aside reflecting on how they pushed forward such a severely flawed candidate as Hillary Clinton—as if she were some sort of “natural” choice at the apex of an evolutionary process whose final point had been foretold—and pushed her forward whether people liked her or not, as if there could be no question and no choice. How the Democrats lost also shows us why they needed to lose. Suddenly they feigned innocence of the fact that any serious presidential campaign in the US, let alone one orchestrated by highly paid “experts” and consultants, is one designed to win the electoral college, not the popular vote. In fact, during the golden days when the news media only spoke about poll numbers, whenever Trump’s numbers seemed to be rising the immediate retort was always, “but he has no viable path through the electoral college,” and that ended the discussion. Some of the wildest predictions of Clinton’s victory had her winning nearly twice as many votes in the electoral college as she actually did—never was the electoral college itself questioned. Trump was said to be destined to defeat because of the electoral college; when he won, the grievance was that it was because of the electoral college. The loser’s logic is a losing logic.
Rather than deal with the facts of their defeat—and I predicted this turn as well, already on Nov. 9—within days the Democrats were spinning tales of “Russian hacking” and Russian-orchestrated “fake news”: they didn’t lose to Donald Trump, no, they lost to Vladimir Putin! Once again, how the Democrats lost explained why they had to lose. This was a melodramatic escalation of the Clinton campaign’s very dangerous threats against Russia, which entailed setting in motion a new Cold War, and reviving the prospects of a nuclear holocaust (something her supporters either treated lightly, or perhaps as a more palatable outcome to losing). The Democrats act like the new Joe McCarthy, on a witch-hunt for traitors, spinning one conspiracy theory after another, while their media cronies generate a deluge of fabrications while claiming to counter “fake news”. Meanwhile Obama asked to be taken seriously, and then asked to not be taken seriously: on the one hand, he was incensed by “Russian hacking,” yet on the other hand he played innocent, as if he had not seen this certainty (“everybody does it”) coming, thus offering no explanation as to why his government did so little to prevent it, stop it, or counteract it. Prior to voting day, Obama dismissed concerns of a rigged election as “whining” by a certain loser–after election day, he was certainly the loser who started whining. On the one hand, Obama claims to have knowledge about Russian hacking; on the other hand, he only offers evidence-free assertions and issues demands to be believed, requiring faith on the part of listeners, invoking credit and trust, but offering no evidence. And these are the highest representatives of the expert class from which they arose, making fact-free assertions, resorting to “believe me, or you’re stupid”.
Obama claimed his administration was scandal-free, and yet here he was claiming a key election had been interfered with by a foreign power, and he was somehow powerless to stop it—that’s pretty scandalous. At a press conference I watched in mid-December, Obama preached to the sycophantic “journalists”: one face told them that the Podesta emails published by WikiLeaks were mere tidbits of gossip; a while later, his other face complained that the WikiLeaks emails had altered the course of the election.
But then that is Obama, with his consistent inconsistency, the bifurcated messaging, the two faces alternating in almost every speech—he is not “nuanced,” this is not “complexity,” he is just dishonest and wrong. Had I been alone in realizing this it would have mattered little, but it seems that tens of millions of American voters realized much the same.
Hollywood and PR
This grand failure to convince manifested in other critical ways as well. Hollywood was involved in at least three rounds of celebrity video compilations, where often in the most urgent and heartfelt tones that professional, paid fakers can muster, viewers were instructed on the correct moral choice: the person who demonized millions of voters as deplorables, as basement dwellers, and as super-predators, the same person responsible for pushing the destruction of the Libyan state with all of the aftermath of terrorism across North Africa, a refugee outflow, and civil war that has lasted years. A proven track record of creating danger. Hectoring by Hollywood actors, and even worse their junior counterparts on MTV, failed miserably.
Not only did Hollywood fail, but so did most of the mainstream media, which themselves faced plunging levels of public trust. Not just the media, but an array of polling firms, public relations agencies, professional advertisers, and strategic communications consultants all failed as badly, and this in the very society that invented PR. Hillary Clinton fashioned herself as a leader in “soft power,” and here was the entire architecture of soft power foundering, not (just) abroad, but at home of all places.
