Democracy No Longer to Come
Or, Why Western Intellectuals Must Be Quickly Wakened from Their Dogmatic Political Slumber
The international crisis in Ukraine, combined with the precipitous and aggressive behavior of Russia toward the West, the docility of Europe and the fecklessness of American foreign policy in shaping events, has prompted after-midnight calls among many international experts for a radical and rapid rethinking of what the word “globalization” really means, or what it might look like even in the next five years.
The various commentators, political theorists, and policy architects at Foreign Policy magazine, in particular, have been more than forthright in triggering the emergency alarm system with regard to what they perceive as a general failure on the part of Western leaders and the broader cognoscenti to recognize that a massive paradigm shift is suddenly underway.
For example, University of Chicago professor Eric Posner recently wrote that the issue isn’t really that Putin has turned the clock back in international relations to the nineteenth century.
Instead, “it is the Americans, not the Russians, who are trapped in a time warp. They believe that the legal norms promoted by the United States during its brief period of global hegemony — which started in 1991 and has eroded over the last decade– are still in force.”
Posner goes on to point out that the now fantasized global triumph of liberal democracy, as trumpeted in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 best-seller The End of History and the Last Man, was the outcome of a unique and short-lived set of historical circumstances that have now vanished beneath the tempest.
Fukuyama’s implicit thesis, shared uncritically by many influential theoreticians and strategists during the Clinton and Bush years, was that economic liberalization would inevitably lead to the growth of various manifestations of global “civil society” in tandem with the rise of new democracies that would eventually supplant historically prevalent authoritarian forms of government.
Posner notes that the opposite has been the case. Economic liberalization, on the contrary, has gone hand in hand with a revived mercantilism, anti-democratic nationalism, and the projection of power politics in the theater of foreign policy.
The result has been an accelerating turn away from the transnational experiments in liberal democracy – e.g., prosecution of genocide and war criminals through the court in the Hague, enforcement of human rights by way of United Nations agencies, and the mobilization of global military consortia such as the one that resisted Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait – all of which came to be encapsulated in George H.W. Bush’s ambivalent expression “the new world order,” affectionately known at the time as the NWO.
As Posner dryly points out, the NWO is now dead as a doornail. Its death has been accompanied by an importunate “New World Disorder”, evident in religiously motivated terrorism, debilitating ethnic strife, and the proliferation of “failed states,” serving as a fusty sort of growhouse for the ascendant new authoritarianism.
So what killed it? According to Peter Pomerantsev of the Legatum Institute, it is not really Putin, or his ilk, who can be singled out as perpetrators.
The financialization of Western prosperity combined with a tangled web of interdependency – perhaps a better word would be co-dependency - between liberal states, multinational corporations, and authoritarian economies has made the kind of moral pushback for which advocates of democratic progressivism are so famous increasingly problematic.
As Pomerantsev observes, “many Western countries welcome corrupt financial flows from the post-Soviet space; it is part of their economic models, and not one many want disturbed. “
Furthermore, because the new globalized commerce underwrites public revenues and monetizes the vast majority of the educational and mediating agencies of any civil society, the very voice – if not the conscience – of liberal democracies are subtly and routinely fine-tuned to allow the new authoritarianism to spread and take over the body politic like a slowly metastasizing cancer.
In Pomerantsev’s view this malignant mix of capitalism without borders and the hypocritical self-interest of those who benefit from its stateless diffusion in playing down, or keeping silent about, every Putsch its political handlers ever more shamelessly force on to the world stage is not an aberration, but a token of a much darker future for us all if we refuse to understand what is happening, and why.
Putin, he says, has become the master operator of what he terms the new “non-linear” warfare against democracy that our Ostrich-like refusal to stare reality in the face has not only made possible, but fostered and encouraged.
Moscow’s “non-linear sensibility”, Pomeranstsev writes,” is most apparent as it smoothly, but sociopathologically, “manipulates Western media and policy discourse.”
His argument is hard to refute: “If in the 20th century the Kremlin could only lobby through Soviet sympathizers on the left, it now uses a contradictory kaleidoscope of messages to build alliances with quite different groups. European right-nationalists …are seduced by the anti-EU message; the far-left are brought in by tales of fighting U.S. hegemony; U.S. religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s stance against homosexuality.”
