The Growing Illiberality of Liberalism

At the core of the liberal philosophy which guides our modern societies are two principles – free people and free markets. It has generally been assumed that these are in harmony. But as the populist consequences of the GFC continue to reverberate through our world, establishment liberals are being forced to choose between the two. Time after time, unelected officials have chosen to protect the markets against the consequences of democracy in a way that lays bare their true priorities.


Elections cannot be allowed to change anything.

Wolfgang Schauble, German Finance Minister


In March this year, Italians voted out the status quo, sending into parliament the anti-austerity Five Star Movement and far right League (formerly Northern League) parties. These two were unhappy bedfellows united by little except contempt for the EU, but they eventually wrangled together an agreement for coalition government. Earlier this week Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte nominated his ministers to the country’s unelected President for official approval. Sergio Mattarella refused to accept the elected government’s choice of eurosceptic Paolo Savona as finance minister, in a move that would be akin to an Australian Governor-General refusing to swear in Peter Dutton.


Without control of his own appointments, PM Conte resigned. So President Mattarella then appointed Carlo Cottarelli, a former IMF official renowned for making cuts to Italy’s public spending. Mattarella defended his move, remarking that “The uncertainty over our position within the euro has alarmed Italian and foreign investors who have invested in securities and companies.” The president was worried about the increase in bond market spreads.


In a democracy, the people decide upon the government. Not the bond market, not foreign investors.


While I certainly condemn the League’s racist and regressive policies, the people had spoken. They wanted a break from the status quo, and it isn’t right for technocrats to refuse them. Though today the PM and President appear to have reconciled their differences with an alternate finance minister, this willingness to override democratic decisions has become commonplace recently. Yanis Varoufakis’ tenure with Syriza as Greek finance minister was marked by the obstruction of the EU, ECB and the IMF, which itself has commonly acted to hamstring elected governments.


But it isn’t just technocrats who are turning against the will of the people. A recent study showed that rather than the left or right, people in the centre of the political spectrum were most sceptical towards democracy. This can also be seen in practice, with the movement in the US to impeach Donald Trump, or that in the UK to have the House of Lords block Brexit. These may be poor decisions, but the response must be to better educate people and change their minds, not to paternalistically overrule them. While those on the left and right have visions for the world, those in the centre just want to maintain the status quo. So it is perhaps unsurprising that if the status quo is threatened, any other values they have can be sacrificed in order to defend it.


People do not talk, they are depressed, because there is someone who speaks in the place of millions of Italians: the market today is the pseudonym of the most disheartening capitalism and of predation that we have in Italy.

Beppe Grillo, M5S


To technocrats schooled in the Washington Consensus, markets are natural tectonic forces which must be appeased. The decision of the market is final and must be followed. Elections are allowed, but only so long as the choice is limited to red or blue liberalism. Any deviation from this paradigm must be overruled.


I believe democracy and self-determination are fundamental to any free society. They are not simply to be discarded by some appointed technocrat because the people have chosen the ‘wrong’ option. If liberals cannot persuasively argue their case for the pre-eminance of the market, then perhaps the market shouldn’t have such prominance. If our collective decision making ability has been clouded by the bombardment of advertising and propaganda, then maybe we need to remove those clouds. If the will of the people is just ignored and overruled, then they will only respond more vehemently.


Somewhere in amongst the Cold War propaganda, freedom for markets was conflated with freedom for people. But these are mutually exclusive ideas. Freedom for markets delivers only slavery for the people, with the masses forced to toil away in service of their owners. True freedom cannot be subordinated to the demands of undemocratic markets.


NB: I use liberal in the original sense, rather than the American definition of ‘anyone on the left’.