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Liberalism’s Failing Because it Gave up on Liberation, The Words That Saved My Life, and How Systems Fail When Paradigms Don’t Shift

Liberalism’s Failing Because it Gave up on Liberation, The Words That Saved My Life, and How Systems Fail When Paradigms Don’t Shift

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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  1. Putin and Xi’s new world order is emerging – it could be catastrophic (iNews)
  2. The Trump hush-money trial reveals a seedy world shot through with moral rot (The Guardian)
  3. How in the world is Trump’s trial not hurting him? (WaPo)
  4. Young Spaniards are losing their ability to accumulate wealth (El Pais)
  5. My European flag was confiscated at Eurovision — this is why it's wrong (EuroNews)
  6. Canada is slouching toward the end of the world (The Star)
  7. Protests of Despair (Project Syndicate)

Hi! How’s everyone? I hope you’re all doing absurdly well. In case you’re not, here’s a big hug from me and Snowy. Welcome new readers, a Big Thanks to everyone for joining us on this voyage to the stars and beyond, and thanks again for all the fascinating discussions we’ve been having—they’re awesome.

Today we’re going to discuss…look, I think I wrote this kind of badly, so maybe start in the middle, with the “save my life part,” and go from there.

Why is the World on Fire? The Shattered Promises of Liberalism

Hold on. Before you get me—see, this is the kind of thing, that when I write it, they hate me, everyone from New York Times columnists to the dudes who pen stuff at The Atlantic and on and on—just listen for a second.

I’m a liberal. Not in the sort of superficial “political” sense, but in the deeper one—philosophically. We’ll come back to that, because it matters. For now, I’m not writing a jeremiad. This isn’t an attack, it’s not name-calling, I’m in this thing, too. So let’s tone down the internet drama and just think clearly together.

Liberalism’s failing. It’s failing sort of spectacularly. All around us, now, are its flaming ruins. How so?

  • Liberalism’s failed to produce the prosperity it promised, and the global economy’s in a tailspin, while incomes in rich countries have flatlined for decades now.
  • Liberalism’s global order is coming undone by the day, as challenges mount from Putin and Xi and more, and liberal democracy is In very real danger of dying.
  • Liberalism’s social contracts are in tatters, and the world faces a tremendous debt crisis, with few ways out.
  • Liberalism’s approaches to inequality and class structure have been ruinous, and inequality’s skyrocket to the point we’re soon going to see the world’s first trillionaires, while middle classes are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
  • Liberalism’s approach to climate change has failed badly, and we’re shattering the 1.5 degrees mark.

Those are all tangible, concrete failures. Which add up to the last and most visible one, which is that people are rejecting liberalism, en masse, around the globe, turning to all sorts of fanatics and extremists instead, whether Trump, Europe’s far right, Asia’s tyrants, and so forth.

So. Liberalism’s failure is real. It’s not some kind of leftist theory I’m sort of lobbing over the parapet, as a Beret-Wearing Teaching Assistant (hey, I like them, too.) It’s reality. It is as hard as nails and reflected in every single socioeconomic indicator there is at this point.

But the problem is this. Liberals won’t admit it and get out of the way.

Liberalism’s Failed, But Liberals Won’t Admit It

Take poor old Joe Biden. He’s losing, and more badly by the day now. Why? Because he gets up there and says things that are just…shockingly bad “messaging”…at this point. 

In a recent interview with CNN, President Biden downplayed Americans’ genuine concerns about the economy in general and inflation in particular, declaring, “We’ve already turned it around … the polling data has been wrong all along.”

Most Americans are “personally in good shape,” Biden added. “They have the money to spend.”

In reality, the vast majority of Americans say they do not have money to spend on anything but the bare necessities.

According to a 2023 payroll.org survey, 78 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. When asked why they were living paycheck to paycheck, the number one response, by far, was: “High monthly bills.”

It goes without saying that nearly 80 percent of Americans living paycheck to paycheck is very bad news; however, it’s much worse than that. Incredibly, 29 percent of Americans “reported that their income doesn’t even cover their standard expenses,” according to a 2023 Forbes Advisor poll.

Remembeer when I used to point out exactly those statistics, four, five, six years ago? And what would happen, as a result? Liberals would hate me for it. Like vehemently, venomously sort of hate me. But reality is…Jesus, help me…real. Statistics exist for a reason, which is to help us understand truths. 

They hated me because I was telling them a truth they didn’t want to hear. 

And it’s still happening. Biden gets up there and denies the economic reality that’s sweeping the globe—a cost of living crisis without end, people unable to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck, and that’s if they’re lucky enough to be in the thing formerly called the middle class.

