Earlier this week there was a mass murder of over 80 people perpetrated by a native-born Muslim in Nice, France. Then we saw the murders of three police in Baton Rouge, which closely follows a murder of five policemen in Dallas. Finally, we saw the failure of a coup in Turkey, which will strengthen Erdogan and his Islamist oriented regime.
These events are different facets of the same phenomenon.
In both Europe and America we are witnessing the decline of the democratic capitalist consensus. It appeared a stable system. As argued by Francis Fukuyma, it heralded the End of History, and emerged as the dominant system worldwide since World War II. Characterized by the rule of law, a capitalist economic system, a robust economic safety net, equality of citizens, free trade, open borders, and the rule of law, it not only appeared unassailable, but it was the source of America’s massive industrial and economic edge during the Cold War, the wellspring of its status as the sole superpower after the end of the Cold War, and the source of massive internal wealth, peace, and stability among the Western powers. This strength attracted economic migrants from the semi-socialist, authoritarian systems of the Third World. Not founded on the romantic and authoritarian nationalism of the interwar years, modern democratic capitalist systems retained legitimacy and popularity, appearing to offer a solution to the previously contested status of ethnic and religious minorities and appeared to allow unlimited immigration of newcomers by treating all as equal citizens and by expanding wealth steadily.
Now these regimes have stumbled and found themselves under attack in a very dramatic fashion, finding enemies and critics from every cohort. Their ability to deliver the practical goods of government–basic items like order, peace, and prosperity–is more and more in disrepute. The modern democratic capitalist regime is now subject to corrosion within and assault from without by different species of tribalism. These attacks are not isolated events so much as a multipronged assault on the very legitimacy of the democratic capitalist order.
The Internal Threat
Internally, tribalism has persisted into the alleged age of the “Last Man.” Racial, ethnic, linguistic, and regional distinctions have been a growing source of identity, as well as friction and mutual recrimination, in both Europe and the United States. The superficially distinct claims of Black Lives Matter and the message of Donald Trump have something in common: each rejects the ethnically neutral democratic capitalist consensus. The former does so by the assertion of minority rights through a critique of the majority’s right to govern under neutral laws, and Trump represents the expression of an implicitly tribal claim to rule by the once dominant white majority of the United States.
We have seen similar conflicts centered on the mode of regime legitimacy (i.e., who can rule and why) in Ukraine, Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, as well as the American South during the Civil Rights Era. In each, subnational and transnational allegiances of ethnicity and religion functioned as an alternative to the secular, ethnically-neutral state. The ubiquity of these conflicts suggest the democratic capitalist regime is more fragile than its dominance may make it appear.
As in other movements of “national liberation,” political violence delegitimizes the state and creates a feedback loop whereby other sources of safety, security, and legitimacy gain currency. In areas of weak state control like Africa or the 1990s Russian Federation, mafia and private security predominanate. The American state remains strong, for now, but its ability to deliver is increasingly in jeopardy. And its control is uneven, with large arenas of lawlessness, including with regard to control of the border, but also in the persistence of anarchic American ghettos. Indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement may unwittingly strengthen the very modest tribalism of American whites as a pure matter of self defense. And while Trump’s arguable majority tribalism may appear identical to the majority rule elections of democratic capitalism, it is distinct insofar as the claim to legitimacy is not a broad-based, ethnically neutral collection that also amounts to a majority, but rather it is a nostalgic claim to the right of a certain tribe for reasons of history and superiority of culture without regard to whether it is a numerical majority or minority.
Mass immigration has also weakened the ethnic solidarity of the nation-state and increased the tribalism of the legacy majority. The liberal democratic regimes of postwar Europe took their ethnic homogeneity for granted; indeed, one of the brutal, but eventually salutary historical events after World War II was the mass movement of national groups into their respective nation-states. Abuse of national minorities–Germans in the Sudetenland, French in the Saarland, or Poles in the Volhynia–was one of the major pretexts of European wars and internal conflict for the preceding 150 years. After this mass movement of peoples, the near perfect coincidence of national and political boundaries reduced this potential cassus belli.
