the painful birth of tomorrow

Illiberal dystopia and liberal utopia

Where did it start? It seemed that Putin has drawn the 1990s Russia out of self-destructive chaos. Then, something has changed and he decided to revive and re-imagine the country according to the romantic nationalist values of 19th century – the same artificial ethos that has previously led humans towards two World Wars and a Cold one. Fatherland, patriotism, patriarchy, orthodoxy, traditionalism, social conservatism, my sphere of influence versus your sphere of influence. "Good old times" with capitalist characteristics and soviet methodology. The size of the country, natural resources and leftover military potential shields many smaller established dictatorships – Syrian or Iranian one.

The torch is being passed on. Some analysts see the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran as a variation of the Marxist, Leninist and Stalinist way of thinking that was furiously exported around the world during most of the USSR's history. Russians have deposed the absolutist Tzar, Iranians got rid of the autocratic Shah. Better and perhaps more democratic society was to be established – and in the early moments it looked so. But Soviet Union soon converged into Bolshevik dystopia and personality cult – and the ayatollah in Iran had his own idea of "velayat-e-faqih" (a leadership of God's deputy). There, the resemblance may end. Iranian reboot has happened 70 years later, but while the USSR's experiment was about to go extinct soon, the Iranian one proved surprisingly resilient, despite all odds.

Democracies in the West are often changing course at a whim of political party culture, opportunism, popular moods. The constitutions and laws often seem to be based on random ideologies of the day, without any unifying line that would go beyond human "opinions". As sort of a response, Ayatollah Khomeini reinvented "democracy with a fixed reference point in the universe". God. In Iranian context it meant Shia Islam. That precluded draconic laws in terms of gender (female subjugation) and sexuality (mass murder of queer people) that exist to this day. The elections between different parties are being held in Iran regularly – as much as in the West – with a little tweak: candidates vetoed by a religious board and the supreme leader. The inner culture is diverse, although within the limitations of the religious ideology. You can, but ...

Islamic revolution has survived the initial chaos, dealt with the other factions of the opposition to Shah, terrorist attacks, hostage crisis, almost a decade-long war with Iraq, even the death of its grand designer. It successfully exported the radical islamist thinking around the Middle East, including its own sectarian adversaries – Sunnis - that have adapted and perfected the theocracy concept. 21st century world has awoken surprised that despite the collapse of much bigger "Empire of Evil", Iranian Islamic Republic – a weird blend of modernity and feudalism, technocracy and theocracy - is still here, thriving. Putin's Machiavellianist blend of religion-referencing conservatism, cryptic or overt machismo and police state – is just a generic adaptation of surprisingly resilient islamic-republic model, that might have been initially inspired by the earlier Russian/Soviet history.

Obscurantist democracies growing in size and strength - a surprising Domino effect took its course. Orban's illiberal democracy. Christian-fundamentalist madness of PiS rule in Poland. Trump causing a mayhem in one of the most reliable democracies in West. Even if China is a one-party dictatorship, Communist Party (now implementing quite harsh capitalist if not imperialist policies) can be loosely compared to a parliament with different factions expressing various opinions on the topics of the day. Now even this fragile plurality was swept by Xi's personal autocracy. Duterte ruling the Phillipines. Bolsonaro turning the Brasil towards neo-fascism. Arab spring mostly resulting in a tightening grip of the persistent military/hereditary structures. Erdogan's reinvention of Turkey as religion-heavy police state. Indonesia awakening from decades of secular compromise (in form of military dictatorships) rediscovers is democratic liberties in coquetting with fundamentalist Islamic principles. The casino-economy fragility of the system's design once again invoked instinctive panic - "let's get back to the good old times when all seemed to work" - and hence the traditional "values".

