Politics

An anthropologist announces the death of liberalism

Summary: Here anthropologist Maximilian Forte announces the death of liberalism. Hillary’s defeat, despite its massive financing and support by America’s major institutions, was a sign. The ineffective street festivals of Occupy Wall Street and the Women’s March are signs. The lack of meaningful response to the revelations about NSA surveillance is a sign, as was the ineffective widespread perjuries and murders by police. It has died of exhaustion, ground down by the implacable opposition and fantastic resources of the 1% — and our indifference. But every political philosophy is a phoenix. It will rise again, eventually.

R.I.P. liberalism

By Tutu at The Day.

The Dying Days of Liberalism” — Part one of three.

By Maximilian C. Forte from Zero Anthropology, 18 January 2017.
Reposted with his generous permission.

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 imperialismresults in failure as it lays the foundations for its replacement.

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street: saving the nation one unicorn at a time. Taken at NYC on 5 October 2011 by David Shankbone.

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.

The three chapters of this essay.

  1. An anthropologist announces the death of liberalism.
  2. An anthropologist explains the causes of liberalism’s death.
  3. An anthropologist announces the fall of the liberal professional class.

—————————————————————————————–

Maximilian Forte

About the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013). See his publications here; read his bio here.

He writes at the Zero Anthropology website (many of his articles are posted at the FM website. it is one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading — excerpt…

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Campaign 2016, about liberalism, and especially these…

  1. Under the cloak of liberalism America slides to Fascism — By Norman Pollack. Not technically accurate, but all too true.
  2. Obama repeals Magna Carta, asserting powers our forefathers denied to Kings.
  3. Obama made the trains run on time, & other accomplishments.
  4. Hillary’s weakness: traditional & charismatic leaders attack her bureaucratic authority.
  5. Why the Left will divorce Hillary and the new Democratic Party.
  6. CounterPunch shows us the heart of Clinton’s politics. It’s not pretty.
  7. Clinton lost because fear failed, and voters disliked her Social Justice Warriors.
  8. Robert Reich’s program to save the Left after a decade of defeats.

Two books by Maximilian Forte

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24 replies »

  1. I think of this strictly as the death of neoliberalism but I could be wrong. The center of both parties are in retreat because enough people have become desperate enough to vote anyone but the centrists.

    You might enjoy listening or reading Mark Blyth. He has been studying the changes between as he puts it the debtor and creditor classes which started in the late 70s. The debtor classes are now revolting. He sees Greece, Brexit, Trump, Italy, and France are part of a global trend.

    Ending the Creditor’s Paradise” at Jacobin, Feb 2015 — “What would you tell six hundred leading German social democrats about their party’s handling of the Eurocrisis?”

    Metafilter comment thread about Blyth.

    Like

    • Ben,

      Thanks for the link to Mark Blyth’s article (I added a full cite to your comment).

      “I think of this strictly as the death of neoliberalism”

      That’s an interesting point! Still, I wonder if this framing is correct. Much of the writing about Trump resembles that about Obama in 2008 and 2009. Like a romantic comedy, a triumph of hope over data and logic.

      A simpler explanation is that the plutocracy is winning — in large part due to our weakness and dysfunctionality. We elect the 1%’s servants if they’re dressed up in exciting clothes and say exciting things. As we can no longer distinguish cosplay from reality. Obama was not a progressive president, and I doubt Trump will be a populist leaders.

      If so, half of this essay will prove correct. Liberalism has died in America. But the other half, about the populist revolution killing it, will prove delusional. I believe that’s the way to bet.

      Like

  2. It will be very interesting to see if the trend continues. Obviously, the French elections are the next check point. Blyth’s writings has crystallized a number of things that have been bouncing around in my head.

    Enough people that reached a point where they will vote for the alternative no matter the candidate’s odious behaviors. Hindsight is 20/20 but it’s obvious to me now that Sanders would have beaten Trump. Sanders is the left wing version of Trump. Clinton was about the worst candidate you could have run against Trump. She is the poster child of a elite centrist, the kind that is being eaten alive all over. I’m saying that and I voted for her.

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    • Ben,

      I agree on all points. Historians will marvel at Democrat’s hubris — or stupidity — in running such a weak candidate, one disliked by many in her own party. The GOP tried do so — Jeb Bush was the early favorite, with an immense fund-raising advantage — but was defeated by a grass-roots rebellion. That points to a seldom-mentioned structural difference between the two parties!

      Like

  3. I wonder how this article looks in the alternate universe where Hillary narrowly prevailed.
    Interesting stuff (as usual for here!) but I think the question arises of “what do they mean when they say liberalism?” We are certainly in a time of flux, and I just hope that the outcome is, in the final analysis, a good one. I fear the technological trends we’re up against will make it harder. (I’m also concerned about returning racial animus and so on, although I think the fact that our primary cultural comparison point here in the US is World War II means that our overall perspective on these matters gets skewed.)

