A global culture war

Western liberals seem incapable of defending liberalism.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics USA World

As far as the mainstream Western media are concerned, Vladimir Putin’s interview during the recent G20 summit with the Financial Times was nothing short of a provocation.

The Russian president declared liberalism ‘obsolete’. He criticised Western liberalism as a tired old ideology that has ‘outlived its purpose’. He said it conflicted with ‘the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population’. One of his targets was multiculturalism, which he said was ‘no longer tenable’. He took great delight in condemning Angela Merkel for imposing mass migration on the peoples of Europe.

He also took a swing at identity politics. He took exception to the fashionable dogma of genderfluidity, which allows children to ‘play five or six gender roles’, he said. He insisted that he has no problem with people flaunting their identity, ‘but this must not be allowed to overshadow the culture, traditions and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population’.

To indicate that he was not merely directing his comments to the elites assembled at the G20 summit, he signalled his support for the rise of populism in Europe and America. He seems to see Western populists as allies in a global culture war between traditional conservative ideals and the social-engineering ethos that is most closely associated with the cultural elites of the United States in particular.

The reaction of the Western media has been, if anything, more interesting than the bold claims made by Putin himself. Though most commentators dismiss Putin’s claim about the erosion of Western global hegemony, they also concede that he has a point. After outlining why Putin’s statement is flawed, a leader in the FT conceded that ‘plainly’ there is ‘disenchantment among Western voters with liberalism’. The piece finished with a call to arms against populism, arguing that ‘renewing and revitalising liberalism is the best way to expose the barrenness of the worldview of Mr Putin and his ilk’. This is an indirect way of conceding that Western liberalism is in need of emergency treatment.

A commentator for the Independent made a similar point. He said Putin enjoys considerable legitimacy because ‘most Russians embrace conservative values’, and ‘Western liberals will find it hard to dispel the signs of the decline of liberalism obsessively presented by the Russian leadership and media’. ‘[S]ymptoms of decay and disorder… are difficult to overlook’, he said, highlighting ‘the rise of nationalism and right-wing or left-wing populism, Europe’s response to the migrant crisis, or Britain’s messy exit from the EU’.

A commentator in the pro-Western Moscow Times explained that most of the values associated with contemporary liberalism have little traction in Russia: ‘I see very little evidence that Russians yearn for contemporary liberal values. A majority of Russian public opinion expresses reservations about feminism or multiculturalism, for example. They remain suspicious of openness and praise the regime’s assertive foreign policy. They are happy with how safe Russian cities have become – Moscow now feels much safer than Brussels – even if poverty is all too apparent.’

Even Robert Samuelson, a columnist for the Washington Post, felt obliged to concede that Putin had a point. Writing of a backlash to liberal ‘high-mindedness’, he argued that ‘open borders, unwanted immigration, globalisation and multiculturalism’ have made large sections of the Western electorate feel alienated.

This defensive reaction to Putin’s critique of liberalism is very different to the far more confident stance that the Western political establishment adopted towards Russia just five or six years ago. Take the case of President Barack Obama’s high-profile ‘Address to European Youth’ in March 2014. Obama criticised Russia’s behaviour in the Crimea and denounced its ‘older, more traditional view of power’. He boasted that ‘instead of targeting our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we can use our laws to protect their rights’.

It is also worth recalling the aggressive propaganda campaign mounted by the West against Russia in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. Western commentators condemned Russia as traditionalist, outdated, mysogynistic, homophobic, patriarchal and xenophobic. Even last summer, during the football World Cup in Russia, Russia was constantly derided for its alleged tolerance of racism. The Russian football team was ridiculed for being ‘too Russian’. And the Russian public was lectured by Western observers about the superiority of multicultural football teams.

A year after the World Cup, it seems that many Western culture warriors have lost confidence in their own cause. They appear to be going through the motions when they take up arms against the illiberalism of Putin. It is as if they have mislaid their own cultural script. Robert Samuelson’s article is interesting in this respect. He writes that ‘people value their national identities’ and ‘fear policies and practices that would erode these identities’. He concludes: ‘The daunting task is to salvage the best of postwar liberalism while, at the same time, acknowledging the importance of national identities and sovereignty.’ That’s another way of saying that liberalism in its present form has lost its ability to resonate with people.

