The demise of a rights-oriented philosophy that has, for at least four centuries, underpinned the struggle for individual freedoms and which, post World War II, has dominated in the West and, increasingly, much of the rest of the world, is important news.
It came to us through the Financial Times’ editor Lionel Barber’s interview with President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit.
Putin, who has, through a variety of totalitarian stratagems, survived for nearly two decades as Russia’s nominally democratically elected leader, is of course not one’s natural choice to be a disinterested political coroner. Donald Tusk, the European Council president spoke for most of the EU when he “strongly disagreed” and, in an obvious dig at Putin, said: “What I find really obsolete is authoritarianism, personality cults and the rule of oligarchs.”
Virtually without exception, the mainstream anglophone media responded along the same smugly dismissive line. However, the verbatim transcript of the FT interview presents a slightly different picture.
Putin’s analysis of liberalism is more deserving of consideration than the knee-jerk reaction it received.
Liberalism is not dead. It is not obsolete. But it is enervated.
And it will die if it does not escape its hijackers who, through extremist positions - most notably on borders and migration; on multiculturalism; and sexual diversity - have alienated substantial numbers of the very voters on which a liberal philosophy’s survival depends. The growth of anti-establishment populism in the United States, Britain, and much of Europe should be proof enough of that.
Some of Putin’s barbs against liberalism:
On popular alienation: “(Liberals) cannot simply dictate anything to anyone, just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades. The liberal idea has come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority. The ruling elites have broken away The obvious problem is the gap between the interests of the elites and the overwhelming majority of the people.”
On immigration: “Some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable. The interests of the core population should be considered when the number of migrants is not just a handful of people but hundreds of thousands. The liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done.”
On sexual diversity: “We have no problems with LGBT persons but some things appear excessive. They claim now that children can play five or six gender roles. I cannot even say exactly what genders these are Let everyone be happy, we have no problem with that. But this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”
On tradition: “Have we forgotten that all of us live in a world based on biblical values? Even atheists and everyone else live in this world. We do not have to every day (show) that we are devout Christians or Muslims or Jews. However, deep inside, there must be some fundamental human rules. In this sense, traditional values are more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea.”
Barber’s interview with Putin ranges over a wide range of subjects and Putin speaks with a frankness and disregard for politically correct niceties that very few politicians in the so-called liberal democracies would dare to emulate. No doubt, the defenders of liberalism, among whom I count myself, can and will provide detailed rebuttals to many of the specifics in Putin’s argument, which is well worth reading in full.
Often the most useful critiques come from one’s enemies, not from one’s friends. Appropriately, for a former KGB analyst and consummate champion of Russian interests, Putin is unerring in his identification of liberalism’s vulnerabilities.
If liberal democracies are to survive the rise of popular authoritarianism in their home populations, they are going to have to become more attractive to the mass of the people. It would be the ultimate irony if liberalism were to be defeated by the mechanism it played such a critical role in establishing - the ballot box.
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