In other words, this novel, highly refined methodology of cynical message-engineering coincides almost effortlessly, and mindlessly, with our liberal democratic habitus (as Bourdieu would call it) of taking ideas at face value and choosing whom we want to brand as the dishonest broker of information, depending on our own ideological obsessions and preferred form of political blind-sidedness.
The procedure has been historically deployed at all shades of the political spectrum, and as in the well-known psychological experiments where sexually repressed subjects literally “could not see” quick screenshots of pornographic material, we only dare to look at what we are comfortable envisaging.
The puppet-masters of the Third Reich termed this approach Gleichschaltung (loosely translated, “the seamless synchronization” of collective ideas and responses). In our garden variety and cartoonish version of how we expect cognitive and intellectual manipulation to work, we tend to refer to this process as “propaganda”.
However, the state does not have to be directly involved in the strategies of synchronization. It only needs to perform a background regulatory role, ensuring that the natural ideological propensities of those who would rather not be bothered by profound outrage, critical engagement, or serious moral discernment – i.e., the vast majority of people – are massaged in such a way that the outcome is conducive to the aggrandizement of the leadership itself.
In this new non-linear model of a global political order particularized prejudice replaces any kind of revolutionary passion for a new universalism of meaning and justice with a twist.
The twist consists in the fact that the old ways of mobilizing any genuine and sustained universalistic commitment (e.g., some sort of event-like revelation of the truth that demands its radical, ensuing historical procedures for implementation, as Badiou reminds us) are now set aside for what Philip Rieff a generation ago named the “triumph of the therapeutic,” the emergence of a pseudo-ecumene of generalized feel-goodism that is reinforced with incessant reactive rage against everything that offends our overly refined, intellectually shallow, and politically all-too-correct sensibilities.
Popular atheism and fundamentalism, which both engender and feed off each other, become the dominant cultural markers of such a pseudo-ecumene. An smug and sophomoric style of pop secularism alternately quotes Freud and Dawkins to the effect that it has realized religion is nothing but a “universal obsessional neurosis,” only to revel in its own unspoken all-encompassinge cataleptic narcissism.
Meanwhile, in the fantasy role-playing game that has come to be known as international politics, the orcs increasingly run roughshod over the anchorites.
The internationalist ideals of liberal democracy – and also of socialist egalitarianism itself, as Derrida reminds us in Specters of Marx – were always predicated on the expansive universalism of the Enlightenment, which in turn evolved out of the mystical universalism and messianism of Judaism and Christianity (as theorists such as Mark Lilla have emphasized).
But messianism can also have its darker dimensions, especially when it becomes the motivating force of ethno-revanchism and identitarian nationalism, as we are witnessing Russia today and of course still remember for a not-so-distant generation as having totally ravaged and decimated most of Europe.
Ever since the severe disillusionment with democratic exceptionalism that watermarked the Vietnam era, the Western intelligentsia has been bruiting the identitarian alternative to the “hegemony” of all ethical universalisms, which it has come to dismiss all too easily as the stalking horse for imperialist power politics.
Ironically, the new imperialism now rising from the earth and slouching toward the Jerusalem of Derrida’s once confident “new internationale,” the self-confident vanguards of a radical “democracy to come”, uses the very slogans of that long-sustained critique of all ethical universalisms.
When the current Russian head of state cooly justified the thuggish and ruthlessly efficient takeover of the Crimea (what some wags captured in the form of the pun “Putin on the blitz”) as a blow against American exceptionalism, his rhetoric could scarcely be differentiated from that of the average adjunct humanities instructor on any given day in any first-year seminar of any given American secular university.
But now the stakes are no longer simply the seeding of a fashionable skepticism among the cognoscenti with regard to the validity, or utility, of the once familiar political metanarratives on which modern democracy sustained itself for two whole centuries. The armies of the night have begun marching, and new anti-democratic metanarratives are revealing their monstrous implications.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted as he watched the “bad moon” of the new pagan Nazism on the rise during the late 1930s, “it is the nature, and the advantage, of a strong people that they can bring out the crucial questions and form a clear opinion about them. The weak always have to decide between alternatives that are not their own.”
As political theologians, we need to help frame new alternatives that the current political discourse, as it did for our grandparents, has ultimately failed to deliver.