Who won the Cold War? asked Daryl McCann in a recent issue of Quadrant. At first sight, this is an absurd question: of course America and its allies won. After all, it was the Soviet empire that folded, and for a time—a very short time, admittedly—it seemed as if large-scale geopolitical conflicts were a thing of the past. Francis Fukuyama suggested that history had come to a full stop. He had seen the future and it was universal liberal democracy; any little local resistance was futile and would quickly be overcome. To try to stop its spread would be like trying to plug a volcano in mid-eruption.
We now know different, if ever we gave credence to Fukuyama’s very dilute Hegelianism (I did not). Interestingly, the reading of a book by John Laffin, an Australian writer on military subjects, published in 1979 in a popular, sensationalist style under the prophetic title The Dagger of Islam, might have sufficed by itself to warn us against all complacency in however sophisticated a form, and that ideology was far from dead albeit that its Marxist incarnation, or one of its Marxist incarnations, had so obviously failed even according to the most Machiavellian of criteria.
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Nevertheless, no one could seriously claim that the Soviet Union other than lost the Cold War, or that its leaders at any time in its history would have welcomed the denouement of that conflict. It was a victory for freedom over tyranny, indeed one of the most complete forms of tyranny known to human history.
And yet I suspect that few people would subscribe wholeheartedly to the proposition that, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, liberty has progressed from triumph to triumph in the world, even—or perhaps especially—in the lands of the victors of the Cold War. The fact is that for people to feel free, more is required than a political system with certain legal or constitutional guarantees, all of which can be subverted by the kind of rationalisation to which intellectuals are often given, and the absence of overt or obvious tyranny.
I was startled not long ago when a couple of taxi drivers in Paris of African origin told me that they intended to return to Africa from France in order to recover their liberty. What, leave a liberal democracy for a continent of weak institutions, corrupt and avaricious political psychopaths and an absence of the rule of law, in order to feel free again?
Some people might say that this reflects upon France rather than upon liberal democracies as a whole, but I think this would be a mistake. In essence, France is not so very different from other such democracies, even if the proportion of its gross domestic product attributable to state activity is the highest among similar countries. Everywhere, people are cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d by hosts of regulations. Every householder in Britain receives at intervals a letter demanding that he register on the electoral roll, enjoining him not to lose the right to vote (a great benefit or privilege conferred on him), and threatening him with a fine of £1000 if he does not comply. In Australia, everyone must vote, or attend to vote, as children must attend school assembly. There may be arguments in favour of these regulations, but one of them cannot be that they are designed to make the average citizen feel free.
In daily life, in professional life, one is subjected (or so it seems to me) to ever more bureaucratic procedures of no conceivable value except to make us feel that we are small and under surveillance, or tiny cogs in a large machine. Form-filling has sometimes expanded to the point at which completion of such forms comes to be the very object of work itself, though no one consults the information gathered by them. From time to time I write for publications supposedly devoted to the cause of freedom, which require me to avow that I am not engaged on some disreputable activity such as plagiarism or tax evasion. Of course I comply though I know it is absurd (what tax-evader is going to reply, “Yes, I evade taxes”?), but I want to be paid, and filling the form is a precondition of being paid. Thus my probity is destroyed by a thousand cuts and I begin to despise myself for my habitual cravenness and pusillanimity. These are not qualities that assort well with the exercise of freedom.
Again, it might be objected to the taxi drivers that they will feel freer in Africa than in France only because the latter has given them the opportunity to accumulate some money, no doubt a small amount by French standards but a large one by African, their relative wealth increasing by a factor of ten or more once they take it to Africa.
No doubt this is true. If they were to return to Africa with no money at all, it is doubtful whether they would feel freer than they were in France. Nevertheless, in their particular situation (and everyone, after all, lives in a particular situation) they would be freer, or think they would be freer, in Africa than as a taxi driver in France. A sample of two is a very small one upon which to erect a theory, but it is not impossible that there might one day be a reverse migration of people in search of greater liberty.
For people such as these taxi drivers, the freedom to speak without restraint on political matters was probably not a very important component of their idea of freedom, absence of regulation (or regulation that is easily avoided by the payment of a small bribe) being much more important. But even for those who care for intellectual freedom, such freedom seems to be in retreat in liberal democracies (to call it dead would be an exaggeration), curtailed not so much by tyrannical governments as by the action of the very class of person who one might have supposed was most attached to it, namely the intelligentsia.
Most of us inhabit not only countries but smaller environments. In institutions such as universities, freedom of opinion (if the reports I read are true; I do not frequent them myself, not even by disinvitation) has receded because diversity now means uniformity and tolerance means shutting people up.
This might seem something of a consolation prize to supporters of the Soviet Union for the otherwise comprehensive defeat it suffered, since the kind of arguments used by students and others to justify the attack on free speech in universities are precisely of the same kind or form that the Soviet Union employed in casting doubt on the reality and sincerity of the Western world’s commitment to human rights. What use was it to have the right to free speech if the press and other media were all owned by the capitalist class, and moreover there was no assured right to housing, healthcare, education and so on, which the bourgeoisie appropriated to itself alone? The freedom of expression in such circumstances was, therefore, merely formal rather than real. There could be genuine freedom only after social equality had been brought about. Until then, freedom of expression was a snare and a delusion, a covert way of maintaining the hegemony of the privileged.
Though this argument was obviously bogus (otherwise it could hardly even have been made in the West), and was merely a tool or instrument in the struggle, it entered the soul of the West, so to speak. Now, nearly thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, one often hears that it is right to stifle free speech to redress the balance of power between traditionally privileged and unprivileged groups. Only today, for example, I read an article in the Guardian newspaper inveighing against public debate, not only because as currently practised it is often trivial in content and trivialising in format, but because it offers advantages to “posh boys” and is “structurally biased in favour of conservative bromides”.
In other words, the very demand for or existence of debate is evidence that it is at best pointless and at worst harmful, insofar as it reinforces current hierarchies of power; and that once the proper radical reforms have been undertaken there will be no need for it because everything will be so perfect. Debate will, like the state itself, wither away.
So, with a becoming sense of proportion and irony, we may indeed ask with Daryl McCann: Who won the Cold War?
Anthony Daniels’s most recent book, co-authored with Kenneth Francis, is The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd (New English Review Press), published under his pen-name, Theodore Dalrymple.