The Subjugation of Liberal Democracy

Are we witnessing in our lifetime the slow destruction of liberal democracy? Have we exhausted the limits of a political system that has served nations for more than a century? These are questions many of us probably never thought we would face. But here we are faced with the hard to imagine reality that the institution of democracy is in decline. Who would have thought that capitalism, the favorite child of democracy would someday betray its parent institution for control over nations, peoples, and cultures?

In 1996, Samuel P. Huntington wrote the controversial book Clash of Civilizations. The basic premise of this book is that (and I quote)

“World politics is entering a new phase… world conflicts had been between ideological camps grouping the first, second and third worlds into warring entities.”

He goes on to assert:

“The great divisions among humankind and the dominating sources of conflict *(in the future) will be cultural. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”

For the most part, he spends a lot of time stating that the principle clash will be between Western and non-Western civilizations. However, and perhaps the most striking claim he makes is that these clashes will not be based on economic or social issues but instead on ideological or cultural ones.

However, in the late 1990s, Edward Said follows up with critiques and lectures about this book and does an interesting job of systematically and categorically dismantling his thesis. To begin with, he points out that the phrase “clash of civilizations” does not originate with Huntington but instead is taken from Bernard Lewis’ essay The Roots of Muslim Rage (Sep 1990 issue – Atlantic Monthly). Also, he states that Huntington speaks of civilizations as though they are homogeneous and monolithic but at the same time expresses a reductionist-partisan view that advocates one civilization over all others. Even more striking, Said asserts that Huntington fails to advance our already concrete and theoretical understandings of cultures that enable us to understand the current world situation and reconcile differences between cultures but instead continues to expand old “cold war” rhetoric.

Now, what is important here is a little more than two decades later, we find the major conflict for this century is not between civilizations or religions or ideas and values. Actually, it is between liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism – between the laws of people and the laws of finance. It seems that the clearest triumph of neoliberal capitalism over liberal democracy, at least in terms of the United States, begins with the destructive effect of the US Supreme Court decision to allow “dark money”  – that is, unlimited, unregulated, secret campaign money from billionaires and foreign interests through super PACs to subjugate the democratic process. Campaign contributions are not something new in the democratic political process in the US but in the past, it has been closely monitored. However, the degree to which it has increased over the last decade is staggering. For example, wealthy individual donors have injected 1.2 billion dollars into the process; non-party, independent groups have contributed over 4.5 billion; groups that do not disclose their donors have spent $963 million; and major corporations make up an unprecedented 10% of all donations. Even more damaging, the ruling provides for foreign actors to secretly funnel money to elections through nonprofits and shell companies. Since that time, there has been a slow erosion and or reversal of many previously achieved democratic successes. Within the last three years, the United States has withdrawn from the Nuclear Arms Control Treaty with Russia, the Paris Climate Accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which is also known as the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), UNESCO – the United Nations Cultural Organization, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and there is concern that the US will withdraw from probably the most stable organization for global security since WW II, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO. Clearly, these are not only historic but unprecedented reversals on behalf of the United States and a shocking blow to democratic achievements in global initiatives.

Further, as a result of the conflation of technology and markets, neoliberal capitalism is achieving hegemony over the world by making itself into a type of “sacred,” secular world theology. Social inequality continues to grow fueled by renewed class struggles and social conflicts. Racism, sexism, ultra-nationalism, ethnic and religious rivalries, xenophobia, homophobia and other forms of inequality and hatred are growing.

In Europe, structural shifts resulting from broken alliances caused by internal divisions are bringing about a descent into authoritarian populism for several nations. From a traditional perspective, achievements in the area of decolonization and limiting the spread of Communism are weakening. Almost everyone knows that capitalism and liberal democracy worked together in defeating fascism and communism in Europe. However, with the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and the advent of globalization, the connection between the two has been severed. Liberal democracy and capitalism are no longer required to work together in order to defeat threats to world order. In fact, neoliberal capitalism has become a source of many conflicts. It is important to understand that liberal democracy at its core is not compatible with the inner logic of neoliberal capitalism because neoliberal capitalism wants to objectify everything and everyone in the name of profit. The point here is that the most threatening event of the first half of the 21st century is the erasure of liberal democracy by neoliberal capitalism.

At one time, liberal democracy in the context of human sociality meant exercising vigilance upon ourselves or delegating to specific authorities the right to administer such vigilance. However, the denigration of democratic practices by a neoliberal capitalistic approach is restoring various types of apartheid (i.e., Trump’s recent Middle East Plan) in the form of new separatist claims, the erection of new “Berlin” walls, the militarization of more borders, the revival of fascist and Third Reich nationalist beliefs, more deadly forms of policing, and more wars. The notion that rational people are capable of deliberation and choice is being replaced with an anti-humanistic view that coincides with a contempt for democracy and the normalization of a social-state of perpetual conflict and warfare.

Notes: *author’s quotation
Evers-Hillstrom, Karl. “More money, less transparency: A decade under Citizens United. Center for Responsive Politics, Jan. 14, 2020; Milbank, Dana. “John Roberts comes face to face with themes he made. Washington Post. Jan. 23, 2020; Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of World Order. Simon & Schuster, 1993; Said, Edward. Myth of the Clash of Civilizations. May 2011.