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The Strange Death of Liberal Democracy

Liberal democracy is a salvational ideology like any religion. What happens now our faith is beginning to crumble?
Scot Atran 2
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Decades on from George Bush’s War on Terror, the battle between liberal democracy and Islamic fundamentalism continues to rage. Whilst one is a political system, and the other an extreme form of religious ideology, is it possible that both are manifestations of the same innate human need to believe in a higher power? US anthropologist Scott Atran contends that a resolute belief in democracy is merely a modern version of our need to have faith.

“To prevent the destruction of human democracy we are willing to destroy ourselves and the world,” says Atran. “All of the ideologies that have been successful since the French Revolution, that have carried people, have been salvational, secularised religious ideologies. That is, each contains the idea that we can save humanity and we have the right message.”

These ideologies of salvation will go to extraordinary lengths to protect and justify themselves. Atran points to the development of the atomic bomb by way of example. “The people I knew who fought in the Second World War, like my father, who saved western Europe, at the same time these were the people who were prepared to blow the world up for pointlessness.”

“In order to prevent ourselves from being so threatened again, they developed a policy that would have, if executed, destroyed the world. They built weapons of mass destruction, the likes of which the world had never seen and which, if used, would end civilisation as we know it. For what reason? It is a product of the western tradition of liberal democracy and human rights. To prevent the destruction of human democracy we are willing to destroy ourselves and the world.”

But, for Atran, such a devastating irony is not limited to the twentieth century. He sees the same patterns being repeated again and again. “I was always struck after the 9/11 attacks that George Bush wrote the preface to the national security doctoral in the united states in which he stated that there is only one society that is right, true and good for everybody and every place. The Ayatollah Khamenei said almost exactly the same thing at almost exactly the same time. Of course the punchline was different: one was Islamic democracy, and one was liberal democracy. But both sincerely believed it. Both sincerely believe in what they are saying and will fight to the death, I think. Bush definitely would have, and certainly the Ayatollah Khamenei would have for those particular ideals.”    

But the belief in liberal democracy is being shaken in the West. Atran points to voter apathy as evidence that belief in the current system is dwindling. “If you look at the results of the recent European parliamentary elections you see the rise of the radical right and the radical left that harkens back to the days of the 1920s and 1930s. It causes me at least to question whether liberal democracy is as secure as we thought it was.”

“Our current structure is crumbling," he continues. “There’s a crisis of values in the sense that democratic liberalism has run its course to the extent that people are no longer confident in the institutions associated with it. The average Brit or American no longer has confidence in their institutions. Would they forsake the current system for a different one? No. But they are no longer confident in their institutions or even elections, and that is cause for alarm.”


Image credit: Bob Bob

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terence williams on 12/02/2015 1:31pm

Any society at any point in history expresses a collective or received 'attitude of mind'. That something is an 'attitude' that must always be grounded in 'mind', however it is collective or numerous in its sharing, does not carry with it automatic guarantee of its correctness. This is the whimsical 'porridge' from which 'ethics' arise, but, likewise, ethics carry no automatic convergence with 'values' grounded in virtue. What may suit the society and culture of the Roman amphitheatre in Nero's day, or the tenets of the Third Reich, can be ethical standards in direct opposition to the values of virtue. Indeed, the ethical basis of a society may indeed conflict with such values, as is usual in cases of excessive liberalism, for which today's society is an excellent paradigm. More reliable and hope of correctness is to be found in the devotional commital of private mind to the values of moral intuitive knowing, and this shows how political, (however democratic), straitjackets of collective thinking can often be entirely wrong-headed.

terence williams on 12/02/2015 1:29pm

Any society at any point in history expresses a collective or received 'attitude of mind'. That something is an 'attitude' that must always be grounded in 'mind', but however it is collective or numerous in its sharing, it does not carry with it automatic guarantee of its correctness. This is the whimsical 'porridge' from which 'ethics' arise, but, likewise, ethics carry no automatic convergence with 'values' grounded in virtue. What may suit the society and culture of the Roman amphitheatre in Nero's day, or the tenets of the Third Reich, can be ethical standards in direct opposition to the values of virtue. Indeed, the ethical basis of a society may indeed conflict with such values, as is usual in cases of excessive liberalism, for which today's society is an excellent paradigm. More reliable and hope of correctness is to be found in the devotional commital of private mind to the values of moral intuitive knowing, and this shows how political, (however democratic), straitjackets of collective thinking can often be entirely wrong-headed.

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