A world of moral entropy (Evgen Kotenko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

November 5, 2022   9 mins

For those of us in the West, the Ukrainian response to the Soviet invasion has been somewhat embarrassing. We are used to living in peace and prosperity and are not in the habit of fighting for our way of life or making sacrifices for the common good. I don’t think I’m alone in asking myself whether, under similar circumstances, we would be as courageous and unselfish as the Ukrainians have proved themselves to be. The question brings a blush to the cheeks.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on us. Crises can inspire people to do uncharacteristic things. Let me delicately point out that liberal values have never been deeply rooted in Ukraine, nor were its citizens known for their sense of fraternity and civic responsibility. Very few observers who knew Ukraine’s history could have predicted the surge of resistance that followed the Russian invasion. Vladimir Putin was not alone.

How long this feeling will last once the war is over is anyone’s guess. There are countless historical examples of wars changing the DNA of nations; take post-war Germany, for instance. But as we know from our personal relations, the camaraderie forged by a crisis tends to dissipate over time. There is a law of entropy in human relations, just as there is entropy in the physical world. There is even such a thing as moral entropy; one can only expect people to be good for so long.

But for now, the resistance of the Ukrainians and their sense of solidarity is an inspiration to the rest of us. Yet to some, it is more than an inspiration: it is teaching us a lesson. Already certain liberal intellectuals are using the Ukraine war to criticise our own liberal democracies. Why, they are asking, can’t we be more like Ukraine?

This is not a wise question, but it arises out of a genuine concern. The feeling is that we have lost a strong sense of civic purpose, that democratic norms are being openly flouted, and that there is a chilling indifference to the public good. Our countries look less like republics of citizens today than assemblies of consumers and web surfers glued to their screens. Meanwhile, a xenophobic nationalism is replacing a generous patriotism that once reflected optimism about the democratic prospect. And so, yes, why can’t we be more like Ukraine?

A good example of this line of question comes from David Brooks, one of the most sober political journalists in the United States. Last month, he wrote in the New York Times that: “The war in Ukraine is not only a military event; it’s an intellectual event. The Ukrainians are winning not only because of the superiority of their troops. They are winning because they are fighting for a superior idea.” For Brooks, that idea is liberal nationalism. He believes that Ukraine is teaching us that a feeling of national belonging need not contradict a commitment to individual liberty. On the contrary: liberalism can ennoble nationalism, teaching it to be generous. And an elevated nationalism can connect liberalism to our feelings of attachment to each other, and inspire us to fight for what we share. And so: let us all be liberal nationalists now.

This is an admirable wish. But it begs the following question: why are we not liberal nationalists now? Why is there so little concern for the public good in contemporary democracies? Why are we such indifferent citizens? Why has illiberal nationalism acquired such appeal?

Rather than try to answer these difficult questions, it is much easier simply to charge our leaders and fellow citizens with a failure of nerve in the face of threats to democracy. (Brooks was not doing this, but others are.) One could write an interesting little book about the role that the “failure of nerve” charge has played in modern politics. We usually associate it with the reactionary and militaristic Right. One of the ironies of the present conflict is that Vladimir Putin, who often weaponised this charge, is now the target of it. Because of his military failures, his courage has been thrown into question by the radical Russian Right he helped to create.

But the charge has also been used on the Left. Anyone familiar with the history of communist states and post-colonial revolutionary regimes will recognise the phrase “insufficient revolutionary zeal”, which was employed to explain regime failures or to purge troublesome public officials. Why have we not met the quota set by the five-year plan? A lack of revolutionary zeal. Why has the collectivisation of farms caused famine? A lack of revolutionary zeal. Behind the magical economic thinking of Marxism-Leninism was a theory of the will to power.

Defenders of liberal democracy developed the unfortunate habit of employing similar rhetoric during the Cold War. Looking back at the writings of the period, it is striking how often the terms faith and war appear. We must have faith in democratic principles! We must win the war of ideas! It is understandable that liberals began to speak this way. After all, communism was a messianic faith and communist intellectuals were not above using force to reach their ends.

But the only legitimate object of faith is a god, not an idea. And ideas are not weapons developed to serve armchair generals. Ideas serve our pursuit of truth through reflection and criticism; that is all they do. Ideologies, on the other hand, do inspire faith, and they can, and sometimes must, be employed in political conflicts. But there is no such thing as a “war of ideas”. The real power of ideas is their capacity to unmask ideologies, not propagate them. Those who look to Ukraine today to scold their own democracies seem on automatic pilot. They have genuine worries, which I share (and even wrote a book expressing them a few years ago). But I do not think that the sorry state of our democratic societies has much to do with a failure of nerve, or a loss of faith, or the lack of a unifying idea like liberal nationalism. The older I get, the more a materialist I have become. Not a materialist in the sense of Karl Marx, but in the sense of Alexis de Tocqueville.

In recent years, I have been spending a lot of time with Tocqueville, and I am struck by what a subtle and convincing materialist he was. His masterpiece, Democracy in America, does not begin with an invocation of democratic values and why we must fight for them. It begins with the geography of North America — the forests, the swamps, the mountains, the rushing rivers. In the face of the vast, unspoiled American landscape, the early settlers found themselves in a state of relative material equality. Nature was very big, and they were very small. They needed each other.

In Tocqueville’s view, this fact of equality was a necessary condition for establishing the principle of equality in American democracy; and that principle then inspired a passion for equality. In other words, live passions are rooted ultimately in material reality. Tocqueville did not believe, as Marx did, that political ideas just mirror a society’s material relations. But he knew that no political idea is convincing for long, or even relevant, if it is utterly detached from present social reality. This is a challenge to all utopian thinkers: they must imagine a new state of affairs that does not seem utterly divorced from present reality.