Conservative upsurge is not something unknown in modern history. The societal moods alter almost as a seasonal weather. In fact, the cycles influence the whole world simultaneously to some extent. We may meditate on action and reaction effect. The market economies produce winners and losers, even on globalized business scene - the collapsing countries take to radical solutions. As one nation militarizes, the other ones feel compelled to stand to the threat – in a "bad vibe pandemic." In 1950s, the communism in post-war Eastern Europe committed the most violent crimes, to some extent the McCarthyism hysteria mirrored this heat also in the West. 1960s brought the thaw - hippie, student and sexual revolutions in US, France or Western Germany, but relaxing of politburo grip in Czechoslovakia as well, while Mao abused the spirit of the day with his Cultural Revolution, electrifying hordes of young students who rebelled violently against everything old. 1980s brought gloomy Raeganism, oppressive Thatcherism, but also feeling of never-ending normalized communism in Eastern Europe and conservative Islamic Revolution in Iran, not to forget HIV tragedy or Moral Majority excesses of the times. 1990s collapse of East Bloc brought general exhilaration around the world, the ideas of The End of History – the final victory of democracy and market economy – and quite an opulently hedonist culture wave. This permeated even to the societies like still-communist China, or still-Islamic Iran. Apartheid collapsed, as much as some military dictatorships embedded through the cold war. A pervasive feeling of optimism and safety in one place allows for the relaxing moods elsewhere. Et vice versa.

The tao of political mess

The responsible leader standing above factional quarrels see the changes as moments of disruption – wary not to allow them to escalate beyond control. The strategist thinks of the mood swings as of the opportunities – especially the conservative ones are easy to navigate and capitalize (standing on no rational grounds: just slogans, artificial pseudo-values, ancient man-written books, prejudices and identity preconceptions). How to survive this period without wars or major harm to the minorities and diversity of the society as a whole?

The conservatives usually happen to hold the reins in periods of instability and insecurity – whether economical or ecological. Ironically enough, those calamities are usually consequences of irresponsible conduct in libertarian economic policies prevalent usually in the right-wing parties portfolios. People try to restore feeling of safety and security through the habitual memes – associations with "strong hand" "police/miltary", or almost "allmighty leader". "Taming the berserk beast", "fixing things", "restoring of the order" is a task for the personality types that prefer flexing muscles rather than indulging in philosophy. The physical guys with a bit less empathy and social skills, the "doers" – traits usually found in police, army, paramilitia, all-male cigars-and-whisky salons, or generally conservative circles. Being and acting in accord with their predispositions, the tight order usually gets out of hand and permeates too many aspects of life – even the intimate and cultural spheres. A counter-reaction: the liberal artists rebel. Even if they are suppressed and eliminated by the regime, never in history have the conservatives achieved any desired progress, because it's themselves who usually inhibit it. It is the people on the fringe, free-thinkers, provocateurs, differently-gifted, non-conformist and subversive folks (queers as their prominent example and usual pariahs) – that come up with the ideas and innovations. If the conservatives do not find a way to employ these minds to work with them (think of China's abuse of "liberty-proliferating" internet as a tool to monitor its citizens), they will work against it. Sooner or later the tight society will stagnate, ferment and rot.

Changing of the liberal and conservative spirit of the society can be viewed as a play of the opposites, one pair in the infinite row in taoist view of the world. They balance each-other – perhaps not simultaneously, but in a continuous tug-of-war, over the course of time. The periods of expansion and contraction. Feeling of safety accompanied by the openness, enhancement of diversity, creative chaos – and feeling of insecurity answered with closing, protectionism, uniformity, order and leader-reliance. If straight world is often trapped in a perspective of permanent battle – good against evil, us versus them, winners and losers – the liberals and conservatives go into panic alternately as their ideal world crumbles down. The war perpetuates itself, especially if each camp awaits the other one to die out.

