The Apollo Project
Liberal Ideas for the 21st Century
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
"Muscular Liberalism" revisited
by Peter

We raised the banner for Muscular Liberals a few weeks ago, in light-hearted vein, seeking to call up the spirit of Arnold rather than Truman. And now Madelaine Bunting has put the phrase to use in an article in theguardian (as we now must call it).
Simon Mollan pulled this to bits on his blog. He makes some good points, in seeking to distinguish between Islamists and muslims. But Bunting made some good points too.
Because it is certainly true that Huntingdon's "clash of civilisations" thesis now has a baleful influence over world politics. The risk always was that it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who is going to argue that it hasn´t?
The muslim world is full of problems. Some involve the interaction of that culture with its neighbours (Chechnya, Bosnia, Palestine). Some are internal (the Ummah has a duty of solidarity, yet the Muslim world contains both the fantastically wealthy and the miserably poor). But Huntingdon's thesis, in its dumbed down, tabloid version encourages us to reduce the issues to the simple equation that the problem is none other than Islam. And there are many groups out there happy for us to see things this way.
Huntingdon forms part of the intellectual background to current attempts to spread democracy by force and cultural values by imposition. Liberals (even Muscular Liberals) should resist this temptation. John Stuart Mill warned that representative government required the commitment of the people concerned. Attempts to create democracy from the outside are not just useless, they are dangerous. Dialogue with the muslim world is necessary: tutelage is not desirable.
So Bunting deserves a more sympathetic reading that Simon allows. My - trivial - complaint would be her use of the phrase "Muscular Liberals". She obviously means "Christopher Hitchins". Why didn´t she just say it?
posted by Apollo Project @ 5:39 pm  
  • At 14 September, 2005 19:33, Blogger Simon said…

    Was the attempt to introduce democracy without the prior commitment of the people of the country in question dangerous in Italy, Germany, or Japan after the Second World War? In Italy and Germany there had been democracy prior to the seizure of power by the Fascists and the Nazis (though the people were pretty enthusiastic about Mussolini and Hitler at the time they were acquiring power), so an argument can be constructed (albeit flimsily) that the constitutional democratic consent was illegally appropriated in what were effectively gradual coups, but in Japan there was no such prior tradition and democracy has taken root there pretty well also.

    A similar challenge to your closing statement must also be made by reviewing the political systems of the former Eastern Bloc. There was there, for a long time, a form of government which was 'by consent' (something that would satisfy Mill) in that that people chose not to challenge the system through a combination of inertia, because of what happened to Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the fear of Soviet reprisal more generally, and also sense of patriotism, rather than a genuine belief in so called 'peoples' democracy. It shouldn't be lost on anyone that a commitment to liberal democracy might come second to a commitment to personal and family safety, economic prosperity (or at least tolerability), and the patriotic belief in national integrity and self determination (albeit not democratic self determination). But it would be a stretch for anyone to say that the people of the Eastern bloc would not have preferred to choose a liberal democracy has they been offered the choice (which they did, when they had the choice), or that the the totalitarian 'peoples democracies' were legitimate systems of government notwithstanding the complicity of many citizens in their perpetuation.

    Finally, the transition of Indonesia to a form of pluralistic democracy from an autocracy is cause for great hope, and shouldn't leave anyone labouring under the myth that previously repressed people won't thrive in democracy if they are offered it. Indonesia is also a Muslim country, of course, another antedote to decidedly woolly and pejoritive thinking on the part of those that think that Islam and democracy are incompatible. It proves there is an Islamic way of being democratic - something which the Muslims who live in the West, or in India, will not find at all surprising.

    The article by Bunting, by the way, was rather poorer than I gave it credit for. If her major observation is that cultural diologue is a good thing, then it hardly amounts to an insight at all, and didn't seem to me to be a clarion call to recast liberal discourse on foreign affairs - which in any event are dominated by woolly lifestyle liberals such as herself. Being liberal cannot amount to a defence of, or uneasy rapprochment with, systems of government that are unfree.

    I agree that diologue with the Muslim world is desirable - but then there is nothing intrinsically 'Muslim' about totalitarian regimes, tinpot dictators, or repressive monarchies. That the Muslim world is awash with them is more to do, on the whole, with the historical legacy of colonialism and American 20th Century foreign policy than it does with Islam. Saddam Hussein was a classic example.

  • At 14 September, 2005 21:32, Blogger Peter Pigeon said…

    Italy doesn't really belong in your list, Simon. And I don´t see the issue with the Eastern bloc. The Czech's had had a good democracy and were keen to regain it for example. (Although they had been most careless in losing it arguably...).

    This is essentially my argument: peoples should struggle for their own democracy. If outsiders bring it about it will seem foreign and will not be accepted. Japan is the big exception - and I think Japanese democracy was dicy for a while. It was aided by the economic growth that came from the US garrison.

