Twilight of the Liberal Idols


William Camacaro and Frederick B. Mills

Walt Whitman, the great poet of liberal democracy, who sang the praises of equality and freedom, lived his last years in Camden New Jersey. The humanist’s house stands in front of the Camden County Jail just across Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. As tourists visit the Whitman house, families stand outside the jail waiting to catch a glimpse of the hands of loved ones reaching out the barred windows. This scene is more than a mere symbol. It evokes a reflection on the contradictions within liberalism and the real human suffering that takes its daily toll.  Walking down the boulevard, one may with good reason ask: Are we not living now in the twilight of the liberal idols?

According to the establishment duopoly, we should already be living in a new American century, one that, after the reconfiguration of the world by the US–NATO Alliance, promised to bring peace, prosperity and democracy to all who play by the neoliberal rules. In 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were to understand that there could be no feasible alternative to ‘free’ market economics. Francis Fukuyama’s famous essay, “The End of History?” raised the specter that the “end of history”, had indeed arrived in all its splendor: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War,” wrote Fukuyama, “or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” (The National Interest, No. 16, Summer 1989).

Those who still subscribe to the  “end of history” thesis and the absolute (or for some, divine) spirit that sacralizes it, have some explaining (or apologizing) to do. The thesis, from the very start, has been called into question by the many ruptures in the totalizing mission of Western instrumental rationality.  These ruptures originate in the point of view of solidarity with those living at the margins of the capital system. They indicate that a new world is possible in which all human beings can live and develop in community. Such a vision of the future refuses to accept that we have entered “the final form of human government.”

The end of history never really began. It is worth pointing out that in the same year of that glorious announcement there was an under-reported popular uprising in  Venezuela (the caracazo) against a neoliberal reform package imposed by then President Carlos Andres Perez. History apparently had not ended for the poor in Venezuela (or anywhere for that matter), who constituted the majority of Venezuelans at the time; they had had enough. The immediate outcome was not victory for the oppressed classes. Hundreds, if not several thousand, were gunned down in the streets by the security forces. But the bravo pueblo (the angry people) would return, joined by a new consensus, by the electoral path. A decade later, Hugo Chavez Frias was elected president (December 1998), and the following year the nation was refounded by means of a constituent assembly which established a new constitution. History was far from over, as the Bolivarian movement resumed the project of regional independence and integration.

The “end of history” thesis views such ruptures as aberrations, the nuisance of subalterns standing up to Goliath, in an otherwise steady march of the US–NATO Alliance towards a unipolar world. The neoliberal ideology claims to have not only universal history and ideological hegemony on its side, but the natural and social sciences as well. It maintains that the private accumulation of socially produced wealth is the result of the investment of capital, not of the exploitation of human productive activity in an increasingly unequal exchange. Today, however, in the face of growing economic inequality, increasing social antagonism, and an ever expanding war on terror, the gods of liberalism have been exposed as imposters.

No where is the death of the liberal gods more transparent than in the duplicity of the Democratic party. For decades the Democratic Party has held up the liberal idols of equality, democracy and freedom even as it desecrated them. With Orwellian flourishes, it paid homage to civil rights while stepping up the “war on drugs”; it called for peace in the Middle East and waged preemptive war; it appealed to the middle class while bailing out banks that were “too big to fail”; and it sought the support of Latino voters while imposing historic levels of deportations. This is not say that there are no progressives and humanists in the Party. But it is clear where most of the leadership stands. During the presidential primaries the DNC sought to undermine the left leaning reformist movement led by Bernie Sanders. After the election of Donald Trump, the DNC, far from engaging in self critique as a means of recuperating its traditional base, put a Clinton Democrat in the driver’s seat. Even the establishment New York Times urged in an editorial that the Democratic Party should move to the left. So one might with good reason ask: What in the world has happened to the liberal class?  

As Chris Hedges (2010) argues, in The death of the liberal class (2010), the liberal class is dead because it can no longer mediate between the corporate state and the “restive citizens”.

