The ideological crisis of liberal democracy

Living a private life is simply insufficient. We badly need a commitment to public life

Published - April 30, 2019 12:15 am IST

A protest.

A protest.

Liberal democracy was born with a design fault. Though a decent response to the existing social, cultural and economic conditions in which it took shape, it had inbuilt conceptual flaws that sooner or later were bound to run it aground. The very idea is destined to malfunction.

Negative liberty

For a start, the term ‘liberal’ in liberal democracy drew its nourishment from a particular conception of liberty which the philosopher Isaiah Berlin termed negative. The core idea of negative liberty revolves around the existence of a private sphere where an individual may do whatever she wishes, free from interference of state or oppressive social forces. Negative freedom is secured by limiting the capacity of states or social organisations to impose constraints on individuals. This is an excessively private conception of individual freedom: humans are concerned only with the satisfaction of their desires, indifferent to the shape of public life or the character of the state.

I do not belittle this idea. In conditions where powerful churches, caste organisations or the state is hell bent on controlling every aspect of a person’s life — who to marry, what kind of a family life to lead, what opinions to hold and what to eat — negative freedom is a precious good.

Yet, to delve further into the history of the idea of liberal democracy, these negative freedom-loving, liberal persons — the traditional middle classes — soon realised that limited governments on their own cannot ensure freedoms. These freedoms depend on certain kinds of state. Even governments restrained by laws but run by manipulative, self-serving, whimsical, power-hungry men can create political conditions that undermine these private freedoms. If so, lovers of negative liberty must, to some extent, take the reins of government in their own hands. Democracy is unavoidable. So, obsessed with private freedoms, still fundamentally disinterested in the art of government, they reluctantly invented a new form of government, representative democracy. How so?

Self-government is demanding. Assembling, deliberating and arriving at informed decisions on important public matters takes time and commitment. How can people occupied with producing, buying, selling, consuming and running their own lives in pursuit of private happiness also commit to running a government? They can’t. So, they do the next best thing: find those inclined to make politics their private business to become their representatives. For vast numbers of hapless people who can’t afford to get away from the daily grind of ordinary life and for those whose main purpose in life is the pursuit of personal happiness, there is virtually no time for public life or political decision-making. Their idea of political involvement is just too thin; the only time they can find for politics is during elections when they choose their representatives.

So, what is the basic flaw in liberal democracy? It is inadequately concerned with public activity, political liberty and wider community life. People almost wholly devoted to their private lives take virtually no interest in public institutions which can be easily manipulated to serve the private interests of the rich and powerful. Their small political freedoms can be stolen from right under their nose. Since they cannot muster the time or effort needed to learn about the traditions and heritage of their communities, these too can be easily destroyed before their own eyes.

To redeem themselves and their society, they need a sense of togetherness that helps build a vibrant political culture, one that is not exhausted by family love, or by narrow community feelings such as those related to caste or religion. They need a commitment to a shared good that presupposes a strong sense of public spiritedness. In short, to better realise even their own personal goals, the negative freedom-oriented middle class needs to find the right balance between private benefit and public good, rather than allow one to be trumped by the other. Conversely, indifference to public life means that nasty political worms would gnaw at it, adversely affecting even their private life. A stronger concern for the public good is a necessary condition of negative liberty. By itself, the idea of liberal democracy is both insufficient and deficient.

Forging solidarity

Of course, most societies soon realise this. That is why liberal democracies worldwide have periodic bouts of public spiritedness borrowed from the republican tradition. People become active citizens, coming out on the streets; challenge the establishment; protest with purpose; show distrust for liberal democracy, questioning existing modes of political representation. They demand greater transparency and accountability in public life. They even show a strong will to take political decision-making in their own hands. But this deepening democracy can’t just be a one-off event like the Arab Spring or the anti-corruption movement that preceded the 2014 general election in India.

Moreover, democratic solidarity is not the only way to overcome problems of liberal democracies. This function can also be performed by nationalism — by its ethically informed, inclusive variant or by dubious nationalisms such as the exclusivist, hate-mongering, national populism that is surging ahead today in different parts of the world.

However, forging solidarities, building public institutions, putting sustained pressure on governments to make informed, ethically grounded public decisions, and ploughing through historical material to sculpt traditions needs a lot of time and effort. Hate-mongering nationalism and populism, on the other hand, are manufactured easily and pay quick dividends. Spectacle prone, sensation-driven, playing on the fear, anger and frustration that grows in crisis-ridden liberal democratic polity, such nationalist populism can be generated by the empty rhetoric of a demagogue supported staunchly by an unprincipled, profit-seeking mass media. The contemporary crisis of liberal democracy is life-threatening, indeed!

How have things come to such a pass? Whatever else globalisation has done, it has reduced democracy to an electoral event and further deepened the privatisation of individuals. Liberalism in the era of globalisation has made people more self-obsessed, less capable of thinking about the common good or forging political solidarity, further in the grip of envy induced by feelings of relative deprivation. So far, new technologies such as cell phones and social media have only exacerbated this isolation of individuals. Rather than properly communicating with one another and trying to build a common mind on issues of common concern, all of us are busy expressing ourselves on Facebook or on WhatsApp. A cacophony exists of multiple voices talking past each other or venting their personal anger, paranoia or hatred at an imagined enemy. Fierce individualism and nasty nationalism are fueling each other. Caught within this diabolic syndrome, we risk losing even our hard-won negative liberties. Somewhere along the way, we have taken a wrong turn. Course correction and addressing the persistent crisis of liberal democracy will now require enormous collective effort and strong political will. And much hinges on whether the traditionally liberal, privacy-loving middle class will rise to the occasion and begin thinking of the public good.

Rajeev Bhargava is Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi

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