The liberal myth

Published March 4, 2022
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

MANY non-white peoples are outraged at the Western mainstream’s response to Russia’s military assault on Ukraine. Western media, intellectuals and politicians are united in their sanctioning of Russia under the pretext that ‘civilised’ Europeans must be defended. They remain silent, however, about Western militarism and local collaborators in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bolivia, Venezuela, etc presumably because those black and brown people are uncivilised.

To call out this barely disguised racism is the least we can do. But we should also take stock of the extent to which we ourselves — us Pakistanis as well as Asians, Africans and formerly colonised peoples of all stripe — have helped reinforce the great liberal imperialist myth and the political economic structures that sustain it.

Read: 'Appalling, offensive' — Western media draws criticism for racist coverage of Russian invasion of Ukraine

When the Cold War ended, the Western liberal order supposedly reached its zenith. All nation states were to be seen equals in a globalised regime characterised by ‘free markets’ and limitless prosperity for all. This claim was a sham from the start. Illiberal ‘democracies’ came into existence in almost all of the former socialist republics, Ukraine included. Billionaires with business interests in Western financial capitals were installed through ‘coloured revolutions’ ostensibly fomented by a vibrant ‘civil society’.

Asian and African countries — Pakistan included — had their own manicured ‘liberal’ political economies. Recall how Western ‘experts’ lauded the dictatorship fronted by Gen Musharraf as a great ally boasting ‘revolutionary’ local governments and a booming neoliberal economy. Next door, the refrain of ‘India Shining’ coincided with Modi’s rise.

Russia’s actions must compel us to look inwards.

Despite all of the ideological engineering, the dark underbelly of (neo)liberal-accumulation regimes could never be invisibilised. Western cities were de-industrialised and the welfare state was emaciated, leaving otherwise comfortable working classes in the lurch. Even before imperialist wars were imposed on Afghanistan and Iraq, so-called humanitarian interventions had been launched by Western powers in different parts to protect strategic and material interests.

What I want to emphasise is the support that these political, economic and military developments garnered within non-Western countries. Many captive populations in this country, for example, bought into the narrative that religious ‘extremists’ could be tamed by imperial warfare, waged either by Western governments or outsourced to our own establishment. More generally, what has been clumsily called a ‘global middle class’ sustained the unsustainable exploitation and consumption logics of the globalisation ‘success’ story.

If Russia’s invasion is once again exposing the hypocrisy of liberal imperialism, then it must also compel us to look inward and devise alternatives to the neocolonial structures embodied by our establishment-centric political system. Talking up democracy and human rights will be meaningless if we continue to provide support, consciously or otherwise, to the political economy of dispossession, repression and violence in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘development’.

Our liberal democratic institutions are not just hollow because of the almost ubiquitous power of the military establishment; patriarchs and oligarchs integrated with global capital dominate mainstream politics here just like they do in Russia, India, America and pretty much every other country.

In sum, this is not a world in which principles guide either international affairs or domestic politics. For all of its failings, actually existing socialism in the 20th century represented a political horizon of revolutionary internationalism that disciplined ruling classes and imperialist powers alike. What was known as the Third World co­­uld articulate policies of non-alignm­ent and stand with colonised peoples like the Palesti­n­ia­­ns. All of this now feels like a distant dream.

Let us also be clear that jingoism, wars and repression, from Ukraine to Yemen to Myanmar and our own bloodied ethnic peripheries, cannot halt the collapse of our ecosystems. No amount of rhetoric, framed in liberal terms and/ or militarised state-nationalism, will help us create political-economic systems that can take us back from the precipice and regenerate a balance between humanity and nature.

The prime historical responsibility for the rapacious financialised capitalism that is relegating billions of working people to destitution, intensifying ecological degeneration and precipitating wars globally certainly lies in the Western heartlands of the world system. But imperialist power is sustained by ideological fictions and domestic political economic structures that we ourselves must dislodge.

Simply aligning ourselves with a ‘Russia-China’ camp is not the answer. Oppressed peoples everywhere have to come together to build another age of revolutionary internationalism. The future of humankind and the planet demands it.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2022

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