Okay, the title is a bit dramatic – but not needlessly. Liberalism has enjoyed a long and storied run since the end of WW2. But ever since the USSR collapsed and the alternative ceased to exist in 1991, liberalism has grown to be increasingly the default ideology of any and every public intellectual. However, 2020 is likely to be the beginning of its end. Yes, you can blame COVID-19 for it, but there’s much more to the impending liberal crisis than just a one-off unlucky break.
A problem of definition
Who is a liberal? “Someone who upholds liberal values”. And what are those? Oh, you know – individual liberty, equality before law, separation of church and state, free markets, a strong state, independent judiciary, gender equality, gender equity, the welfare state, social safety net, human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of free religious association, environmental consciousness, capitalism, democratic principles, free and fair elections, a republican state, plurality of opinion, separation of powers among the three pillars of government, an elected legislature, world peace, universal right to the pursuit of happiness… You know. The obvious. Everybody knows what a liberal is.
Yes, political scientists and politicians understand liberalism very differently and in a much more nuanced manner. But most people don’t. Even if we could agree that everybody knows what a liberal is, we would still find that not every liberal is equally liberal. I find that even the liberalism vs progressivism is all too often simply a case of many distinctions without a difference. So, the “progressives vs others” friction has always existed within liberalism, which COVID is merely giving space for.
Because of the exceedingly vague definition of liberalism, personalities as vastly different as Narendra Modi, Bernie Sanders, Greta Thunberg and Boris Johnson have all happily co-existed under the liberal banner. Or at least, they all found it expedient to call themselves liberal at one time or the other. Liberalism’s original sin is this vagueness of definition. The vagueness was partly intentional: it was useful in WW2 and the Cold War to be able to gather under one banner to unite against a common enemy. But now, as liberalism is increasingly unrivalled, political leaders and thinkers have had to delineate their beliefs and policies more clearly, which has led them down their own ideological “make your own adventure” where it’s possible to mix and match liberal principles as one sees fit. This state of affairs was always tenuous and liable to fracture at the seams. In 2001 after 9/11 and in 2008-09, during the GFC, we saw the first hints of the breakdown of the liberal tent. In 2020, we will see the end of it.
The novel coronavirus has been a perfect storm of several independent events coming together. It makes sense for me to try to articulate why a simple virus is the reason for the breakdown of a 200 year old political order.
First, it’s a virus. Bacteria are easy to grow in labs, test things on and kill. Viruses are notoriously hard to study since many do not reproduce under laboratory conditions, and because they mutate rapidly and no two strains are the same. Moreover, the way antivirals are developed is that scientists first identify a protein that they can try to disable. Then, they ensure that this protein is unique to the virus and not a common byproduct of other human bodily processes. Then, they are tested for efficacy, safety and effectiveness. This lasts several decades and as a result, the economics of developing antivirals is insane. Vaccines are easier to develop, but even they take 18-24 months to be brought to market and even then, are only effective against one strain of one particular virus. A simple mutation can make a whole family of drugs irrelevant. Because of this, very few firms bother with antivirals and vaccines.
Second, it disproportionately affects old people. More familiar viral diseases like HIV, flu and Hepatitis are different: either they affected everyone or affected children more. As a result, nobody cared about some old people dying of an unexplained illness because the logic was “meh, they were going to snuff it soon anyway”. Even now, as I write, young countries like India, New Zealand, Syria and those in the Sahel region have not been affected as badly as older ones like Germany, Italy and Japan. Traditionally, countries tend to accumulate older people as their institutions improve and development causes a reduction in mortality to due to pestilence and war. So, developed countries actually more likely to be hurt by COVID-19. For liberal countries like the US that were used to lecturing underdeveloped nations on things like poverty eradication, cleanliness and education, COVID has come as a rude shock and shown that their institutions back home need to be fixed first. Isn’t that an inversion!
Third, the symptoms are very common and easy to ignore. When was the last time you went to a doctor just because of a fever or dry cough? Never, that’s when. And old people complaining of difficulty breathing is like fish complaining about being wet. Nobody cared because we’ve seen this before and we’ve all been conditioned to accept that these things happen from time to time.
Finally, it started in China. China doesn’t share any information with the rest of the world. We know that. In most other cases, that’s fine because a lot of countries are cagey with transparency to the outside world (think Bhutan, Moldova, Russia, etc.) But with diseases, this means that the rest of the world is kept in the dark and robs governments of time to act. China’s experience with SARS taught the Chinese state a valuable lesson: if you find a new disease, don’t tell everybody about it; they’re not going to help, and will only use it as an excuse to lecture your people about the harms of eating random animals. And China learnt that lesson very well. Almost too well.
Liberalism at war (with itself)
Crises like this are supposed to bring societies together, and provide an opportunity to bury past differences. But COVID-19 has done the opposite: it has exposed all the ways in which liberalism is at war with itself. A core idea of modern progressivism is the idea of intergenerational warfare: that Boomers saddled the Millennials with a failed state and a bad economy, thereby hurting their chances. So, when COVID comes around, a frequent theme of early response to it was schadenfreude. The youngsters were ecstatic that these pesky oldies were going to kick the bucket because of their own selfish actions decades ago. “You voted to open up healthcare, make it profit-driven and let companies gouge patients while profiteering off death and illness. You deserve this new disease. Suck it, grandpa!”
