The steady rise of neofascist ideologies in the mainstream of European and American political discourse has caused grave concern among the intelligentsia of countries across the Atlantic. In addition to the violence that such ideologies sanction, their isolationist leanings, and their skeptical refusal of scientific authority, there is another danger that neofascisms pose. This danger, which transcends the particularities of political dissent to affect all of society, is the advent of a crisis of values: a crisis of liberalism. If the apocalyptic tones about the impending American elections are any indication, Donald Trump winning the presidency would not be a sign that democracy works, manufacturing consent and rewarding majority votes whether we like it or not. Rather, it would be a sign that the whole political system of liberalism is doomed.
To be sure, there are serious reasons for concern. Benito Mussolini was voted into power, and only later annulled the democratic institutions that had facilitated the ascent of his National Fascist Party. The prospect of a Trump presidency has resurrected nuclear anxieties and fears of another world war. At a minimum, the injection of racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic language into legitimate discourse threatens to undo strides made toward social equality. However, this same discourse of danger has replayed itself like a broken record through elections and referendums across Europe, finally reaching that bastion of liberalism, the United States. To understand this sense of crisis, I suggest that rather than focusing on the neofascist politician or the illiberal agenda of the day, we turn our gaze to liberalism itself. What is liberalism’s stake in the crisis?
Liberalism is best understood as a cultural category. By recalling an eighteenth-century political philosophy, the concept of liberalism lends false precision to a loose and contradictory set of contemporary beliefs and values about individual freedom, rights, government, and private property. In the United States, for instance, liberals (in common parlance) are those on the left, even though many American leftists would reject the label. In much of Europe, by contrast, liberals are squarely on the right, albeit the nonfascist and nonreligious right. When I conducted fieldwork among Freemasons in Italy, some lamented the loss of the ideologically driven parties of the twentieth century, which better represented Freemasons’ liberal, right-wing, secular positions. When forced to choose between the xenophobic, secessionist Northern League, the Catholic center-right, and the neofascist nationalist party, many of the Freemasons I knew had to make do with the lesser evil: an embarrassing, bombastic, lowbrow, money-driven, foot-in-mouth media tycoon. The eerie parallels between Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump have unleashed sharp political commentaries and sharper social media memes, but they have also obfuscated a more pernicious parallel in liberalism’s own engagement with crisis.
In addition to indexing a particular ideology within the political spectrum (left or right, depending on context), liberalism is used more broadly to signify a mode of political engagement that regulates the entirety of legitimate political discourse across this spectrum. It is in the second sense that liberalism as a cultural category performs the critical function of defining a common imaginary for Euro-American societies. As such, liberalism stands in for principles of equality, freedom, individualism, and the rule of law, principles that, far from constituting a cohesive political philosophy, are more accurately read as a cosmology, a worldview that sets the rules of engagement. This liberal worldview can at times be coopted by nationalist imaginaries, as in the rhetorical move to call illiberal acts like condoning discrimination or denying the rights of others “un-American.” It can also be used to conjure a transnational imaginary of belonging to the global North, in contrast to the nonliberal rest of the world. Indeed, liberalism continues to provide a metric for modernity in a teleological scale of development that uses women’s rights, civil liberties, and now even LGBT rights to reaffirm the moral superiority of the Occident. My aim is not simply to point out that we are not as liberal as we tell ourselves, or that others are not as illiberal as they are made out to be, but rather that the belief in liberalism is a cosmology that structures political subjectivity and belonging for many Euro-American subjects.
The origin story of liberalism coincides with the rise of modernity and peaks in the European Enlightenment. My interlocutors were proud of the fact that many Enlightenment philosophers were also Freemasons and formulated their political, social, and economic ideas in the secrecy of Masonic lodges. Living that legacy in present-day lodges, the Freemasons of my fieldwork set off on a path of self-cultivation on which they learned to embody the spirit of fraternity, equality, and liberty. Through years of esoteric rituals and studies, they trained to become better people: to embrace a secular morality and a nondogmatic faith, to think rationally and display moderation, to appreciate the sciences and liberal arts, and to respect all people regardless of social differences. The irony, for such a liberal society, is how exclusive it has always been, leaving out even the embattled women Freemasons of my research who staked a claim to Masonic fraternity. The Masonic experience illustrates two key points about liberalism: first, that being liberal in the Occidentalist sense is an aspiration, not a fact, and it takes a painstaking labor of self-cultivation to naturalize it as a Western trait, and second, that widespread and systematic instances of illiberalism within Euro-American societies are coded as exceptions that only prove the rule.
Once we understand liberalism as a native category of the Occident—one that many Euro-Americans treat as fact—we can better understand its investment in crisis. For the intelligentsia who believe in liberalism, the likes of Trump and his European predecessors are a scandalous anomaly. Scandals, however, usually expose what we already know, even as they offer a momentary opportunity to rewrite the script. Rising neofascisms expose not only how illiberal we are, but that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people does not have to be liberal at all, not even in the global North. They expose the illusion of representation that posited the correspondence of liberal subjects and liberal governments where there were neither. They also offer an opportunity to debunk the self-congratulatory myths that prop up Occidentalist hegemonies but cannot save us from fascism. Indeed, if it is fascism we fear, we would do better to take a page from the movements that have historically succeeded in resisting it and from the new movements of today—from Occupy to Black Lives Matter—that were born out of crisis and have redefined the parameters of political dissent. Hint: they were not liberal either.