The New York Times recently reported that a conference of the International Association of Political Consultants, “felt like a therapy session for a business in psychological free fall”. One of the conclusions was that, “Mrs. Clinton’s battalion of advisers was defeated by a wild, seemingly unchoreographed candidate who, according to the most recent data, spent more money on shirts, hats, signs and similar items than on field consulting, voter lists and data”.
As for “sex sells,” this election defeated even that truism. Every day, for weeks on end, and to almost the total exclusion of any other story (including the WikiLeaks email releases), the majority of mainstream media hammered away at Trump with ever more lurid tales of sexual groping and his sexist commentary. When confronted by Trump on stage for the first time, Clinton immediately resorted to some overblown, one-sided, and farcical account by a former Miss Venezuela. Social media was far more sordid, spreading rumours of incest too gross to even paraphrase here. To what effect?
For those dedicated to the study of media, public relations, propaganda, and cultural imperialism, the results of this election will have a lasting significance, especially as they jeopardize much that has been taken for granted.
Corporate Donors, International Support
Much was debated during the election about the role of “big money” in US electoral politics. Hillary Clinton certainly had the lion’s share of funding on her side, and outspent the Trump campaign by twice as much, with nearly three times as much spent on television advertising. The long-held “truth” that money guarantees political outcomes has been rubbished. That does not mean that money does not matter at all, but it does mean that having a lot more money guarantees no certain outcome. Clinton also had the backing of a majority of Fortune 500 CEOs, some of whom, like the CEO of HP, went as far as giving news conferences denouncing Trump as a “fascist” by comparing him to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. We already know that tens of millions of dollars poured into the Clinton Foundation from foreign governments and transnational corporations. Even with Clinton engaged in manic fund raising down to the final days of the campaign, none of this made a difference. Also lacking sufficient impact was a myriad of subtle, indirect, and sometimes explicit endorsements from foreign leaders, and heads of international agencies from the Council of the European Union to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to NATO. Words of “caution,” with obvious implications, from the heads of the main multilateral financial institutions, also largely failed to sway matters in Clinton’s favour.
Hillary Clinton’s failure to sell her message was also evident in the very failure of her book to sell, at the height of the election campaign no less, when interest should have been at its peak. Clinton’s ally, The New York Times, reported that her newest book, Stronger Together, “sold just 2,912 copies in its first week on sale,” when first-week sales typically account for a third of the total number of copies sold, and concluded: “the sales figure…firmly makes the book what the publishing industry would consider a flop”. Did Clinton pause to reflect on this as a sign, given her diminishing returns over the years? Stronger Together sold less than Hard Choices, which also fell below expectations, which itself sold far less than Living History. Every book she published produced lower and lower sales. Do graphs in the offices of Democrats only have bright red lines going upward?
Academia, Anthropology, and the Invention of the “Anti-Knowledge” Public
Many academics have written long, increasingly bitter and resentful complaints against the public—that is, the source of their clientele and funding. A so-called “anti-knowledge mood” is the convenient invention used to explain why a large portion of the public (a majority in the case of Brexit and the Italian referendum) refused to heed their dire warnings about the inevitable miseries of national solutions in a world of “irreversible” and “inevitable” globalization. This is the classic case of experts, members of the professional quasi-class, claiming a special monopoly not just on knowledge but on the truth. That they have tried to monopolize knowledge by creating various barriers of access to higher education, with many disincentives to joining erected along the way, is already a fact. But here they are claiming not just to know more, but to know better. The current system, the status quo which they were defending, was somehow good for most people—even though most people had access to information, and personal experience, that made fools of academic cheerleaders. Worse than making fools of them, the division clearly marked on which side academics stood: anti-knowledge is an elitist slogan that is anti-public.