The mechanics of illiberal times are quite transparent. We know how they creep in, what emotions sustain them, what are their strong and weak points. In terms of ancient Chinese philosophy as summed up in The Book of Changes (I Jing) – if you come to the top of the mountain, now all the ways go down. Achieving a goal is a time to prepare for inevitable downfall. So how to pass through the cycles safely? How to align with them and benefit from them? How to pull in each direction gently? How to prevent the excesses from happening? And perhaps - how to honor both of the manifesting energies, how to hear both of the contradictory needs, harmonizing them simultaneously, without having to tug back and forth stressing each-other out? If accepting the cyclic process as natural, is it possible to achieve a sense of continuity and genuine stability?

Right-wing wave and its wavelengths

The current state of Europe reflects the regressive energy around the world. Society closing in (as counterbalance to openness), reinforcement of nation state identities, self-centered economies, lack of frontier solidarity (as counterbalance to activist/idealist slogans of "tear down all the borders"), the resurgence of values and identities and limits (as counterbalance to vaguely defined and miscommunicated multiculturalism), withdrawing inwards, return to traditions. The key to address the problem is both perspective and deep understanding. Finding a center satisfying for both sides - instead of each current (conservatives and liberals) fighting its own image of "the enemy", pulling the world to their side, pushing their inflexible and inhuman ideologies.

Whatever difficult and unacceptable the detachment may sound, each painful moment in the history is a lesson for the collective consciousness. It addresses us in rather clear language. Just what is says might be so offending to the mind that we are not ready to hear it yet. If nothing else, the liberal side of the liberal world learned the hard way that there is the other side. Oh! Wow! Where did all these bad people come from?! The correct question is: How come we did not notice? How could have we been so arrogant? Why no one has signaled about this enormous societal shift, no one predicted it? Why did we find ourselves in such a dumb shocked grimace? Along the non-judgmental thinking: Why do we see them as the "bad people"? The other side. The enemy. The lost sheep. What made them act and choose the way they did – and what was not done (by us) to prevent it? What fears are they responding to?

In a moment when understanding the motivation of the other warring party was needed the most, we were not in that state of mind at all. The "liberal camp" responded in sheer panic and hysteria. Throwing labels in all directions – "populists, demagogues, racists". Everyone ready to explain how evil they are, no one seriously curious how and why did they undergo their particular process of becoming. Those people carry fears – and the fears can't be just labeled as wrong. Fears may be listened to and might be dispersed – but not if they are judged in the first place as "unfounded", "stupid", "fake". If that part of the society shattered our vision, how did we communicate that vision to them before-hands? Perhaps they did not understand us? The post-modern intellectuals usually compete in turning the paradigms and perspectives upside down – to impress each-other, the intelligent elite, the consumers of high art – but who has remained there to translate, simplify and communicate this to the rest? Why does rural country and the working class feel like being mocked by the elites? Is it so difficult to imagine an implemented vision of society being communicated by different intellectuals and artists on multiple levels of complexity and outreach?

I know it hurts just considering that our vision might be wrong. But hey, half of the society – as the election domino has proved – thinks that. Is it possible to admit, that the idea, ideal or ideology that we have pursued before the U-turn - was incomplete? Because it somehow excluded half of the society? What does conservative side wants to say? Not on surface of what is happening, not by stupid words they say and aggressive acts they do. Deep below - what they need, what they fear? What's the dynamics and mechanics of that fear? Perhaps the 1990s version of end-of-history liberalism was too idealist - not real, not sustainable, faulty in some way - and we need to find its upgraded version 2.0 - plausible for more of us. Considering, inspecting, analyzing the conservative mind – as in empathizing, trying to see their thinking processes, their reasoning and motivations, trying the devil's advocate role - is paradoxically a way for liberalism and multiculturalism and real (not illiberal) democracy anywhere to revive. We need platform and will for this discussion. So far it is just a repulsive idea, a battle to fight, an enemy to defeat.

