Could the end of liberalism be the end of diverse multi-ethnic states, from Indonesia to the United States? Azeem Ibrahim seems to think so and aims to make the case that a post-liberal world is not only authoritarian, but also dangerous to the internal harmony of many countries throughout the world. He argues, “The ideological core of liberalism is that all human beings have equal inherent moral worth and that, therefore, they must all have their dignity equally recognised and be given freedom to pursue their own well-being and interests, at least in so far as it does not interfere with anyone else’s ability to do the same.” This is the essence of liberalism he outlines in his new book Authoritarian Century: Omens of a Post-Liberal Future, but this liberal dream for a better world has been undermined in recent years and what has emerged in its place is a “form of reactionary, nativistic, ‘in-group’ supremacism that is the preserve of both religious fundamentalists and of ethnic nationalists.” These new regimes have inflicted human rights disasters on the world, Ibrahim argues, including the Myanmar genocide against the Rohingya, the Chinese genocide against the Uyghurs and in other places.
Many countries around the world have undergone this post-liberal authoritarian transformation and, in the West, we are still at the beginning of it, unless action is taken, the book warns. Britain will break up into smaller countries and the US will disintegrate, as neither country has any other ideological organising basis. A grim picture Ibrahim paints here and the reader is forced to think about why post-liberalism seems unable to come up with any alternative other than crude ethno- authoritarian populism? I think a shortcoming of the book is that it deals only with the present and near future and not with the long term future. I kept wondering to myself: is the wave of populism simply an ineffective early stage attempt at post-liberalism until newer ideas can emerge? The direction of the book seems to suggest that this might not be worth finding out as the process of getting there will involve a lot of death and destruction. On top of this, it is unlikely that whatever comes next will not give us the freedom, prosperity and peace that liberalism did. I think these are fair points to make. Is figuring out a post-liberal order that works really worth losing a million lives to get there? I think any reasonable person would answer with a definitive no.
What Ibrahim does not do is ignore the very real reasons why so many people have grown disenchanted with the liberal order. Income inequality, the 2008 financial crash, the 2003 Iraq invasion and other issues have produced an understandable scepticism towards liberalism. As Ibrahim points out, the scepticism is not only among the public; those leading the institutions of government no longer have confidence in liberalism. The failure of the US to enforce its red lines in Syria and senior politicians in the West repeating Russian propaganda about the war are just some examples of how the ruling class lost faith in the official creed.
Ibrahim sees things like the 2003 Iraq invasion as less a consequence of adhering to promoting liberalism globally and more to do with the post Cold War hubris that took off after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Everyone wanted to be free, everyone wanted capitalism and, from this, liberal democracies shall flow – nobody in western policy circles wanted to seriously look at what was happening in the former Eastern bloc countries. If they had, they would have seen the early signs of trouble. This created a climate of arrogance and, when the occupation of Iraq began to fail and the economy downturned, not only did the hubris balloon burst but so did all confidence in liberalism. As Ibrahim argues, liberalism is the best system, but the faults of the past cannot be overlooked and finding remedies is part of what this book seeks to offer.
“Populist parties have become an increasingly prominent feature of domestic politics in many democratic countries … What unites them in the present is their way of appealing to voters by claiming to be channelling ‘the will of their people’ in opposition to ‘the political establishment’, and their typically hostile attitude towards the rulers and institutions of liberal democracy.” The issue with this claim is it will lead society into more conflict rather than less, the book outlines.
Authoritarian Century offers readers an easy to read and comprehensive introduction into neo-authoritarianism, post-liberalism and populism. For the casual reader, there is much food for thought and for those seasoned in the political science literature, it offers not only remedies to current problems, but also demonstrates ways complex ideas and events can be distilled and explained in concise and clear terms. The way we communicate ideas is a key theme explored in the book, as the chapter on conspiracy theories explores in detail. Authoritarian Century will make an excellent foundation text for discussion on post-liberalism, as there is much to debate and argue over.