In killing off the liberal class, the corporate state, in its zealous pursuit of profit, has killed off its most integral and important partner. The liberal class once ensured that restive citizens could settle for moderate reforms. The corporate state, by shutting down reform mechanisms has created a closed system defined by polarization, gridlock, and political theater. It has removed the veneer of virtue and goodness provided by the liberal class.


We can see some of the recent erosion of this “veneer of virtue and goodness provided by the liberal class” in action. At home, the Obama–Clinton Democrats failed to adequately address growing economic and social inequality. It could have done more to stop the lethal and racist human rights violations perpetrated by the militarized police state. Obama declined to go after the state actors that committed torture and rendition during the Bush administration, approved the extension of the Patriot Act and signed off on the National Defense Authorization Act, sharpening the legal weapons for political repression that are now in the hands of the Trump administration. He portrayed himself as a friend of labor while leading the charge on behalf of free trade (TPP). He was ostensibly a champion of renewable clean energy and environmental protection and yet supported increased fracking. And he excluded consideration of single payer health care while hammering out the Affordable Care Act. Given the empirically justified identification of elite liberalism with these establishment politics, it should not have been a surprise that come election time there were plenty of disaffected voters from all walks of life.

On the international stage, President  Barack Obama championed liberty, peace, and democracy while in practice he opened new fronts in the ever nebulous war on terror and deployed soft power to “twist the arms” of non-compliant regimes in the global South. His Administration stepped up the drone war (with a secret kill list); imposed regime change on Libya; supported  ill-defined “rebel” forces in Syria; waited until the last hour to push back against new Israeli settlements; authorized billions in arms sales to Saudi Arabia (which were at last put on pause); and resumed security assistance to the Egyptian dictatorship.  

Washington has not been a good neighbor to either the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) or to the migrants from Central America and Mexico who cross the border into the United States. Liberal Democrats have done little to advance a North–South dialogue based on mutual respect. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a speech before the OAS (Nov. 18, 2013) declared “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over” to an incredulous audience of Latin American and Caribbean leaders. Yet just a few years earlier (2009), in an extraordinary blow to democracy, the administration backed the golpista regime in Honduras after a military coup against President Manuel Zelaya. This led to an atmosphere of repression and massive human rights abuses, including the murder of environmental Indigenous activist Berta Caceres. The Obama administration was virtually mute with regard to what were arguably parliamentary right wing coups in Paraguay (June 22, 2012) and Brazil (Aug. 31, 2016). And though the opening to Cuba was a step forward, it stands in stark contrast to the belligerent Executive Order, renewed just weeks before Trump’s inauguration, declaring Venezuela an extraordinary threat to the national security of the United States. This move placed a blunt instrument for attacking Venezuela in the hands of the extremely partisan Secretary of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro and the Trump administration.

Today the myth that an absolute spirit guiding universal history has selected the United States, above all other nations, as the exceptional nation to lead the world towards the promised land, has lost its ideological grip on all but the most avid true believers. In a Fox News interview, this mythology was completely exposed when Bill O’Reilly alleged that Vladimir “Putin is a killer”, to which Trump replied, “We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?” In this revealing exchange, it appears that the mask of liberalism and its rogue twin, US exceptionalism, have come off, as it has always been off from the vantage point of its victims.

The liberal gods are dead, and it is liberals themselves, not Vladimir Putin or conservatives, or wikileaks, or the mainstream media, who have killed them. In a Trump administration there is no more pretending, no more need for liberal apologetics. But there is hope. It is the hope born in the Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, sanctuary, environmentalist, anti-war and other social movements. In the twilight of the liberal idols, fatalism is not an option; fatalism concedes a historical determinism to the totalizing apparatus of the capital system. As the liberal idols fall there is a vital debate emerging over what is to be done to advance a cultural, economic and political transformation that can take us back from the brink of self destruction and advance a liberatory project. The sea is open today for progressives and humanists to build a world in which many worlds can fit (to use a Zapatista expression).  

Note: The authors adapt the Nietzschean  ‘death of god’ theme and the ‘twilight of the idols’ title to their own purpose in this essay.


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