In a recent episode of the FX series Fargo, Minnesota Sheriff Lou Solverson answers a key witness’s refusal to accept police protection from a local crime syndicate by recounting his experience in Vietnam: “There’s a look a boy gets when he’s been shot, or a landmine takes off his legs, and he’s lying there in the mud trying to get up, ‘cause he doesn’t feel it yet — his brain hasn’t caught up with the reality yet, which is he’s already dead.”
This is the state of liberal democracy today. At the moment, it is perhaps easiest to see in the convergence of recent events in France. After the horrific Paris attacks orchestrated by Daesh in the midst of a continent-wide refugee crisis, France’s president immediately closed the borders and declared a three-month state of emergency granting police complete impunity and the government total control of the internet. The French government has also proposed permanent constitutional amendments curtailing civil liberties. Some of the first casualties of the state of emergency (beyond the French Muslims harassed and humiliated in nearly 3,000 warrantless police raids since the attacks) were the mass protests planned for the Paris COP21 climate summit. The summit was thus “reduced to the negotiation” as dozens of climate activists were summarily put under house arrest and many others beaten, tear-gassed, and arrested for defying the ban (meanwhile, the local football matches and shopping markets continue unaffected). This left politicians and technocrats largely free to spin the resultant agreement as a world-historic triumph, rather than, as the world’s preeminent climate scientist James Hansen more candidly put it, “a fraud, a fake… just bullshit.”
The apparently contingent character of these events — the refugee crisis, the Daesh attack and its backlash, and the failure of the climate talks — conceals deeper interconnections. The situation in France now is that of liberal democracy coming apart under the stress of its own internal tensions. While the nature of these tensions may be more difficult to discern, the result is clear enough; anyone can already see the writing on the wall, even if they cannot parse its meaning.
Who can honestly deny that liberal democracy today faces existential and insoluble challenges? Even taken alone, without looking to their unifying systemic origins, the last month’s events make this clear. We can begin with the COP21 agreement. Fifty years of corporate and governmental inaction on climate change and decades of failed negotiations already strongly suggested that liberal democracy is poorly equipped to deal with the problem of climate change — a fact that even liberal environmental ethicists have increasingly accepted. However, some liberals still held out hope for the Paris talks.
After previously failing to agree on any principled approach (largely because the biggest historical emitters — the US and Western Europe — refused to be held responsible for any past emissions), the negotiation strategy shifted for COP21. In Paris, each country was allowed to submit its own voluntary goals. This shift in strategy did finally produce an agreement, which the press has duly reported as the “world’s greatest diplomatic success.” However, the pledges are not legally binding (unlike multilateral trade agreements such as the TTIP and TPP, which were partially written by ExxonMobil and allow corporations to sue governments whose environmental and labor laws interfere with profits). Furthermore, even if somehow met, the submitted pledges still add up to a disastrous level of warming (around 3 degrees C). The 1.5-degree C limit agreed upon as an “aspiration” in the COP agreement — a more ambitious goal than in the past, and thus touted as a huge success by negotiators — is in fact widely understood to be wholly unattainable without drastic changes in our political and economic systems. The triumphalist official language notwithstanding, this chasm between rhetoric and reality clearly demonstrates, once again, the ideological character of the whole exercise.
Paris and Washington can argue that the deal is “a victory for all of the planet and future generations,” but sticking to the facts of the agreement, it is more accurately described as a death warrant for the world’s poor. The US and Europe used the threat of their continuing emissions as leverage to strip any meaningful provisions for funding adaptation, offering vulnerable nations a “poison chalice.”
As some level, most of us probably already suspected that there was never any genuine hope of liberal democracy producing a catastrophe-averting, never mind just, solution to the climate crisis in Paris. The results have simply further confirmed this suspicion.
Similarly, who can truly still believe that there will be an end to the cycle of senseless violence within the current political and economic framework? At some level, everyone recognizes that the imperialist wars and indiscriminate counter-attacks, in which the casualties on all “sides” are almost entirely civilians, will inevitably continue. Within the horizons of the liberal order, there seems to be no alternative to this deadly dance, in which virtually all the political figures of liberal societies — Hollande to Le Pen, Sanders to Trump — are willing participants.
