The limousine at a crossroads

For all the defeat of their apocalyptic theories, Marxists were right about one thing: Economy is the soul of history. Society’s principal political concern is the relationship between the rich and the poor. The poor masses across the world have put faith in all sorts of religions and in ideologies that have often been little more than secular religions. After the demise of socialism, liberalism stands virtually unchallenged in the realm of ideas, albeit uncertainly so – a sick god in a realm of dead ones. And as the Marxist heritage can no longer be a practical alternative, liberalism finds itself alone, faced with the hordes of downtrodden who seek to lay their hands on the wealth and the freedoms of the West. A great cross section of the poor aspire to become like the West. Others, a minority, seek to destroy it because of their failure to do so. Their resentment is the poisonous fruit of poverty and desperation. The dynamics of underdevelopment produce economic disparities that nourish crime and extremism. It is the quest for dignity that fuels these people’s suicidal revenge. Filled with rage, young Muslims easily play into the hands of influential elites or religious extremists who distort Islamic teaching and rebuff Christianity as a scourge that has to be eliminated from this earth. September 11 demonstrated that we live in an increasingly dangerous world. And for all its catastrophic effects, the terrorist attack was a rude awakening for a deluded, self-complacent liberal world. After the shock, liberalism woke up on a different planet. It is the world that Robert Kaplan describes as bifurcated. Think of a stretch limousine driving through an urban ghetto. Inside the limousine are «the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe, the emerging Pacific Rim.» Outside are all the rest, «going in a completely different direction.» According to Kaplan’s dark dystopia, while part of the world is «inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology,» the majority is still «inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’» Although a part of the globe enjoys the much-touted end of history, another, bigger part, is still stuck in it. The worst thing about this situation is that more and more people are becoming like those outside the limousine. At the beginning of the 19th century, the ratio of per capita incomes between the world’s wealthiest and poorest states was three to one. By 2000 it had soared to 60 to one. The rich states of the West can no longer ignore the problem. We used to watch the noses of the poor pressed against our television screens. Now we see them pressed against our car windows. The impoverished masses are on the move. They flock into our countries in hope of a better future. The future of liberalism, in fact its very survival, will depend on its relationship with the underdeveloped parts of this world. Liberalism has to tackle the misery and pain on earth, but not only in order to prove itself, nor only because it would be socially and morally right to do so like idealists have been calling for until now. In the wake of the devastating shock of September 11, the fight against poverty is imperative if liberalism is to survive. «In our post-September 11 world, the need to address poverty has become not only a moral imperative, not only a social and economic necessity, but also a central concern for everyone who strives for national and global security and peace,» World Bank President James Wolfensohn said early this year. In light of the devastating attacks in the US – which now appear as the first incidents in a chain of lethal acts – and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it becomes clear that liberalism can no longer feel safe by locking itself up in the limousine. For this time, liberalism’s bitter enemies are prepared to blow it up. Instead, those inside the limousine have to step outside into the dodgy suburbs. The good news is that in eradicating poverty and draining the swamps that foster extremism, liberalism has an extremely powerful asset. This is not its unparalleled military superiority – which can, as we often see, have the opposite effect, as it fuels arrogance at home and resentment abroad. The best arrows in liberalism’s quiver are democracy, freedom, and peace. And its real power lies with the growing strength of these values. Despite the huge harm inflicted by Osama bin Laden and his followers, and despite the likelihood of similar terrorist acts occurring in the future, these nihilist ideas pose no major existential threat to liberalism – in the manner communism did, for example. That is because the appeal of their ideas is limited. When compared to the flow of people who flock to the West, the number of those who want to blow it up is minimal. For all his historical determinism, Francis Fukuyama is right that the proof of the appeal of liberal institutions and values lies «in the millions of developing world immigrants who vote with their feet every year to live in Western societies.» But being a global trendsetter entails responsibility. The conundrum for liberalism is that it has to sustain its appeal to outsiders but at the same time sustain itself. The question facing liberalism is thus twofold: How can it expand without betraying its own values; and, not least essential, how far can its tolerance go before it is destroyed? Strong as the appeal of liberal values may be today, the belief that the world will necessarily converge into a universal civilization should be discarded as a bankrupt philosophy of history, as Marx’s eschatological prophecy of a Communist society was. Trying to force Western institutions and principles indiscriminately upon all states in the hope of forging a universal liberal system is a betrayal of liberalism’s own claim to tolerance and pluralism. True, there is little – if any – evidence that any other system works better than the liberal one. Nevertheless, liberalism should only export its institutions and values to those states that wish to adopt their own version of modernization and merely hope that more will be tempted to follow. The queue of countries seeking to join Western institutions and frameworks is long anyway. Liberalism should not interfere with other countries that wish to follow alternative paths to economic and political development. It has to learn to coexist with radically different cultures. To the extent that they do not pose a threat to its own existence, liberalism should learn to tolerate even non-liberal regimes. As for those who crave our liberal setting, transition may be long and painful. A lot has to be done on both sides. Liberalism must promote education in developing countries. Indicators show that the countries with the most developed learning systems have higher economic growth and healthier citizens. Most crucially, education can play an essential role in advancing the political goals of liberalism. Seeing the world through the eyes of others is the safest path for cultivating tolerance and a genuine sense of human solidarity. Developing countries should install transparent and effective governments, democratic institutions and open markets. In response, the developed world has to open its doors to goods produced by developing countries and abolish trade-distorting subsidies. In trying to get more people in the limousine, liberalism will discover that some candidates, however eager to join us, are hampered by significant cultural barriers. Some states tend to be picky on modernization, opting for economic liberalization without the political equivalent. Others are uncomfortably theocratic for secular, liberal standards. Such cultural or religious barriers cannot be removed from outside. They can only be overcome by those directly involved in them – if at all. For its part, liberalism should not bend its principles to let such states on board. Liberalism must take on newcomers only to the extent that its core values remain intact. Allowing in illiberal or intolerant regimes would be like spilling vitriol on liberalism’s secular, tolerant fiber. Self-destructive is the word. In reaching out to the poor, liberalism will realize that having too many needy friends can be a serious strain. It will have to convince its «healthy and well-fed» citizens of the need to compromise their living standards. In its effort, liberalism will discover that the world’s largest producers, consumers, and polluters have little inclination of doing so. The Western version of modernity is dialectical. Its concern with human freedom and economic prosperity comes with an enhanced sense of egotism. Convincing the electorates to give up what they have is no easy task. No privileged class ever has. «The mechanisms and restraints of liberal democracies – the need to find votes – thus inhibit its universal spread,» wrote John Lloyd in the Financial Times. Daunting as the price tag may be, the growing threats posed by a bifurcated system must prompt us to take a fresh, sobering look at the world around us. Getting our priorities right will be essential for ensuring liberalism’s survival in the 21st century.