The defensive response of the Western media to Putin’s interview indicates that they no longer enjoy the cultural authority of old. For that is what once empowered them to patronise and lecture the rest of the world about the superiority of their supposedly enlightened values. At a time when this impoverished version of liberalism enjoys the support of a relatively small section of Western society itself, the Western media lack the legitimacy to attack nations who prefer their own traditions and values.

Within the EU, the crisis of legitimacy of the Brussels technocracy is apparent to all. The pesky populists refuse to go away. Italy and the governments of the Visegrád Group – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – refuse to sing from the same hymn sheet as the Merkel-Macron oligarchy. Viktor Orbán’s defiance of EU federalists shows that the days in which neocolonial masters could dictate to people how to live their lives are numbered. Then there is Brexit and Trump. Suddenly, the global culture war has lost its formerly one-sided character.

But where we are at in the global culture war is far from clear. At present, Putin’s ability to defy American cultural hegemony is limited by the restricted cultural and intellectual resources at his disposal. The reaction against globalism around the world, which Putin wants to appeal to, lacks coherence and unity. The defensive response from Western media to his FT interview is not so much a result of Putin’s strength as it is a sign of the weakening of the moral authority of his opponents. Their crisis of confidence will not fundamentally alter the global balance of cultural power – but it is nonetheless good news for those of us who care about national sovereignty and the future of open, democratic debate.

Frank Furedi’s How Fear Works: the Culture of Fear in the 21st Century is published by Bloomsbury Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

John Arthur

13th July 2019 at 3:55 pm

Give over Furedi. You are perverse. Liberalism and conservatism are two sides of the same coin, two ways of managing capitalism. Choose something different – I believe you know the alternative.

Tinfoil Hat

11th July 2019 at 8:41 pm

I have no idea what Putin means when he talks about Liberalism. We’ve seen from the Brexit Referendum that folk who describe themselves as liberals are unwilling to accept the vote of the majority to leave the EU in any real sense. Anti-democratic sentiment doesn’t feature in any definition of liberalism that I can find.

What I think has happened is that any reference to first principles has been lost and liberalism has simply become a tag for folk who claim to be reasonable, and with caring, freedom loving values, but with a complete detachment between their self image and actual behaviour or expression.

Quentin Vole

14th July 2019 at 12:11 pm

We’re in the strange (or perhaps not so strange) position that most of the major UK parties now represent the inverse of their original positions. Labour detests working people, while the Liberal Democrats are neither liberal nor democratic. And I’m not too sure about the Conservatives …

James Knight

11th July 2019 at 7:07 pm

Since the Cold War ended there is less need for Western leaders to grandstand the importance of freedom and liberal democratic values, just pay them lip service now and again.

Christopher Tyson

11th July 2019 at 5:45 pm

Liberalism is built on conflict. The liberalism of John Locke was largely about reconciling the differences between Catholics and Protestants. It’s difficult to separate liberalism from the progressive bourgeoisie. Liberalism cannot incorporate everyone, although a sizeable progressive middle class might feel like everyone. Liberalism was about managing conflict, religious conflict and then class conflict. A progressive middle class could co-opt and incorporate the aspirational working class but it could not end class conflict. Liberalism has tried to manage racial conflict. Today we have a celebration of diversity and multiculturalism. In reality the progressive middle class was unable to resolve racial conflict. As with class conflict the liberal middle class absorbed leaders and potential leaders of ethnic minorities, as they had done with the working classes. Multiculturalism does not admit to being a state mechanism for managing conflict, it denies that there is any conflict. Liberalism could work with a confident and expansive middle class, when the middle class begins to fear for its own existence, liberal values such as free speech and free association become less relevant, survival matters more. The liberal classes feel besieged and threatened, by populism or whatever, but they always did harbour a fear of the masses. If liberalism could incorporate everyone, that would be the end of liberalism, there would be no conflict to contain. If the middle class became universal it would cease to exist as a class, liberals have been in danger of theorising themselves out of existence. These are the contradictions of liberalism, they have always been there.

James Chilton

11th July 2019 at 4:49 pm

The “liberalism” that Putin is talking about is now defined, in America and the UK, by the attitude taken towards homosexuality and its associated minority cults.

This obsession reveals the frivolous and unprincipled nature of politics now.

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