For the liberal optimism that has been under assault since 11 September, 2001, the coronavirus pandemic is another rattling blow. The late-1990s vision of a world progressing steadily towards global harmony, towards sunlit uplands of universal democracy and technological wonder, has long since given way to pessimism, anxiety and crisis. But even more than terrorism and the Iraq War, the financial crisis of 2008 and the eurozone stalemate, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the pandemic of 2020 promises to stall globalisation, harden borders, freeze economies, and push the dream of liberal progress ever further into history’s rear-view mirror.
Twenty-five years ago the liberal establishment was embodied by youthful politicians, by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in their pre-Iraq, pre-Jeffrey Epstein flower. Even 12 years ago it was embodied by Barack Obama, the soaring orator and handsome post-racial technocrat. But in 2020, even if the coronavirus dooms Trump’s populist presidency and allows some sort of establishment restoration in the United States, it will be personified by Joe Biden – a reassuringly normal politician in certain ways, but also the physical embodiment of political sclerosis, exhaustion and old age.
But is this exhaustion, the end of liberal optimism and the discrediting of its establishment a prelude to the death of liberalism itself? That is the fear of many liberal mandarins, who have anticipated the return of the 1930s in every populist disturbance. It is the hope of various so-called post-liberals on the further right and left – who will be citing the disastrous coronavirus response by the Western establishment in their polemics for years to come. And it is the dream of the liberal order’s rivals, whether in Moscow or Beijing, for whom the temporary states of emergency required by the pandemic will be invoked to make the case that authoritarianism is more prepared than liberalism for the challenges of the future.
There is, however, another possibility besides a looming liberal crack-up – that a political order can be exhausted and sclerotic, its great ambitions foreclosed and its projects frustrated, and still continue for a good long while without either real reform or real collapse.
That may well be the fate of the liberal order over the next few generations: a kind of sustainable decadence, a zombie existence punctuated by periods of temporary crisis and alarm that continues indefinitely because all of its plausible rivals and inheritors have too many challenges and weaknesses of their own to effectively exploit its incompetence, torpor and stagnation.
In his 1904 poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”, the Greek poet CP Cavafy imagines a Roman-style city where everyone expects the Huns to invade at any moment. When they don’t arrive, there is a “sudden restlessness”, a confusion and even disappointment:
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
In the spirit of Cavafy, it is worth considering why, even after our own version of a Roman-era plague, the barbarians – any force capable of overthrowing the liberal order and inheriting its rule – might not be on their way.
Start with the inheritor imagined by the literary chronicler of Western decadence, Michel Houellebecq, in his 2015 novel Submission – a new Islamic order that transforms the formerly Christian West first through mass migration and then religious conversion. Houellebecq’s novel is a dreamlike variation on how grand ideological conflict was supposed to return after 9/11, according to the more imaginative Western intellectuals. Where once fascism and communism had challenged the liberal order, they argued, now some kind of Islamic ideology would do the same, and the struggle would happen everywhere: along the borders between Islamic civilisation and its neighbours, within Islamic societies where liberal ideas might yet take root or be imposed by Western intervention, and within those European cities where Muslim immigrants had created de facto Islamist colonies, islands of extremism that might yet expand to forge Eurabia.
This post-9/11 vision recognised something fundamental: that Islam is not really assimilated to the liberal world order, that Islamic civilisation is the West’s most immediately visible Other, and that the Islamic world’s internal conflicts are creating lawless zones where both young Muslims and young Westerners seek radical alternatives to an exhausted liberalism.
But those truths are not sufficient to sustain the larger claims of sweeping civilisational conflict. Such claims require an Islamic world that is expanding rather than convulsing, consolidating rather than being consumed by civil wars, winning converts within the West’s elite rather than primarily among its dropouts, and dramatically exceeding Western fertility rates rather than converging with them. And all these imaginations are just that: fancies that bear no relationship to the actual state of the West’s Islamic rivals.
