By “liberalism” I mean what is considered under this term in the US. By “to blame” I mean “for the rise of Trump and similar nationalist-populists”.
What are the arguments for seeing liberal triumphalism which began with the collapse of Communism in the 1990s as having produced the backlash we are witnessing today? I think they can be divided into three parts: economics, personal integrity, and ideology.
In economics, liberalism espoused “neo-liberalism” which was the replacement economic ideology for social-democracy. It championed, especially under the Clinton-Blair duo, financial liberalization, much smaller welfare state, and so-called “meritocracy” which essentially meant the ability of the rich to place their kids into the best schools out of which 90% would graduate and thus “meritocratically” claim later in life huge wage premiums. Free trade agreement privileged, as Dean Baker has written, the interests of the rich in advanced economies through protection of patents and intellectual property rights and with scant or no attention to labor rights. In the international arena, through the World Bank and the IMF, Clintonite neo-liberalism was associated with Washington consensus policies. They are in many respects reasonable policies, but were applied dogmatically and mindlessly especially with respect to privatization and often with the principal objective of ensuring that the debts be collected regardless of the social effects on the population. Greece is the best known example of such policies because it sits in the middle of Europe and the results of “debt collections” are easiest to see. But the same principles were applied across the world.
Underpinning such policies was an ideology that saw economic success as the only dimension (in addition to the acceptance of certain liberal tropes which I will mention below) in which worth of an individual is expressed or measured. That ideology found broad acceptance across the world, fanned by globalization and by what that ideology has pleasing to the human psyche which craves acquisition of more. It was thus consistent with human nature and probably helped increase world output several-fold and reduce world poverty. But it might have been pushed too hard to the exclusion of other human characteristics and helped create especially among those who were economically less successful resentment and estrangement from the values promoted by liberals.
Corruption. A corollary of this hyper-economicism in ordinary life was the corruption of the elites who espoused the same yardstick of success as everybody else: enrichment by all means. Avner Offer documents this shift in his analysis of where social-democracy went astray with “New Labour” and “New Democrats”. The corruption of the political class, not only in the West but in the entire world, had a deeply corrosive and demoralizing effect on the electorates everywhere. Being politician became increasingly seen as a way to acquire personal riches, a career like any other, divorced from any real desire either to do “public service” or to try to promote own values and provide leadership. “Electoralism”, that is doing anything to be elected, was liberalism’s political credo. In that it presaged the populists.
It is, I think, important to see the link between the economic ideology of “commercialism” which informed economic policies since the early 1980s in the West and China, and since the 1990s in the formerly Communist countries, and systemic and all-pervasive corruption of the elites. Since being successful meant amassing most money, politicians could not operate in a different dimension (for example in “ideals”) nor could they get elected without being corrupt because campaigns could not be fought without money. It is an illusion that the political space may operate according to different rules from the rest of society.
Pensée unique. Liberalism introduced a dogmatic set of principles, “the only politically correct way of thinking” characterized by identity politics and “horizontal equality” (no differences, on average, in wages between men and women, different races or religions) which left actual inequality go unchecked. A tacit hierarchy was introduced, where the acceptance of these watered-down principles of equality combined with economic success, was the requirement to be “non-deplorable”. Others, those who did not do well economically or did not adhere to all the tenets of the mainstream thinking, were not only failures but morally inferior.
The high priests of liberalism, ruling the media, loved to hold, at the same time, logically contradictory beliefs which somehow were both “good”. Thus they created terminological or behavioral contortions that were either direct attacks on common sense or examples of hypocrisy as “supporting the troops” while being “against the war” or giving enormous donations to private schools (in order to get their names emblazoned in classrooms) while “supporting public education”. They were not embarrassed by contradictions, nor accepted trade-offs: you could support soldiers killing civilians “because soldiers protect us” and be against the war and killing of civilians at the same time; you could send kids to private schools and be in favor of public education; you could fret about climate change, berate others who do not, and emit more CO2 than 99% of the mankind. It was ideologically an extremely comfortable position. It required very little mental effort to accept five or six essential tenets (you could just read a couple of writers who repeated ad nauseum the same ideas in the main liberal publications), and it allowed you to do wherever you liked while claiming that every such action was ethically unimpeachable. Everybody was a paragon of virtue and indulged all their preferences.
Others who failed to appreciate the advantages of such a position were ignored until their dissatisfaction exploded. No one among liberals seemed to think it odd (much less to do something about it) that the best educated country in the world with one of the highest world per capita GDPs, could have a third of the population who believed in creationism or in aliens running our lives. It really did not matter to the elite so long as these people existed in the Netherworld.
Those who trusted in Fukuyama, and to whom the 1990s seemed like a triumph that would keep them at the pinnacle of human evolution forever, see today’s events as a catastrophe not only because they could indeed lead to a catastrophe but because their carefully nurtured ersatz ideology and place in society have collapsed.
I am writing this in Vienna, in Prater, overlooking a giant Ferris Wheel which inevitably makes one think of Harry Lime. One can see liberalism as having set the Ferris Wheel in motion, with each car moving at first slowly and then faster and faster. The ride brought immense joy at first, but eventually, it seems, somebody turned on the switch to super-fast, locked the control room, and most of us are now in these cars that no one controls and no one can stop, running at break-neck speed, and wondering how and when the crash will come.