Economists, as usual, would know better what was good for people and attempt to instruct them that their lived reality was to be discounted. Like the caricatured Stalinists, neoliberal economists work on a simple assumption: the theory is always right, it’s the people who are wrong. How would these mandarins explain the “goodness” of a neoliberal project under Obama, that produced the following results as recorded mostly by the US Federal Reserve? This is Obama’s domestic socio-economic “legacy,” summarized:
(1) a decline in family incomes
(2) lower civilian labour force participation rates
(3) lower home ownership rates
(4) an increase in the number of people on food stamps (SNAP)
(5) increased health premiums
(6) increased student debt
(7) increased income inequality for African-Americans
(8) an increase in printing money
(9) a massive rise in the public debt
Thus while those in the news media were inventing the frightening specter of “fake news”—and produced fake news themselves to combat the dangerous threat to their profit margins posed by growing public distrust—in academia the parallel concept was “anti-knowledge”. The main vehicles for these views in US and UK academia have been The Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and The Conversation (the latter funded by an array of banks and foundations).
Anthropology in the United States continues to offer testaments to the failure to convince. In this regard, the mainstream of US anthropology, given its alignment with the Democratic Party, has something quite significant in common with the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS), which leaders of the US discipline condemned. The first hint to military leaders of the unviable nature of HTS as a tool of counterinsurgency and pacification, should have been the failure of HTS to even convince its own—by “its own,” I mean colleagues in academia, from which they sought recruits. If you cannot even pacify fellow academics, whose language, customs, and practices are familiar to you, how can you pretend to defeat the Taliban? Likewise, if US anthropologists understand so little about their own society that Trump’s election caught them by surprise, how can they pretend to teach us about other societies? Instead, in disregard for the mass of working class voters, US anthropologists have, with renewed vigor, rededicated themselves to the politics of class-concealment. Thus an “anthropology read-in,” focused partly on questions of racism, is being proposed to mark Trump’s inauguration, as a protest.
Another example of a failure to convince their own comes from a vote among members of the American Anthropological Association, in favour of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. After early optimism, the vote failed to win the support of members. Those involved with pushing the motion then turned to blaming “external meddling” (sound familiar?). Not once did they ask themselves if there was a problem with their message and the context in which it was being promoted. Instead, we are now to believe that distant Israeli operatives had more success in convincing US anthropologists, than US anthropologists themselves. If true, that’s quite an indictment, but not of Israelis. As for “external meddling,” the charge was a bit rich considering that is precisely what US anthropologists were doing regarding Israel.
US anthropologists’ attachment to Obama and Clinton, seemingly regardless of the impact of their actual record of heightened inequality and increased war, followed the same lines of official class-concealment. One engaged in romantic praise of “the coalition of the diverse,” implying beauty and higher value attached to the “racially mixed” rather than those dreadful white workers (and predicted a victory for Clinton). Another US anthropologist, at the University of Chicago, produced a long, exoticist screed extolling the virtues of a browning society, preferring imported peoples over the natives, and in effect declaring the majority of the working class to be inconsequential, contemptible, and replaceable. That the article appeared in a publication funded mostly by George Soros’ Open Society Institute, should come as no surprise.
Academics who had little, or nothing, to say about neoliberalism are now coming out of hiding—and writing their critiques solely focused on Trump. Now they have discovered “the corporatist state”. Those protesting Trump’s inauguration, never protested Obama’s inauguration, for all of their supposed critical theoretical awareness. Bruno Latour, guru to American anthropologists (after being laughed at in Europe), corrected his absent input in discussions concerning the US election: he waited for it to pass so that he could try to sound wise with minimal effort, keep his American clientele happy, sustain book sales, and insure continued speaking engagements. The Los Angeles Review of Books promptly published Latour’s itsy-bitsy “contribution”.
