The façade of liberal democracy

To actively combat rightwing extremism, we need to leave behind the fiction that liberals will inoculate western societies from fascism.

US Route 50, Indiana. Image credit Mobilus In Mobili via Flickr CC.

The specter of right-wing authoritarianism looms over liberal democracies across the world. In an attempt to explain the current political moment, many moderate-minded members of the western intelligentsia ground their analysis within terms of Enlightenment, liberalism, and western democracy. “We come from the tradition of the European Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. So we find it extremely hard to face down the emotional force of right-wing populism using rational arguments,” argues Michael Häupl, the former mayor and governor of Vienna and former acting chairperson of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria. In an interview with Slate, Timothy Snyder, the historian and author of the wildly popular On Tyranny, invokes a similar sentiment: “[Trump’s] attempt to undo the Enlightenment as a way to undo institutions, that is fascism.”

Although these sorts of analyses might prove useful in some respects, we must acknowledge their narrow ideological application; in fact, there exists a danger in solely relaying these sorts of narratives of liberal democracy. To lift the veil on these ideals is a difficult task, but incredibly important if we’re to begin mounting a viable effort to counter right-wing insurgency.

In explaining the current moment as a freak deviation, we’re chained to dominant narratives of liberal democracy. Liberalism emerged as a rupture to the yokes of medieval monarchy, ecclesiastical authority, and feudal social order. Humanism provided the language to establish inherent human worth and agency, while liberalism, at least in an ideal sense, provided a political framework that could privilege individual liberties and protections. By the mere virtue of being human, liberal democratic governments could endow their constituents with rights on a scale never before seen. Freedom would now always be conceived of at the personal level, and most importantly, its protections were applied universally. Social, economic, technological, and cultural progress would endlessly flow from these wellsprings of liberty. The rise of right-wing movements, it is said, fundamentally signifies the abandonment of liberal Enlightenment ideals, which have solidified the democratic foundations of the western world. This perspective presents liberalism as the zenith of western political thought and represents an outlook that anchors the present political moment as an aberration from, rather than a natural stage of the civic ordering of liberal democracy.

But as history reveals, the edicts of liberal democracy have been far from universal, given the scope of colonial and imperial activity, and the material consequences of that activity. From establishing transatlantic networks of chattel slave trade, to eradicating entire indigenous community and ethnic groups, to exploiting natural resources on scales beyond comprehension, any claim to liberal values in European and American contexts must be so heavily qualified, that the resulting ideology fundamentally belies basic conceptions of liberty.

In his magnum opus, Discourse on Colonialism (1950), Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire dismissed the “pseudo-humanism” espoused by the European political order, writing, “for too long it has diminished the rights of man, that its concept of those rights has been—and still is—narrow and fragmentary, incomplete and biased and, all things considered, sordidly racist.”

A seminal figure in the canon of Caribbean literature (and post-colonial literature more generally), Césaire articulates the horrors wrought by colonialism throughout his Discourse, and ultimately declares: “a civilization which justifies colonization—and therefore force—is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased that irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one repudiation to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” In describing the “boomerang effect of colonization,” Césaire maintains that colonialism “dehumanizes even the most civilized man,” and “inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it…”

By this account, three centuries of brutal colonial violence were a portent of the Nazi fascism that was to overcome Germany throughout the 1930s and 1940s, not only because the exploitation, dehumanization, slaughter, and annihilation of people in the Global South prepared Nazi political leaders to carry out genocide, but also because ordinary citizens were persuaded to accept it. For Césaire, this is the ultimate indictment of the European pseudo-humanism: at its most basic level, not as much its double standards, but its utter bankruptcy concerning basic humanity.

The social ecosystem that was spawned out of this particular context of colonizer and colonized—white supremacy—has continued to inflect individual patterns of behavior, institutions, and power structures across the world. The nature of liberal economic organization (capitalism) has only amplified the material inequalities among racial and gender lines. Since the outset of this social order, those with the capacity to gather and maintain capital across the western world have historically been overwhelmingly of Anglo-European descent and male; this largely continues to be the case today, especially in the United States.

