There are groundswells of civic engagement in a handful of countries, but ensuring the survival of fundamental freedoms in these dangerous times will require a resistance that knows no borders.
France’s election of a centrist pro-Europe president has offered us all some respite, but, in many respects, the world still seems headed for dark times.
It also hints at a deeper decline, a sign that freedom itself is being eroded. From the first months of the Trump presidency and the hatred exposed by the Brexit campaign to the rise of the extreme right in Europe – including in France where, after all, 11 million people did vote for Marine Le Pen – reason seems to be receding in the West.
It has been replaced by alternative facts and apocalyptic rhetoric.
Even so many people still cling to the belief that the world’s troubles are distant and largely unthreatening. Protest, in this mindset, is either an activist’s sport or an endeavour led by groups whose freedom is directly threatened.
Such thinking is dangerous. In truth, the attack on freedom is coming from within, and stemming the tide of anti-liberalism will require that everyone join the fight.
Freedom, authority and inequality
One challenge, perhaps, is that freedom is not necessarily an essential value shared by a large part of the population of democratic countries, nor does it mean the same thing to all people.
For some, “freedom” means human rights, free and rational search for truth and emancipation; for others, it means domination, the freedom to scorn, humiliate and sometimes kill. Syria, the greatest atrocity yet seen in the 21st century, is an example of the freedom to massacre. The West has been grotesquely silent on Russia’s participation in this war.
Then there’s the issue of fake news. In some ways, the most worrying risk is not the spread of fabricated reporting but, as columnist Nick Cohen has written in The Guardian, that people are inclined to demand and believe fake news. The result is that we increasingly live in two different worlds, unknown to the other.
Philosophy offers us useful frames of reference for the current crisis of freedom.
As Hannah Arendt and Alexis de Tocqueville before her have noted, when freedom is ineffective it’s usually because authority has disappeared. Here Arendt does not refer to authority as in authoritarian force but to the authority of knowledge – that is, the ability to differentiate between fact and fiction and to recognise truth.
Unrestricted freedom of opinion, one of the characteristics of real democracy according to Arendt, does not mean taking liberties with the truth.
A secondary cause of today’s eroding liberal order lies in inequality. A growing wealth gap has given rise to an understandable suspicion of liberal elites, leading to a (perhaps less understandable) rejection of everything they stand for.
Finally, there’s the decoupling of globalisation from common, shared public norms. In theory, globalisation was supposed to go hand-in-hand not only with the unprecedented movement of capital, goods and persons but also with a set of shared political standards: the UN Charter, international conventions on war and refugees and the like.
Officially, this world system also comes replete with common commercial, social and environmental practices. We have major aid programs for poor countries, UN conventions on corruption and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which helps nations fight against animal trafficking and poaching.
Globalisation is now fracturing under pressure from groups who, rightly or wrongly, hold it responsible for their suffering, and it is a popular target for political attack (Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are only the latest to leverage its failures to gain votes).
As a result, the essential international rights and freedoms that were once championed by true believers in the democratising power of globalisation are more easily ignored.
From a polarised world to a three-sided fight
Being insufficiently jealous of freedom is a fairly new problem. After the fall of communism and a relative reduction of authoritarian states in the late 20th century, many in the West have developed a false sense of security.
This has hindered our ability to comprehend the new global status quo. Some thinkers, such as Francis Fukuyama, have now conducted an honest revision of their previous theories on the end of history, acknowledging that the threat to a liberal world view has not dissipated.
There are numerous ideologies that are no less dangerous today than communism was 75 years ago, and they demand a more detailed analysis.
Putinism, whose chief ideologue is philosopher Alexandre Douguine, is a prime example of just such an anti-freedom world view. Seeing Vladimir Putin’s reign in Russia as simply the dominance of a strong state over the individual is simplistic, as is suggesting that he merely seeks a return to conservatism and traditional values of religion, family and nationalism.
In truth, Putin’s regime hides a broader desire to negate the inheritance of the Enlightenment, both nationally and internationally. Dissidents are oppressed and assassinated by groups under the orders of shadowy figures; Russia’s intelligence service, the FSB, exerts near total control over society.
There are signs of an emerging resistance. The United States, Poland and Hungary, especially (and to a lesser extent the UK, with its Remain movement) have seen mass protests and spontaneous acts of resistance that reach far beyond intellectual and political circles. It is an impressive civic groundswell.
In both Canada and Germany, welcoming refugees is an abiding principle of both the government and the majority of citizens – an expression of liberal values to counter the xenophobia of the world’s burgeoning extreme right-ring parties.
But to succeed in today’s trying times, any liberation movement must necessarily be international. The threat against freedom is now everywhere – not just in authoritarian states such as North Korea but also in Western democracies (the United States), the developing world (Venezuela) and Islamic countries (Syria, Egypt).
And, dangerously, our collapsing faith in globalisation and its trappings has given authoritarian countries a more credible voice in setting the world agenda.
Defending freedom should be seen as a primary geopolitical challenge – our security depends on it. That means looking beyond borders and standing together in resistance as a global community.
It also means accepting compromise, seeing the virtues of moderation and knowing the difference between defending civilisation and making an expedient political choice. To push back against anti-freedom forces, right must talk to left, elites to non-elites and activists to the politically unengaged.
Many conservative politicians already understand that letting slide certain essential rules of solidarity will push vulnerable people into the embrace of extremes. That is a good sign, but it is only the beginning.
All liberal world citizens – liberal understood in the broadest sense of the word – have an obligation today to put ourselves at the service of freedom in order to ensure the future of history.
Nicolas Tenzer is chargé d’enseignement of International Public Affairs at Sciences Po – USPC.