The long established liberal world order is under sustained assault. The political and institutional framework that has regulated and stabilised capitalism since the end of World War Two is facing concerted challenges that threaten to tear it apart.
Vicious far right parties have swept into government in much of Eastern Europe and have developed a powerful presence in Western European countries. In Italy, the extreme racist Lega is playing a predominant role in the new government.
Russia, under the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin, has begun to reassert itself as a reactionary force on the world stage. Then there is the dramatic rise of China, whose rulers don’t play by the conventional liberal democratic rules.
Most dramatically, the US, still the world’s most powerful state, is headed by a president who openly champions fascists and ultranationalists and is attempting to tear apart the liberal play book.
It is vital for the left to stand up to this authoritarian wave attacking working class living standards and basic democratic rights. But that does not mean we should have any illusions in the old liberal institutions that sustained the capitalist order, let alone rally to their defence.
The politicians of the liberal centre paved the way for the far right surge by resorting to racism and ultranationalism to deflect mass anger from the neoliberal order that has savaged working class living standards over the last three decades and transferred massive wealth into the hands of a tiny cohort of billionaires.
The politics of the “moderate” liberal centre and the institutions they established – the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Union and so on – were never about the defence of the living standards and democratic rights of workers. The liberal imperial regime that emerged after World War Two aimed to stabilise a capitalist system torn apart by the Great Depression of the 1930s and the horrific world war that followed.
It sought to subdue and impose an orderly system of exploitation on a radicalised working class in the Western capitalist heartlands by repression and limited concessions. In the Third World, imperial plunder was aggressively pursued without even the pretence of liberal democracy.
US president Franklin Roosevelt, still upheld today as a great liberal reformer, was a key architect of the new imperial order. At wartime conferences in Tehran, Iran, and Yalta, Crimea, Roosevelt, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and British PM Winston Churchill carved up the world among the then three great powers.
The mass of humanity had absolutely no say over the fate planned for them.
At home, Roosevelt’s Democrat regime outlawed all strikes and imprisoned militant workers. The army was sent in to crush workers who dared to fight against harsh wartime conditions – the horrendous lack of safety and the enforced long hours of backbreaking toil.
Roosevelt refused to end segregation and the racial inequality of Blacks in the US military. Japanese-Americans were interned in concentration camps. Pacifists, leftists and religious dissenters like the Jehovah’s Witnesses were imprisoned and tortured.
It was Roosevelt who initiated the development of that most horrific and authoritarian weapon of mass destruction, the atomic bomb, and ordered the genocidal firebombing of the working class suburbs of Tokyo.
A later liberal Democrat icon, John F. Kennedy, accelerated the Vietnam War, during which the mightiest power on the planet devastated a small peasant country.
In the wake of the world financial crisis, Barack Obama, the latest in the long line of liberal icons, bailed out the bankers to the tune of trillions of dollars. Meanwhile, millions of working class people lost their homes and their jobs, or had their wages slashed.
The US’s first Black president did nothing to end the killing of Blacks by police. And the budgets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol were expanded under Obama to nearly $20 billion in 2016. Obama was dubbed “deporter in chief” by pro-immigrant groups for a relentless campaign of imprisonment and expulsion that drove more than 2.5 million desperate people from the US.
But liberal authoritarianism is not just a US phenomenon.
All over the world, the parties of the liberal establishment have carried out a frontal assault on working class living standards, cracked down on democratic rights and inflamed racism.
In France, liberal champion Emmanuel Macron has introduced harsh labour laws that make it easier for bosses to sack workers, slashed jobs in vital public services and cut pensions. Macron extended the authoritarian state of emergency laws introduced by François Holland’s centre left government. These in effect abolished the right to protest. Macron then replaced them with national security laws that specifically target Muslims.
The Macron government has pushed through anti-immigrant laws that undermine the rights of refugees and allow the police to brutally attack refugee camps.
In Britain, there was the sanctimonious, smarmy prime minister Tony Blair. Blair’s New Labour regime entrenched and extended the neoliberal attacks pioneered by Margaret Thatcher, abandoning even the pretence that the Labour Party served the interests of working class people.
Blair was one of the key proponents of the barrage of lies and deceit used to justify the 2003 invasion that devastated Iraq and slaughtered more than 600,000 Iraqis in the name of liberal democracy.
In Australia, the government of that urbane, liberal banker Malcolm Turnbull has imposed some of the most draconian national security laws in the advanced capitalist world.
It operates a system of concentration camps for refugees on remote islands that is the envy of fascists, Donald Trump and far right regimes in Europe.
Turnbull’s government has forced through tax cuts for business and the rich while maintaining the harshest anti-union laws of any Western country. In their latest attempt to deflect discontent from declining living standards, the Liberals have whipped up a racist law and order campaign against Australia’s small Black African population.
But it is not just a question of particular politicians and political parties. The whole framework of the liberal world order is anti-democratic because it exists to shore up the rule, and protect the profits, of a tiny minority at the top of society.
You only have to look at the role of one of the most hallowed of liberal institutions, the European Union, in imposing relentless austerity on Greece in the wake of the world financial crisis. The lives of a whole generation of Greeks have been wrecked.
Under the terms of the memoranda imposed by the EU, pensions, wages and social spending have been slashed and harsh new taxes imposed on the poorest sections of the population.
Eight percent of the Greek population has left the country in a desperate search for work, yet the official level of unemployment remains at more than 20 percent; youth unemployment is more than 40 percent.
The Greek people never had a say over this. They voted in the Syriza government – which said it would reverse austerity – and voted in a referendum to oppose the EU’s draconian memorandum. But Syriza betrayed its supporters and capitulated in the face of intimidation by the EU, the bankers and the whole of the European liberal establishment.
Greece represents the sharpest edge of the neoliberal project. But the agenda of slashing spending on health care, education, public transport and pensions, relentless privatisations of essential services, the undermining of long established working conditions relies on an increasingly authoritarian state apparatus.
You can’t get away year after year with destroying people’s lives “democratically”. So behind the liberal façade, society is becoming more brutal, more racist, more of a rat race, and our basic democratic rights are being further and further eroded.