Houellebecq’s dreamworld does, though, offer a useful way to think about the difference between these fancies and reality. In Submission, a genius Islamo-French politician forges a Franco-Islamic imperium that extends south to encompass North Africa; in our world, the EU is struggling to prevent refugees crossing the Mediterranean from collapsing North African states, building walls against an Islamic world that is a threat only because of its dysfunction. In Submission, Qatari and Saudi moneymen compete to buy up French universities and French intellectuals; in our world, they are bribing Western governments, certainly, but they’re mostly spending money trying to influence the intra-Islamic civil war next door to their own fiefdoms.
In Houellebecq’s world, Islam seduces high-profile academics the way Marxism and fascism won over portions of the intelligentsia in the 1940s and 1950s; in our world, with rare exceptions, it’s conspicuously not. The various Islamist experiments are dangerous to the West but not really seductive to many Westerners; a few deluded anticolonialist writers, such as Michel Foucault, flirted with Khomeini-ism in 1979, but that affair died quickly, and today no Western observer visits Tehran – especially not in the time of the coronavirus – or Riyadh and announces that he or she has seen the inevitable future.
Movements such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State can exploit Western anomie to seduce and recruit, but their targets are hapless, marginal, even deplorable. There are no Islamist Kim Philbys, and there is no Islamist analogue to Alger Hiss (the US government official accused of spying for the Soviet Union in 1948). And while Muslim intellectuals in the West sometimes engage in double-talk about the illiberal aspects of their faith, there is no Islamic equivalent of the early-20th century Marxists who once expected to undo the liberal capitalist order from within.
Finally, Houellebecq imagines a French Islam whose adherents are numerous enough to build a powerful Muslim Brotherhood–style political party in the heart of Europe; in our world, that scenario is still relatively remote. Alarmists predicting the West’s imminent fall to an Islamic successor argue that although Islamic countries are not powerful or geopolitically ascendant, it does not matter because Muslims in Europe are having babies and non-Muslims aren’t: by simple demographic momentum, a new Islamic order will eventually come to Great Britain and Germany and France.
But while the fertility differential is real, it is also the case that Middle Eastern birth rates have been tumbling for a generation, headed for the same below-replacement levels as the West. Birth rates for Muslims within Europe are higher than for other groups but are dropping steadily as well. And although assimilation is a serious problem for Europe – a source of ongoing tension, violence and political disruption – it is still a leap from that trend to something more culturally existential, to some future that transforms restive minorities into majorities; and that drives Islamicisation outside the banlieue and the ghetto.
Such an intellectual and cultural revolution could happen: Islam’s encounter with the secular heir of its ancient Christian rival is the kind of strange collision in which unexpected futures might be forged. But the form of Islam that could imaginably replace liberalism has yet to be invented.
That said, Islam has certain strengths that are missing from the second possible inheritor, the “illiberal” form of politics that has gained momentum over the last decade at liberalism’s expense. For all the weaknesses of Islamic governments and institutions, the Muslim world picture does inspire stringent zeal and genuine belief, whereas elsewhere in the non-Western world and the West’s illiberal peripheries, there is a lot more intellectual fraudulence where conviction ought to be.
Take the case of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has lately sought to return the ideological role that Moscow played under the czars – as a rallying point for traditionalists worldwide, and as a religious-conservative bulwark against Western liberalism and secularism. Putin has enjoyed some success with this gambit: he has admirers among Europe’s far-right parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in France, authoritarian friends around the globe, and his interventions in Ukraine and the US elections in 2016 have prompted a surge of Western-liberal Russophobia, with talk of great ideological conflict and a renewed Cold War.
But as a world-view, a system, an alternative civilisational architecture, Putinism is mostly smoke and mirrors. The Romanovs embodied a real ancien régime, an order rooted in a deep historical inheritance even when its days were numbered. Putinism does not have a similar justification for its powers, and following the collapse of Soviet communism from 1989 and the prolonged doses of neoliberal economic “shock therapy” that came after, Russian society is no more traditional than its more liberal and democratic neighbours. There is no legitimate mode of transmission for Putin’s system once he dies: his successor will either take power by brute force or claim (like his predecessor) the pseudolegitimacy of a rigged election – even liberalism’s enemies pay tribute to its norms. Either way, there will not be a clear alternative to liberalism, only violence, or parody, or both.
