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The Crisis of the Liberal Zombie Order

  • Ross Douthat
  • June, 2020
  • 158

Since the attacks of 9/11, progressives have endured a series of profound shocks - but coronavirus looks like a new and more disturbing portent.

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 cla...

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