2016: The Year History Ended
On the evening of December 25th, 1991, US President George Bush addressed the American people to tell them that the Cold War was over. While the end had been in sight since the fall of the Berlin wall two years earlier, it was only that morning that Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned as Soviet President, formally ending the existence of the Soviet Union. It may have been the political death of someone who had become a good friend which contributed to the somber tone Bush adopted that evening, evoking a wake rather than a triumph. More likely, Bush was aware that ending the Cold War international order might be the easy part; figuring out what to replace it with would be much harder.
No such doubts were entertained by the American intellectual class, or their counterparts across the globe. For them, the event marked not just the defeat of the Soviet system, but the triumph of the American alternative. Francis Fukuyama, to his later regret, proclaimed that the world had reached "the End of History." Whereas previously conflict had been driven by the rivalry between systems of government, Fukuyama argued that with the end of the Cold War, and the victory of liberal democracy there was no more evolution to be had. Liberal democracy was the highest possible form of government. While Fukuyama's argument was dramatic enough to evoke a degree of mockery even at the time, it was a viewpoint that was shared by those who promoted new views of international relations in which sovereignty took a backseat to universal individual rights, and the goal of policy should be the extension of liberal economic values which inherently, it was naively assumed at the time, brought political liberalism in train.
This bravado was not without contemporary critics. Samuel Huntington published his Clash of Civilizations, which posited that the existing cultural fault lines of culture and religion would reemerge after the end of Communism to fill the vacuum. This work was in some ways less ahead of its time than it might seem. It was as much a throwback to the academic culture of the mid-1980s, when there was near universal belief in American decline in comparison to the dynamic economic growth of Japan, than it was to the conflicts of the 21st century. The American resurgence that came with the computer revolution should have served as more than a rebuttal to Huntington in the eyes of the liberal internationalists. It also should have demonstrated that trends can shift rapidly, and that longer term ones(the ultimate stability of the American economic system over two centuries) should be valued over shorter term ones(the growth of Iran in the 1970s, Japan in the 1980s, and China in the 1990/2000s).
In a sense, it was out of this division the neoliberalism emerged to battle with the realist consensus that had dominated policy-making for the preceding decades. In reality, things were never that simple. The term "neoliberalism" has been so abused as to make its invocation meaningless absent context. For the purposes of this discussion, it is probably best to sidestep the political theory, and see "neoliberalism" defined by the passionate belief in "progress" intrinsic to all liberal thought. That history was moving forward, that things naturally improve. What the 1990s variant did was to take that traditional faith in progress at the societal level and apply it globally. The embrace of free markets did not define neoliberalism; rather it was a belief that growth could continue indefinitely, absent any concerns about limited resources. All problems, whether overpopulation, the exhaustion of fossil fuels, an aging population, all would naturally be taken care of by technological progress, which with the rise of the internet became a near fetish. It is no coincidence that almost every proponent of liberal intervention gushes over the role social media is playing in liberalizing closed societies.
Ultimately, however, the success or failure of liberalism lay in whether it could respond to the problems of the post-Cold War era better than realism. If it could remedy them, its triumph would be assured. If it could not, then its ultimate doom was certain. Ironically, its near-universal adoption in the West owed itself almost entirely to the failure of realism to resolve the conflict which broke out in Bosnia. From the outbreak of the Bosnian war in 1991, the vast majority of policymakers in the United States, Britain, France, and Germany adopted a realist policy of prioritizing vital interests, such as relations with Russia and the stability of international law, over humanitarian ones, such as intervening on the ground. Ultimately, however, the killing Bosnia became not a strategic problem, but rather a political one. The images on the TV every night of atrocities and the harrowing tales of survivors put pressure on US President Bill Clinton to do something, and made him look ineffective when he did not. Realism offered him only excuses, that he would have to pick a side in war without black and white distinctions, that he would undermine relations with Russia. Liberalism offered him an easy answer. He should intervene for the Muslim government. They were (nominally)fighting for a multi-ethnic state and the weaker side. In 1995 Clinton adopted an anti-Serb position, perhaps because he believed it, but more likely because it provided an easy list of targets.
Neoliberalism delivered an international triumph for the Clinton Administration at Dayton in 1995. That the Bosnia created there was a zombie state that even today is almost totally ethnically segregated and has an unemployment rate close to 70% is beside the point. As is the fact that the Croatians, by dint of their assistance to US efforts in Bosnia, got away with ethnically cleansing their Serb minority. It had delivered in the most important way; political success.
