Reimagining the liberal project

The triumphant words of Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, that Donald Trump’s victory “marks a repudiation of the status quo of failed liberal progressive policies” are a striking indication of a growing sense of unease against not just liberal economic policies, but more importantly the once unassailable liberal political and moral order. This existential crisis faced by the liberal order coincides with a disturbing rise in the popular legitimacy for illiberal politics around the world, including in India. That modern liberal and progressive ideas are being rejected in their very fortresses in Europe and America should make us sit up and take notice.

Is the liberal dilemma merely about the rise of the right wing capitalising on unemployment, migration, fear of the other, etc.? Or is it also about the failure of the progressive and liberal ideas that have been taken for granted by their advocates, some of whom even wrote obituaries for history? Moreover, the fact that the underprivileged amongst us, who should have been a natural audience for left-liberal ideas, increasingly support right wing and xenophobic forces should come as a wake-up call.

From anxiety to hatred

There is a deep sense of economic, social and cultural anxiety around us, both here in India and abroad. We have known that for long though we didn’t appreciate enough what this could potentially lead to. This anxiety is now transforming into a scary opposition to modern values — human rights, multiculturalism, secularism, LGBT rights, among others — that are liberal and progressive. There is today a universal backlash against liberal clichés about multiculturalism and liberal economic policies, notwithstanding their differences. And leaders of the liberal edifice seem to be floundering in providing convincing answers and alternatives.

The ordinary citizen who is suspicious of the outsider and anxious about financial security is not to be faulted — he/she is merely a victim of adverse structural conditions. Where it becomes problematic is when his/her legitimate anxieties are manipulated by right-wing forces to generate politically and ideologically useful xenophobia and hatred. This has become easier over the years, especially because liberals don’t address these questions seriously and creatively anymore, as they should. For them, these are long-settled intellectual questions. While the rise of the right wing is a serious worry, this then calls into question the fundamentals of progressive politics and the way it is practised.

Notwithstanding the right-wing pandering of nativist insecurities, the bitterness against traditional elites, both the intellectual elites and the wealthy, is growing. There is visible resentment against the liberal values advocated by the well-heeled, English-speaking journalists, university professors, celebrities, intellectuals, among others, some of who can only be described as boardroom liberals, preachy and condescending. Liberal values eulogised in university seminar halls, mainstream media outlets and other glamorous forums are often far removed from ground zero where people go about their daily struggles and view experts with a sense of suspicion. Doesn’t that partly explain why liberal elites like Manmohan Singh can’t beat the popular legitimacy of an illiberal Bharatiya Janata Party leadership?

While it is true that the intellectual elite is not the same as the moneyed elite, these differences may not matter much in the popular perception.

Sins of the liberal

The contemporary liberal dilemma has deep historical roots. Liberalism has historically spoken the language of empire. While the enlightenment project symbolised the intellectual supremacy of the West, the colonial project that followed was the material manifestation of liberal arrogance. While the colonial masters were busy looting colonies, liberals continued to extol the values of enlightenment just like those American liberals who justified what the American war machine did abroad, for the liberal democratic cause, of course. Rising immigration to Europe and the new wave of terror today would not have been this serious had the Western world not destroyed existing state structures in West Asia in the name of the war on terror and other convenient excuses.

The liberal project propositioned itself as the ultimate ideology at the end of the Cold War. However, neo-liberal economic policies that wreaked havoc in many underdeveloped countries are now creating problems for the First World with guardians of the liberal order looking increasingly uncertain. Notwithstanding the many essential differences between neo-liberalism and progressive liberal politics, there are significant linkages between the two. While it is true that the liberal left has consistently opposed neo-liberal economic policies while upholding socially liberal values, such conceptual hair-splitting seems irrelevant to the larger public imagination.

