More than two centuries have passed since the American and French revolutions in the late 18th century shook the European world and allowed people to imagine a more emancipated and fairer way to organize our societies. Since then principles such as liberty, equality, civil rights, democracy, free market, freedom of expression, and rule of law, have become integral elements of the most affluent liberal democracies. These ideals are now deeply ingrained in the institutional setup of the European Union and form a key element of the legitimacy of the European project. However, despite the universal contemporary applicability of such ideals and the progress secured through procedural democratic institutions, it would be apocryphal to credit the powers that be for normalizing them. The story of the fight for civil, political, and social rights is one of dissent and disobedience, of revolts and grassroots collective spirit, and indeed one of struggle and bloodshed, often at the hands of the governments. It is an often misunderstood narrative, which, once understood, provides space for imaginative action taken outside the system and undermines the credibility of the invertebrate political centre, desperately holding on to the status quo and willing to abandon assumed moral stances and promised long-term goals in the name of stability.
In the current day and age, this reactionary movement is represented by what I shall call the liberal establishment – the mainstream political parties that dominate the governments across the developed world. Having abundant representation at the national and supranational levels, traditional centrist forces style themselves as the last bastion of progress and stability in the face of increasingly disruptive political landscape. They claim to be the sane counterweight to, supposedly, insane radical politics on the right and left that will lead us into chaos and tyranny.
However, as wealth inequality is reaching levels hardly conceivable by Marx himself and humans are literally doing the best they can to destroy our planet, the incremental approach of mainstream liberalism is failing to tackle the great issues of today. It is detrimental to human progress and survival. To ensure a sustainable future for Europe and the world at large, the liberal hegemony must be deconstructed and a new kind of politics ought to emerge.
The global political order has been broken for longer than we would dare to admit. Without dwelling too much on the irrelevant past, one only has to explore the developments in the last decade, following the largest financial crisis of all time. Arguably, even the most dedicated supporter of the current order must experience some form of cognitive dissonance when challenged by the harsh realities of European political process. Fiscal austerity, imposed by European governments and trans- national actors is presented as the only viable alternative for saving the continent and has undermined the power of European citizens and demonstrated their relative weakness in relation to financial institutions. It has also contributed to a growing sense of exclusion among large swaths of populations, who feel alienated by the increasingly removed policy-making process that relies on bureaucratic authority. The recent advances of the European integration project and dreams of a cohesive union of states now belong to a bygone era, and the future of EU has entered a backward vector. Challenged by the unexpected British decision to leave, the rising right-wing backlash in various member states and the urgent necessity to find and implement real solutions for containing climate change, the need to seek an alternative to the established political and legal frameworks is becoming more apparent. Despite the various successful advancements in the social sphere that have without a doubt improved our societies and liberated countless people from unfair disadvantages, at large, the centre has held on to economic and social dogmas of the 20th century and still sees economics as a game removed from people’s experiences. The liberal lip service given to social and political advancement functions as a Potemkin village, disguising the true workings of the system behind a curtain of civility and ‘proven’ practices.
Repeated opinion polls show that European populations are willing to introduce more measures to tackle poverty and exclusion, to rejuvenate the areas left behind by global capital flows and to ensure an adequate standard of living for all European citizens. In fact, the notion of an upcoming era of social citizenship – widening access to welfare, culture and social security – proposed 70 years ago by T. H. Marshall and realized somewhat by European welfare states in the post-war decades, is no longer. The story of a European social model, which assumedly separates it from the rest of the capitalist world is but a myth, never completed and weakened once challenged by inconsistencies in global capital markets. Today, as folks’ riot on the streets of French cities requesting a more equitable social contract; as Hungarian farmers are forced to leave their homes due to lack of livable wage jobs, and as the lack of cohesion between European citizens and governments puts the EU project in jeopardy, the preferred course of action of the democratic centre seems to be inaction. Despite the great abundance of wealth that exists in contemporary Europe, initiatives such as universal basic income or common European unemployment benefits are still seen as unfeasible and unaffordable initiatives. Furthermore, initiatives aimed at reigniting the desolate rural areas and providing greater security to citizens, after the collapse of the European left, have been adopted by right wing nationalist forces who tend to apply them in rather exclusionary terms.
Liberal claims of having moral authority too, shatter in the face of liberalism’s track record when it comes to dealing with authoritarian leaders abroad and accelerating the dreadful effects of climate change. Arms exports to despotic interventionist countries like Saudi Arabia have become an integral part of the rich EU members’ export markets while EU’s inability to act as a cohesive force on the international stage makes it a mere middle man. Meanwhile the European hegemon Germany – the symbol of European stability – is gearing up for the completion of another Russian gas pipeline and across the pond, the ever so handsome Justin Trudeau (woke bae) shows no remorse for pushing indigenous Canadians off their land to construct yet another pipeline to boost the lucrative fracking sector.
Liberalism offers a compelling narrative of civility and democracy that seems ever so appealing in an era dominated by strong man authoritarians and xenophobic nationalists. Nonetheless, in practice it serves as a quintessentially conservative ideology that benefits the status quo and keeps the door of real change closed. As the world is sinking – literally and figuratively – under the weight of human inaction and fundamental systemic flaws, a new perspective is necessary. The recent faltering of the liberal hegemony has made people realize the possibility of an alternative path forward. The most important thing to do now is to capitalise on this historical moment and turn the scales of power back into the hands of people and to work toward an integrated and fairer Europe.