In fact, the attractions of neoliberalism to third way leaders was precisely that it provided easy political victories. Their institutional opponents would oppose them on broader societal reforms, as Clinton learned with his healthcare plan, but with the embrace of free trade he had a policy his opponents also supported, allowing for easy passage, as well as the perception he had taken on his own supporters. In effect, Clinton, and later Blair did not become the salesmen of center-left ideas to the general electorate, but rather saw their role as selling neoliberalism to their own constituents on the left. At once they could follow the path of least resistance policy-wise, and receive praise from the media for showing "courage" in doing so,
This would, in the end, make it impossible for the center-left to articulate a coherent criticism of the Iraq War. After all, the major difference between Iraq and Bosnia did not lie in morality. People were being murdered in Iraq in numbers as great as they had been in Kosovo. Having embraced a morality-centered view of international policy, Blair and Democrats like Hillary Clinton found themselves trapped by it. The argument that an invasion of Iraq was strategically unwise was foreclosed by having rejected the idea that geopolitics could trump human rights in the 1990s. The great tragedy of Iraq was not merely that liberals failed to stop it. Rather, it was that their own preoccupations with ideology eventually formed a prison from which they could not escape, and which led them inexorably into the morasses of Syria and Libya, not mention a new Cold War with Moscow over Russian domestic politics. At the same time, the political windfall that liberals were unable to collect from the reaction against Iraq fell to the anti-liberal right.
This was not limited to foreign policy, but extended to the domestic sphere as well. If there is a crisis of the political establishment across Europe and America, it is precisely because that establishment behaved in the same way. Elected on a promise of change, leaders whether center-left like Clinton or center-right like David Cameron and more recently Angela Merkel, then spent their tenures lecturing their voters on why they had to follow the exact same policies as their predecessors.
It is far too simple then to ascribe the failure of liberalism to its inability to deliver for those "left behind" economically on the ground. That by itself would discredit a party, but not a political system. Rather its harm came in the way it corrupted the political system, and ultimately the entire concept of liberal democracy, by turning what had previously been a democratic seminar into a one-sided lecture. Liberalism in its modern form is anything but "liberal" on an intellectual level. It brooks no dissent. Many on the left have been quick to focus on its adherence to free trade which "factually" makes everyone better off economically, and the right has long complained of its insistence on Communist levels of conformity on social issues, but both are merely examples of a universal problem. Neoliberalism is the successor not of traditional liberalism but of Marxism in that it presumes the absolute truth of its tenants. There can be differences as to how to implement that model - what degree of regulation is needed, what level of taxation is most efficient - but the basic premises, that high taxes harm the economy, that race, religion, and culture do not matter, are incontestable. The steadily increasing anger at climate change "deniers" illustrates this degree of contempt for opposition.
There is a further problem here beyond the lack of tolerance for dissent. That is that when disputes are ideological, voters, however uneducated, are generally able to make effective decisions. The problem is that when policy differences become theological, over the efficiency of telecom regulations, or subsets of trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, not only are the commons excluded, but there is a view among the elite that only a cadre of Mandarin experts are fit to decide them. Missed amidst the mockery of too many "Remainers" over the attacks on "Experts" by the Leave campaign in the UK is the fact that the argument that the UK's relations with the UK should be left to experts is part of a wider argument, that economic policy should be left to un-elected "experts" entirely. Social policy as well, for when the average voter does not have the ability to sift through a half dozen waves of "feminism" or the variations of gender identity. The rule of Neoliberalism since the 1990s has been the rule of experts over that of democracy, and the revolt against experts on Brexit was a revolt against the entire Neoliberal technocracy.
It might be possible to empathize with the voters who revolted against the technocracy the West has become merely on the principle of democratic self-government. But that fails to explain matters, and it justifies the defenders of the liberal order in their claim that the revolt, however understandable, was wrong on a policy level. Implicit in that claim is that the mistake was allowing too much democracy to remain in the post 1991 West, rather than too little. The reality is far different. Voters would likely have been quite willing to defer to the experts if they believed their government was doing a good job. But the driving force of the revolt was not anger at disenfranchisement, but the belief that the mandarin caste were not even doing their job.
Much has been made of the failure of the political elite to do enough for the white working class. That is an enormous problem, one that was being pointed out two decades ago, and which was exacerbated by social policies that appeared to be attacks on whites and males generally. But the bigger issue is that the entire liberal project appeared aimless. If, as was promised, the industrial jobs were actually going to be replaced with something better, voters might be content to wait, even for decades. But no one has told them what is in the system for them. Recent social change has suffered from the same problem. Liberals know what they do not like - religion, culture, race, gender - and have done everything in their power to break them down, through education, legal reform, and mass immigration. But they have never sold the alternative. Yes, "multiculturalism" is a word thrown around, but it is a word defined by the absence of the former factors, not by the presence of anything else. For the overwhelming majority of voters it stood for the absence of society, for social anarchy. Even those who were open to equality for gays and lesbians, for increasing secularization, and for relatively liberal immigration, became unnerved by an elite project which seemed to be fully destructive. The gleefulness with which many millennial Clinton voters exulted in their coming "demographic majority", a majority that would only exist in the form that whites would lack one, rather than any internal coherence, created the view that the Democratic project was merely to kill time in control of the courts and the presidency until the deconstruction proceeded too far to be reversed. In that context Black Lives Matter and the fights over Transgender Bathrooms became symbolically linked, because they had no clear endpoint. Black Lives Matter, in contrast to earlier civil rights movements and its own founding principles, became not about African American acceptance in America, but the transformation of everyone else in America into something African Americans could accept. The Transgender issue became an open attack on the principles advanced for gay equality. Whereas gays and lesbians had demanded the right to be attracted to who they chose, the Trans issue focused almost entirely on telling non-Trans people what they could think or say. It was based on restricting the rights of 99.7% of the population on the behalf of .3%.
