The similarities to the world that produced the Russian revolution are too close for comfort, argues Adrian Wooldridge
This is a period of miserable centenaries. First, in 2014, came that of the outbreak of the first world war, which destroyed the liberal order. Then, in 2016, that of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest conflicts in military history. In 2017 it will be 100 years since Lenin seized power in Russia. Lenin’s putsch led to a succession of tragedies: Stalin’s rise to power; the death of more than 20m people as a result of the collectivisation of agriculture and forced industrialisation; and, partly in reaction to communism, the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.
From the dying days of the second world war onwards, Western policy was dedicated to making sure that the problems that had produced authoritarianism, both left and right, could not occur again. The Allies created a triad of global institutions—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations—that were supposed to stabilise the global economy and prevent conflict. Most countries built (or reinforced) welfare states to provide safety nets and ladders of opportunity. America led a policy of containment that first limited the expansion of the Soviet Union and then led to its collapse.
Yet this golden age is coming to an end. This time the first shots are being fired by the right rather than the left, by the Brexiteers in Britain and Donald Trump in America. But the similarities between the collapse of the liberal order in 1917 and today are stark. They start with the fin de siècle atmosphere. The 40 years before the Russian revolution were years of liberal triumphalism. Free trade (led by the British) brought the world together. Liberal democracy triumphed in Britain and America and looked like the coming thing elsewhere. The years from 1980 were a similar period of triumphalism. Globalisation (led by America) advanced relentlessly. The number of countries that qualified as democracies multiplied. Politicians of the right and left competed to demonstrate their fealty to the “Washington consensus”.
The world has thankfully been spared another total war (though parts of the Middle East are in flames). But other parallels are striking. In America Mr Trump promises to take a pitchfork to the entire liberal order: not just to free trade and liberal values but also to global alliances against rogue regimes. In Britain Theresa May, the prime minister, is trying to extricate her country from the European Union. Mr Trump’s victory will embolden other Western authoritarians, such as Marine Le Pen and strengthen anti-Western authoritarians, notably Vladimir Putin. Mr Putin is much more the embodiment of the spirit of his age than is the outgoing American president, Barack Obama.
Who’s guilty and what is to be done?
Some of the blame for this lies with happenstance. The Democrats might not have lost the election if they hadn’t nominated Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of a decaying establishment, and Britain would not be preparing to leave the EU if David Cameron had not taken the fateful decision to experiment with direct democracy. But the liberal order itself is also to blame.
The global economy has delivered too many of its benefits to the richest: in America, the proportion of after-tax income going to the top 1% doubled from 8% in 1979 to 17% in 2007. And in many ways the future looks worse. Productivity growth has slowed. Unless this can be changed, politics will inevitably become a struggle over dividing up the pie. Tech giants such as Google and Amazon enjoy market shares not seen since the late 19th century, the era of the robber barons.
How can liberals save what is left of the liberal order? Part of the solution lies in being more vigorous in its defence—for example, pointing out that globalisation has lifted millions out of poverty and that reversing it will make today’s economic woes much worse. Part of the solution lies in exposing liberalism’s enemies as the paper tigers that they are: Mr Putin, in particular, presides, by fear and fraud, over a country whose economic power is stalling and whose people are plagued by poverty and illness. Other strongmen around the world are far less tough than they claim.
But liberalism’s champions must do more than just repeat tired mantras. They need to take worries about immigration more seriously and check their instinct to ride roughshod over minorities such as evangelical Christians. They also need to redouble their efforts to fix capitalism’s most obvious problems. High levels of inequality are threatening stability. Economic concentration is allowing companies to extract record profits. Overregulation is driving businesspeople to distraction. The revival of bolshiness has already taken a terrible toll. Liberals need to think more clearly, and act more forcefully, to stop the rot.
*Will Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump host the other for an official state visit before 1 October 2017? Test your forecasting skills at the Good Judgment Open/The World in 2017 challenge, at gjopen.com/economist