‘A twisted version of reality’ responds Anne Applebaum to the words of President Putin, as the Russian leader declared ‘liberalism has outlived its purpose’ last week in an interview with The Financial Times. One wouldn’t expect anything else from one of academia’s most rabid Russia-haters, but nevertheless it gives a flavour of the denial, anger and shock felt in the quarters of the western liberal establishment, that anyone should dare to suggest liberalism is dead.
President Putin had been sharing his thoughts ahead of this year’s G20 summit in Osaka. Overshadowing the rest of the 90 minute interview, Putin’s assertion that liberalism was on its way out as it had ‘come into conflict with the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population’ created a stir amongst the commentariat and made headlines across the globe. But Putin has initiated a much-needed debate on where the direction Western society is going in.
Ever since the end of the Second World War, liberal ideas have been clung on to and propagated in the West as Europeans celebrated the defeat of fascism. The liberal train went thundering on at high speed through the latter half of the 20th century as feminism, gay rights and the ‘permissive society’ were embraced as a foregone conclusion. Legislation was passed, educational reforms adopted so that an inescapable liberal ideology was firmly implanted in western society, naturally at the expense of the Christian religion which had played such an integral role in the formation of European society for the last 2000 years. Liberalism meant progress, had the moral high ground and was the only way forward.
And here the Russian President touched on an important point as to why indeed, liberalism is in decline. In fact, liberalism has imploded on itself. Instead of encouraging freedom and liberty, liberalism has become itself authoritarian, and as Putin stated during his interview ‘dictated’ to people. This is the opposite of what it is supposed to represent. And yet it most definitely has created a society in which only one opinion is the accepted one, where it is debatable whether freedom of speech still exists.
The UK Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt responded to Putin’s comments by stating that ‘[Russian] people are unhappy, so I don’t see how his values are working’. I’m not quite sure how the UK government minister was able to come to this conclusion – considering that President Putin is consistently re-elected and has approval ratings any other world leader would die for. Furthermore, I would add from a personal note that British perceptions of Russia are in fact quite distorted, and that in from my own experience, freedom of speech in Russia is in a much healthier state that it is in the West. Russians are in fact very tolerant of a wide range of opinions and claims for example of LGBT rights not being respected are greatly exaggerated. Indeed it could be argued that when it comes to feminism, that Russia was streets ahead of the West. The Soviet Doctrine as far back as the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 established equal rights for men and women.
The timing of Putin’s comments is, of course, interesting – on the eve of the G20. For now the Russian leader has many allies on the world stage who share in his traditional values. From Trump in the US, to Salvini in Italy; from Hungary’s Victor Orban to Sebastian Kurz in Austria, right-wing conservatism is gaining ground across the West. So is the pendulum simply swinging back?
There is no doubt that the reasons for the rise of right-wing movements or ‘populism’ - as it is often, rather dismissively branded – are multi-faceted. But nevertheless, immigration, as Putin highlighted, has played a fundamental role. The tidal wave of immigrants which has stormed Europe in recent years has for many people, been too much, too fast. The majority of these immigrants being Muslim, and not speaking English, immediately put western liberal values to the test – which they failed. The result of this is Brexit in the UK, Trump in the US, and conservative, right-wing parties gaining ground across Europe. Never did Germany think it would see right-wing nationalist parties flourish again, or Marine Le Pen almost take the French Presidency.
Change is undoubtedly afoot – but western establishment won’t accept it. And yet if there is a real desire to maintain the liberal values upon which western society is built, the first step in doing this will be to confront the truth.