    Like

    • Oh, Ben probably said it better: I suspect this is the implosion of “neoliberalism” but “liberalism” seems to be like “fascism” in many analyses: It means exactly what you want it to mean at the time, no more and no less.

      Like

    • Dana,

      ” It means exactly what you want it to mean at the time”

      I agree. Sloppiness in political language leads to confusion of thought — making us sheep, easy prey for wolves. Clarity of meaning and analysis are among our most powerful weapons. Like swords, they require training in their use — and use when needed (they do nothing if just hung for display). George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is one of his greatest works.

      Like

    • Dana,

      “what do they mean when they say liberalism?”

      That’s a great question! It refers to a political philosophy (whose tenets evolve over time), a political movement, and (by implication in normal use) to a community of people. Unfortunately even social scientists often conflate these definitions in writing for the public (a common problem. Economists often use technical terms, like inflation, in a shocking imprecise way).

      “I think the fact that our primary cultural comparison point here in the US is World War II”

      I agree, and believe that narrow view of what “America” means gives us a weirdly distorted — even ahistorical — self-conception. For more about this, see Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment.

      Like

    • Regarding liberalism as a political philosophy, I can’t say what will happen. I do think that both the Democrats and the Republicans, both liberals and conservatives, have been declared “dead” after losing elections too often for me to take anything all that completely seriously. My own gut instinct is that this is a last hurrah for conservatism as it stands now. We’ll see if that’s true.

      As for your link that’s very enlightening! Though what I had been thinking about was more that WWII looms large in our consciousness, to a point where it washes out a bunch of other things which may be better analogies. I am no fan of Trump, but he did not come to power in the midst of widespread pitched street battles between Bikers for Trump and BLM protestors; he did not march on Washington with twenty thousand Pepeshirts; etc. However much free press they want to give Richard Spencer’s hallucinations of a white ethno-state, organized explicit racism seems to be a non-starter throughout the West. There is certainly much cause for concern, but to paraphrase a video I was fond of in ’12, “not everybody is a Hitler now.” (The video for your amusement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQFU1y928dw)

      Like

    • Dana,

      “Trump, but he did not come to power in the midst of widespread pitched street battles between Bikers for Trump and BLM protestors; he did not march on Washington with twenty thousand Pepeshirts”

      This is a common misconception, confusing the early state of a phenomenon with its peak manifestations in the future. Hitler came to power after 19 mind-blowing years which re-shaped not just Germany but all of Europe: WWI, brutal defeat, end of the Empire, Weimar, hyperinflation, severe conflict between commies and fascists, the crash, and the Great Depression (made worse by the horrific economic mistakes by Team Weimar, similar to those of Team Hoover in the US, but much worse). And his first few years were mild — bringing the first economic recovery in a major western nation (highways, youth programs, the people’s car). He didn’t just emerge one day in full flower as Satan. Note: Germany is used as an illustration. Current conditions are nothing – not the slightest like Weimar.

      Trump might easily mark the start of an accelerated decay of the US political regime. That his rise was not accompanied by horrific events does not mean he won’t cause them.

      “have been declared “dead” after losing elections too often for me to take anything all that completely seriously.”

      That confuses serious analysis with the exciting chatter needed to sell newspapers and build careers. It’s like saying astrology doesn’t work, so I won’t believe doctors. Political scientists have accurately described such events, and (other than some hacks) have described them in non-apocalyptic terms (see the coverage I cited of Campaign 2016).

      Like

    • re: Weimar conditions and the lack thereof:

      Yes, that’s closer to what I was thinking. I doubt much good will come of Trump’s policies, save by accident (and possibly nuclear arms reductions). However, by presenting him as Neo Hitler (as opposed to, say, Neo Berlusconi) we risk misallocating our social and political energies. Some is inevitable, of course.

      But most of what Trump has done thus far is not surprising, though I wonder how much of this flurry of executive orders is meant to present an image of success and momentum before he settles down to have a bunch of rallies and let Mike Pence run the government.

      Like

    • Dana,

      “However, by presenting him as Neo Hitler (as opposed to, say, Neo Berlusconi) we risk misallocating our social and political energies.”

      I don’t understand. Please explain a bit more. I’ve written that by misrepresenting Trump as Hitler/NAZI the Left uses an ineffective tactic — only true believers buy such nonsense — and risks destroying their credibility. In 2020 those hysterical warnings are unlikely to read well. This folly strengthens Trump by distracting people from his like full-plutocratic policies.

      “before he settles down to have a bunch of rallies and let Mike Pence run the government.”

      You’re kidding yourself. His appointees are activists, mostly bold and competent (there are a few, like Ben Carson, in backwater agencies). Congress has conservative majorities in both Houses ready to make large changes to America.

      Liked by 1 person

    • re: Hitler (what a thing to write): Basically what you were saying, but it was being expressed in different terms in my head.

      re: Congress and the cabinet, yes, indeed. Nothing much I’ll want to see happen, I expect, but not exactly the Reichstag fire.

