Lack of leadership, loss of values, rising populism… The Western democracies have to face up to a deep moral crisis.
On 8th June 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn made a speech to Harvard students who were stupefied and uncomprehending when they realized the speech was devoted to the decline of courage in democracies. “A decline in courage,” he stated, ”may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country […]. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.”
Solzhenitsyn’s warning, that he put down to narrow-minded nationalism and conservatism, was forgotten with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Sovietism. The West celebrated the coming of market democracy, even though it was not the West that had won but the East that had disintegrated. However, over forty years on, the Harvard speech seems perceptive and visionary, underlining the primary origin of the crisis in democracy and the fall of the West.
Secure in the belief that they held the universal model to which humanity was heading in the era of globalization, the Western democracies deliberately blinkered themselves to the changes of the 21st century: the emergence of a multipolar system that they no longer control; the swing of capitalism’s center of gravity towards Asia; the growing dependency on China’s totalitarian capitalism; and the increasing threats from Jihadism and the démocratures [démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship]. Above all, just like the Soviet Union from the 1970s onwards, democracies have begun to rot away from within under the pressure of individualism – identity has become the dictating force, replacing human rights –, of collective passions and of populism. Thus they have lost their ability to influence history and to deal with crises. They have had a succession of failures: wars lost or in deadlock following on from the 9/11 attacks, the Covid-19 epidemic, and the financial crisis of 2008. Just like any major historical crisis, the coronavirus epidemic is both an indicator and an accelerator. It records the fact that the West has been blotted out and highlights the main reason: the disappearance of courage, which is reflected in the absence of leadership, contagious fear, the loss of values and the corruption of democratic mores.
Because of the nationalistic, protectionist and xenophobic turn that has been taken in the USA, the West finds itself without a leader. America, formerly the garantor of democracy since 1945, has turned into a major risk, not only because of its erratic diplomacy that is opening up vast spaces for Jihadists, China, Russia and Turkey to occupy, but also because it is perverting the principles of its Founding Fathers: Donald Trump’s USA has not yet tipped over into authoritarianism, but it has left democracy behind. Furthermore, the very notion of leadership has deserted the West. With the exception of Angela Merkel in Germany and Jacinda Ardem in New Zealand, it is hard to find any head of state or head of government equal to the Covid-19 crisis. Most of them take to denial (like Donald Trump), to procrastination (like Boris Johnson), or to theorizing about their powerlessness and covering up their failings (like Emmanuel Macron).
This collapse in leadership, i.e. the ability to assess the situation, to set a course and to energize people, is not just the monopoly of political leaders; it concerns the whole of the administrative, economic and social elite. Just as the healthcare system has only held out thanks to the heroic efforts of caregivers, so ordinary life has kept going in democracies because of public-spiritedness and the mobilization of grass-roots operators. Whole areas of public action were suspended, and control centers, company headquarters and staff took shelter in lockdown, teleworking and short-time work.
At the same time, fear has become contagious, and fear both interferes with action and paralyzes it. France is a classic case. The government has infantilized its people by protecting them more from reality than from the epidemic, and providing a new motto for the Republic: “Protect yourselves; stay at home!” Beneath social distancing is a distancing from the facts – a Utopian post-Covid world swimming in magic money that will make it possible to sidestep the huge challenges of today’s world. The very values of democracy have been infected, the most recent example being the climate convention that aims to introduce into the Constitution the totalitarian principle of freedom being subject to ecology. As for the media – notably the social media symbolized by Facebook –, instead of playing their counterbalancing role, they only serve to increase panic; the economic model they purvey is one that destroys knowledge, responsibility and the search for truth.
Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip have gambled on gaining victory without having to go to war, because democracy is collapsing from within, and, at the present time, this gamble is paying off. Beijing’s strategy of circumventing the USA by separating it from its allies is highly successful. And this is validated by a Western world that has abandoned the defense of freedom and universal human rights.
The 2020s will be decisive for the survival of democracy. It depends on the West’s ability to go back to its constituent principles: the application of rational calculation to production and the distribution of wealth; scientific progress that brings greater knowledge of the world and its value; and the principle of political freedom. This implies that the elite in the West must regain the courage, the public-spiritedness and the common sense that are present in so many of their citizens, but which are so often rejected by those who are decision-makers and leaders in name alone.
(Article published in Le Point, 2nd July)