There is an important correlate to Tocqueville’s materialism: if political ideals that once captured people’s imaginations no longer do, our first instinct should be to ask what change in social conditions might be behind the change, making the old ideals less compelling than they once were. It should not be to adopt a prophetic pose and implore everyone to return to the true faith or embrace a new one. And so, if we are concerned, as we ought to be, about a lack of civic attachment, social solidarity, and respect for the common good in Western democracies, we must ask ourselves the following question: What has changed in the way we live now to erode our sense of democratic citizenship?

My own thinking about this question is not original. It seems to me that the ultimate source of democratic erosion is the fact that our societies have become more liquid and less solid, to adopt the terms of the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Bauman’s use of the term “liquid” was an oblique reference to The Communist Manifesto, in which Marx and Engels declared that under capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”.

Bauman pointed out that Marx and Engels took solidity to be a good thing. In this sense, they were conservatives. And their expectation was that once unstable capitalist societies were overthrown, a new, solid type of society under communism would emerge. Marx and Engels did not preach permanent revolution; they were not Maoists. For them, the whole point of engaging in socialist and Communist politics was (ideally) to restore solidity and establish certainty so that human beings could live healthily in line with their natures. Hence the importance of socialist values like solidarity, and policies like economic planning.

Today, the communist utopian dream is dead and capitalism remains in place. But its power to liquify human relations has massively increased. Capitalism in the wide sense — including modern science and technology — no longer just eats away at solid social institutions. It prevents new solid ones from even forming. This was Bauman’s most important insight.

We now live in a world where people have begun to anticipate that fewer of our institutions and norms will endure as they once did. They have factored this into their thinking and — even more importantly — into their feelings. We know that children of divorced parents have more trouble than most in developing solid relationships with others. Having lost a sense of certainty about the families they grew up in, they lack confidence that they can establish stable ones of their own. My sense is that this is now happening in society more generally. From the importance of biological sex to the dominant role of the family, fewer and fewer of the social institutions and norms that exist when someone is young will exist when they are old. If this trend continues, it is hard not to imagine that we are in store for a radical transformation of human consciousness and social life.

Obvious examples of this liquidity abound. In the economic sphere, deregulation, “flexible” labour markets, privatisation, global finance and trade, and the dismantling of social protections have made workers’ lives and their communities more fragile. In the technological sphere, the unavoidable internet offers young people a vast menu of human possibilities, which has undermined the transmission of national and religious customs and values. It has also subjected all of us to psychological and moral viruses that ricochet around the globe instantaneously. In the medical field, rapid advances in research and treatment render today’s therapeutic wisdom obsolete tomorrow, leaving less-educated people confused and increasingly sceptical of the medical establishment. Finally, and most dramatically, we see the effects of liquidity in new ideologies of fluid psycho-sexual identities.

This is an historically unprecedented situation. The nature of human society has always been conservative. Its function has been to offer a stable environment in which individuals can develop psychologically and cooperate with each other; it also, crucially, has transmitted knowledge and norms to subsequent generations. The ideas and institutions of liberal democracy developed in societies that functioned in this conservative way. But our contemporary liquid societies do all this less well. They are becoming, so to speak, less social. Their energy is centrifugal, not centripetal.

What I have just put forward is just a thesis, and not an original one. But if it is even half right, we need to engage in much deeper thinking about liberal democracy and civic engagement than we are accustomed to. In an unstable environment where institutions and values have trouble getting rooted, just what does the term “common good” mean? Or solidarity? When the forces that determine human destinies are global and ever changing, what does democratic citizenship mean?

These are not intended to be rhetorical questions. They are, to my mind, the fundamental political questions of our time. We need answers to them before we can think clearly about much else. We cannot “fight” for liberal democracy if we don’t know what it is still capable of, given the societies we must now live in and the expectations and feelings we now have. Many people today are convinced that the greatest threat to liberal democracy is xenophobic nationalism, not liquification. They are concerned about ideologies that want to make our societies less open, less diverse, and less subject to dissent. I share this concern, at least in the short run: today’s self-declared illiberal nationalists are trouble and can cause a lot of damage.

What they cannot do, however, is change the laws of social physics. The so-called “national conservative” activists who gather in Budapest these days to hear the gospel of Christian integrism are children of liquid societies. Whatever their nostalgic fantasies about a world they’ve never known, and never existed in the form they imagine, their psychological outlook presumes liquidity, movement, independence. They are bees who were born outside a hive — like the rest of us. They are not built to live in even a hive as inviting to them as a fully “integrated” Catholic nation.

The fact is that today’s nationalists can never achieve their goals. History has erased the possibility of sustainable, homogeneous theological-political regimes. We should still be concerned about today’s far-Right nationalists and resist them politically. But that is because political movements that fail to achieve their ends are often more dangerous than movements that do.

What we all hope is that soon, very soon, Ukraine will be able to join the community of liberal democratic nations in full security. We also hope that the experience of war will establish enough trust among Ukrainians to allow democratic institutions to operate as they are intended to, with loyal opposition and respect for opposition.

But the truth is that even were these hopes realised, Ukraine would then find itself subject to all the centrifugal social, economic, and psychological forces other liberal democracies are contending with. Every regime faces them today, even Russia. It is worth remembering that in the early weeks of the war, few Russian citizens demonstrated against it, and almost no one demonstrated for it or rushed to enlist in the military. Instead, they rushed to IKEA to buy furniture in fear that the store would close for good.

An early version of this article was presented on October 14 at the 2022 Freedom Games conference organised by the Liberté Foundation in Łódź, Poland.

Mark Lilla is an American political scientist, historian of ideas, journalist, and professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York City.