Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

What Have We Done Wrong? the Responsibilities of the Rich

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

What Have We Done Wrong? the Responsibilities of the Rich

Article excerpt

Intellectuals have intellectual responsibilities. We should scarcely be surprised that reflective responses to the attacks on New York and Washington of 11 September 2001 set out to explore their background in western countries' policies towards the less developed world, and towards the Middle East in particular. Critical thinkers, not unlike thoughtful citizens generally, need to posit links between the policies in question and mainstream political priorities in the west's own development. These lines of enquiry once more evoke the perennial issue of whether, in any given historical situation, intellectual elites are complicit in the actions of the political elite; or alternatively, whether intellectuals are able to expose the policies and preferences to critical scrutiny, as liberal political theory requires. In the years preceding the attacks of 2001, popular exasperation towards orthodox western policy settings overshadowed the often weakly-articulated intellectual critique, something that raises the suspicion that the western intelligentsia has been falling down on the job that liberal theory ascribes to it. This imbalance has produced an increase in electoral volatility and incoherent populism in many western polities, a pattern 11 September has reinforced. In this paper we argue that the suspicion of western intellectual and elite failure is thoroughly justified.

In large part, political dissidence in western countries springs from the socioeconomic disruptions that mainstream economic-liberal policies have caused. To say the least, the benefits and costs of these policies are unequally distributed, and political elites have had to work hard to contain, neutralise and deflect the discontent of those parts of their constituencies that have come off worst. It comes as no surprise, then, to find that the inequities and dislocations that western policy has visited on non-western societies are even more severe, as the victims lie outside western political elites' constituencies. What does come as a dispiriting surprise, on the other hand, is the extreme hostility and defensiveness with which liberal intellectuals have met reasonable questioning of ubiquitous but unpopular policies and the latter's contribution to the context in which the attacks of 11 September took place. Prominent liberal academics in particular (to say nothing of politicians) have declared the search for causal explanations of the attacks illegitimate, the moral superiority of post-Enlightenment (economic) liberalism beyond question, and any investigation of the west's own contribution to anti-western sentiment treasonable. (1)

In this paper we link legitimate domestic discontent in the west to anti-western sentiment at large. We focus on the former in examining the problems that mainstream western policy has wrought, but start by reviewing the critical arguments that have drawn so much liberal ire since 11 September 2001. Here we accept at least one of the liberals' major premises, that today's confrontation continues one that has endured for two centuries--between Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment ideas of economic, social and political development. Secondly, we marshal the claims of those (including conservatives) who seek the cause of today's disaffection in the policy lines pursued in the core liberal-democratic countries. Here we will find disquiet among conservatives, perhaps more than others, with the liberal flight from political contestation today and with the essential amorality of commercial calculation (which liberals call "rationality"). In their hostility to political institutions, liberals have subverted the capacity of political processes to facilitate non-disruptive, equitable and deliberated change, thereby denying the legitimacy of one of humanity's most recurrent aspirations.

The insouciance of international institutions with respect to unnecessary disruption, democratic deficits and inequity in the world at large can also be traced to this liberal recalcitrance at home, one that negates the efficacy of democratic institutions while ritually sacralising them in the west's claim to the moral high ground in the face of "terrorism". …

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