      Like

  4. For a political philosophy to well and truly die usually requires something to take its place (nihilism, I suppose, as a last resort). With the death of state communism in the Marxist-Leninist mold, there has been a dearth of alternative philosophies waiting in the wings as realistic successors (something that has, IMO, sapped vitality from the left and led to post-modernist naval gazing and identity politics). It’s not clear at this point that that the popular forces currently rejecting liberalism can be said to represent a coherent alternative, in fact it’s pretty clear that they don’t.

    However, such things are always much clearer in hindsight, and perhaps we’re witnessing the birth pangs of a new way, we just don’t know what form it will take.

    Great essay, BTW — I went ahead and cheated by reading the remainder on the Zero Anthropology site . . .

    Like

    • phageghost,

      “With the death of state communism in the Marxist-Leninist mold,”

      That was a very narrow conception of communism. Marxism was a narrow conception of communism, and Leninism was a very narrow conception of Marxism. I doubt that medieval Scholasticism or the Christianity of the High Middle Ages will return, but academia and Christianity-type religion will continue.

      “we’re witnessing the birth pangs of a new way, we just don’t know what form it will take.”

      My guess — emphasis on guess — is that we’re seeing something much simpler. The US people have tired of the burden of self-government. We’re entering a period of conflict to decide who shall govern us, and by which of the classical forms (plutocracy, tyranny, etc). It’s a commonplace of history. BUT the Republic has not yet fallen. We might rally to its defense. And even if it does, there might be a Third Republic in our future.

      Like

    • “That was a very narrow conception of communism. Marxism was a narrow conception of communism, and Leninism was a very narrow conception of Marxism.”

      Very true, and really very unfortunate on both counts, IMO. But I think we should be careful not to commit the one true Scotsman fallacy with these things. In both the public consciousness and, to a lesser extent in academia, the failures of the governments that _claimed_ to be the standard bearers of communism have largely discredited anything associated with the term. The initial successes (and, sadly, willful ignorance of their many failings) of these narrow conceptions of communism in the early 20th century gave momentum and energy to a panoply of related philosophies, much of which made its way into the larger public sphere. Moreover, by providing more or less shared vocabularies and ideological frameworks they enabled communication at more than just a base level. That all seems to have dissipated. I would love to see a political philosophy along the lines of Participatory Economics become a widely-recognized alternative to the current system, but such things are currently obscure compared to the global brand recognition of M-L.

      “My guess — emphasis on guess — is that we’re seeing something much simpler. The US people have tired of the burden of self-government. We’re entering a period of conflict to decide who shall govern us, and by which of the classical forms (plutocracy, tyranny, etc). It’s a commonplace of history. BUT the Republic has not yet fallen. We might rally to its defense. And even if it does, there might be a Third Republic in our future.”

      Yes, the lack of participation means it’s likely that we’re likely to end up with window dressing on the same old plutocracy rather than a robust alternative philosophy. Of course, it’s not just the US public that is in revolt, thought they are easier to diagnose from here.

      What I do find promising is the re-introduction of class, however obtusely, to the discourse, a concept which is basically alien to neoliberalism. The future is a misted landscape, indeed, but your overarching theme is well-taken, that it’s up to us to take it into our own hands and shape it.

      Like

    • phageghost,

      “But I think we should be careful not to commit the one true Scotsman fallacy with these things.”

      That’s an important warning. However, that’s not what I was doing. Rather, the failure of one form of communism does not discredit the concept. Democracy usually failed repeatedly — often spectacularly — until the slow but big success in England — and in the 19th century elsewhere in Europe (e.g., Swiss Confederacy).

      Like

  5. “That’s an important warning. However, that’s not what I was doing. Rather, the failure of one form of communism does not discredit the concept. Democracy usually failed repeatedly — often spectacularly — until the slow but big success in England — and in the 19th century elsewhere in Europe (e.g., Swiss Confederacy).”

    Fair enough. Certainly the success of Sanders’ self-proclaimed democractic socialist campaign showed that at least the “S-word” is not (or no longer?) discredited in many US eyes.

    Like

    • phageghost,

      “the success of Sanders’ self-proclaimed democractic socialist campaign showed that at least the “S-word” is not (or no longer?) discredited in many US eyes.”

      My guess is that this is part of a return to “norm” of US history, before WWII. Socialism was respectable among the Democrats (socialist Henry Wallace was VP 1941-45) — and is again. Just as open racism and plutocracy are again respectable among Republicans.

      It’s Back to the Future for America.

      Like

    • Merocaine,

      Thank you for posting the link and review of that interesting book. I added a full cite to your comment.

      From the book summary, Saul has the opposite view of mine. I don’t see America as dominated by experts. Too often, especially on vital matters, our problem is the opposite. Rather, we’re guillable and credulous. “Espertise” is just one marketing method used to manipulate us, often selling campaigns in defiance of actual experts. Climate change, our mad wars, macroeconomics — these and many other fields show how our weakness is exploited by our elites.

      Like

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