Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Hypocrisy of liberalism and the loss of truth

Recently, I have read a few articles on the similarities between Turkish President Erdoğan, who is about to institutionalize an authoritarian regime change, and US President-Elect Trump, who is about to assume power. Turkey and the US have quite different historical backgrounds, however the rise of Trump and Erdoğan's turn to authoritarianism, together with Brexit and the rise of xenophobia all around the world, share the same historical setting: Collapse of the liberal world order just a generation after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. Am I being too pessimistic or too trigger-happy? Maybe, but we should let the cats speculate in their garden nonetheless...

Hardt and Negri had attributed a revolutionary potential to the multitude, in their famous book, Empire (2000). This multitude, a widely differentiated group of people all around the world, is a product of global capitalism, i.e. the empire. With the globalization of production and the prominence of transnational corporations, we would see the emergence of this multitude all around the world. In quite a Marxist dialectic twist, they argued that this multitude which is widely differentiated but is subject to the same global forces everywhere, will bring the destruction of the empire. In a way, they repeated Marx's revolutionary call to the working class to rise against contemporary global capitalism.

With the end of the Cold War, the last challenger to the liberal world order collapsed. We cannot really deny that global capitalism is able to reach and reshape the remotest parts of the world today, more than ever. I am not sure if the multitude, a rather vague concept at best, is the new revolutionary force. However, the recent developments demonstrate that there is indeed increased disgruntlement across the world, including at home in the US, about the liberal order.

The liberal order is in crisis at a global level - a crisis of credibility. Global capitalism is creating a willing and winning class of consumers. However, the rapid changes inherent in global capitalism (such as the continuing de-industrialization in the US or the changing human geography all around the world because of migrations) unsettle many people. There are various facets and levels of these disturbances. Let me discuss three different unsettling consequences among many. First, global capitalism can mean working for below-subsistence level jobs as a worker. Transnational corporations today are more eager than ever to transfer to new locations where they can get more waivers on environmental regulations and minimum wage requirements. Many workers in the world are trying to just get by on incredibly low-paying jobs.

Second, global capitalism can mean getting in a vicious loop of unemployment, felony, and imprisonment. When the person is released, either through a violation of parole or another crime, going back to prison is very likely. There are countless studies on mass incarceration that provide details to this process. Essentially, what is going on is managing an undesirable group of people through the penal system. Besides those who work for a very low wage, those who could not even get those jobs need to be "warehoused", excluded from the rest of the society, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Western and Beckett (1999), in a very important article titled "How Unregulated is the US Labor Market?", argue that if the historically low US unemployment rates are adjusted to include prisoners, they appear at the same level with west European unemployment levels. Global capitalism has to exclude some people.

Third, globalization triggers migration, and migration brings different people to your neighborhood: Mexicans in an American town, or Syrians in a Turkish town. These people do not look like you; they do not speak like you; they do not live like you. It certainly changes from place to place, but this sort of mobility is inevitably unsettling for the natives and much more so for the immigrants.

I brought these examples to describe the contemporary version of liberalism's crisis of credibility. Liberalism is founded on the promise of freedom and equality. However, what we see and experience after liberalism's historic triumph is freedom and equality only for a select group. I am not here to condemn liberalism. I am basically arguing that the fast pace of global capitalism has created a dissonance across the world. On the one hand, we cannot even begin to think of an alternative way of life. On the other hand, we know deep inside that there is something wrong with what is going on. We want to believe in freedom and equality, but then we daily see, or experience, their failure.

Enter Erdoğan and Trump with their bravado. They speak to the disillusioned masses. They tell us "what it really is like". They point at the inherent fallacies of the current order and how we have been duped. I do not mean to say that people like Erdoğan and Trump have become the voice of the multitude. What I am saying is that the liberal world order, under the banner of transnational companies, lost its moral high ground. The stark differences between its message and the fast-paced daily realities it produces around the world neither match nor can be hidden. The multitude have seen or experienced the vices of global capitalism and some of them are rapidly falling into the fascist arms of charismatic authoritarian leaders.

Another common ground between Erdoğan and Trump are the loss of truth in their messages. In talking about how the current world order is staked against us and challenging our beliefs, they pull us into a bizarre post-modern world. When the very modern claims of liberty and equality are debunked, it feels like all claims to truth lose legitimacy as well. Both Erdoğan and Trump speak blatant fallacies and just move on without feeling the burden at all. During the presidential campaign, Trump openly mocked a disabled reporter. It was simply disgusting, but he recently just denied it. Moreover, just google it and you will see that many articles that support his denial popped up. So are we to believe our own senses or Trump and his supporters? Recently Erdoğan asked this question after a terrorist attack by a Jihadist at a nightclub on the new year's eve: "Is there anyone who can claim that their lifestyles are threatened?" Whenever Erdoğan makes such claims that distort reality, pro-Erdoğan media immediately pick those versions up and push them relentlessly.

In this post-truth era, intellectuals are often targeted as well. Examples from Turkey, where many journalists and novelists are jailed, would be redundant. However, such anti-intellectualism seems to be on the rise in the US as well. If nothing else, the substitution of a cerebral, rational and measured president by a bigot is a testimony to this change. Another example would be the attacks against political correctness. In recent Republican discourse, including Trump's, political correctness became a vice.

The loss of truth and its promotion by the partisan media is undoubtedly related to the dissonance created by the liberal hypocrisy I have discussed here. The promises of the liberal order on freedom and equality have failed so soundly, and we have been grabbed (you know from where) by charismatic authoritarian leaders so strongly, that reality as we know it has completely shattered. We now live in their reality, which changes according to their needs. Transnational corporations will inevitably reach a deal with the Clown-in-Chief and the Sultan-Reincarnate, however I am not so optimistic about the redemption of our liberal values.

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