    Indonesia is a good example of internal pressure for democracy.

  • At 15 September, 2005 11:12, Blogger Erin said…

    Perhaps Iran is a particularly useful example to consider. Iran could be seen as a fledgling democracy, in some respects. But reformers there seek to distance themselves from 'great western liberal democracies' like the United States because the push for democracy cannot be separated from other negative connotations that come along with the US in the global world today.

    It would be a huge mistake, in my opinion, to try to push a more developed form of democracy on Iran at present. There is a movement of reform within the country which is almost certainly more likely to be hurt than helped by any external pressure or flexing of liberal muscles.

    Of course it's not good enough. But maybe sometimes we have to be a little bit more patient than perhaps we'd like to be or even think we should be.

  • At 15 September, 2005 12:04, Blogger dwainjones55649507 said…

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  • At 15 September, 2005 16:53, Blogger Simon said…

    I'll concede the Italy is arguable, but it was a totalitarian state that made a transition to democracy directly as a result of fighting a war with the Allies.

    The Eastern bloc example was made to illustrate that despite what people would do if they had a free choice, unfree people take a horrible risk to their personal and family safety, and to economic security, by effecting the revolutionary change usually necessary to cast off totalitarianism. Or, put another way, my guess is that most people would choose to live in a democracy if they had the choice. The point is: they don't. The reverse position, that you seem to be heading towards, is that the structural power embedded in totalitarian states whereby they constrain choice and perpetuate their own rule is some way legitimated (or at least to be tolerated) because the people of the country are not in a position and/or are unwilling to mount a challenge to the political ascendency. Given that a characteristic of totalitarian states is that they use the power of the state to repress dissent and constrain the freedom to act politically of the people, I think that my position is decidedly more 'liberal' than your's (or JS Mill's position).

    Democracy may very well seem foreign to countries that previously were not democratic - but that isn't an argument against democracy in itself. Before women had the vote in the UK, the idea seemed foreign (Canada, NZ and Australia all having gotten there first). Equally, repression, torture, a secret police, and dictatoriship may all seem very familiar to people who live in totalitarian regimes - that isn't an argument in favour of them either!

    Your point about Japan, to which I'd add Germany, is that states making a transition to democracy do indeed need economic help, and the long-term political support of the other democratic nations in the international community. I'm fine with that, and if it can be done in Japan - and in Germany; and if it is occuring (as a result of different circumstances - okay) in Indonesia, and if the West can do it in Iraq - then that is all to the good.

  • At 15 September, 2005 19:53, Anonymous Peter said…


    Thanks. You have extrapolated a sophisticated argument from my poor jottings. I don´t always recognise it as my own.

    Take Italy (of which, thank God) I know something). During the war it had the biggest resistnace movement in Europe. The partigiani fought and died in thosands against fascism. Despite all the disappointments of the DC dominated 50s, this sustained Italian democracy.

    I don´t argue against democracy. I argue that totalitarian states have a right to oppress people. I argue that if you come in from the outside to do it, you risking putting things backwards.

    Basically I think we should support those people fighting for human rights, but not march in with our own agenda. Supporting the partigiani can pay off. But beware of the Nicaragua case. The Snadinista were not as benign as many of us thought. The opposition had some fantastic people. But Reagan's support for the Contra's made being a Sandinista a nationalist cause.

    I very much agree that a lot of the Muslim world suffers from post colonial problems. Mr case is that we misdiagnosis this as "being Muslim".

  • At 16 September, 2005 18:50, Blogger Simon said…

    I don´t argue against democracy. I argue that totalitarian states have a right to oppress people.

    I imagine you missed out a "don't" there. :-)

    I argue that if you come in from the outside to do it, you risking putting things backwards. Basically I think we should support those people fighting for human rights, but not march in with our own agenda.

    This is perilously close to the 'building solidarity' line that the bonkers left come out with!

    The problem is that across most of the world those engaged in 'liberation struggles' have been ideologically motivated, either by nationalism or Marixism or both. The results (cf Eritrea only recently) are for all to see across African in particular. Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Sudan to name but three, are all basket cases because one form of repression was simply replaced by another.

    Either way, the danger is that if we do nothing to assist the transition to democracy by backing 'our agenda' (nothing wrong with liberal democracy - have courage!), that a country slides towards another form of repression. We risk putting things backwards - for sure. But we also chance getting things right. That's an argument for following through and seeing what we started to a close. I think tha the Lib Dem policy on Iraq (to withdraw troops asap), for example, is terribly misguided, is populist, and lacks principle as well as spine. The conflict against the forces of reaction, in Iraq and elsewhere, is not one the West can afford to lose, either militarily, strategically, or morally - and that includes tolerating the rise of anti-democratic forces in transitional countries such as Iraq.

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"What is Liberalism?: I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life." C-B.


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