Into this mix was fed issues of immigration and integration. These already existed in the 2000s, but the added context of Muslim minorities reinforced the perception that the atomization of Western society made it harder to integrate outsiders. Then, in the last two years, the Syrian refugee crisis directly linked the atomization of society generally, with the seeming fragmentation of the international order. That was a fatal combination. For if liberalism was seen as failing at home, it had also failed abroad.
A brief survey can illustrate why, It has become popular among lay foreign policy professionals to praise the Obama Administration's handing of international affairs. That just goes to show how out of touch the academic and policy experts are with perceptions on the ground. Obama came into office with the premise that democracy could answer the ills of the Islamic world, while an abandonment of American unilateralism would eliminate the causes of tensions with Russia. Instead, the results have been the reverse. The Arab spring has been a catastrophe, indicating to many voters that democracy brings anarchy, as it almost did in Egypt. Intervention in Libya is seen as having brought chaos, while Syria fits into a combined narrative with Iraq that replacing dictators with "democratic" opposition groups merely encourages fundamentalism. On a wider level, Latin America is more authoritarian than when Obama took office with Venezuela a failed state, and Nicaragua once more a dictatorship. Even Obama's "greatest" achievements have been accommodations with dictators. His Iran deal involved a resort to dealing with the Clerical hardliners, which mirrored the decision of Iran's demoralized reformists to do the same. A far cry from the potential for change seen in the Green Movement of 2009. Cuba is if anything more repressive, and it is unclear if Obama got anything. It is even more unclear whether Obama got anything from Cuba he could not also have gotten from Assad or Qaddaffi without triggering civil war and refugee flows.
The one place where no accommodation has taken place lies in relations with Russia, where contrary to promises of a "reset" the Obama administration is engaged in a battle to the death with Putin that can only be comprehended in ideological terms, While to neoliberals it is clear what the conflict of Ukraine is about, it is obscure to anyone else. The EU does not want the Ukraine, with its 50 million poor inhabitants, to join, nor does the United States want to take on the burden of defending Ukraine which would come with NATO membership. Given that Russia's goals are to prevent two things that the West has no intention of doing in any event makes the escalation, especially to the Baltic states, even more senseless. But Obama, who at the height of the Euromaiden crisis led a boycott of the Sochi Olympics by Western officials in protest of Russia's LGBT policies, seems to see any opposition as evidence of Russian subversion.
To many voters, however, the "experts" have something of Captain Ahab about them. It is not their existence that causes anger. Rather it is concern that they have lost the plot, and are no longer in touch with reality. The voters sent a message to their politicians that they lack confidence in the mandarins, and that political leaders should hire better experts or risk the voters hiring different leaders. Which is precisely what just happened in the United States.
Hillary Clinton did not lose because she was a woman, or because of racism. She lost because on every issue she was the embodiment of elite conventional wisdom, and of every US politician, she has the least history of ever questioning or deviating from it. There is not, as far as I can ascertain, a single instance where she promoted an original idea, or took a political risk for reasons of conviction. What Clinton thought she presented was a competent manager, lacking even Obama's occasional eccentricities. By contrast, voters saw the ultimate puppet of the mandarin caste, someone who in contrast to Obama, who seems to have occasionally questioned advice, would embrace the policies of a failing elite without the slightest hint of self-doubt or intellectual curiosity. It is within that context that the decision of voters who told exit pollsters they did not believe Donald Trump qualified to be President to nevertheless vote for him needs to be understood. Trump might or might not embrace failed policies. Clinton without a doubt would follow them to the letter.
I am certain plenty of critics will claim that those policies are not "failing." That the economy is doing well, the Iran and Cuban deals are successes, that the free trade pacts are triumphs opposed only by a few backwards industrial workers in the Midwest who are probably racist anyway. That opposition to Black Lives Matter and Immigration Reform are merely signs of racism. That is all well and good, but for many voters the latter were signs of legal anarchy, Black Lives Matter as an attack on the police along with the theory of majority rule, illegal immigration as an attack on the rule of law and basis of society. That the economic growth has not only been unevenly distributed, but that the elite seem more concerned with illegal immigrants and sexual minorities than with that economic imbalance. But most importantly that the elites weren't listening.
2016 was not the year Neoliberalism failed. It has been failing for a while. It is merely the year in which the political leadership woke up to the fact that the electorate will fire them if they do nothing about those failures.