Liberalism, perhaps with the honourable exception of left liberals, today has come to signify progressive but redundant social values and insensitive economic logic. In its arrogant self-indulgence about the virtues of a universal economic and political model and individual liberty, the liberal project continued to sermonise while looking away from the economic and geopolitical atrocities of the West on the rest. The progressive liberal, by ideological and moral association, is paying the price for the insensitivity of the neo-liberal economist. Politicians such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who are seemingly cagey on the many neo-liberal pitfalls, are perhaps an exception to this confusion.

Right-wing regimes have skillfully used this moral double whammy faced by the liberals — elitism of liberal values and the let-down of neo-liberal economic logic — to direct the mounting popular anger against the wealthy and the elite towards liberals and “outsiders”. Unlike liberals, right-wingers shrewdly identified themselves with the anger and used the adverse side effects of economic and cultural globalisation to their political advantage, turning popular rage against progressive sections. The promises of neo-liberalism, which the poor saw as helping the rich with no tangible benefits for them, never materialised: the promises of the right wing may also never get them anywhere, but then that’s a matter for the longer term. And as Manmohan Singh reminded us the other day, “in the long run, we are all dead”.

The reality is that liberals of all hues have summarily failed to creatively and efficiently been unable to address economic inequalities and cultural insecurities. It was only natural then that internal contradictions of the liberal economic order and its unwillingness to imaginatively address identity issues have made it less attractive to large masses of the population. The organised Left in India is often seen to be talking in an alien language, unwilling, for instance, to get its hands dirty with the complex identity questions in the country.

Ivory tower illiberalism

The ‘better than thou’ positioning of the liberal elite has removed it from the midst of a society that is under siege today, in India and abroad. Unable to show empathy and meaningfully address the everyday angst of the ordinary citizens, liberals and their progressive talk often comes across as bourgeoisie high culture. In other words, liberals, comfortable in their ivory towers, have not adequately represented the poor and downtrodden.

While the right-wing argument that universities are ‘using taxpayer’s money to propagate anti-national ideas’ is indeed intellectually craven, there is an underlying sentiment in it which speaks of a liberal failure to get across to large sections of society and make meaning to their lives. Can political ideas survive if they don’t make a difference to the lives of those around us? Liberal sermons about life’s higher purposes from their inaccessible pulpit are bound to fail, as is increasingly becoming evident.

More than just incapacity, the ivory tower liberal is also often perceived to be intellectually illiberal and condescending. While the right uses thugness, the left uses smugness. Trolling has a pre-Twitter history — urbane liberals looking contemptuously at unsophisticated folk who held contrary views and talking down to them. Do liberals really believe in political multiculturalism? The truth is, they often don’t. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times of university-based liberals: “We progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table — er, so long as they aren’t conservatives… We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”

During a recent visit to the U.S., I was told by an American professor about how there is a strong feeling among a lot of ‘politically neutral folks’ that liberal political correctness has gone too far in its moral demarcations of right and wrong. A nation consists of politically and morally diverse, and divergent, views, and intellectual classes should be able to engage all of them, without prejudice. It is crucial to recognise the frustrations and distress around us wherever they may be on the moral compass — our sense of political correctness should not dissuade us from addressing them. For instance, those around us who are worried about outsiders should be spoken to, not named and shamed. Today’s world requires more empathetic consensus-building than name-calling, and a dialogical approach to those in moral disagreement with us.

Reinventing progressive politics

Surely, the liberal edifice is still worth fighting for, but we must shed our intellectual arrogance to face up to the real-world problems. It is also important to recognise that the struggle among divergent political and moral ideas is a constant — to think that one particular idea has won over the others forever is a mistake. Liberals made that mistake, it’s time to correct it.

Moreover, when activism and dissent are confined to ivory towers, they run the risk of being consigned to the dustbin of history sooner or later. If progressive politics and liberal ideas have to survive, there is a need to politically mainstream our dissent and use an accessible language to convey that. Progressive populism should then be seen as a critical tool to challenge regressive populism of the right wing.

Happymon Jacob is an Associate Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament Studies at JNU, New Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 2:54:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Reimagining-the-liberal-project/article16764960.ece

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