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The Norway Massacre and the Strength of Liberal Democracy

The Norway Massacre and the Strength of Liberal Democracy

By Reuben Steff
August 3, 2011

The massacre that occurred recently in Norway could happen in any liberal western democracy – even New Zealand. But that is a risk we must run in order to sustain an open social, economic and political system. In a sense, the very nature of our system is both its greatest strength and weakness: On the one hand the citizens of the western world enjoy a level of liberty largely unmatched throughout human history, and few of us would wish to see us move towards pre-democratic modes of rule or become an Orwellian state of omnipresent surveillance. But the flip side to our openness means we will always be accompanied by a ‘dark rider’, as terrorism against the west – both from within and without – will exist for the rest of our lives as individuals and groups view our liberal system as fundamentally ‘corruptive’ to their own beliefs and identities. Anders Breivik, the (as far as we know) lone-wolf who carried out the attacks in Norway was one such individual. His manifesto tells us that he was seeking to counter an ‘invasion’ of immigrants into Europe, who are supposedly destroying ‘western christendom’. This is not an isolated view, as it is shared a by an increasing number of right-wing political parties in Europe, (and members of the Tea Party in the U.S.) who appear to be gaining in political power. Their rise does reflect increased concerns about the effect of immigration, and the fact that inter-cultural tension does exist to varying degrees throughout the western world. The response promoted by anti-immigration advocates is to tighten restrictions across much of society, to increase surveillance of individuals and groups, to rally around ‘the flag’ or ‘the cross’, and to drastically limit immigration. Underpinning this view is the notion that liberal democracies are inherently weak in the face of such ‘threats’. But these individuals profoundly misread not only the recent course of western history, but misjudge the inherent strength of liberal systems and the economic necessity of maintaining them.

Firstly, there is no universal “Christian West”. We can perhaps speak of a “Western Civilization”, but even this is a gross simplification when it is not accompanied by some historical perspective, as it implicitly suggests our culture is static. Nothing could be further from the truth: western viewpoints on race, society, culture and politics has always been in flux. Consider that women have had the right to vote for only a little over a century; the notion that Caucasians were a superior race (genetically and intellectually) to all others was a commonly accepted idea across the western world only 70 years ago; and many European states were ruled by absolutist monarchies until World War I. Further, it disregards the changes that have taken place in much of liberal societies’ views on sexuality, relationships, the role of women, and the division between state and church. When we go back even further we find that the Caucasians of Europe were originally pagans, and Christianity itself was an import into Europe, which spread from there to America, Australia and New Zealand – our ancestors were not born Christian, nor is anyone born one today.

Secondly, our system has been remarkably resilient in the face of historical immigration, because a liberal approach to governing exists to reconcile differences - it promotes harmony amongst disparate ideologies and cultures. Indeed, the underlying ethos of our system is simple: You do not have to love thy neighbour, but you should accept that they are different, and in turn they should do the same. Therefore civility, acceptance and tolerance are not only upheld as virtues, but they become a natural reinforcing by-product of such a system. In time, these norms are internalised by much of the population. Critics would counter that this merely papers over the cracks and underlying differences. But these differences are not existentially threatening to anyone in a functioning and mature liberal system. Instead, we view them as acceptable ‘personal beliefs’, so long as they do not negatively impinge upon others. This is superior to waging war against all who embrace different ideals or have alien values to us. A liberal society therefore provides room for multiple ideologies and cultures to exist alongside one another. This gives rise to a tolerant liberal social order in the face of what would otherwise be chaos. This is the fundamental ingenuity of the liberal system, and why it has been so successful historically.

In additional, our liberal system is also driven by an economic imperative. So long as we seek to maintain our standard of living we will have to accept the entrance of new migrants, as the demographics of English native-born speakers decreases in the next two decades. Increasing labour demands inevitably leads to increased immigration, and immigrants largely do the jobs native-born people would rather not do, and some fill high-skill jobs and bring innovations into the economy. National economies thus benefit on the whole from immigration. Alongside this, the baby boomers are now retiring (and hence the retired population is growing in size relative to the amount of workers in our economy), and we need outside immigrant to fill jobs to create tax revenue (unless we want to dramatically raise the retirement age or impose large tax increases).

The system will always be subject to assault, as some individuals continue to narrowly interpret the world within their anachronistic mental framework, and do not accept that culture and society is now (and always has been) in a state of constant flux. Their frustration will externalise itself in a number of ways, some will join right-wing parties, some will vent anger to friends, some will get drunk and pick fights, but very few will act upon their views in a truly radical and destructive fashion. However, the latter will occur on occasion as we saw in Norway. This is the cost of liberal capitalist democracy, but we must reconcile ourselves to it, for to respond in the way that anti-immigration groups suggest we should will undermine the very basis and strengths of our society and system. This would be a self-imposed cost to liberal democracy, a betrayal of our own values, and indeed to the millions who died fighting for our liberties against totalitarianism in the twentieth century.

The attacks in Norway thus speak to the need to elevate the debate over multiculturalism and immigration to the highest levels of our national (and international) discourse. In doing so it must address the grievances of a wide range of groups across the national and ideological spectrum. This does not mean that the path towards greater societal cohesion and integration will be an easy one, but it is one that must be walked regardless. To let the debate be defined by a group of opportunistic right-wing parties will result in suboptimal or counterproductive solutions based upon fallacies. Ultimately, a rational solution is to allow immigrants to enter and be assimilated, and accept that this in turn will change the very nature of the liberal system itself, but a change with which it is uniquely suited to.

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