As time went by, we started seeing people using the economic opportunities presented by COVID to enrich themselves. People started buying up sanitizers, toilet paper and masks and reselling them online. Some others started using the cheap flights as an excuse to get out of the country and enjoy a holiday they wouldn’t otherwise be ablet o afford. These “Coronavacations” were the economic reaction by a younger, more progressive generation knowing that they were safe. “To hell with global warming. Right now, I’m going to have some fun.”
As the disease began to spread, the first impulse was to shut everything down. First came gatherings and protests, then public transport, then borders, then flights, then even venturing outside for a walk. As the disease took shape and turned into a pandemic, that bright beacon of liberal symbolism – the European Union – began to crumble. It began as a wave of anti-migrant sentiment when Europe closed its borders disallowing refugees from the Middle East. Then, it morphed into something else: Italy’s borders were closed for the first time in decades. Then, it became a widespread mistrust of everything alien – entire cities, villages, states were placed under lockdown. Anything that had a border was shut off from the rest of the world by any means necessary.
The great liberal cause of free public transport suddenly made so much less sense. Do we really want to encourage everybody to travel so freely and spread diseases willy-nilly? A consensus quickly appeared: no, we do not.
As people started to stay at home more and workplaces shut down, environmental activists were delighted: the planet would get a breather. But of course, they couldn’t openly rejoice in the face of this calamity.
“Maybe we didn’t need so much productive capacity after all?”
“But that’s what the free market had created so it must have been right!”
And then, of course, came the real progressive issues: flexible working arrangements, working from home, parental leave and paid sick leaves.
“If we could all have worked from home this easily, why haven’t we been? And now that we have all realized that healthcare is super important, can we please get it now? Thanks.”
But then, if everybody works from home, would that not lead to an increase in domestic crime? What about caring for the elderly? Most of us younger folk were all too happy to just let someone else take care of that job because we were away at work. But now that we’re home, are we supposed to work, care for our parents, help our kids with homework, shop for groceries online and still nurture our hobbies? Yeah, right!
And then there’s education. Most progressives want tuition-free education or some equivalent. Classic liberals don’t. The free-market argument lay on examples like Harvard and MIT, and the progressive argument rested on HBCUs, minority welfare and issues of the urban poor. What does that argument mean in a post-Corona world? Nothing, because everybody’s studying online anyway.
Running in the background was the question of economics: if everybody stays home in fear of the worst, how will the liberal idea of “eternal economic growth” be sustained? Nearly every country affected by the virus is looking into some form of economic stimulus package consisting of a mixture of lowering interest rates and corporate loan waivers. As the breadth and length of this stimulus grows, progressives everywhere are beginning to ask if this is the best way to go about things.
Support for economic stimuli, infrastructure spending, a living wage and universal basic income are no longer liberal ideas – they’ve been mainstreamed to the extent of something like a free press and freedom of movement. These are simply not defining features of liberalism anymore.
The coming changes
Clearly, liberalism has many internal battles to figure out before it can move on. So, what will the future of liberalism be? In one word, fragmented. As Tyler Cowen writes in his Bloomberg column (published as I was still writing this piece)
Over the span of less than a week, virtually every major institution in American life has been subject to radical changes to their daily operations, and it is not clear when things will return to normal. Covid-19 may well make a bigger impression on the national consciousness than 9/11 or the financial crisis of 2008.
And he may be right. More than that, it’s going to lead to a further refinement of what it means to be a liberal. Increasingly, it will come to mean nothing at all. By the end of the year, liberalism’s component movements will all break away and find a political voice of their own. We have seen this before: disappointment with climate inaction created the space for Green parties around the world, and job losses with globalization led to the resurgence of populist liberalism.
That said, here are my wild speculative thoughts on how COVID-19 is likely to reshape politics in the coming years:
- A tentative rethinking of globally extended supply chains – politics and paranoia will lead to countries deciding to try to manufacture everything by themselves. Self-sufficiency will become the operative word of the new decade
- As everybody rushes to make their own stuff, expect environmental concerns to take the backseat. Once again, forest cover will begin to recede rapidly in countries like India and China
- For people in Europe and the rest of the Western world, COVID will always be a “Chinese virus”, spread by globalization and exacerbated by open borders. Expect these to lose their sheen and come under increased attack from populists who use this to further xenophobic politics
- The end of the Euro project – Germans and French citizens may rightly feel that the reason COVID spread to their countries from Italy was because of the Eurocentric visions of their ruling parties which prevented them from closing their borders sooner
- The rise of explicitly feminist politics that prioritize women’s issues over other liberal causes
- Healthcare will finally become a universally acknowledged right – most of the opponents of Medicare For All in the US were old people. Now, as they realize their vulnerability, expect them to change their stance
- As health benefits become inevitable, companies looking to keep their costs low will begin to recruit even more men. Thus, the feminism’s raison d’etre will come full circle
- Public transportation will just not be anybody’s concern anymore – who wants to advocate for faster disease spread?
- The erosion of individualism in the Western world – finally, the individual rights project that began with Protestantism and Martin Luther will see itself come to an end as communities everywhere reassert themselves and recluses realize the importance of having someone to talk to, empathise with and help out in need
But no matter how society responds to this pandemic, one thing is for certain: liberalism as we know it will not survive 2020.