After the protests, what next? A debate on liberalism

Andrew Sheng writes exclusively for the Asia News Network. The old order is broken.  No less than Russian President Putin has declared the Neoliberal order “obsolete”.   We now have to think the unthinkable – every dream has turned into a nightmare – the land of the free no longer seems to welcome anyone, whilst the freest […]


July 8, 2019

Andrew Sheng writes exclusively for the Asia News Network.

The old order is broken.  No less than Russian President Putin has declared the Neoliberal order “obsolete”.   We now have to think the unthinkable – every dream has turned into a nightmare – the land of the free no longer seems to welcome anyone, whilst the freest economy in the world is under siege by massive protests.

What is the New Order?  How do we deal with the myriad problems of inequality, climate change, technological disruption to jobs, de-globalization and fragmentation of society?   If everyone protests to hold the rest of society at ransom, how is possible to govern?

We can trace this tectonic shift to America’s disorderly abandonment of the order she helped to construct over the last 70 years.   In the last six months, the Tweet Tiger in the White House has threatened almost every ally you can think of – Europe and Japan (threatening auto tariffs and renegotiating security arrangements), India (imposing new tariffs), Singapore and Malaysia (added to currency watch-list) and even called Vietnam “almost the single worst abuser of everybody”.

As the old saying goes, with friends like that, who needs enemies?

The irony is that the problem is actually world-wide.  Rational thinking does not seem to work in a world where irrationality and radical uncertainty seems to be the rule.

At the heart of the issue is the loss of trust between the masses and the elites.  Once trust is lost, order descends to disorder.

Most societies are hierarchical, with an elite at the top and the public essentially delegating their governance to the elite under an important social contract.   The few who govern take care of the interests of everyone else, especially the weak and under-privileged.

The fundamental weakness of the “free market” liberal order is that in the last forty years, especially with the spread of the Internet and financialization, inequality haswidened to breaking point.  The complacent elites have been blind to the emergence of the Precariat, so called because much of the middle class is precariously hanging on and is in serious danger of slipping into poverty or becoming more in debt.

Elite blindness is not unique to this age.   During the French Revolution, the ruling royalty had no clue that the growing agricultural masses, as well as the exploited workers at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, were about to storm the Bastille.

250 years later, mass rebellion is becoming viral.   You vote with your feet, as desperate farmers in the water-stressed and strive torn areas of Sub-Sahara and Middle East are migrating to Europe.  The middle class in the rich countries are feeling massive insecurity from the loss of good jobs, as the listed companies have no conscience in cutting staff whenever they need to cut costs.  Technocratic elites celebrate robotics and Artificial Intelligence, but forget how working in the“gig” economy, more and more people become independent sub-contractors, who face uneven anduncertain income, but with growing expenditure from health care and education costs for their young.   No wonder more and more are stressed by their growing debt burden.

According to one survey, as much as 39 percent of Americans have $1,000 in savings to cover emergencies and one fifth would borrow from credit cards to cover emergencies.   If rich countries feel this pain, you can imagine why mass protests appear to break out sporadically in Czech Republic, Venezuela and Hong Kong, each for very different reasons.

There is a pattern to this madness.

First, we have arrived at the era of the Knowledge Society, when most people don’t know the difference between true and fake news!

Before the Internet, most people relied on experts, professionals or leaders, who have more experience and skills built up over daily interaction with them.

Today, we need experts, when anyone can ask Google or Wikipedia for any opinion and view on anything.   We feel empowered by our access to knowledge, available instantly on our mobile phones, but in instant form that we either like or delete in 5 seconds.   This creates an echo chamber of “likes” and “dislikes”, in which we are fed by algorithms that reinforces our beliefs, prejudices and biases.

These algorithms reduce complexity to sound bites or video cartoons, creating the illusion that you can have anything you want instantly (but only if you have money).   If not, you simply network to those who think alike, creating digital crowds that feed your grievances.  Indeed, there are groups that go round the world teaching the young how to protest and create the digital mob!

At the other spectrum, politics has become a Gladiator game in which you can do anything to win.  But thedigital gladiators have lost sight of why they are in politics.  Politicis is not there to serve the public good, but to inflate the digital ego, a sense of billion-sized power who live for the moment and to hell with thedelivery of promises.

To Putin, liberal democracy can only fail because there is no “hard budget constraint” to liberalism.  We would all like to be kinder, gentler and tolerant of everything – but we cannot afford it.   But why worry if the politicians are able to entertain you with all kinds of promises that cannot be delivered.   The point of electoral democracy is that they are chosen to disrupt, rather than the harder task of reform or actual governance.

As columnist Martin Wolf aptly puts it, “people increasingly think of their elites as incompetent, or crooks”.   Worse still, the politicians are “captured”, representing whoever funds their elections rather than the public at large.

The Web demands instant sound-bites and simple answers to very complex questions.  So the only way politicians can respond is to promise everything that sounds great, but deliver nothing but entertainment for some, but higher stress for anyone who knows all this will end in tears.

The French Revolution was unfinished, because Napoleon restored order through fighting the rest of Europe.   He diverted mob energy to fight foreigners.

I totally understand why the young want to protest in Hong Kong.   But after the protest, what is the next step?

If the ultimate outcome of the liberal order is to protest, with no solutions on how to address the inequalities, then the liberal order is truly obsolete.

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