Liberalism is dead
In an interview with the Financial Times In the lead up to the recent G20 conference President Putin now famously said “Liberalism is obsolete”. What is clear is that populism and autocracy are on the rise, that there appears to be more behavioural similarity between powerful historic enemies than between former western allies, and that the world is becoming a less safe place for its global citizenry. Why?
The etymology of ‘Liberalism’ can be traced back to Liber the Roman god associated with freedom. Thus a liberal is one who is free, or seeks freedom. Modern liberalism was born through the 18th and 19th century period of Enlightenment and industrialisation. Thinkers such as John Locke sought freedom from the controlling narrative and demands of the Church and from political subservience imposed by Monarchy or State. Enlightenment thinkers believed the state should serve the people, not the other way around, and that civil society should not be directed by religion. Liberalism embraced the concept of individual rights, democracy, free market and capitalism.
To be a liberal today is to be tolerant, embrace diversity, and be a willing participant in the marketplace of ideas. In the Church to be labelled a liberal can be shorthand for not being a fundamentalist. In my Anglican tradition a liberal gives weight to scripture, tradition and reason. The recent Folau controversy is a very good example of weight being given to scripture alone, but not even scripture as a whole, but to an isolated verse (misquoted) then prescribed as law for all humankind. It is a strange quirk of history that many of today’s ‘Liberals” support the right of a bible quote being used to condemn a vast swathe of ordinary citizens, a situation from which enlightenment liberalism sought to move away.
If the alternative to liberalism is Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnston, Xi Jinping, Tayyip Erdogan, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mohamad Bin Salman etc then liberalism must be reformed. So what has gone wrong?
Politics is an expensive business, disseminating a political message has become increasingly dependent upon the largesse of wealthy and therefore powerful backers, both corporate and private. That political parties and politicians generally are tied to wealthy self-interested parties is obvious to the electorate and a major reason for the collapse of trust. That Christopher Pyne could so quickly transition from Minister for Defence to a commercial company that stands to gain from his previous political position is the latest scandalous example of the nexus between politics and a desire for wealth accumulation and advantage. It is not acceptable that political parties, especially those that espouse liberalism are clearly incapable of striking a balance between the democratic principle and capitalism’s insatiable appetite. If a choice is necessary, the choice is made for capitalism and against democracy. Four Corners exposé of the Murray Darling Basin Plan is yet another example of wealth gazumping democratic process and the interest of the nation.
It is difficult to see how this escalating trend towards capitalism at the expense of democracy is going to be slowed let alone reversed. However a first major step must be legislation to stop all donations to political parties, and for parties to be funded by the taxpayer alone on a pro rata basis.
Future historians will suffer from an over abundant choice when searching for Donald Trump quotes, but at the centre of it all will be ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’. Donald Trump, currently the most powerful western leader, has made an art form of treating verifiable fact with contempt and conveying his self-aggrandising narrative as the only legitimate story in town. This has allowed the unacceptable and misleading to be acceptable. Does it matter that a short view (creationist) of history can be taught to children as if it were fact? Well yes it does matter. Does it matter that the Christian Right can teach that Jews are the only people to have indigenous rights to Palestine? Well yes it does matter. Does it matter that the argument against vaccination can be taught as equally valid as the argument for vaccination? Yes it does matter. Does it matter that there is a flat earth society – probably not!
Above all it matters that a position opposing climate change science can be posited with equal value to science itself. This is doing incalculable damage to the future of life on the planet. Future generations will not have choices available to them that are available to us, they will be stuck with the choices we have made, or more truthfully, have failed to make.
Freedom of speech and balance are important and worthy principles, however in an age when a three-word mantra takes the place of a reasoned argument, media outlets have a huge responsibility to distinguish between an unfounded opinion and a well-documented and researched position. Freedom of speech cannot be total. Speech is communication within a context and speech is the forerunner of action - intended or not.
Politics and Religion cover the totality of life. Politics is the business of negotiation for common good within local, regional, national or international life. Religion is about how life and its values and virtues are celebrated. While how life is negotiated in the West has been shaped by the Judaeo/Christian tradition, nevertheless in a liberal democracy political fundamentals should be secular. That is not to say people of faith should not argue, as ably as they might, for the prevalence of religious virtue and values in negotiated arrangements for civil society. But it does mean that people of faith should not request or be granted privileges or favours that are not available to those without faith, or to those of a particular faith, or that are in competition with others’ rights. Nation states should be unequivocally secular. The Republic of Turkey is the latest example of damage done when secularism is lost.
In the US the influence of the religious right is so substantial that no political figure dare ignore it. The irony is that currently the religious right appears to shut its eyes to the absence of traditional Christian virtues such as honesty, fidelity, and care for the needy, as long as the president promulgates their ‘pro-life’ agenda, individual rights, gun ownership and promotion of Israel’s colonisation of the whole of Palestine with Jerusalem as its undivided capital.
In Australia the politically recognised voice of the Christian community is the Australian Christian Lobby, but ACL is not representative of my Christian voice or that of mainstream Christianity. ACL seldom, if ever, expresses concern about the growth of economic inequity, the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, social disadvantage, support for religious or ethnic minorities etc. ACL is almost entirely the voice of political conservatives within the coalition and their obsession with sexual and gender identity. Thus current freedom of religion debate has this obsession as its starting point.
The ideal of a liberal society is that all citizens enjoy the same freedoms, rights and privileges and that they are safeguarded under law. Parliament is the law maker, but increasingly in most western societies including Australia, the economic agenda always trumps the social agenda with the inevitable consequence that common good is lost. Governments everywhere have shamelessly privatised elements of civil life that should have always been retained in public ownership. If in the end everything is for sale, nothing is publicly owned, then those at the top of the capitalist tree will suck all that is common to their compound: environmental concerns become expendable, social concerns are of no account, and budgets are increasingly expended on protecting the wealth of those who have from those who have not. A nation state is not the sum of its individuals, it is the sum of its various communities and families. The triumph of the individual is the triumph of greed over responsibility and the triumph of transient wealth over intergenerational legacy.
Liberality is not only worth defending, its reform deserves investment and energy. Democracy is precious and must be safeguarded from the assault of capitalism. All individuals are equal, but all ideas are not. Religion should seek to serve civil society, not seek to shape it in its image. Good that is not common is not good. Every decision of parliament and every contribution to civil life must be judged by the way it serves common good.