The fault lines in liberal democracy
: On inconsistency, hollow rhetoric, and the erosion of liberal democracy in Western-Europe, 2001-2023

  • J.L Pinas

    Student thesis: Master's Thesis


    This research paper combines insights from Collingwood’s Interwar-period writings on Western European liberalism and modernity, and Yurchak’s analysis of political discourse and praxis in various political systems, to analyse the praxis, and state of liberal democracy in various Western-European nations in the period 2001-2023. It does this within a contemporary context of increasing distrust towards governments, academia, and liberal ideology, accompanied by a renewed interest in Romantic notions combined with closed nationalism. It aims to answer the question: Which insights yield Collingwood’s analysis of practices and ideals in liberal democracy, and Andrei Yurchak’s analysis of authoritative discourses and political practices in the late-USSR, into the state of Western European liberal democracies in the period 2001-2023?
    The structure consists of two parts; the first is a comparative political- and historical analysis along the themes Collingwood distinguished in Man Goes Mad. It analyses the salience of Collingwood’s writings in their original context, and subsequently applies them to harmful practices in Western Europe’s liberal democracies between 2001-2023. From this analysis, it becomes clear that the influence of war and militaristic culture on liberal democracy remains worrisome, but practices used to empower the executive branch of government, advance vested private interests, and omit public scrutiny, are even more damaging. As such, these interests are revealed as a key driving force behind politically harmful tendencies. They undermine liberal democracy’s potential of drawing upon various insights and opinions, by distorting knowledge, truthful debate, and regulative efforts. Collingwood’s analysis of the tension between modernity and Romantic thought, regarding notions on society and well-being, shows that both are inextricably linked and remain relevant to Western Europe’s contemporary situation. Though aesthetics plays a much more ambiguous role than he proposed, and humanity’s footprint has become much more far-reaching, his analysis of problematic Enlightenment-thinking assumptions regains new relevance in the contemporary context. This manifests itself particularly in the increasingly contested nature of scientific knowledge, and its relation to policy.
    The second part focuses on Yurchak’s analytical concepts and gauge how these manifest in the setting of the research frame. As such, it draws parallels between structural, uniform political and socio-economic practices that eroded meaning, credibility, and eventually ideological beliefs in both the late-USSR, and contemporary Western Europe. This approach demonstrates the enduring relevance of Yurchak’s analytical concepts, while taking into account their different manifestations in the contemporary setting. Central amongst these is the performative shift in authoritative discourses, which indicates an increasing focus on form over content. Next to it no longer stems from an ideological centralized organ, and reproduces ideological assertions and rituals, it increasingly focuses on deflecting accountability. This uniform, form-focused, and hollow communication resulted in both systems in what is called hypernormalisation, illustrated by various case studies on the strategic communication that mitigates political scandals, enables industrial greenwashing, and makes up ideological messaging and activism of the rising New-Right. In both systems, these trends led to a popular (cultural) reaction, which the concept of vnye explains. This concept translated in the late-USSR predominantly to lifestyles that permitted deviating personal meaning while coexisting with the dominant system. In early twenty-first century Western Europe, vnye has become more varied, widespread, and turns into engagement, which is linked to a combination of less restrictive state presence with technological and social developments.
    Overall, both thinkers give valuable, albeit concerning insights into the state of Western European liberal democracies. While Collingwood’s themes show the interlinkage of practices that run counter to liberal ideals, Yurchak demonstrates the subversive effects of ‘hollow’ rhetoric and practices. Together, they show that it is especially the open, informed debate that is fundamental to a liberal democracy, that is under pressure.
    Date of Award20 Nov 2023
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorHerman Simissen (Supervisor) & Eddo Evink (Supervisor)

    Master's Degree

    • Master Kunst en Cultuurwetenschappen

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