In recent years, discussions of politics in the West have been peppered with ominous warnings – democratic backsliding, authoritarian populism, neo-fascist movements and the end of liberal democracy.
This is of particular concern in countries like the United States, which has spent much of the last century bragging about being the leader of the “free world”. Now some are warning that the democracy that underpins America’s role in the world is on the verge of far-right authoritarianism.
The history of liberal democracy – the expression itself and the countries that claim to represent it – is full of cruelty, slavery and disenfranchisement. These have long undermined states’ claims to be liberal democracies. A turn towards authoritarianism is an unsurprising consequence of Western so-called liberal democracy itself.
Michael W. Doyle and Francis Fukuyama, influential liberal scholars of international relations, both claim that the United States was a “liberal democracy” at the end of the 18th century. Yet the first US census, in 1790, counted 697,624 slaves, while the 1860 census showed that figure had risen to nearly 4 million. Women, on the other hand, remained without the right to vote or other civil rights.
Doyle and Fukuyama cite Britain as a liberal democracy at the height of its imperialist activity in the 19th century. They call Belgium a liberal democracy as it routinely mutilated Congolese children to extort more work from their enslaved parents as recently as the early 20th century.
What was “liberal” or “democratic” in societies in which half the population did not have the right to vote because of their sex, and in which millions of people faced indignity and dehumanization of slavery? In this sense, as the anthropologist Lilith Mahmud said, in the West “we have never been liberal”.
The myth of liberal democracy
Liberal democracy is what Mahmud calls a “westernist myth”, a way of representing “the West” as a coherent political space. It only entered our popular vocabulary in the 1930s and 1940s, accelerating its use during the height of World War II. As a concept, it provided Allied countries with a means of defining themselves in opposition to the fascism of their Axis enemies.
But fascism – a form of far-right authoritarian politics often associated with eugenic racism – is not as foreign to these Western societies as many of their historians, politicians and citizens assume. In their imperialist international relations, which were only beginning to weaken at the start of World War II, the self-proclaimed liberal democracies freely practiced many of the things that were associated with German fascism in the 1930s-40s.
In the societies they colonized, these states exercised authoritarian political control, resorted to arbitrary detention and torture, and pioneered concentration camps and genocidal violence. Poet and anti-colonial theorist Aimé Césaire dubbed the rise of fascism in Europe “the boomerang effect”: violent dehumanization honed in Europe’s return colonies.
Authoritarian tendencies are part of the fabric of the liberal democratic state. It’s pretty obvious to see in our current times, where blacks, Asians, and other minority ethnic groups are routinely subjected to racist police tactics and brutality.
A society where this happens can be more accurately described as a “capitalist white supremacist patriarchy,” a term coined by the late feminist critic and social theorist bell hooks. It describes a system that profits from inequality and exploitation, and privileges wealthy white men over other groups.
The neofascist response
The fear of the rise of fascism and the decline of democracy in the West is not the effect of “foreign” populist politicians. It is the internal contradictions of liberal democracy that are reaching a critical moment.
The actions of neofascist forces are a response to the newly energized progressive social movements that have emerged in recent years. By denouncing “political correctness”, by attacking feminist and anti-racist values and by defending the statues of colonialists and slaveholders, the new far right is calling for a return to the very Western values that truly underpin liberal democracy. As Bell Hooks wrote in 1994:
The public figures who tell us the most about a return to old-fashioned values…are the most committed to maintaining systems of domination – racism, sexism, class exploitation and imperialism.
These sentiments correspond directly to far-right movements in the US, UK, Australia, France, Italy and the wider West. Until we can recognize that Western liberal democracy itself contains the seeds of fascism and develop viable alternatives, it remains an ever-present danger.