This happy circumstance has been undone by mass immigration. Europe and the United States now find themselves as states with defined boundaries, but these boundaries include again multiple “nations” living in a single place, particularly in the case of Europe, which has recklessly introduced many millions of Muslims and other migrants from the neighboring and very different Middle East. The United States also finds its once more-assimilated black minority living within self-segregated communities devoid of law and order, complete with different anti-social cultural standards, such as “no snitching,” and hostility to “white” justice and “white” law enforcement. Our black President is not an advocate for the legitimacy of the democratic capitalist system–which many hoped in vain that he would be–but instead an agitator of the worst kind, encouraging continued alienation of the poor and ethnic minorities from the values majority.
The External Threat
Externally, the nation-state is threatened by a combination of things. The power of international business makes the state conform to the old Marxist propaganda trope as a tool of capital devoted to their institutional interests, even when contrary to the national interest. Never was this seen more clearly than in the supine response of national authorities to the economic crisis of 2008, culminating in the various bailouts. But religion is the most salient transnational force of all, uniting multiple races, language groups, and people across class and other lines on the basis of a grand unifying idea. And nowhere is this unity translated in a more profound way than through Islam.
Islam is a unique and uniquely political religion. It combines the universality of Christianity with the complete life program of Orthodox Judaism and, unlike Judaism, demands the imposition of this program on believer and unbeliever alike. Indeed, for Islam, legislation is a divine province. Anything short of the enactment of Sharia is the intrusion of human conceit upon what is believed to be a perfect and divinely ordered system. So in the Middle East and now to Europe and America, visitors, native-born, and immigrants alike are more loyal to Islam than to their respective nation states. They conceive of themselves as members of a transnational Islamic community, the Ummah, which unlike the “God and Country” loyalty of Christianity does not allow rendering unto Ceasar–that is to say any particular, democratic capitalist government–anything other than grudging and prudential respect. When numbers change, Islam becomes more aggressive. Sharia is not a fringe component of Islam; it’s a key feature of its universal program. And thus democratic capitalism with its supposedly universal principles of the rule of law, equal rights for women, religious freedom, and respect for the rights of artists and writers and philosophers, finds that these foundational principles are all up for grabs among its Islamic newcomers.
The Turkish coup pitted an Islamist opponent of democratic capitalism, who happened to be elected, with the Turkish military’s nationalist secular authoritarian claim of legitimacy, which also happens to be a rejection of democratic capitalism. More important, in France, Belgium, Orlando, and everywhere else Islamic terrorism occurs, the Islamic alternative justifies itself as the restoration of honor to and the practical promotion of a divinely ordered alternative to democratic capitalism. The use of democracy, terrorism, or something else is immaterial. It is diametrically opposed to the old order in the two most relevant ways: its claim of legitimacy is divorced from the historical claims of the nation-state, democratic capitalist or otherwise, and its substantive goals are more concrete and illiberal than the consensus items of democratic capitalism..
Far from being a random string of grim occurrences, the events of the last few days evidence a fractured, contested, and increasingly ineffective legacy regime; namely, the post-national states organized under the principles of democratic capitalism. They are beset by attractive alternatives based on very different grounds of legitimacy and different sources of trust, some of which come from levels lower than the nation-state but that also cross state boundaries, such as race and religion.
Ideology Over Experience
The early success of democratic capitalism appears to have created a certain amount of confusion. It has in fact been very successful, but the genius of Western democratic capitalist regimes was abstracted from their more granular reality. What appeared accidental–culture, ethnicity, religious heritage–may have proved decisive. While these systems were formally indifferent to these aspects of national life and defined in part by that indifference–through equality before the law of all national groups or official indifference to religion–these differences may have only been irrelevant insofar as they were statistically modest.
Judging by recent events, as well as the United States’ 100 plus years of racial conflict, these types of differences can stress a system that presupposes, in spite of its universal form, the particular and local substance of a western, Christian, rule-of-law-oriented culture. If the 20th Century was the time when the democratic capitalist regime rose to prominence, we may find that the older loyalties and forms of tribe, race, and religion will replace it. The failure of the modern, neutral, democratic capitalist nation state to contain and supplant these kinds of loyalties suggests the rise of this regime was a happy accident of pre-political conditions of unity that no longer prevail, because they were deemed superfluous in a “universal” democratic capitalist system. Far from being universal, that system may be simply an expression of the fragile, historical, and increasingly weak ideals and customs of Northern European peoples, including the legacy North Americans.