This contraction period is happening, the question is if we should go against this energy (resist, fight, protect, rebel, provoke) - or rather to align with it, though still staying true to ourselves? Not adopting our adversaries' world views, opinions and prejudices – just tuning in the mood of the day (in positive sense), so that we are on the similar wave-length with them at least in this metaphoric way. That's the advise I'd get from any sensible political guide that humankind has ever used: The more we stubbornly resist, yell and engage in battle - the more we support the "spirit of battle" (war, prevail or defeat, win or lose, enemies and allies, offend and defend), which I find a bigger concern and more damaging quality - than on which side we actually stand at the moment. Facing people who build walls, instead of shouting "erase all the borders", I'd invite to think why does that topic of borders live on, what does it want to say, what archetypal quality it refers to, what balance it tries to restore, how that applies to me in various small-scope and big-picture situations?

How did it happen?

Is it an inappropriate question? Talking about the surprise - of all those reemerging zealots and bigots - we are plainly referencing an issue with the cognitive/reflective capability of the citizenship. Who's covering that one in a machine of the society?Most of the illiberal regimes and tendencies in and out of Europe were set up through takeover of media - by governments, entrepreneurs, corporations - abusing laisse-faire media environment. The conservative and illiberal shift in Eastern Europe happened thanks to a missed quarter-century to remodel the post-totalitarian society. Instead of imprinting the deep understanding and sympathy for democracy, a bitter anti-communism reigned (alongside the privately held and shamed nostalgia for the old times of comfortable security). This disaster was born through the particular selection of programs, series, films, through the political discussions and how they were held, through the choice of presented opinions – in a very attentive and formative period just after the liberalizing of the media. Whether it is conservatism, religiosity, homophobia – those patterns were replicated and embedded as "this is us", "this is our identity", "this is how we differ". The reason why they are suddenly the xenophobic and backwardish and lethally inflamed appendix of Europe is that they were – by both intention and ignorance – let become this way.

It just hits the eye – and the illiberal era is a rightful punishment from gods for that - how the current catastrophe was deliberately allowed to happen. Everyone observed and commented on Fox News journalism in US for years – but it existed and continued to invent and broadcast a distorted image of the world to a large misinformed audience. Brexit, as absurd and counter-productive idea as it is, was likewise prefabricated by Murdoch's tabloid media in United Kingdom. Everyone knew it, everyone talked about it, then it happened, then everyone is baffled and even with sheepish reverence accepts the outcome. The absurd and quite unfounded "democratic" concept of majority of those who decided to cast a vote – which in absolute numbers was just 36%. How could that be addressed? Is the obligatory vote viable? Can one really abstain from decision where his indifference has impact on himself and the others?

These words from an Anthony Hilton column for the Evening Standard might just sum it up:

"I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. 'That's easy,' he replied. 'When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice."

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

The owners or usurpers of media - whether Murdoch's empire or Russian oligarch mafia - prefer less free type of government that is more favorable to their economic interests. Or, alternately, the media have just debilitated through the mechanisms of market and corporations, profit drive, bureaucratization, eliminating educated and responsible editors and journalists by "natural selection". It is dangerous to let free-market/corporate mechanisms be applied to the domain that forms opinions and minds of most of the society. That directly defines the cognitive and reflective capacity of the human society. What's happening, what are the facts, what they assemble to. Instead of educating less-endowed classes, the media have followed flawed "we just give them what they want" entertainer doctrine. They fed them movies, series, shows, tabloid, skewed news – which were supporting, embedding and deepening their prejudices, mis-beliefs, hate, craving for strong leaders, dislike for democracy, revival of senseless nationalist awareness, unleashing of mob instincts, emotions instead of arguments...

Our Putin/Trump/Brexit reality is result of media policies (or lack of them) that we had so far. EU and other world societies totally failed in media-skill education of its citizens as well as in regulating corporate media fallout - how they form the human awareness, how they misinform, how they can reinforce the narrow-minded-ness. A possible renewal of Europe is directly dependent on dealing with this topic. Holding on to the simplicist maxims like: "media must be free, otherwise there is no freedom" without any comment on impact and responsibility – is quite a counter-productive cramp. Is a total laisse-faire an answer how to get more freedom? Did it ever prove working this way in history, all the relevant variables and context taken into account?