Perhaps there is something embryonic within the regimes of various Putinesque strongmen that could develop into a serious ideological challenger to the West. But unlike the totalitarianisms of the 1930s – or, for that matter, unlike the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – none of these regimes has claimed an alternative source of legitimacy; an alternative vision of where sovereignty resides. In practice “illiberal democracy” is either liberal democracy with somewhat more nationalism than Western bien-pensants prefer, or pseudodemocracy dominated by a dictator who refuses to admit his authoritarianism.
Let Putin be crowned czar of all the Russias, let Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan revive the caliphate under his own personal rule, let Poland or Hungary remake themselves as Christian monarchies, and matters might look different. But what exists in the so-called illiberal democracies now is a more nationalist, or conservative, or degraded form of what exists in “normal” Western-liberal countries – a variety of liberal decadence, most likely, rather than a post-liberal inheritor.
Nor is this illiberal form of politics even necessarily new. Set aside his cultivation of nationalist and post-liberal intellectuals, and is Viktor Orbán’s democratic but one-party-dominated Hungary all that different from the de facto one-party rule that often characterised 20th-century Mexico, South Korea, or Japan? It is not unusual for democratic systems to produce powerful parties that bend the rules to keep themselves in power. Nobody thinks that Mexico, when it was governed uninterrupted by the Institutional Revolutionary Party between 1929 and 2000, represented an ideological challenge to liberal democracy. For all the anxiety about Orbán or the Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party, the same may be true of eastern Europe today.
The third possible inheritor to the liberal order, China, is a more complicated case. In one sense, it is like Russia. It bills itself as a Marxist-Leninist state but nobody believes the official rhetoric, making its formal ideological self-presentation an exercise in sustained mendacity. At the same time, the Chinese system does represent something closer to the form that a post-liberal order might take: a system where technocracy is formally elevated over liberal norms and democratic principles; a system promising that a modernised Confucian bureaucracy can deliver growth, order and technological innovation more effectively than liberalism.
It is for this reason that, unlike Islamism, the Chinese system has won soft admiration among the Western elite. Though not admirers of one-party rule, precisely, they are pundits and businessmen – such as Michael Bloomberg, a failed candidate for US president – who are impressed by the way that Beijing can implement big policy changes without the snarls of democratic debate.(Or the way that it can shut down an entire province to contain a viral outbreak that runs wild across the liberal West.) And unlike Putin’s Russia, China has enjoyed a rate of economic growth that is both an advertisement for its system and a source of growing global soft power. Those elites in developing nations – in Africa especially – who think China’s one-party meritocracy is a model worth imitating are closer to constituting a nascent post-liberal order than the illiberal client states of Moscow.
But there is an alternative hypothesis, that in the near future there will be a kind of convergence-in-decadence between the world’s rising powers and the liberal West. In this scenario, growth and progress outside the West levels off and political futility increases, and the afflictions of Western liberalism – problems of political sclerosis and intellectual exhaustion – wait to greet China (and India and Brazil, and Turkey and Nigeria…).
We saw a version of this when Europe’s economies, which had grown so rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, failed to pass the United States after the 1970s – when the current era of economic deceleration began – and instead stagnated in their turn. In the same way, China, India and others might see their own growth plateau as the easier gains are made, and the pressures of demographic decline – of ageing populations and falling birth rates – begin to make themselves felt in Asia as well.
And those pressures are likely to be, if anything, stronger in the economies that are supposed to dominate the “post-American world” than they have been in the developed West. This is because the demographic transition to low birth rates has happened more swiftly in many of those countries – sometimes prodded along, as in China, by ruthless population-control programmes – and created a situation where the new powers may grow old before they finish growing rich.
If growth rates in East Asia and South Asia stall, it’s easy to envisage more intense versions of the liberal West’s problems besetting Asian societies: the loneliness of the middle-aged and elderly would be worsened by the relative weakness of the social safety net, the West’s problem with boys dropping out of education would be worsened by abortion-induced male-skewing sex ratios, leaving millions of “surplus” young men.
