When we speak or write about “the liberal order,” what do we mean? Most people use this phrase as if its definition and validity are foregone conclusions. But events force questions upon us—one mark of our moment. Is the liberal order so liberal as commonly assumed? Is it orderly? Such as it may have once been valid, is it any longer? Taking a good look around, a few people now pose the first of these questions, a few more the second, and a very, very few the last. It is the last that is most worth investigating.
The liberal order is also known as “the post-1945 order” or, more flimsily, “the international order.” This was stenciled across the globe very swiftly after the 1945 victories. The Atlantic world, with its historically specific variety of democracy and its market-dominant economic model, was and remains the center, the determinant, the arbiter of this order. Jimmy Carter’s presidency introduced us to “the neoliberal order”—at bottom, merely a more rigorous variant of what had been. The choice for others has always been strictly, not to say viciously, enforced: It is to conform to the imposed order, imitate it as best they can, or assume the status of outsider. In the tent or out: Remarkably, the record indicates not a single exception in the 70-odd years the liberal order has endured.
This order is now in crisis. I am hardly the first with this. Many Americans take this view because their political institutions are in nearly anarchic disarray, because imperial adventure impoverishes them, and because they now stand at the front end of a shocking assault on all that once passed as at least an aspiration to political, social, and economic justice. Europeans face rises in right-wing nationalism, right-wing populism, and religious extremism. Inequality worsens across the West (and even more tragically in much of the non-West, of course). Are those who sustain the prevalent order serious about the climate emergency? The whole world wonders.
Having come to a dangerous global disorder, the liberal order turns out to be incapable of adequate responses to its own creation. It cannot self-correct, to put the point differently. This has been my view for a long time. For whatever reason, the famines sweeping through Africa and into Yemen, combined with an equally shameful indifference among us, noted in a previous column, tip me into a definitive position on this point. All the crises facing our quite illiberal order are epochal, in my view: They challenge its legitimacy. Its failures and frauds—notably its habit of exclusion, of making a “we” and “they” of all humanity—are simply too urgent now. Like the worsening climate, the velocity of deterioration seems fated to increase. Solutions will not arise from the order that produces and reproduces crises such as those just noted, and they are a few among very many. The immensity of this thought is not an excuse not to have it.
In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra writes of “a pervasive panic,” of “the sense of a world spinning out of control,” of “our state of worldwide emergency,” of “the global civil war.” I find nothing histrionic in these diagnoses, and I will come back to Mishra’s just-published book. For now, it is enough to note how its urgently vigorous language throws into sharp relief the barely audible mumbling that greets this condition. The world as “the vital center” insisted it must be is the world as we have it. And at the center of the vital center—Arthur Schlesinger’s celebrated phrase—we find utter vacuity, all new thinking long ago barred at the door to its immense, windowless room.
As is its custom, Foreign Policy used its year-end edition to celebrate “the leading global thinkers of 2016.” I always get a weird kick out of these lists: They present dozens of stories of incremental, here-and-there change—all of it impeccably worthwhile—accompanied by what has to be an ideologically induced blindness to the utterly obvious systemic failures that produce every one of the crises addressed. These are never, ever mentioned. All that is done is perfectly worthwhile, all is perfectly forlorn. Great change amid no change: There is something almost exquisite about the contemporary liberal dodge. Someday it will get a glass case in the museum it deserves.
This year’s opening essay was titled “The Case for Optimism.” And I need to tell you straightaway this is a depressing read. “While the changes that are remaking the planet pose great challenges,” David Rothkopf wrote, “they really do offer even greater opportunities for the lives of everyone in virtually every corner of the world.” If you wonder how someone could write such a sentence just a few months ago, the answer lies in data. Rothkopf compares such things as literacy rates, the prevalence of indoor plumbing and, of course, GDP to what these were 100 or 150 years ago. “History, then, offers an encouraging story,” Rothkopf advises. “It is one of the reasons that those who study it and analyze current changes anticipate that, while huge tests confront us now, great progress will continue.”
If you take this to be nothing more than happy talk, please think again. It is a form of silence. In the face of all that Mishra describes with considerable diligence—and historicity, I might add—this is the vital center’s reply: silence and dismissal with a truly perverse smile. It is what arises out the ideology of progress, the ideology of science, and American positivism—three 19th-century places of worship still lined up side by side along Main Street USA. Who would have guessed that denial would become so essential a feature of the sermons?
