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