Books Comment

Can anything halt the fragmentation of the West?

Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ remark denigrated a section of voters

The Demons of Liberal Democracy
By Adrian Pabst
Polity, 160pp, £13/$19.95

Throughout his new book, Adrian Pabst patrols the frontier where the immense gains of liberal democracy collapse into grievous losses. Citizens of modern Western states now live mostly on the far side of this boundary, and the prospect, as Pabst describes it, is dismal: an “irredeemably atomistic” world of “hollowed-out civic bonds”, a place of “subtle servitude based on tutelary power that bends our will”. People are “richer but more divided, freer but lonelier”.

In a better world, Pabst insists, democracy would be “as conservative as it is radical”, holding the balance between tradition and modernity, because “we are social beings who are partially constituted by an inheritance of language, relationships, place and belief, which needs to be conserved and renewed”. But instead modern democracies prefer to hold the balance between the mega-state and mega-corporations, to the advantage of both and to the detriment of millions of citizens cut adrift from them.

We live, consequently, in “an age of anger”. Contemporary liberalism, Pabst concludes, has become “a catalyst for demagogy”. The Western world is quickly filling up with voters revolted by “the denigration of their values and identities by the members of the professional political class”. (Pabst gives the prize for typifying such contempt to Hillary Clinton and her “basket of deplorables” remark.)

Whatever the topic, Pabst is relentless and fiercely intelligent in pursuing his case; as, for example, when he is spinning his searchlight across the modern economic system, illuminating policy and legislation that hands the reins to oligarchs and monopolists. He knows who his villains are, too: step forward Facebook and Warren Buffet among others. And his analysis of tech utopianism is bone-chilling.

One has to wait more than 100 pages for the first acknowledgement that economic liberalism has produced anything to welcome. In this case, the millions lifted out of poverty in places such as China and India. But there is a heavy price: traditional workers in the West are left “jobless and worse off, both economically and in terms of self-esteem”.

The Demons of Liberal Democracy is not a long book. But such is its vehemence, I did find myself suffering in places from a kind of assertion fatigue. Try these four successive sentences for size:

“The New Right combined a liberal economics with a corporate capture of the state. This had the effect of aligning conservatism with borderless capitalism and with individual freedom devoid of mutual obligation. An unholy alliance of fundamentalist faith with an aggressive consumer culture trumped the historic commitment to citizenship. Across the West the political contest descended into the culture wars, fuelling the flames of tribalism and polarisation on which the liberal elites and the anti-liberal insurgents seem to be thriving.”

On and on they come. It can be like playing in rollers crashing on a beach: invigorating for a time, but gruelling after too long.

Also contributing to my occasional weariness was Pabst’s tendency to dish out (in both directions, left and right) sly accusations of incipient Nazi tendencies without actually substantiating them. He seems to imply, for instance, that “Tory arch-Brexiteers” have invoked “the supposed will of ‘the People’ in ways that are reminiscent of 1930s authoritarianism”.

Now, it ought to be a rule that, if you are going to impute that someone with whom you disagree has a touch of the fascist about them, you should back it up with at least some evidence. To do otherwise is surely to carelessly stir society’s simmering pot of anger. But Pabst doesn’t substantiate these claims. And there are other oddities too, such as when Pabst conveniently but implausibly elides “the alt-right around Donald Trump” with Silicon Valley libertarians.

The Demons of Liberal Democracy is not just an exercise in handwringing, however. It is generously peppered with all manner of policy ideas aimed at overturning the injustices and redressing the deficits it attacks with such vigour. One can even detect the influence of Catholic social teaching in some of Pabst’s language and proposals.

But I suspect he knows that all of this wonkish hyperactivity, even if allowed to run wild across the statute books, would not end our Western woes. He speaks, after all, of the commodification that tends to “deny the sacred dimension of both human beings and the natural world”; of “a new monied aristocracy devoid of honour and virtue”; of democracy needing to “collectively imagine a shared scale of priority”.

But can policy changes restore honour, virtue and respect for the sacred? Or will greed and pride, unless checked at source, not simply worm their way into every system and make a mockery of its intentions? The flow of specific proposals eases up in later pages and Pabst begins to speak in more expansive terms of “the defence of humanism” and “a renewed civic covenant”.

TS Eliot once warned us in verse against “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good”. He was right to do so. Some greater, deeper changing of hearts, minds and consciences, preceding all law and regulation, may be needed to truly banish the demons of liberal democracy.