Disappointing growth is hardly a hypothetical. In Brazil and South Africa, often touted as potential great powers of the future, the growth rates of the last ten years have been indistinguishable from growth rates in the US and Europe. India has done better, and the absence of one-child totalitarianism means that it is not growing old as fast as China. But in the last few years, there has been an unexpected Indian deceleration, linked in part to the ham-fisted way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government imposed currency and tax reforms. The joke often applied to Brazil, that “it’s the country of the future, and it always will be”, recurs with similar countries for a reason: it is (relatively) easy for poor, misgoverned countries to grow rapidly for a time when government policy improves, but it is a lot harder to accelerate past the pacesetters and into the new economic territory that a would-be rival of liberalism would need to do.
Perhaps this will not be true of China; if the West’s containment measures for coronavirus fail while its more draconian measures work, Beijing may come through the shock of the outbreak with the legitimacy of its system intact or even enhanced – “ahead in the geopolitical game” as Bruno Macaes wrote for National Review recently, having proven that it can “move as a single organism” in a way that the decadent liberal governments cannot.
But even a Chinese success in the pandemic crisis – and there is a long way to go before such a judgement can be made – will not erase doubts about the ascendant China story. Its growth statistics are remarkable but not entirely trustworthy. Suspicions fall on the country’s economic stability since 2015, when the GDP growth rate fell to 7 per cent from its once-consistent high of more than 10 per cent per annum. Some measures of activity suggest that, in fact, the real growth rate has been much lower than the official numbers for the last five years. Even the official numbers show a deceleration that is taking China off the growth trajectory achieved by Japan and South Korea during the 1980s and 1990s. It is a consequence, the Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip suggested in a recent analysis, of its rapid ageing, its reliance on state-driven infrastructure spending and its substantial overhang of debt.
Meanwhile, China’s police state is frighteningly effective, but also signifies internal divisions and fault lines that might shift destructively should growth begin to really fail. For the leaders of the world’s soon to be dominant power, China’s elite can also appear rather pessimistic. Capital flight keeps rising, a near majority of wealthy Chinese would like to emigrate according to some surveys, and those who do leave the country warn of darker times ahead. When Chen Tianyong, a real estate developer, decamped for Malta in early 2019, he published a long manifesto (which quickly disappeared from the Chinese internet) describing China’s economy as “a giant ship heading to the precipice… Without fundamental changes, it’s inevitable that the ship will be wrecked and the passengers will die.”
If disaster fails to strike, Chinese power will be greater in a generation than it is today. But a powerful China is not the same thing as a hegemonic China, or a China that is held up as a cultural or political model for the world. If China ends up as another rich-but-stagnating economy with a distrusted elite relying on a surveillance state to maintain its power, then it will not have pioneered an alternative to Western liberalism; it will be another case study in the convergence of liberal democracies, pseudo-democracies and would-be meritocracies, all becoming de facto oligarchies trying to manage stagnation and its discontents.
The desire of China’s elites – the very people who seemed poised to guide the West’s great rival – to leave for New York and London illustrates another way in which liberal decadence is well defended: the Western order is still good at weakening potential rivals through recruitment.
The system that we call meritocracy, with its promise to build an elite by finding the best and brightest in every corner of society, presents itself as a way to build the most talented possible upper class, the most intellectually deserving elite. The record of the Western elite over the last generation proves that its claims to meritocracy are wildly exaggerated. But even if it is false, meritocracy may still shore up and protect even an ineffective elite, because it drains the talent from the provinces and the peripheries and deprives potential rivals and potential rebels of the leaders who otherwise might challenge its hegemony.
Two types of brain drain sustain this balance: one global and the other national. The global brain drain happens through high-skilled immigration – the one kind of immigration that still has something like bipartisan support in the polarised West; and for good reason, if you think of it as a process whereby the skilled professionals or would-be professionals of Latin America and Africa find their way to Europe and North America. In 2012 Ethiopia’s health minister claimed there are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than in their homeland, to pick a particularly arresting example. These professionals try to help their children find their way into the West’s elite, while the countries that they leave behind get remittances in exchange for losing their natural leadership class to Western cities.
