Failures of inference: liberalism and contemporary populism

It is a measure of the abject inadequacy of liberal thought today that all it can bring to the political arena, and to public discourse generally, is high indignation at the tawdriness of what it dismissively describes as ‘populism’. Even when, on occasion, some of the more serious liberal ideologues try to do better, there is a tendency to produce a pattern of analysis that goes roughly like this. They observe everywhere the dissatisfaction of ordinary people (by ordinary people I just mean working and workless people away from the centres of power and privilege). They observe too — with dismay — that these dissatisfactions result in alarming electoral decisions that succumb to the dubious appeal of ‘populist’ politicians, who will often only increase their dissatisfaction. They allow themselves no good account (certainly no self-critical account) of how and why this has come to pass. They, thus, draw the conclusion that the fault lies in the people themselves for (at best) their gullibility or (at worst) their xenophobia or racism or communalism... And so, finally, they rest with the hope that the decencies of their own liberal orthodoxies (whether it is the Clintonite Democratic Party — which includes the arch Clintonite, Barack Obama — or the ‘Remainers’ in Britain, or the Congress technocratic elite represented in the past by Manmohan Singh and his economic advisers) will one day return to win the day. It never occurs to them through these smug cogitations that this analysis has no bite, hardly even a jaw.

Two examples

Let me explore the implications of these inefficacies of the liberal response to populism by looking at two examples.

Consider first, Brexit. Rather than try to diagnose what prompted the larger part of a population to have its nation sever itself from a supra-nation, let us ask rather why the working (or workless people) of Britain would, in the first place, have wanted to be part of it. As they say, what’s in it for them? Suppose one of them in Liverpool were to pursue that question by first pondering the humane policies of safety nets for the worst off in education, health, housing, etc. that were adopted by his government at the end of the Second World War. Suppose he were to ask, at what site were these policies devised and administered. He would have to answer: At the site of the nation. Suppose he were to ask whether there has been any serious talk or effort to conceive in detail a supra-national site for such policies? What would the mechanisms to dispense welfare at a supra-national site even so much as look like? These are all shrewd questions and if they lie behind the dissatisfactions felt by working (or workless) people in Britain, then, to that extent, we get a glimpse of the good side of populism, the side of populism that dictionaries define as ‘the rejection by ordinary people of the elites’ — in this case the banking and financial elites which have set themselves up in Brussels. Now, of course, such a person may well often go on to express anxiety about the immigrant hordes who have for some decades now invaded his country and undermined his prospects, not to mention undermined the longstanding national culture of which he is so proud. This, liberals rightly identify as his xenophobia or his racism and, just as rightly, recoil from it. This is the bad side of populism.

The right description

But what, we must ask, is the right way to describe the flaw? As I’ve presented it, the right description is that he has drawn a bad conclusion (his xenophobic conclusion) from some good questions he had asked. In other words, it is a failure of inference, the lack of a logical link between sound questions and unsound anxieties. This is a point of some importance.

Let’s consider now another manifestation of populism of recent times. This is the populist denial of climate change among Donald Trump and his supporters in the U.S. The liberal again rightly responds to this with alarm. But now consider the fact that any serious and honest analysis of the environmental crisis we are faced with would and should make clear that there is no way to respond to the crisis sufficiently without putting serious constraints on capital, so serious indeed that they might well amount to a terminus of capitalism as we know it. All else is ineffectual tinkering which is quite inadequate to what the crisis calls for — as the Latin American walkout of the Copenhagen climate meeting some years ago made perfectly clear. However, no liberal who expresses concern about climate change is prepared to squarely draw this inference about what alone is sufficient to address his concern. In other words, here there is a sort of inverse failure of inference, this time by the liberal, a failure to draw the right inference from his own correct disgust with the populist denial of there being a problem of climate change. Why, then, is the liberal position on climate change any more rational than the populist’s? If ‘p entails q’ (where what substitutes for p is ‘there is an environmental crisis’ and what substitutes for q is ‘the only sufficient response to it may well be to usher out capitalism as we know it’), why is it any more irrational to deny ‘p’ as the populist does than it is to deny ‘p entails q’ as the liberal does?

I am keen to stress that in both examples there is a failure of inference. Let’s put it down schematically:

Sound scepticism about the European Union —> xenophobia.

Climate change is a serious problem —> no acknowledgement that capital must be undermined.

In the one case, the populist draws a bad xenophobic conclusion from a good premise of a sensible scepticism about the inadequacies of what can be delivered by supranational banking and financial elites. In the other, the liberal fails to draw the right conclusion from his own perfectly correct disdain for the populist’s denial of climate change.

What is very revealing, however, is that regarding the first of these, the liberal never focuses on the bad inference, but only focuses on the populists’ bad conclusion (xenophobia). And regarding the second of these, the liberal never focuses on his own failure to draw the right inference but instead only focuses on the populists’ denial of the true premise (i.e., the denial of the problem of climate change). No doubt, the populist is wrong to be xenophobic and to deny climate change. But we need to diagnose even so why the liberal only focuses on that wrong and nowhere notices that in the first case, the populist has something right in the premise (the sound skepticism of the European Union) nor, in the second case, does he notice that he himself has something wrong in failing to draw the right conclusion. Why does he fail to notice both of these things? The answer is perfect clear. He does not notice either because each of them would involve a fundamental and radical questioning of contemporary capitalism.

The lesson to be drawn from this exercise I have indulged in is quite straightforward. Liberalism is complicit in generating the crisis of contemporary populism even though it fraudulently affects a disdain and disgust of the populism it generates. Because liberalism is blind to the fundamental transformations that are needed in contemporary society, because it fails to allow into the political arena of liberal democracies the conceptual wherewithal to even so much as raise fundamental questions about how to seriously constrain (to the point of perhaps even undermining) capital, ordinary working people have no recourse to anything available in the political zeitgeist to address their deeply felt dissatisfactions. It is small wonder that they turn haplessly to what is available to them, grotesque forms of nationalistic, fascistic demagoguery which promise a fabulously different zeitgeist. When they feel the whole game is rigged, they want to upturn the whole board on which the game is being played — even if that means voting for extremist forms of nationalism bordering on fascism.

Capacity to imagine

The literary critic Fredric Jameson got one thing right when he said that it is easier today to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. This is particularly true of working people. When the political culture in which they live and vote so completely impoverishes the options and so completely cramps the conceptual and critical resources on offer, why blame working people for the populisms they turn to? It is a dark time we are living in, as we so often say to ourselves when we observe the populisms around us, but what we don’t say often enough, indeed hardly at all, is that it owes to a considerable extent to the limitations of liberalism.

Akeel Bilgrami is Professor at Columbia University. His latest book is ‘Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment’

Our code of editorial values

Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 4:15:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/failures-of-inference/article22466510.ece

Next Story