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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.