So liberals are in this sort of insane, weird place. They won’t admit reality. And they have no intention of getting out of the way. Where does that leave us?

In a world that the far right is winning, because by now, every single day liberals get up there and deny reality, what little credibility they have left is shredded sort of exponentially more. 

That doesn’t mean—no binary thinking allowed here, sorry, go straight to the New York Times for that—that conservatism is any better. That paradigm’s failed, too. I often say we live in age of failed paradigms, and that’s what I mean. But what do we do with it?

How Liberalism Gave Up on Liberation

Let’s go back to the birth of this thing called liberalism, to see just how far…I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the beginning, liberalism was this radical and striking and revolutionary idea. People should be free. Why? There was a moral justification: because all lives are created equal. And there was an economic one: free, people could fulfill more of their possibilities, and benefit everyone, too, becoming scientists, artists, writers, what have you, not just peasants and slaves working for nobles and kings.

Incendiary stuff. Behind all this was a deeper philosophical revolution. The Hobbes and Locke stuff. Is life just doomed to be nasty, brutish, and violent, because, well, that’s all human nature is, all human beings are capable of? Liberalism said something sunnier, something new, and something genuinely even more incendiary. Human beings are capable of better. They’re not just nasty, brutish, and violent things who deserve to be slaves and peasants, but each and every one of us is capable of beauty, truth, grace, goodness, enlightenment, and so forth, which is why we all deserve to be liberated.

Now. Fast forward about half a millennium, whizzing past John Stuart Mill and David Hume and John Maynard Keynes and all the greatest thinkers in this tradition. Where have we ended up?

In place that’s so far away from that original, quite beautiful, conception of liberation, those minds wouldn’t even recognize it. Would they even think of most of this as liberalism? I doubt it. Because in our world, liberalism says insane, crackpot things, like it’s perfectly OK for billionaires to become trillionaires while middle classes die, what difference does it make if democracy goes south as long as the economy “grows,” who cares who gets what portion of that growth, the rich deserve to take it all, and money is the only point of human existence.

Somehow, liberalism became about money, money, money, with a dessert, if you like, of power, power, power. Today, we call all that “neoliberalism,” but I think it’s worth stopping and thinking about how jaw-droppingly far it is from the…original, real, revolutionary idea.

Which was that people should be liberated. Just that. Nothing more. From systems and institutions which cheated them of possibility, purpose, meaning, and potential. Now look at today. Life is a bitter, brutal struggle for…money. Meanwhile, the most predatory, ruthless, and cunning loot companies, countries, societies, companies, walk-away scot-free, and we’re told to celebrate them more often than not. The average person’s agency is shrinking radically and terminally, as basic freedoms erode by the day.

None of that’s liberal, and in that sense, quite some time ago, liberalism stopped believing in liberalism.

I think it’s sort of crucial to really understand all that, before I come to the next part.

How Failed Paradigms Produce Dying Systems

People often ask me what my politics are. And I say, well, I try not to have any. Go ahead and chuckle, because it’s true. Maybe sometimes you feel that way, too. Politics? They’re about what we believe. I try to focus on what we know.

And what we know is that liberating people works

It works every single time, in every single way. The most powerful way for a society to grow richer? Let women and minorities work. The most powerful way for a company to become stronger? Make it more diverse and inclusive. The smartest way to seal the deal for your country or company’s future on the stock or bond market? Start minimizing your “externalities,” aka, stop killing the planet, right now. The idea behind it—liberation—has never not worked.

But liberalism gave up on that Most Beautiful Idea, liberation. Liberalism gave up on liberation.

And what does that leave of it? Just this weird empty shell, that nobody much trusts anymore, believes in, except a handful of columnists at the usual places, and hence, what alternative does the world really even have, except the demagogues and fanatics?

Liberals need to reckon with all that. They need to begin to get it, admit it, and then they can do the…

What do I do? What’s my job? Am I a “writer?” Not in the traditional sense. Am I a “thinker”? Kind of, but they hate me for thinking critically at all, in this age where it’s scarcely allowed. What I am is sort of a guy who…tries to shift paradigms.

I changed the way we think about the economy, the way we think about politics, and I transformed the corporate world, but you don’t need to know about that.

And so I’ve learned a thing or two about paradigm shifts. The very first one? They don’t happen—can’t happen—until the old guard admits the old paradigm is failing. If the old guard is sort of stuck at the top, and won’t admit things are failing, they still usually have the power to sort of punch down and beat away anyone who tries to change anything, and so…nothing changes…and things get worse…because that’s what a paradigm failing does.

