In a recent interview at the G20 Summit, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin criticised the liberal ideology, branding it as untenable in an age of populism. Whilst his comments were rebuked by many, it still propels the question — is Liberalism a sustainable ideology in today’s age? Putin inadvertently raised this discussion as he questioned the purpose of liberalism, marking it as ‘obsolete’.


Liberalism and Populism: Diametrically opposed?

To understand the implications of this, we must have a universal understanding of what liberalism is. Theoretically speaking, it is not what some Americans may commonly mistake as ‘left-wing progressivism’ in popular media. Instead, liberalism is a political and moral philosophy that has its roots in the Enlightenment; a time of human advancement, which placed great importance on rational development and progression, with its core principles being based on the guarantee of individual liberty and freedom. As such, it has been seen to espouse constitutionalism, liberal democracies, and equality before the law.

Liberalism sought to replace the systems of hereditary privilege, the implementation of a state religion and absolute monarchy, and traditional conservatism with representative democracy and the rule of law. Consequently, today liberalism has been associated with states which disperse power in the form of liberal democracies. Nevertheless, despite the prevalence of both liberal democracies and liberal values enacted by the Western hegemonies, Putin suggested that liberalism was ‘untenable’. The implication that liberalism is not sustainable also comes with the notion that its deterioration is symbiotic to the rise of populism.

Interestingly enough, Putin also suggested that populism would be the successor of liberalism in Europe. Populism, by definition, is: ‘a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups’. Even within academic disciplines, populism has been difficult to categorise, because it has belonged to many movements historically — from the socialist left under Chavez, to the far-right in Eastern Europe and America.

Most evidently, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was constructed and executed through an adoption of populist strategies, which vilified the political elite and sought to gain support from voices that felt unheard. The contemporaneous association between populism and the hard-right is being made due to the surge of right-wing parties, who use populism as a means of appealing to their electorate, largely as a retaliation against a so-called ‘liberal elite’.

The Journal of Democracy denotes the threat it poses, as:

‘populism accepts principles of popular sovereignty and majoritarianism, even though it is sceptical about constitutionalism and liberal protections for individuals. Moreover, populists’ definition of “the people” as homogeneous cannot serve as the basis for a modern democracy, which stands or falls with the protection of pluralism’.

The future of liberalism

What does this mean for the future of liberalism? Whilst the rise in populist politics does indicate an alarming shift towards more conservative, right-wing views, liberalism ostensibly has to have a place in today’s, and tomorrow’s, society. The 21st century has become a melange of cultures and outlooks, and in an increasingly globalised age, the most sustainable order is ostensibly the liberal one. At the core of international liberalism is co-operation (in theory at least). In an age where right-wing populism is striving to deepen the divisive barriers between not just nations, but individuals in society, we must retaliate with an affirmation that global cooperation is needed to remedy many of the issues found in today’s society. Liberalism is not perfect; it is heavily flawed, and those issues need to be remedied (although this stems into a wider, and separate discussion). However, in our current political climate, I believe Yuval Noah Harari’s desire to move towards a ‘post-liberal order’ appears to be the most reasonable approach.

A post-liberal order?

Whilst liberalism does espouse international cooperation and fairness, we need to demonstrate that at the heart of humanity lies the same predicament which can disrupt our entire existence. Global problems require global solutions. Populism heightens the divide between the common people, and the elite: the established. Yes, the interests of the people need to be heard. However, the shape that the current wave of populist politics is taking is dangerous, because it is blinding the people to the real, institutionalised issues, which require large-scale collaboration. According to Harari, there is a need to ‘combine national identity with a global ethos’. As such, the ‘common enemy’ which binds us together supersedes the liberal elite, but has now taken the shape of ‘three such enemies: nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption‘.

Has liberalism outlived its purpose? Well, it is difficult to underpin what is meant by ‘purpose’. As long as there is a contesting ideology at play, liberalism, by virtue of existence will have a purpose. However, the shape of today’s society, and the global challenges we face, suggest that populism is actually an anachronistic means of remedying these issues. By drawing from ‘liberal’ ideas, we should seek to construct a society which aims to unite its members on the basis of a common ground which extends beyond localist barriers. Liberalism, therefore, has not necessarily become obsolete, as Putin maintains, but can be adapted to rectify the contemporary global issues of our time.