Is Liberalism Obsolete?

Leila Yasmine Khan and Daud Khan

Is Liberalism Obsolete?
In a recent interview on the eve of the G20 summit in Osaka, Vladimir Putin said “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose.” Is he right, and if so, what does it mean for Pakistan?

The growth of populist movements in Europe and America suggest he is correct. So far these movements have brought to powers leaders such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orban (Hungary) and Matteo Salvini (Italy); with populists also forming a part of Governments in Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Finland and Estonia. The Brexit vote in the UK was part of the same trend and in France and Germany populist parties are set to play an increasing role in coming years. These movements and their leaders are strongly anti-establishment, nationalist and virulently anti-immigrant. These views are manifesting itself in different ways. In the USA, it is leading to an abandonment of multilateralism - pulling out of trade deals and most notably abandoning the Iran nuclear deal. In Europe, there are continuous talks of leaving the EU. Everywhere there is a strong move to restrict immigration.

Much of what is being peddled by these populist parties is misleading rhetoric. In the UK, leaving the EU was supposed to generate a huge Brexit premium. Money that was being given to the EU would be used to revive public services such as the National Health Service. It was also supposed to give Britain “power over its own destiny” and hence lead to higher growth. None of this is likely to happen - growth and employment are dropping as firms, particularly in the financial sector, leave the UK. In Italy, stopping illegal immigrants is supposed to reduce crime and increase employment. Never mind the facts. Crime rates in Italy has actually been falling steadily for the past decade – the period that immigration has been increasing; or that immigrants are not pushing out Italians out of jobs but are being brought in to do the jobs that Italians no longer want to do such as working in factories, in construction and in agriculture, and providing domestic care. In the USA, pulling out the Iran nuclear deal is not going to result in a better deal but is instead leading to a dangerous escalation of tensions and possibly to another war. The US-China trade war with is hurting everyone.
It is increasingly clear that the populists are not going to deliver on their promises to the bulk of their electorate, yet their popularity continues to grow

For those who are prepared to go beyond the rhetoric and dig a bit deeper, much of what the populists are doing is making the rich richer and the poor - those who form a large part of their electoral base - worse off. Trump has presided over one of the biggest tax cuts in US history. Boris Johnson has promised tax cuts for the rich – according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, three-quarters of the promised reduction in tax would go to those in the richest 10 percent. Matteo Salvini in Italy is battling for a “Flat Tax” of 15 percent - the ultra-rich would be the main beneficiaries of this. This will accentuate the on-going trend of increasing inequality.

It is increasingly clear that the populists are not going to deliver on their promises to the bulk of their electorate, yet their popularity continues to grow. Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and Marie Le Pen’s French National Rally were the best performing party in the recent European parliamentary elections; Italy’s Salvini doubled its share of the vote to become the largest party. Trump, despite all his problems, will certainly be a strong presidential candidate in 2010.

So why are educated and well informed electorates in the USA and Europe not seeing through the smoke screen of populism; the deplorable behaviour of some of its leaders; or the behind-the-scenes pro-rich policies being implemented? One reason could be continuing echoes of the financial crisis of 2008 which led to an erosion of trust in the strength and resilience of the free-market, and in the liberal democratic political systems that underpin it. At the same time rising inequality of incomes and opportunity were leading to disillusionment with the status-quo, mistrust of “establishment” and the search for strong leaders who can lead these countries to new trajectories of social and economic development.

Populist parties have proved extremely adept at exploiting the fears of people and their distrust of institutions. They have proved particularly adept in using social media to stoke the fears and worries of people, particularly regarding easily identifiable targets such as immigrant or overpaid EU bureaucrats. According to a survey by Amnesty International, in the run up to the European elections in May 2019, over 50 percent of posts of by political parties on Facebook were by Salvini (over 2 million interactions!). There are similar numbers for France and Germany - Northern Rally and AfD generated 40 percent of political party posts on Facebook.

What does this mean for Pakistan and Pakistanis? In my opinion it has two major implications which require action. The first is relatively simple and direct. The Pakistani diaspora in the USA and Europe are under a double threat – first for being immigrants and second for being Muslims. It is necessary that our government and embassies are proactive in helping these people. Actions could include more interactions with civil society and the press to correct misconceptions about Pakistan; and, in countries where there are laws against hate speech, invoking these laws, before they are overturned.

The second is more complicated. Since the creation of Pakistan, we have looked to the UK, to Europe and most recently to the USA as intellectual and cultural beacons. The very introverted and self-centred political configuration that is emerging in these countries means that they can no longer play this role. Our political class, intellectuals, academia, media and civil society therefore need to work together to create a strong and binding narrative of the values we stand for including freedom, equality and social justice. In order to do this we will need to explore our own history and culture – starting from the Indus Valley civilization, which was a highly egalitarian society, to the highly efficient administrative and legal systems put in place by the Moghul Kings, to Sufi saints, poets and folk musicians who are the keepers of our sentiments of love, happiness, sadness and hope, and the Muslim tenets of kindness and generosity.

This is particularly important that we do not follow the path of our big neighbour where the BJP is using fanning nationalism and anti-Muslim feeling to stay in power.

Leila Yasmine Khan is an independent writer and editor based in the Netherlands.

Daud Khan a retired UN staff based in Rome.