With regard to the failing of the academic establishment, Diana Johnstone had wise observations to offer, worth quoting at length:
“The sad image today of Americans as bad losers, unable to face reality, must be attributed in part to the ethical failure of the so-called 1968 generation of intellectuals. In a democratic society, the first duty of men and women with the time, inclination and capacity to study reality seriously is to share their knowledge and understanding with people who lack those privileges. The generation of academics whose political consciousness was temporarily raised by the tragedy of the Vietnam war should have realized that their duty was to use their position to educate the American people, notably about the world that Washington proposed to redesign and its history. However, the new phase of hedonistic capitalism offered the greatest opportunities for intellectuals in manipulating the masses rather than educating them. The consumer society marketing even invented a new phase of identity politics, with the youth market, the gay market, and so on. In the universities, a critical mass of ‘progressive’ academics retreated into the abstract world of post-modernism, and have ended up focusing the attention of youth on how to react to other people’s sex lives or ‘gender identification’. Such esoteric stuff feeds the publish or perish syndrome and prevents academics in the humanities from having to teach anything that might be deemed critical of U.S. military spending or its failing efforts to assert its eternal domination of the globalized world. The worst controversy coming out of academia concerns who should use which toilet.
“If the intellectual snobs on the coasts can sneer with such self-satisfaction at the poor ‘deplorables’ in flyover land, it is because they themselves have ignored their primary social duty of seeking truth and sharing it. Scolding people for their ‘wrong’ attitudes while setting the social example of unrestrained personal promotion can only produce the anti-elite reaction called ‘populism’. Trump is the revenge of people who feel manipulated, forgotten and despised.”
This takes us to the demise of the professionals.
The Fall of the Professional Class
“That nobody could possibly do a better job than the professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” Abi Wilkinson wrote in Jacobin, adding:
“Suspicious of mass democracy and emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, elite liberals came to assume that we’d reached the end of history—that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor. For people like this, it’s been hard to understand the increasing rejection of the political and economic consensus as anything other than an outbreak of irrationality and self-sabotage. While there may be room to fine tune, why would anyone want to tear down or significantly alter something as good as what we’ve got?
“If politics is about nothing more than the effective administration of the current system—if it’s about nothing more than putting one’s faith in an able pilot—experience and technical expertise are the primary requirements. Ideological differences are immaterial, conflicting interests obsolete”.
Wilkinson wrote this in dissecting the elitism embedded in a recent, popular cartoon in The New Yorker, which again presents the average, Trump-supporting or Brexit-supporting voter as anti-knowledge, as unqualified to govern.
Wilkinson then takes apart the airplane metaphor:
“it assumes that the existing pilots have been doing a decent job. But what if they kept periodically crashing, and declined to repair the damage before taking off again? What if, due to operator negligence, the people in the cheaper seats were forced to hold on for dear life because some of their windows were shattered? What if, in other words, the pilots didn’t seem to care about the health and safety of those in economy class because they were too busy trying to keep the passengers in first class happy? This rendering is much closer to reality”.
In a book that attracted some attention during the US election, Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal is worth reading in particular for its chapter devoted to “The Theory of the Liberal Class,” which makes extensive use of the writings of sociologists and political scientists. The book opens with a quote from David Halberstam’s 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest, a quote that speaks of, “a special elite, a certain breed of men whose continuity is among themselves. They are linked to one another rather than to the country; in their minds they become responsible for the country but not responsive to it”.
Rather than focus on “the One Percent,” Frank asks that we look critically at “the Ten Percent,” which includes “the people at the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status,” from which the Ivy Leaguer Obama came, as did most of his Ivy League cabinet, explaining the self-justifying and self-flattering slew of comments from Obama about those who are “qualified” to govern and “knowing what you’re talking about”. Professionals value credentialed expertise, and tend to listen mostly just to each other. They monopolize the power to prescribe and diagnose, in consultation with each other: “The professions are autonomous; they are not required to heed voices from below their circle of expertise” (Frank, 2016, p. 23). Professionals emphasize “courtesy” with one another (hence the incessant tone policing), and show high contempt for those of lesser rank, including precarious professionals. Post-industrial technocrats, the ones who hail the “knowledge economy” and “education” as a solution to all social problems, have bred their own ideology: professionalism. Frank notes that as a political ideology, professionalism is “inherently undemocratic, prioritizing the views of experts over those of the public” (p. 24). Though they usually claim to act in the public interest, Frank observes that they have increasingly abused their monopoly power, started looking after their own interests, and increasingly act as a class (p. 25), an “enlightened managerial class” of quasi-aristocrats (p. 26). Frank’s critique outlines how the Democrats became the party of the professional class, disposing of labour along the way (p. 28). As a result, they care little about inequality, because their own wellbeing is founded on it. Inequality is essential to professionalism (p. 31). Meritocracy is opposed to solidarity (p. 32).