There is a case for optimism very different from Rothkopf’s. I am not a declinist, if this means assuming decline to be a fate. It is not: It is a choice. Americans have many of these to make. And refusing even to recognize these choices, as deacons of the liberal order urge at every turn, will amount to the choice of decline. High among these choices is whether and how to address the questions of politics and power. Silence no longer offers a place to hide on this point: If the liberal order has failed, it follows that the liberal order must be superseded. Looking squarely at the polity’s most fundamental structures will inevitably involve a lot of dismantling and disturbing and discarding, in my view, but we live in interesting times, unfortunately. There is no other way to renovate or reinvent the operations of a global order that has steadily, over a long time, brought us to crisis. And a reformation of one or another kind is required if we are to do better than the world Mishra describes.
“To dissent is to declare one’s optimism,” a friend once told me. “Why would I bother otherwise?” This is my case for optimism. There are plenty of grounds for it, but in our moment optimism lies buried in apparent pessimism. I can think of no other kind of optimism—and certainly not Foreign Policy’s brand—that matches the realities out our doors and beyond our shores. A lot of undoing is necessary to clear the ground for doing. As the last year or two advise us, it is too late, the liberal order’s hand too overplayed, to flinch from this any longer.
“Disenchantment” was Max Weber’s well-known term for what he saw around him in the second half of the 19th century. In a word, he saw a crisis buried in what was already called “modernity.” The Enlightenment had given way to the materialist age, and the new age’s ideologies—progress, science, and positivism as already listed, as well as secularism, the subjective individual, the nation-state, and so on—had begun to reveal a darker side. The remaking of Western society (and eventually non-Western, to very unfortunate effect) according to materialism’s scientific principles and bureaucratic rationality would prove a profoundly mixed undertaking. There would be gains but also losses never to be retrieved, beneficiaries but many casualties. Science, technology, and money would not prove universal solutions. There would be regret. Disenchantment—a wistful sadness with the tint of disappointment might hold as a thumbnail definition—was implicit in the modern condition, in Weber’s view. As now, so then: Disillusion may suffuse an entire culture like smoke, but the few saying so were to be dismissed as outsiders—misanthropes, eccentrics, cynics, or one or another kind of extremist. They declined to “get with the program,” as those who bask in the reigning order say today.
Pankaj Mishra has many names for his topic, but “disenchantment” is certainly among them. His “Age of Anger” in the book so named begins long before 1945 and the advent of our “liberal order.” He starts with materialism’s eclipse of the Enlightenment around 1870 and extends to the very minute this column is posted. Mishra’s concern is the world as we have it, but countless writers of varying worth are on this trail. It is Age of Anger’s singular ambition to give the world as we have it a past, a how-we-got-here, a where-the-mistakes-lie. The focus throughout is on those disenchanted: They made an ever-present subculture from the beginning, ancestors of all the disenchanted among us now—the liberal order’s mistake all along being silence and dismissal when faced with them. This historicity is monumentally to Mishra’s credit. He has sought the roots of our planetary predicament and exposed a lot of them. And how weird a world it is that this is a daring move. The last thing all apostles of the liberal order want on the table is history. Attaching chronology and causality to “this universal crisis”—another of Mishra’s descriptives—is like crashing a black mass with a crucifix.
Mishra’s thesis is roughly coincident with this column’s: The West—and therefore the non-West, too, as things work—has come to an epochal bend in its river. It can no longer afford its end-of-history dream that what has long been will continue eternally to be. This is Age of Anger’s running theme. Identifying the liberal order’s genealogy in the very beginning of the modernist experiment itself is an imposing thought, to put it mildly. But it is right, it seems to me. The Atlantic world has lost all knack for thinking anew—a consequence of liberalism’s undue self-confidence—but we are charged to do so. The single most interesting feature of last year’s political season was the extent to which Bernie Sanders was able to suggest—in his language, in a lot (not all) of his thinking, in his relationship to money—that this can be done. In this, Mishra is my kind of optimist: If he did not think the implied project was possible, why would he have bothered with the book?
I have given space to Age of Anger because the book marks an important advance in our most urgent discourse, in my view. But one cannot read it as the end of the story, as I am certain Mishra agrees. It is merely the beginning. All through its 350 un-shy pages, I kept asking, “What’s your idea of the way forward? Given all you say, this must be momentous. Tell us, Mishraji. Where from here?”
I read, and read some more. My answer came in the last half of the last sentence on the last page: All that Mishra explored and exposed “underscores the need for some truly transformative thinking, about both the self and the world.” Nothing more.
This practically forces a disturbing question on us. Does Mishra choose not to exit his assiduously marshaled history—the past a safe haven for dissent? In the face of history and complexity, does he propose we shelter in the perpetuation of perplexity—ever paralyzed, at a loss as to what to do as we look forward? It does not do. “Truly transformative thinking” is precisely the need and is not so unachievable as many people seem to assume. A lot of it is getting done already. Mishra appears to have flinched, and that does not do, either.