The Rise of the "Unfree" World

Signs of a growing backlash against the liberal world order are becoming hard to ignore, says John Hancock.
By: /
June 4, 2014
Far-Right.png
On the march (Reuters)
On the march (Reuters)

The problem with a free world is that it's never cost free. With more liberty comes more disorder. With more opportunity comes more responsibility. With more competition and innovation comes more inequality and upheaval. Thanks to globalization, new technology and the social and sexual revolution, people have never had more freedom to make choices, question authority and breakaway from class, gender and moral constraints. But the flip side of this hyper-free world is less security, less certainty, more chaos and confusion.

Signs of a growing backlash to this “free” world are becoming hard to ignore. Across the European Union—once the poster-child for liberal-democracy's triumph over nationalism and chauvinism—millions have voted against the Union and for a return to the security of borders and nations. Across the Islamic world, fundamentalism and authoritarianism are on the rise. Across much of Asia, too, an assertive and unapologetic nationalism is on the march.

Nowhere is the resurgence of illiberalism more striking than in Russia where Vladimir Putin's strong-man appeal to national greatness and his contempt for the dissolute West is wildly popular. His annexation of Crimea, crackdown on the free press and persecution of homosexuals has been greeted not by mass protests, but by enthusiasm.

Even the United States, the leader of the free world, seems consumed by self-doubt over its paralysed democracy, rising inequality and eroding social cohesion. When the New York Times draws unflattering comparisons between America's political gridlock and China's decisive leadership—or when a French economist's 600 page demolition of free-market capitalism becomes a run-way bestseller—all is not well in “the land of the free.”

Instead of more freedom, many people today want less—less “winner-take-all” economies, less “mashed up” cultures, less “on your own” societies. Authoritarians, ultra-nationalists, anti-immigrant and anti-globalization populists are the minority in most countries, but they often voice broader anxieties and fears and are disproportionately shaping the political debate. Few mainstream parties in Europe, America or elsewhere seem to have the stomach any longer to voice support for more globalization, immigration and free trade. Whereas support for illiberalism is virulent and growing, support for liberalism seems weak and defensive.

The global economic crisis has helped fuel this anxiety and anger. The last time that Europe's far right and far left rose in unison against liberal democracy was during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The lingering fallout from the recent Great Recession—200 million unemployed, massive industrial dislocation, anaemic growth, and shrinking opportunities—has again left many questioning the benefits of open borders, free trade and even the liberal-democratic system itself.

Short memories add to the problem. Today's liberal world order was a response to the devastating wars of the early twentieth century—and the inward-looking nationalism and authoritarianism that fuelled them. The core idea behind institutions like the United Nations and the European Union was that world peace depended on breaking down the barriers between nations; freeing up flows of goods, people and ideas; and spreading prosperity, democracy and individual rights.

But these lessons of history risk being forgotten. Despite the millions killed under his tyranny, Stalin's popularity has increased, not decreased, since the collapse of communism. In a recent poll, 42 percent of Russians rated Stalin one of the country's greatest leaders. In another poll, over 40 percent of Austrians felt the Hitler era "wasn't all bad," while 60 percent believed the country needed another strong leader. In ex-Soviet bloc countries, but also in the West, many wax nostalgic about when an all-powerful state took care of everything—from jobs and pensions to housing and social status.

The main problem is that the triumph of the free world was never going to be the panacea promised at the end of the Cold War. The shift to free markets, the roll-back of the state, the embrace of a radically individualistic, me-centred, demand-driven culture was always going to involves trade-offs—costs as well as benefits—that are only now coming into focus.

Erich Fromm, the German social psychologist, argued that the totalitarianism of the twentieth century arose because of people's "fear of freedom," and their desire for order, direction and a sense of belonging in chaotic times. Are we headed back to the future—a world of less freedom, more nationalism, a tightening of economic, social and moral constraints? Or is the present era an interruption—a momentary setback—before we keep on rockin' in the free world? Either way, the answers are not simple and the tradeoffs between different courses of action real.