The efficiency of this global brain drain is blessed by practically every professional economist, but its political consequences are also notable: it is a good way to make the Western world’s potential rivals a little bit better off monetarily but a lot less talent rich, by siphoning away their most ambitious citizens through offering them membership of an elite that they might otherwise supplant.
Something similar happens domestically as well. The most feared “barbarians” in the Western world today are not invaders from the distant steppes; they are the Rust Belt “deplorables” voting for Trump, the gilets jaunes burning shops on the Champs-Élysées, the Little Englanders forcing their country into Brexit. A great deal of elite commentary about the crisis of the liberal order assumes that these internal rebels might topple the system from within, that populists “inside the gates” are now the existential threat that Western institutions last faced from the Soviet Union.
But there is little to suggest that the populist movements are prepared to wield power in any effective way; their power, too, is limited by the way that meritocracy has recruited away the men and women who in a different era might have been the working class’s leaders and the hinterland’s elite. Populists can fill the streets and sometimes elect prime ministers and presidents, but they are disorganised, poorly led, conspiratorial and anti-intellectual in a way that undercuts their own effectiveness.
They are also vulnerable to con men and manipulators, and swing wildly from far right to further left without finding talented leaders or a clear political programme. From the feckless (and now, perhaps, disastrous) governance of Trump to the inchoate protest politics roiling France, our populist disturbances are not exactly transformations, and the mix of anxieties and aspirations involved seem querulous, irascible, nostalgic – a populism of the Western twilight, a reaction to stagnation that’s stagnationist itself.
Perhaps populists just await the right combination of the man, the movement and the moment to become agents of actual regime change in the West. But it is also possible that meritocracy really does protect elites from effective challenges, and enables even an exhausted liberal establishment to return, Biden-esque, to power once the disturbances are over or once the populists conspicuously fail. This points to a future distilled by the US intellectual Michael Lind and his vision of what the later-21st century might hold if populism is defeated:
The other possibility… is that today’s class war will come to an end when the managerial minority, with its near monopoly of wealth, political power, expertise and media influence, completely and successfully represses the numerically greater but politically weaker working-class majority. If that is the case, the future of North America and Europe may look a lot like Brazil and Mexico, with nepotistic oligarchies clustered in a few fashionable metropolitan areas but surrounded by a derelict, depopulated and despised ‘hinterland.’”
You can create a global version of the Lindian scenario if you weave in the most impersonal and apolitical challenge to the liberal order: climate change. The more apocalyptic projections for climate crisis could indeed bring about the end of liberal decadence in fire and flood. But the less apocalyptic possibilities, which are also the likelier ones, suggest a future in which climate change is mostly a manageable burden for wealthy countries, imposing discomfort and requiring adaptation, but not the end of civilisation as we know it.
On the other hand, rising temperatures have a greater chance of seriously destabilising poorer countries in the global South, Africa, the Middle East and India. They are more likely to limit economic growth, to overwhelm efforts at mitigation, to encourage yet more of those regions’ elites to decamp for London or Los Angeles, and to kill those left behind.
In which case, it is possible that strictly as a matter of Machiavellian self-interest, unmoored from moral debt or humanitarian obligation, climate change will help sustain the zombie liberal order instead of threatening it. A crisis created unintentionally by Western industrial development could, in one of history’s cruel ironies, help a decadent West hold off challenges from its rivals because it imposes greater ecological costs on the formerly colonised and defeated, than on the countries that led the first industrial wave and began to warmthe world.
One can imagine a future shaped by climate change that is like the present, but more so. Every rich place on Earth would be more like every other rich place, likewise every poor place, and the national-level political order would seem like a fractal of the international political order.
There would be an elite that seems interchangeable from country to country, a restive impotence and a lot of human suffering wherever that elite is hated or opposed, zones of chaos and disorder that do not really threaten the metropole, and no nation or civilisation charting a radically different course. That is a picture of what it would mean for the liberal order’s decadence to endure even after the pandemic, and to gradually become universal; that is what sustainable decadence would mean.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion? Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come. And it is more likely than you think.
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning