The March of Populism

By Lewis Smart

In the 1997 James Bond Film Tomorrow Never Dies, Judy Dench utters the words “Christ, I miss the Cold War.” Having seen the rise of populists over the last few years who seek to overturn the liberal order I can see why indeed she missed the Cold War so much. The Cold War was the sustaining and animating ideal of western liberal values that gave us a strength and certitude as a society that our liberal way of life was worth defending against the scourge of totalitarian communism and its attendant poverty and miseries.

Now however, twenty or so years into the afternoon culture of the post-cold war world our liberalism is lazy, weak and fragmenting. Our inability as a liberal society to create an “other” to rally liberalism against has led to its internal decay and the populists are taking advantage. We should be very concerned about the future of the international order but worry is good, it gives us a chance to rally once more in liberalism’s defense.

Liberalism as a philosophy was and still is a political and economic philosophy which has generated mass wealth and wellbeing for a substantial portion of the world’s population. Its strengths however tend to be taken for granted and its weaknesses papered over which others with less liberal convictions use to slowly attack it from within.

One of liberalism’s strengths is its ability to allow humans of diverse social, cultural, religious and national differences to work together in a society without impinging on each other’s right to exercise their freedom. This has allowed our society to reap the benefits of peace and acceptance of others and has allowed us to break through the evils of bigotry and xenophobia.

However, this has happened without due regard for the human condition and has occurred so rapidly that populists are taking advantage of the fact that collective binding myths such as national identity, common social mores and shared outlooks have been completely shattered and have been replaced by a plethora of identities based around the individual or mini community.

Rather than being one society generally united against the communist/ totalitarian “other” we are now a society of hundreds, if not thousands of different identities struggling to know what collectively does or should bind us together. Again, one of the strengths of liberalism, the ability to be open minded and to accept others has been stretched too far too quickly to a point where everything means nothing and nothing means everything.

Just as strengths of character of people such as confidence and strength can turn into the weaknesses of arrogance and hubris so too can liberalism, and the strengths of liberalism have started to turn into weaknesses.

Furthering this is the West’s inability to use the past to bind its people together in the present and extends in a failure to articulate a common destiny for its people which they can rally behind. This may also be a consequence of the economizing trend of capitalist societies which have replaced god with the principle of cost benefit analysis and the bottom line. As Edmund Burke once put it:

“But the age of chivalry is gone. That of the sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

Edmund Burke was prescient when he saw how the crowning of the principles of extreme rationalism and economization would destroy the prescriptive forces of history and culture which had hitherto played such essential roles in western societies.

These two trends, the loss of collective western identity and binding mores alongside the all-encompassing rationalization of individual life has left the way open to populists within the Western world. They do not necessarily offer more wealth, what they offer is something to belong to, something which man prizes more than just nourishment and comfort, for without companionship our world to quote Thomas Hobbes would be “nasty, brutish and short.”

I believe that this challenge to the liberal world order was inevitable because the liberals sought to leave history behind and disregarded it in their hubris. This was a mistake but while it may have been inevitable that the challenge occurred it is not inevitable that the challenge succeeds.

In Macaulay’s “ The lays of Ancient Rome ” Horatius stood as an emblem of strength and duty to the Roman Republic against the hordes of Lars Porsenna. He stood his ground on the bridge to protect what he valued most, however liberals today have abandoned it and are nowhere to be seen. They have left the way clear to Republican Rome. The populists are on the march and are determined to stamp their feet on the bridge which leads to our beliefs. We need a captain of the gate before all is too late.

Lewis Smart works for a Parliamentary communications company in London, UK, and graduated with a first-class honors degree in International Relations from Plymouth University. His main interests are military affairs, the defense sector and NATO.