For much of the 20th and 21st centuries, glowing narratives lauding liberal democracy have remained unchallenged, standard among power brokers within Europe and the United States. And while there exist subversive, critical currents of this political and intellectual status quo, they haven’t yet critically reshaped discourses within the western political canon. Even today, the damage incurred by colonial violence remains a footnote in western histories, buried within and obfuscated by narratives of imperial glory. Or even worse, some actively seek to contort history, bending it to the whims of colonial apologia.

Neither the lingering afterlives of colonialism on western political culture writ large, nor the pathologies sowed at the individual, interpersonal level, have yet to be seriously examined through these dominant social and political narratives. The resulting analysis is painfully shallow and incomplete; as a result, it doesn’t provide much use in fully understanding and combating the contemporary rise of the right wing.

From the rise of far-right parties in parliaments across Europe, to the Republican Party in the United States (not to mention the right-wing authoritarian strongmen reigning over Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines, Israel, and India), the present political moment is deeply alarming.

Among the issues triggering these reactionary political movements are: the 2008 global economic crisis and subsequent swellings in economic inequality, as well as the mass migrations from the Middle East, Africa, and Central America, caused by European and American interventionist foreign policy (and soon to follow, climate catastrophe, which will displace hundreds of millions of people by 2050, and will surely foment additional political instability in the coming decades). Far right-wing movements across Europe have seized upon this pervasive discontent. Although their individual agendas may vary depending on their national contexts, they virtually ground their respective programs in chauvinist ethno-nationalism and xenophobia, and these parties have experienced unprecedented political successes within the last five years.

Dominant, uncritical Eurocentric narratives about western liberal democracy treat such rapid developments as a regrettable exceptionalism, which leaves us paralyzed. How could liberal democracy, a political system that endowed individuals with the potential to reach their full humanity, ever give rise to massive support for such heinous sentiments? Reading Césaire (and other thinkers, especially in the black radical tradition), the quixotic mirage of liberal democracy and its historic application quickly dissipates. We soon realize that a more apt question would be the following: how can we mobilize a movement to dismantle the structures and institutions that have allowed the far-right to flourish?

Once we dismiss the fiction that Enlightenment liberalism and liberal democracy will inoculate western society from fascism, we can begin the project of actively combating right-wing extremism. And while centrist politicians across the West, such as Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, and Matteo Renzi, seem to suggest that we ought to capitulate to the demands of the far-right, particularly in regards to refugees, we know this will only further embolden the forces of division. The task at hand is a tall one, but not insurmountable. By building support for grassroots, internationalist left political movements—and not wallowing in whitewashed liberal nostalgia—we can mobilize support to fight back against the destruction wrought by the right wing as they ascend to power.

Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of the Greek political party Syriza, provides the ethos for resistance at its most essential level: “The only way you can compete with [the right-wing] is by appealing to the humanity of humans and also to their rationality.” Varoufakis’ movement, DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) is a blueprint for how this work can be carried out at a pan-European level. It’s a movement that’s challenging in elections across the continent, building coalitions with likeminded stakeholders, and providing a formal space for otherwise disparate activists, from Spain to Greece to the Czech Republic, to stand together. In the United States, the progressive movement is growing in power, challenging the Democratic Party consensus increasingly by the day. It’s poised to capture a massive victory in the 2020 presidential primary, which would send shockwaves throughout the American political system.

We can, and ought to, debate strategy of how we’re going to upend the status quo and capture electoral victories to reverse the calamitous policies of austerity, dismember apparatuses of white supremacy, and implement inclusive humane policies that privilege human life over capital. But, as long as we remain self-aggrandizing and blindly devotional to the grand narratives of liberalism, liberal democracy, and Enlightenment progress, we will continue to protract the reign of right-wing domination. Only by renouncing these myths and actively constructing an alternative will we forge a victorious path forward.

Further Reading