What did we lose and what we might win

Let's admit that the original liberal set of ideas (or dogmas) was flawed. What were they anyways? One of the least-missed forms of liberal stream is the so-called "neo-liberalism", an out-of-hands economic scheme disastrous for the environment and characteristic with a total resignation on any moral values. Business saves the day – no embargoes, no punishment of rogue regimes, no isolation – let's trade with them, they will open up, they will humanize. The "end of history" ideology. Everyone will benefit if everyone can buy cool gadgets. Iranian bystanders can shoot hangings of "amoral people" on their smartphones, Chinese can use technologies for suppressing dissent, Russian troll farms destroy the liberal democracies.

The cultural differences. People are allowed to have different values. The social liberalism of the West and the machismo identity of the East. Somewhere women are independent, somewhere they are housewives, somewhere they can't drive, somewhere they "can freely choose to have not other option than having to" wear certain dress, congregate in separate spaces, have no access to some services or decisions about their lives. Somewhere gays marry, somewhere people have "different values" and execute them. No judging, no culture is inferior, everyone's equal. Isn't it ironic that (fake) moralism is one of the symptoms of this "right-wing takeover"? What would be the liberal morals? Was it "do what ye will an it harm none?" or "do what you want at home unless you step on my toe"? Is interfering in someone else home affairs rude? Is it patronizing – or even cultural imperialism – to report a neighbor beating his wife, or to physically defend a weakling being harassed by the bully? Is standing to violence with violence unacceptable? Is war always bad, in absolute numbers?

That sneered upon "export of democracy" and "cultural imperialism by imposing progressive social values" (on other cultures, with their own ancient history, their own set of values) might be actually just a genuine attempt to replace oppression of domestic/intrinsic cultures upon the individual. The ideal state of affairs being the one when an individual can choose and create his own culture. It's not a dominance of liberal democracy over others, it's a "no dogma" system replacing various local flavors of "how we have been always doing it". Aculturalism instead of multi-culturalism. The latter being widely misinterpreted – instead of system where everyone can wear/do/believe whatever they choose to it is sold as a system where everyone is free to enforce his ideology on his peers, his wife, his children. Multi-culturalism as a colorful mosaic of dogmas is an insult to the hundreds years of efforts by the more enlightened humans to resist mind-rape by religious ideologues. Europe as the first space in modern history conceived and implemented a secular system with humanitarian values, just to dump it for the fakely-nice protection against offending a particular religious sensitivity.

Let's admit that many of those fancy colorful alternative millenial currents were a mixture of pseudo-science, conspiracy theories and ever-popular revolutionary language. The "evil capitalism" is just a market-economy that also generates incentive, innovation and resource efficiency – aside of so many negative externalities to be addressed. The "big bad corporations" are not James Bond's caricature villains vying to take over the world, but the assemblies of calculating and selfish humans, who make their own lives more cozy. Capitalism and corporations are tools that drive the best and the worst of human nature – if left without supervision. Ironically, corporations act in the most damaging way when they distort the market through their size and power (no one ever addressed what happens with the beautiful competition when someone actually wins it) or their employees embed in the internal bureaucracy so reminiscent of totalitarian central planning states with the cult of leadership.

