Chantal Mouffe was spot on in the The Return of the Political 25 years ago. Think everything from the Boston Tea Party to Brexit, Le Pen to Trump…

“The growth of the extreme right in some countries in Europe can only be understood in the context of the deep crisis of political identity that confronts liberal democracy following the loss of the traditional political landmarks.”

and

“A healthy democratic process calls for a vibrant clash of political positions and an open conflict of interests. If such is missing, it can be too easily replaced by a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values and essentialist identities.”

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The Retreat of Western Liberalism – Edward Luce

In many ways, this is a well written refutation of Fukuyama’s end of history thesis. Where Fukuyama saw that the end of the Cold War signalled the triumph of liberal democracy, Luce (like many others) points to the ways the world – especially the West – has moved away from that model, with Trump the latest and most dangerous indication yet.

He breaks his book into three main parts:

Fusion – where he argues that people were satisfied with liberal democracy as long as it provided them with material wellbeing.

Reaction – where he argues that people are turning to populist leaders like Trump because elites are no longer running a system that meets their needs, and this is because capitalist success elsewhere, especially China, is exacerbating inequality in the West.

Fallout – where he argues that what’s at risk is not just the rise of populism and illiberalism, but all-out war, as the nationalisms of the US, China, Russia and elsewhere clash. 

Although I feel I’ve heard much of this before, perhaps with the exception of the third section, it’s a well written, wide ranging and wise book. It’s hard not to agree with much of it.

There was, though, a lack of political imagination – an assumption that liberal democracy is what we ought to hope for and aspire to, without recognising that discontent with Western systems of government might result in support for something more radical or progressive: Corbyn, Sanders, or something bolder still.

For political thinkers like Chantal Mouffe, too, the move toward the middle ground, the consensus on globalisation and democracy, that we saw in the 90s and early 2000s resulted in differences being suppressed and then re-emerging in anti-democratic and dangerous ways. It may well be that which we’re seeing now or, more positively, we might in fact be seeing the start of a new era where differences in politics are more evident and so disagreement can be played out in a political arena. Maybe. The point is that there’s more to think about than whether Trump, China and Russia signal the end of liberal democracy.

When we examine the state of democratic politics in all of the countries where right-wing populism has made serious inroads, we find a striking similarity. Their growth has always taken place in circumstances where the differences between the traditional democratic parties have become much less significant than before… and in each case consensus at the centre has been established.

Chantal Mouffe, On the Political