Portia Kentish uses the work of Milan Kundera to explain the great decline of modern liberalism.
Liberal democracy is in retreat, last year marking the 13th consecutive year of decline according to Freedom House. Animosity, polarisation and a lack of forbearance are commonplace amongst societies globally. The populous is becoming increasingly numb and alienated, feeling disconnected between social and political reality. Whether we like it or not, illiberal populism is creeping up on societies once complacent with liberal democracy, with 1 in 4 Europeans casting their votes for populist parties.
Liberal politicians, political thinkers and media outlets are grasping for some tangible phenomenon to blame. Economic shocks, social media, sinister figures puppeteering elections, and the migration crisis are all popular contenders. While a combination of these factors arguably contribute, what if it is something more deep-seated – something intrinsic to the nucleus of contemporary liberalism?
‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera touches on a multitude of fundamental questions. Yet the Czech-born and exiled French author raises one notion in particular, which struck me as timely and relevant – kitsch.
Kundera introduces the topic with a deliberation on the word ‘shit’ – bear with me. ‘Shit’ is considered vulgar, yet it is something intrinsic to human existence. This inevitability leaves us stuck in a metaphysical paradox, as “the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is “Kitsch”. Kitsch, as Kundera defines it, is the “absolute denial of shit, in both literal and figurative senses of the word”. Kitsch is the unquestioned consciousness of modernity, to the degree that it becomes subconscious.
Kitsch is generally used to describe an aesthetic, notably in art, that is tacky, poor in design, and ‘the enemy of beauty’. The term exploded in the 1950s and 1960s when a rising interest in pop culture coincided with the normalisation of capitalism in the west. Kitsch is commonly associated with the mass production of ‘entertainment’ and of emotions. It embodies a parody of a genuine aesthetic experience by reflecting easily identifiable stock emotions and gestures. American essayist Clement Greenberg argues that the term is reliant on the idea of a false consciousness: Kitsch is the meaningless entertainment that numbs our brains, rather than pushing us to question our ‘wage-slave’ lives.
Kitsch surrounds us and entraps us within our everyday lives. Traditionally, kitsch is the Virgin Mary fridge magnet, the ‘live laugh love’ poster on your bedroom wall, the red and white garden gnome, the Maneki-neko you brought back from Japan. However kitsch is much broader than this. It can be extrapolated to any numbing form of entertainment: think 2 Broke Girls, Post Malone, or Keeping up with the Kardashians. You get the idea.
These stock emotions, this hackneyed acceptance of the status-quo and the consumption of dulling media isn’t necessarily all bad. Some would argue that kitsch entertainment is a defence mechanism, a retreat against the tyranny of modernity, which is all well and good until this unquestioning mentality becomes subconscious. This is when it becomes dangerous, and this is where illiberal populism comes into play.
Kitsch isn’t just defined as an aesthetic within entertainment or art. Like everything, it can be brought back to politics. As Kundera relates, politicians are the masters of kitsch. Mentioning the image of a male politician holding a child, a clichéd attempt to project warmth and happiness, Kundera questions “How did the senator know that children meant happiness? Could he see into their souls? What if the moment they were out of sight, three of them jumped the fourth and began beating him up?” It’s the red or blue campaign posters, the repetitive sloganeering in speeches, the unspecified promises of more jobs and lower taxes. It’s the notion that we, as constituents are supposed to be absorbed into this aesthetic ideal, rather than questioning its meaning.
The liberal kitsch is a banal acceptance of liberal ideas, as it is the ‘right thing’ to believe in. From the politician with the child, kitsch can be expanded to more abstract ideas. Simple truths, identity politics and social cleavages are all leading us in a direction of how we should think. In most western societies, liberal democracy is projected onto a populace and accepted by them. Lliberal democracy is not a bad thing, and I don’t wish to vilify a system of freedom. What’s bad is that we have forgotten why it’s a good thing. We have become complacent. Liberal political discourse has been stuck in a state of deadlock, alienating anyone with non-liberal, non-leftist ideals.
The subconscious acceptance of liberalism has meant that many have forgotten that it has to be defended. Maybe many have even forgotten what liberalism really is, and more importantly what the alternative can mean – illiberalism. Liberalism has become kitsch. It has come to emulate stock emotions, aesthetic ideals, and the denial of shit.
Many liberal democratic political parties are no longer able to mobilise mass support in the same way as populists. This denial of illiberalism has ironically lead to its expansion. Creating an atmosphere of apathy and polarisation is never healthy for society. Liberal democracy thrives on respectful debate and compromise, but how can this take place when many no longer understand what it is that they are defending? The atmosphere of political accommodation has been blown away. Take Brexit as an example: Remainers and Leavers are so deeply divided that it is causing family feuds and metaphorical ‘civil wars’, according to a recent New York Times article. Partisan movements are yelling at each other before they are aware of the substance within their commotion. The liberal kitsch’s denial of shit is denying opportunity for constructive debate.
Illiberalism is rising, and it’s hardly surprising. From Duterte to Bolsonaro, Trump to Orban, voters are falling into a dangerous cycle of attacking without questioning, of polarising and antagonising. Liberals are shifting the blame, diverting attention to external factors rather than looking inward for the source of the problem. It’s not migration or debt or fake news that is the problem, it’s how liberals have dealt with it. The real attention needs to be introspective. Liberals need to remember why they are liberals, rather than being absorbed in kitsch, no matter how appealing this subconscious state may seem.
It’s time to begin a new era of politics, a re-liberalisation if you will. The rise in illiberalism can only be counteracted by a new liberal renaissance. A true understanding, and more importantly, a true questioning, of liberalism is needed to spark the journey toward a stronger political consciousness, rather than falling back onto the kitsch that made us complacent to begin with.