All of the preceding add to the reasons why I am arguing that it is not just Hillary Clinton, nor just the Democrats who were defeated, but something much larger. Too many “large” institutions failed at their basic tasks, too much fell, when so much was put up for grabs, i.e., globalization, US military bases, trade, class, the judicial system, schooling, healthcare, etc. Yes, the Democrats have been reduced to little more than a party of mayors, whose “survival” only really registers at the municipal level, having lost the presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, most state governorships, and the majority of state legislatures. The breadth and depth of the defeat, and the entire architecture used for conveying and defending their ideology failed to such an extent that we must conclude that it was the ideology itself, and the social and economic project that it championed, that was also rejected. In being rejected, against all the apparent odds, and to such a degree, one has to assume that the damage done is irreparable. Will the stalwart defenders of the current global order who speak in terms of “irreversibility” and “inevitability,” apply these same concepts to their own defeat? A collapse this big opens too many previously unseen doors for it to be just a momentary hiccup for the system.
In Canada, where political developments generally trail the US, we see a replay of the collapse of the liberal project which tries to conceal class differences and class exploitation under the signs of diversity and identity politics. From Gay Pride Day to the World Economic Forum at Davos, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s itinerary often reflects what has become standard for the transnational liberal elite. No coincidences here: as we learned from the Podesta Emails, Trudeau is a Clinton surrogate—he was identified as follows: “Prime Minister Trudeau has been a longtime progressive ally of CAP’s [Center for American Progress, allied to the Democratic Party]…. an active and engaged partner in our Global Progress program”. Another email bore an attachment showing a photo of John Podesta whispering into Trudeau’s ear. The title of the message calls Trudeau “Mr. Canada”. While Mr. Canada staunchly declares that he stands for “feminism,” he has nothing to offer a struggling working mother who is being carbon-taxed into poverty and homelessness, in an energy-rich country that could be fully energy self-sufficient for the next two centuries were its energy not drained out into the world market. Mr. Canada proudly declares that he stands for “diversity,” yet he adheres to monolinguality in Quebec in arrogant disregard for an Anglophone Quebecker worried about her healthcare. He praises his new minister of foreign affairs, noting her fluency in Russian, and yet underplays the fact that Mr. Canada’s top diplomat is herself barred from entry into Russia, thanks to Russian countersanctions against Canada which we needlessly provoked. Now Canada pretends to be a torchbearer for the liberal imperialist project of Obama-Clinton, on the track to becoming the last loser to defend globalization, seemingly pretending it can pursue a globalization of one.
Today the professional class, the upholders of a dying liberalism, can be heard in the media crying about an imaginary Russian intervention. Not that they have suddenly joined the ranks of anti-imperialists: they were silent on the more than 80 foreign elections in which the US has interfered, not to mention the dozens of US-backed coups, not to mention that the US has an institutional infrastructure (the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the CIA, the Office of Transition Initiatives) dedicated to foreign intervention, armed with decades of policies, laws, and strategy documents steering the course and depth of political intervention abroad. How ironic, that the hackers complain so loudly about getting hacked–for once. Where they have been really hacked, however, is in the domains they refuse to acknowledge: that Putin is ten times the statesman of an Obama; that the Russians excel in diplomacy; and that Russia has important anthropological lessons on international relations…that of course our liberal professionals dismissed—and they lost, good and proper.