Introduction: Crisis of Liberalism

From the Series: Crisis of Liberalism

Photo by Alfredo Gauro Ambrosi.

This Hot Spots series reflects on our present and recent seasons of political discontent. The rise of nationalist, populist—or what Douglas Holmes (2000) has termed “integralist”—political movements has been a familiar story for some time. As Holmes argues, the proliferation of neoliberal and structural adjustment regimes across the world in the 1980s and 1990s remade globalization in the interests of “fast capital,” leaving states across the world in the thrall of global finance, depleting public investment and infrastructure just as citizens found themselves newly vulnerable to currency speculation, economic upheaval, and odious debt. The erosion of welfarist institutions and safety nets during this period created new experiences of abandonment and anxiety at precisely the same time that global inequality and the sprawl of war machines accelerated both immigration and refugeeism in many parts of the world. Integralist movements found purpose and momentum under these conditions, decrying the failure of liberal, multicultural, and global politics and arguing for the need to expel so-called outsiders and close borders so as to provide new work and welfare guarantees for those citizens believed to properly belong.

The story itself may not be new but there seems to be a feeling that the resilience of multicultural liberalism has been steadily declining, perhaps reaching a tipping point in 2016 with virulent modes of integralist politics becoming normalized and mainstreamed across the world. The events of Brexit revealed not so much British exceptionalism in anti-immigrant and anti-international sentiments, but rather how Britain was now catching up to the standards set—ironically enough, in Europe itself—by Marine Le Pen’s Front National or Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz. Even a supposed bastion of cosmopolitan liberalism like Germany now features a powerful integralist movement, and this is to say nothing of a place like the Philippines, whose new president openly favors extrajudicial killings. Concerns are deepening that progressive liberalism is being overwhelmed by populist illiberalism. In the United States, we have spent much of 2016 trying to discern the meaning and effect of Trumpism. Theories abound: Is it the ugly divorce of the Reaganite alliance between the white working class and the free-market elite? Is it the final chapter in the collapse of global neoliberalism, the prolegomenon to a new era of nationalist retrenchment? Is it the long-awaited arrival of a post-truth era of spectacle society? Is it all a massive hoax or pretense to found a profitable news network feeding one orange man’s narcissism?

Our strategy in this Hot Spots series has been to think about such moments expansively, to offer our contributors the prompt “crisis of liberalism” without any further stipulations in order to allow them to think creatively with, but also beyond this formulation.

David Westbrook describes how liberalism became the “house ideology” of post–World War II globalization, offering a set of manners for managing difference that has been pressured of late by immigration and refugeeism, by elite republicanism’s undermining of democracy, and by the counterliberal forces of celebrity and bureaucracy. Even if liberalism appears deeply compromised in our present times, Westbrook does not seem convinced that its fate is sealed; the question of the manners with which we engage our fellow humans endures. Yet Lilith Mahmud reminds us of liberalism’s culturally specific character and that a discursive embrace of liberal virtue has never prevented Western civilization from muddying the distinction between democracy and republicanism—note the persistence of our electoral college in the United States—and of being even more nakedly illiberal in its domination and exploitation of the world at large (as well as the world of the less enfranchised at home).

Douglas Holmes takes us to Orbán’s Hungary, arguing that a threshold has been crossed in terms of the rise of “Fascism 2” in Europe. According to Holmes, we are no longer dealing with right-wing fanaticism and marginalized authoritarian desire in Europe; Orbán’s illiberal sensibilities have now been legitimated through liberal democratic institutions to the extent that they constitute “the governing principles of a European nation-state.” Andrea Muehlebach pivots toward Germany to analyze the rise of the Alternative für Deutschland party out of the ruins of the cosmopolitan and humanitarian impulse to welcome Muslim refugees to the country. Muehlebach warns that we are entering a time of monsters in which the spirit of fascism is coming to inhabit the reason of practical necessity in Germany, adopting the language of “what other choice do we have?”

Naomi Schiller engages the contemporary crisis of Bolivarianism in Venezuela through the eyes of American liberalism, showing how the former has been positioned as an object lesson in what happens when one veers too far away from the mainstream (neo)liberal status quo. What is lost in the fearmongering surrounding a composite Maduro/Trump figure of unchecked authoritarianism, Schiller argues, is the opportunity to realize a politics actually committed to global social justice. Turning to the case of Colombia’s failed peace referendum, Maria Vidart shows how crisis narratives can function as “an adaptive mechanism for liberalism to respond to its political times.” She also shows how liberal institutions can house and shepherd illiberal instincts, imbuing them with political virtue.

Alex Golub discusses the state of liberal democracy in Papua New Guinea, illuminating serious concerns about how the postcolonial state has allied itself with transnational mining interests and against indigenous peoples. But he also documents the vitality of Papua New Guinea’s public culture, including a “new generation of brave citizen journalists” who demand transparency and accuracy—precisely the kind of public culture that some in the United States “seem eager to discard.” Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp, meanwhile, highlight the work of contemporary American disability activists to counteract “the neoliberal erasure of recognition and public services.” They remind us that all is not lost in the world of progressive liberalism, even in what otherwise seem like dark times.

Finally, Ulf Hannerz brings us back to the chaos and despair of this year’s U.S. presidential election, but proportionalizes it in terms of his many seasons of campaign watching from afar. Hannerz suggests that we should port Clifford Geertz’s concept of the Balinese theater state back home to recognize how the American political spectacle remains concerned “with showing egalitarianism, even as real social inequality has grown.”

I will only add that this election season is strikingly gerontocratic. On the one hand we have a seething, leering, glowering hypersubject radiating twentieth-century white male Northern privilege and dominion; in this respect, Trumpism is really not that much of a riddle. On the other, we have an epitome of highly efficient yet also highly compromised technocratic rule, embodying the 1990s’ global capitulation of leftist politics to neoliberalism. Strikingly, the most heretical candidate in the race for the nomination was the oldest of all, a firebrand honed in 1960s-era progressive politics. There is nothing in these debates and on these stages that we have not heard and seen before. Which perhaps itself amounts to a condition of crisis. Where are the political ideas of the twenty-first century, the ones that are capable of breaking the orbits of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinking and of disrupting the predictable oscillation between liberalism, socialism, and fascism?


Holmes, Douglas R. 2000. Integral Europe: Fast Capitalism, Multiculturalism, Neofascism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.