Indeed, we all know that the violence and repression are certain to worsen as ecological conditions deteriorate, placing enormous pressures on supplies of food and water and fueling resource conflicts, political unrest, and unprecedented migrations. This was already the case in Syria, and the European and American reactions to Syria’s refugees have given us a glimpse of the climate apartheid to come.
What is harder to acknowledge is that the bleak state of affairs in which we find ourselves is not the result of cosmic bad luck or some deficiency of human nature, but is rather the predictable expression of indelible tensions internal to liberal democracy as a form of life. While operating through historical contingency, the trajectory of liberal democracy that led us here was anything but contingent. Imperialist violence and environmental destruction have been intimately and necessarily tied since the dawn of capitalism, the compulsive growth of which was made possible by the rapid exhaustion of millions of years’ worth of stored solar energy in the span of a few human generations and the continuous exploitation of new frontiers of cheap labor and resources, from Potosi to Shenzhen. These foundational interconnections have only deepened as climate change proceeds to unleash its effects upon those who cannot pay the price of “adaptation” — namely the poor, and particularly poor women and the populations of the South. Not coincidentally, they are those least responsible for the crises, populations of lands whose exploitation made the golden age of liberal democracy — and the attendant greenhouse gas emissions of its consumer lifestyles — possible.
Fanon argued that European (and American) opulence was “literally a scandal for it was built on the backs of slaves, it fed on the blood of slaves, and owes its very existence to the soil and subsoil of the underdeveloped world. Europe’s well-being and progress were built with the sweat and corpses of blacks, Arabs, Indians, and Asians” (53). In these few lines, Fanon concisely illustrates the inseparability of liberalism, imperialism, and ecological destruction. Liberal societies have, at different times, dressed this process in the language of “trusteeship,” of “civilization,” of “self-determination,” of “development,” and of “rights,” while subverting or supplanting any efforts to develop less inequitable and irrational political, economic, and ecological arrangements (in part, indeed, by progressively separating these spheres rhetorically and in practice). They have done so because their way of life would simply not have been possible otherwise.
The result is that almost two centuries of liberal sabotage of progressive movements worldwide, at home and abroad — whether through cooptation, economic blackmail, the “strategic” funding and arming of autocrats, back-room maneuvering, or outright force — has left a void into which increasingly regressive forces have stepped. They themselves are often funded, trained, and armed, directly or indirectly, intentionally or otherwise, by the liberal West in its endless quest to undermine alternatives and maintain the profitability of its firms.
Capital, as Marx said, comes into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Centuries of rapid environmental devastation and globalized exploitation in the service of profit are the realities behind the West’s (increasingly wistful and nostalgic) self-image of freedom and democracy. But while forgotten, this devastation never truly disappears — like the capital to which it is bound, it accumulates.
Critical theorists rightly point out that these crises of social, political, and ecological conditions — cyclical but also ultimately cumulative — may create serious structural impediments to capitalism’s continued expanded reproduction (and capital must expand: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”). However, it seems plausible that accumulation may continue in the medium-run through some combination of the destruction of existing capital stocks, the creation and enforcement of new rents, disaster profiteering, and continued upward redistribution through financialization and other means. What is certain is that this will take place, if it does, alongside deepening surveillance and repression of resistance groups, militarized policing, mass incarceration of surplus populations , closed borders, and rising xenophobia. Regardless of the medium-run fate of capitalism itself, then, what is doomed is the illusion of capitalism’s coupling with democracy. As the democratic veneer chips, states will increasingly function as protection rackets, staking their legitimacy exclusively on an ever-more-tenuous security.
Any who hope for a progressive future must reckon with this reality. “Development” in the absence of massive redistribution and social transformation is now a nonstarter; particularly given the ways that ecological crisis has profoundly compounded them, righting the wrongs of the last centuries will inevitably involve much more than the (structurally and physically impossible) generalization of bourgeois freedoms. Any way forward will rather require a much more thoroughgoing reorganization of our ways of living and creating together on a global scale.
Liberal democracy is dead, but we need not mourn its passing — if we can accept it and begin the difficult work of constructing alternatives, the death of liberal democracy might yet clear the way for a democracy worthy of the name.