Hong Kong protests. Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

“Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains” 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

Thirty years ago, liberal democracy was on the march. I watched the Berlin Wall come down in ‘89. The hammer and sickle flag was permanently lowered in ‘91, signalling the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in ‘94, Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa, ending apartheid. 

China resisted with the brutal Tiananmen Square Massacre also in ‘89. “The Tank Man”, a poignant and enduring symbol of democracy, was disappeared, never to be seen again, along with hundreds of other pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, that were either killed or imprisoned. 

Last year, after months of anti-authoritarian protests, China reiterated its anti-democratic authoritarianism and strongarmed Hong Kong into submission, snuffing out the shouts for liberty and its chosen liberal democratic path.

Liberty” is defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as the quality or state of being free from arbitrary or despotic control and to do as one pleases. “Liberalism” is the political ideology and moral philosophy founded on liberty.

But what exactly is liberalism as we understand it today? Patrick J Deneen’s description, from his book Why Liberalism Failed, reads as follows: “Liberalism is built on a foundation of contradictions: it trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favour of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history.”

In keeping with these contradictions, today, democracy and liberalism seem a world apart. Liberalism is more and more associated with authoritarian populism as politicians leverage populist movements to retain and gain power, even though liberals are quick to condemn populism as anti-democratic. 

And authoritarian populism, viewed as a degraded form of democracy, and previously only linked to far-right political parties, is increasingly associated with mainstream governments. In an interview in 2019, former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull intimated that many Liberal Party conservatives were better described as “authoritarian populists”.

Defining “populism” is another tricky affair. Those with a populist orientation argue that the tenets of liberalism weaken democracy, harming the people by preventing them from acting democratically in their own interest.

But ironically, populists also contend that liberalism only works for the politico-elite with the power and wealth to protect the freedoms that a liberal democracy provides. And in our current state of a liberal democracy, which is exemplified by gross inequality, this is hard to argue against.  

Thus, the advent of Trumpism. Quelled by a Biden victory for now — a decisive win for democracy — but almost simultaneously juxtaposed with a military coup in Myanmar, arresting its democratic aspirations. Albeit a return to Myanmar’s deep-rooted military bureaucratic authoritarianism, it’s the creeping kind of authoritarian populism that Western democracies most fear. 

That is, the people will defer to politico-elites and experts in the field as long as living standards steadily improve and there are enough well-paid jobs for everyone. The nemesis to this and to a liberal democracy—the elephant in the room—is growing inequality. 

Social, racial, and economic inequality will be heightened by the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and is thus cause for a genuine rethink of our contemporary version of a liberal democracy and the twin challenges of authoritarianism and popularism. 

In terms of the former, it is apt to mention that China, already a superpower, has emerged stronger from the COVID crisis than any other country on the planet, which only reinforces its developmental authoritarianism model as a legitimate threat to liberal democratic capitalism.

In terms of the latter, popularism, let’s start at home with the prediction that the Australian Labor Party cannot win the next federal election, nor the one after that. And the reason is: not because of their now dismal record of sticking to long-held principles like real climate change action—which is now a crisis— and their apparent falling-out with the working class, but because of their failure to actively engage in that crude political ideology of popularism.

Popularism, aided by the outrageous fact that in a post-truth world, politicians have carte blanche to unashamedly, uncontestably and with no repercussions or need for remorse, say anything, irrespective of the truth, in their ignominious efforts to gain or remain in power by playing to the populist vote.

As the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in his book, 

Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, “Populist leaders seek to use the legitimacy conferred by democratic elections to consolidate power. They claim direct charismatic connection to ‘the people’, who are often defined in narrow ethnic terms that exclude big parts of the population. They don’t like institutions and seek to undermine the checks and balances that limit a leader’s personal power in a modern liberal democracy.”

We might refer here to our politicians’ persistent reluctance to establish a federal independent commission against corruption for instance.

As to one’s group identity, democracies have a tendency to start out embracing democratic values like equality and inclusivity, only to end in identity politics. In Rightest movements, as we saw with January’s attack on Capitol Hill in the US, economic issues are often overshadowed by a perceived threat to group identity. Hence the question: does the politicisation of identities genuinely empower communities, or just further divide them?

Our experience with Donald Trump, of course, suggests the latter, but the same applies in varying degrees to many countries, including Australia. What’s more, populist leaders are emboldened by their popularity to the extent of being “very confident” of talking their way out of any sticky situation that might otherwise cause the downfall of other types of leaders.

And, as we have seen, the credulous crave to believe conspiracy theories, especially the disenfranchised and disillusioned, like followers of QAnon—and even more so if they are pointed to some obscure pseudo-scientific article to support the claim.

Think for a moment of all the bizarre things you have heard, read, and been told over the years by a myriad of misguided fools and well-meaning people. Like the Earth is flatthe Holocaust didn’t happenclimate change is a hoax, and the Democrats stole the election.

Suffice to say that fake news and populist leaders go hand-in-hand. And populism, of course, that undying and endearing least-effort manifesto of slovenly sweet talk will, more or less, play a role in most politician’s playbook. Especially around election time.

Take the Liberal Coalition’s populist slogan of “we’ll get to net-zero emissions by technology not taxes”, for instance. Are we all stupid? The Liberal Coalition’s preferred policy is “direct action”, wherein tenderers compete to win contracts, and subsequent billions in taxpayer funds, for projects to lower or offset the carbon emissions of the big polluters. So, no matter how you cut it, it’s a tax on taxpayers so polluters can continue to use the atmosphere as a garbage dump.

I mean, it’s exasperating to hear that populist platitude over and over again—designed, of course, to appease big business and those with a vested interest in the fossil fuel industry including workers.

Not only because Angus Taylor, minister for energy and emissions reduction, and our PM Scott Morrison, continue to spin it along with the Liberal Coalition’s hoard of trickle-down economics adherents and ardent zombie neoliberalists, but because the vast majority of media interviewers terminally fail to put a stop to the inane spin.

Acknowledged that this is all well and good for leanings to the Right and our incumbent government. But when Labor is confronted with the option to adopt a similar populist pathway to the promised land, it baulks at the idea because it grates against its foundations as a democratic socialist party and thus messes with its distributive justice principles. 

Which sounds positively idealist when the mining magnate and heiress Gina Rinehart has a net worth of $28.89 billion and owns more than 9.9 million hectares of land in Australia, which is the equivalent to the entire landmass of South Korea. Meanwhile, back in the real world, well over 100,000 Australians are homeless every night and 3.24 million live in poverty, of which 774,000 are children

We might then default to Winston Churchill’s well-cited characterisation of a democracy as the “worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. Churchill’s quip echoes the failings of a liberal democracy today: there are more than 40 million slaves worldwide—including several thousand in Australia—more than any other time in history.

But enough of the self-criticism. It’s time for a prescriptive approach. As Deneen points out, “liberalism is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution.”

Obvious measures to ameliorate our “illiberal democracy”, are a universal basic income — supported by 71per cent per cent of Europeans in a recent survey — and universal healthcare, education, and social housing, all of which boost social mobility and are thus crucial to eradicating the scourge of racial, social, and economic inequality. Oh, and this will require a change of attitude from our politico-elites: forcing people into poverty is not the best incentive to get a job!

As Fukuyama wrote: “To be poor is to be invisible to your fellow human beings, and the indignity of invisibility is often worse than the lack of resources”.

Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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  1. I like the way the author calls capitalist faux-democracy “liberal democracy”. It’s anything but democratic when democratic control of the economy is off limits. Democracy and capitalism are mutually exclusive, and liberalism is just a euphemism for capitalism today.