The triggering topic of the borders is symbolic on so many layers. The excesses of no-control global business could be rephrased as lacking any spine, moral values. There's a felt need to confine it, to set borderlines for behavior of the players. Nationalism might be just very poorly grasped, misunderstood need for a balance between the benefits for the local community and the global good. Keep the jobs at home, keep some wealth at home – then perhaps we can talk of sharing it. In a world economy with no sense of "home", that idea is being rediscovered according to the out-dated memes. The Earth's ecosystem might be collapsing, but the enthusiast ideas of "erasing all the borders", "come everyone", in absolute take (as much as tearing down all the walls is) would cause collapse of not only local economy, but local ecosystem. Absolutism is one-sided. The ideological war between solidarity towards the people in need and the vainly-nationalist selfishness is a misconception developed by one camp of this skirmish. What if the other side does not see it in those terms at all? What if they have sense of solidarity – that was not recognized or properly addressed? What if their concern is poor communication of why what and how we are going to do – from the side of the heroes of the battle? The election results prove this clearly – the proper communication did not happen and it is exactly what is needed as a next step. Or the communication channels as designed by the whole of society failed.

The post-modern art finally liberated itself from the constraints of any particular style. No more realism, impressionism, expressionism. Anything goes. Juxtapose objects in unusual contexts. Install and engage with audience creatively. Shock, upturn, impress by mastery of some technique. No definitions of art, no purpose of art, no function of art. I talk – you listen. There is not one way to interpret it, there is no preferred way, there is even no imperative of having to express something. Just an act – that you can perceive as you want and make of it whatever you wish to. It can say unlimited number of things, it can talk to everyone. Does it? What if the delusion of "wide-reach" and "multitude of meanings" betrays quite the opposite. The elitism incomprehensible to the masses. No intention, no meaning, no added value. Who educates the masses? Who interprets the new ideas to the masses? Who cares or dares to send message to the masses through art? The thought of the ideological function of art – why we produce it, why we support it, why it helps the society - being so outdated and sacrilegious.

The queer people decide to focus on consume. Drugs are said to be an expression of individual liberty – regardless of what criminal and oppressive structures they create in the remote regions where the resources are harvested or the substances produced. They focus on enforcing preferred pronouns linguistics and penalizing those who feel weird about it – instead of a proper communication campaign to make it feel justified. Assimilation is pursued, normality, family and other old traditional heteronormative values revered, the ancient straight institutions opened up to non-straight couples (just to prove we are like everyone else), possessive monogamy imitated – and then there's an amazement, why the traditional values still rule. There's not much solidarity with other LGBTIAQ+ folk elsewhere in the world. Stand for yourself, we are not going to oppress you with our interference. The war is evil, even the war that would liberate you, even the one when liberating you would be just a side-effect of more cynical pursuit of the business and resource-hunting.

Glad that the good times are gone

I can't say I will miss much of what was described above. Seeing the world theater as a tug-o-war between the old liberal ideas and the old traditional ways, is childish. What is really old, ready to die and rot, is the concept of "us against them". Even in convincing and unshakable self-image of following the right just and humanist values, the way out is through acknowledging the balance. Being open and closed. Trying new ways but preserving what works. Transcending but also knowing the limits. The borders are not bad – borders are natural. Human body is not infinite – it has borders of its skin. They define from where to where it is me – and where someone else or something else starts. The borders divide but also define things as distinct. They are an inherent part of multitude and therefore diversity. Borders between continents, natural regions – allowed for millions of species to develop within the diverse circumstances. Even the human borders may divide different customs, allowing us to recognize them, describe them, test them.

The balance between expansion and contraction, diffusion and separation, coming closer and coming distant – is just another shape and shade of balance. A laboratory experiment to try out. A lesson. This is a period of rotting of the liberal dream, the decay out of which a new healthier and more resilient life can sprout. The process of losing the cherished old vision will be painful of course. But the pursuit of perpetual happiness is a discredited idea. The icons of psychoanalysis rather call for the quest for meaning. We can resist the hurting agent of the transformation, we can clench teeth and try to persist, we can also lament over the loss - or we can participate in the process and make it meaningful for us. The conservatives have put that somewhat greedy caterpillar in a cocoon, constrictive as it may feel now, but it may create a quiet, supporting, inspiring space to get reborn as something else - beautiful, different, good.