Friday, September 06, 2013

Liberalism, Crisis, and the Arab Spring

If you believe in liberalism, Stephen Spender's journals can, at times, provide some disconcerting reading.  By liberalism, here, I don't mean to refer to the current American denotations of the word—a kind of weak-ass version of social democracy, in which minor state interventions are meant to provide some kind of cushion against the more extreme depredations of the market.  Rather, I'm thinking of the word as it is connected with Enlightenment-era philosophy and the political tradition that grew out of that philosophy in the nineteenth century: a tradition of freedom of speech, ideas, trade, assembly, religion, and the press, a tradition devoted to personal liberty, private property, egalitarianism, and the eradication of hereditary privilege.  This tradition finds its primary political expression in representative democracy, and, to a greater degree than most political philosophies, it shies away from the articulation of particular ideals and social goals.  You're free, as far as these classical liberals are concerned, to pick your own ultimate goal: one might even say you're condemned to be free.

This sort of liberalism is not without its contradictions—being in favor of private property but also for egalitarianism and the abolition of hereditary privilege leaves one having to make some pretty fancy arguments every time a trust fund kid cruises by on the way to Stanford in the Lexus daddy bought her for Christmas.  It's easy, and in many ways right, for those of us living in liberal democracies to focus on the contradictions and shortcomings of this kind of liberalism, but we ought not to take for granted just what an astonishing historical achievement this live-and-let-live philosophy represents.  It helped end the religious wars that tore Europe apart for centuries.  What is more, liberalism represents the political aspiration of many millions of oppressed people in the world today.  A significant portion of those who rose up in the Arab Spring did so in order to fight for a liberalization of their own societies.

The political crisis across the middle east isn't just an expression of liberalism, of course.  In fact, it presents us with a test case for the limits of liberalism at times of crisis.  And this brings us back to Stephen Spender, whose journals shed some light on the current muddle.

In 1945 Spender was in Germany, serving as a kind of cultural administrator in the reconstruction of the defeated nation.  Among his duties were the re-starting of German newspapers under new, non-Nazi management and the re-opening of libraries.  On the 28th of September his duties in the latter capacity took him to a library in a provincial city.  He records the experience in his journals:

An assistant librarian at Aachen said to me: 'We understand perfectly what you require with regard to our library.  We shall take all the Nazi books down from the shelves and lock them up in a separate room where they will be read by no one except students who may be given access to them for their purely historical studies.  We are perfectly used to doing this since formerly we took down from the shelves all the books by socialists and Jews and kept them locked up in a special room where they were only accessible to students writing anti-socialist or anti-Semitic studies.'

What's disturbing about all this, for those with liberal consciences, is that the librarian does understand perfectly well what Spender requires.  In the context of crisis—and the rawness of the German defeat was a very real crisis, with the de-Nazification of the country far from an achievement or even a certainty—the locking away of Nazi propaganda was the task at hand.  It was, on the small scale of the libraries, an extension of a general process including the removal of Nazis from positions of power in the media, the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders, the outlawing of certain political parties and expressions, and so on (it was a big deal: initially some 90,000 were imprisoned, and almost two million forbidden to hold employment as anything other than manual laborers, policies that were moderated only in the early 1950s).  But as important as the political goal of de-Nazification was, it also involved a violation of the principles of liberalism.  Liberalism, after all, cherishes freedom of speech and of the press, and not just for people we agree with.  It relies on debate and argument, rather than state suppression, to weed out prejudice and falsehood—at least it wants to.  But in a time of crisis, liberals can find themselves in the position of advocating illiberal actions in the name of preserving liberal democracy.  The librarian of Aachen points out, perhaps slyly, the uncomfortable parallels between Spender's requirements and those of the totalitarian Fascists whose regime he is, in his small way, seeking to replace.

In the great sandstorm of the Arab Spring there are many places that give little reason to hope for the development of liberalism: Syria, for example.  Despite the rosy picture recently painted by Senator McCain of liberal democrats ready to ease into power after the dropping of a few well-placed American bombs, the darker assessment given by Slavoj Žižek is the more convincing.  "It seems," writes Žižek, "that whatever remained of the democratic-secular resistance is now more or less drowned in the mess of fundamentalist Islamist groups supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with a strong presence of al-Qaida in the shadows."  The options in Syria for the great powers seem limited to "taking the side of one fundamentalist-criminal group against another."  In other places liberalism has been a strong component of the Arab Spring—but even here, it has shown its weakness in handling certain kinds of crises.

Consider the case of Egypt.  As Francis Fukayama has pointed out, the Tahrir Square revolution against the Mubarak was led by liberals—by, in his words, "angry young, middle-class Egyptians who used social media like Facebook and Twitter to organize their protests, spread word of regime atrocities, and build support for a democratic Egypt."  When democratic elections were held, though, those middle-class liberals lost at their own game: the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideological base comes from the poorer classes, came to power and proceeded to destroy the embryonic institutions liberal democracy.  It turns out that the appeal of liberalism has difficulty in traveling beyond the middle class (and not just in the Arab World: watch a Chuck Norris movie, and you'll see the dream world of many blue collar  Americans—a world in which those who insist on such liberal niceties as police procedures, the law courts, and the rights of the accused appear as the unwitting allies of criminals who should be dealt with by brute force delivered from the fists and guns of mavericks who refuse to play by the rules).

In the crisis of embryonic liberalism in Egypt after the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, a great many Western liberals have embraced the entirely illiberal methods by which the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi was deposed.  Morsi came to power through liberal means, but was removed by a military coup, and that coup has the support—begrudging, to be sure—of many liberals.  As with Spender in the Aachen library, liberals find themselves awkwardly advocating the destroying of liberalism in order to save it.

Few liberals endorse the Egyptian coup without some serious pangs of conscience, like the pangs that drove Spender to record the words of the librarian of Aachen—without refutation—in his journal.  Many, too, have considerable doubts about the possibility of liberal democracy in Egypt.  Algeria, after all, went through a similar cycle years ago—opening to liberal democracy, seeing the rise of illiberal Islamists, and then shutting the whole thing down with strong-arm military tactics.  There is, however, some grounds for liberal hope in Egypt—not hope for the immediate future of political institutions, but hope for the conditions that make liberal institutions viable.  There is hope, that is, for an Egyptian public sphere.

The public sphere, as theorized by Jürgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, is a network of communications in which private individuals can articulate their social needs, eventually forging a broad-based public opinion that is often critical of established authorities such as the church and the state.  When it emerged in England in the eighteenth century, the primary institutions of the public sphere were the coffeehouse and the printed journal: it was through these that private citizens, most of whom had little or no prior access to political power, emerged as a social and political force over the course of the century.  The public sphere, with its critical discussions in person and in print, would eventually become a monitor of power, and even in some sense the leading force in society, making political authorities legitimate themselves before the court of public opinion.  In Egypt, what began with Facebook and Twitter and public assembly in Tahrir Square has grown into a much larger-scale opening of the public sphere, and there is reason to believe that this public sphere will survive the current crackdown, and grow.  In fact, it is in the best interest of everyone in Egypt that it do so, as it would allow for the creation of a court of pubic opinion to which the regime and the leaders of the various social factions could be held accountable.  It is this kind of unofficial court of opinion that made liberalism possible in the nations of the West, and its survival is the best hope for Egypt.  Despite its contradictions, liberalism is a robust plant, and once it really takes root it is hard to get rid of for long.  

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