So power, the status quo, the old order—it has to begin to do the hard work of reckoning with failure. Look, that’s not an easy job, and I get it—I’ve been talking to you a lot about how I think I failed, and how it makes me feel, which is about as happy as a cat in a thunderstorm. But that work has to be done for paradigmatic reinvention to even have a chance to begin to happen.

If you can’t admit the old paradigm failed? The new one has no chance—none—of being born.

All of that needs to happen in liberalism now. And it has to happen from liberalism, by liberalism. Nobody else can do the hard work of actually changing a paradigm except those in the systems that order it, because of course, otherwise, it just sort of dies, and so does the system along with it. This is what’s happening to liberalism now, because liberals, the old kind, won’t admit they’ve, it’s, failed, and get the hell out of the way.

What needs to happen is that liberalism needs a new paradigm. Neoliberalism’s failed, so what comes next?

The Immense and Beautiful Words Which Saved My Life

It might sound like a big question, and in some respect, it is, but there’s a much easier way to think about it.

Let’s come back to me, for a moment. What am I, “politically”? Not liberal, not conservative. Maybe…just…humanist.

I was twelve, despondent, in despair, because way back then, like now, institutional hatred was affecting me every day. And I didn’t know who else to be. I didn’t know that a few short months later I’d find the safe haven of….nightclubs…and they’d miraculously save my life from the violent bullies who’d sort of made it hell. I was just…near breaking point. And then I discovered, somehow, Sartre’s most famous lecture—Existentialism is a Humanism. 

And it sort of saved my little shaking life.

Do you want to know the words which saved my life, all those years ago? There have been many words which saved my life, to be honest, but these are among the first, and even today…let’s see if they hit you as hard as they still hit me.

Sartre discusses how people hate him, too. For being an existentialist, and saying life has no inherent creator, meaning, purpose—we just are, in a kind of absolute way. They genuinely hated him for this, and I understood that, instantly, as he wrote. He points out that existentialism isn’t what today they’d insult him, like they insult me as—“doomer!” But that it allowed a new foundation for meaning and purpose and politics, too.

Then he says:

“In the light of all this, what people reproach us with is not, after all, our pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism.”

Because he’s saying that we can transcend all the old ways and systems and institutions. We can create our own meanings and purposes and politics and societies, however we like, and those can be transformatively better than the old ones, because in them, we can be liberated in a higher way than ever before.

What people reproach us with is not our pessimism, but the sternness of our optimism? Do those words hit you the way they still hit me, with a great hammer of truth and beauty? Because…it’s still true. I noted the other week that real optimism is what we have—the world shouldn’t be like this, because we’re capable of better—and yet they sort of insult and damn and hate us as “alarmists” or “doomers” and constantly call us pessimists. 

They’re the real pessimists. Because, as Sartre said, all those decades ago, they don’t believe in liberation. This liberation, the last one, the next one, that liberation should proceed, happen, emerge, keep happening, means anything. They sort of think, well, this is fine, and it’s OK, and it’s all there can be. That’s true pessimism, the pessimism of the soul, and it blights us to never transform or progress or improve or mature.

Why Liberalism Means Nothing Anymore

The sternness of our optimism. In those days, Sartre meant that yes, people could forge their own meanings and purposes and paths, even relationships, societies, politics—and all that gave life purpose. Today? We need to rediscover that sense of grace and beauty and truth. Not just sort of lose it, deny liberalism’s failed, and refuse to get out of the way. Humility is an act of optimism in this grand and deep sense.

Liberalism, if it’s going to have another paradigm, versus just die this ignoble death it currently is, needs to sort of start there. It needs to re-read those who created the last great paradigm—that worked. Those were the humanists, and they remade the world after the war. Then along came the neoliberals, and…wrecked it. Liberalism needs to understand neoliberalism as a dead end, and pick up where humanism left off, before its great, centuries long project was hijacked by those who were so sort of weak, so flimsy, that by today, they’ve given up on liberation, and so liberalism…

Means nothing anymore.

Tough words. Part of me’s sorry to have to write them, because just as Existentialism is a Humanism didn’t make the establishment hate Sartre any less, I have little doubt (picture me rolling my eyes) that this sort of thing will make me any friends amongst the liberal establishment. That’s OK, shrug. 

The other thing I’ve learned? Those who will hate you will hate you, in a way, anyways, if you don’t say it, because they don’t think you should be liberated to begin with, which is where all of this, really, begins and ends.

Whew. That’s a lot to chew on. Sorry about that. I hope it helps you think about our troubled age, it was kind of interesting to read, and fire away in the comments.

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