[Photo: Alex Radelich/unsplash]
For lack of a better term– or for reasons of inexactitude– scholars have zeroed in on the term ‘backlash’ to describe our current political moment. I would like to take some time to unpack this historically, and to offer some tentative thoughts on how to re-frame contestation as distinct from mere ‘backlash’. To begin with, a ‘backlash’ is defined as a strong negative reaction to a social or political development. It often harkens back to a fabled past and represents an attempt to reclaim a set of privileges. Images of segregationists in the American South come to mind. And yet, not all those who contest the current order are reactionary. In fact, many social movements are born from a desire to emancipate. The concept of a ‘backlash’ precludes this possibility. It articulates a subtle suspicion of those who would question prevailing orthodoxies, regardless of the substance of their critique or the manner with which they engage politically.
In framing contestation as a ‘backlash’ we accept the grand narrative of a liberal teleology. That is, the almost evangelical belief in a rules-based international order, which privileges markets and individual autonomy. For better or worse, we are told that there are no real alternatives. This is a lethal form of intellectual inertia: it sanitizes politics and immobilizes debate precisely when we need it most.
Contestation as a heterogenous phenomenon
A ‘backlash’ account is not only misleading; it proffers an implicit defense of the status quo. This is problematic for two reasons: first, it fails to take seriously the manifold deficits of the liberal paradigm as currently constituted; second, it is unimaginative insofar as it avoids (or worse slanders) possible solutions outside of our immediate purview. In order to better understand contestation, one must first acknowledge its heterogeneity. Contestation can be reactionary – yes, but also fundamentally emancipatory. It can contribute to a more just political order by holding a mirror to liberalism’s internal contradictions – and demand that we do better.
Delineating between different forms of contestation is therefore an imperative. Broadly speaking, scholars identify both exogenous and endogenous forms of contestation. Exogenous contestation arises outside of the liberal world. This takes the form of alternative ideologies (state socialism) and/or the rise of illiberal powers. Conversely, endogenous contestation arises from within liberal societies. Here, the critique is internal and relates to tensions within the liberal paradigm itself. For example, liberalism proscribes equality, but also the maintenance of free markets. Navigating these contradictions can give rise to competing claims. It is our task as scholars to take these claims seriously and to judge them on their merits.
Of course, within liberal societies there are also reactionary forces which seek to undermine pluralism. Their goals are antithetical to those of a free and open society. In contemporary democracies these kinds of contestations certainly represent a backlash. However, it would be inaccurate to end the story here. There are many marginalized groups who contest the liberal order for failing to live up to its own creed. These alternative forms of contestation point out stark discrepancies within liberal societies along race, class and gender lines. For lack of a better term, they represent a radical ‘progressive’ critique of the existing order by drawing on themes of economic and social justice. Whereas reactionary politics tend to be incompatible with the values of an open society, progressive contestation strives for greater inclusion under the banner of citizenship (whether local, national or global). Categorizing different types of contestation therefore reveals important differences that are not captured by the term ‘backlash’ alone.
Moreover, progressive contestation has historically been met with alarming levels of state violence. Often at the hands of the same liberal institutions it petitioned for grievances. Social movements, labour parties and ordinary activists which lawfully questioned liberal convention, were targeted with vicious recriminations. Lest we forget, the liberal order did not grant political and economic rights of its own accord, it was forced to do so after grueling struggles and more than a little resistance from power structures. For example, the labour movements of the 19th century were violently repressed as were the innumerate struggles for universal suffrage. Insofar as the liberal order did accommodate contestation, it was only after great effort and overwhelming upheaval on the part of activists. Far from disempowering powerful groups, the liberal order often coddled privilege. In this sense, it did not so much evolve– a polite euphemism if one ever existed, but relented under the weight of its own glaring contradictions.
Taking liberalism’s contradictions seriously
This is because dominant power relationships are embedded in the liberal order. Historically, the failure of liberalism to decouple itself from market forces resulted in gruesome spectacles: from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Bengal famine. Motivated by naked self-interest, the gatekeepers of wealth and privilege ensured that any attempt to extend manumission, self-determination or economic opportunity was met with extreme violence. In various forms and to various degrees, this story repeats itself.
Fast forward to today– when we speak of the ‘liberal triumph’ of the 1990s, we obfuscate the many social and economic injustices which not only persist but were exacerbated by processes of globalization. Framing contestation as a mere ‘backlash’ is deceptive insofar as it fails to recognize progressive critiques. It is irresponsible insofar as it normalizes vast inequalities. Although liberalism has remained remarkably durable (including a dalliance with state welfare after the Second World War), its inability to clarify its relationship to capital amid massive global inequality and a pending climate catastrophe represents a significant threat to its continued authority. Those brave enough to point out the limits of the current paradigm deserve our attention.
Clarity is needed to discern what kind of contestation (substance, form and style) can help bring about reform. Here, there is a distinction to be made between radicalism and extremism. Whereas radicalism postulates renewal within existing constitutional arrangements, extremism suggests violence. How does liberalism adapt to the exigent emergencies of the twenty-first century? Part of the solution will undoubtedly emerge from radical progressive contestation. To borrow the language of the script’s proposal: do the ‘actors’ change, or does the entire ‘plot’ change? I would suggest the latter.
Taking seriously ecological critiques is a start. Tackling growing income inequality is another. If history is prologue, radical progressive contestation will be met with disrepute. The liberal order will loathe changing. It always does. This is a shame, our survival depends on it.