Save Liberalism from Liberals
The failure of liberals in matching ideology with practice has ultimately paved the way for the fall of liberalism across the globe
Like most words used in political discourse, the meaning of liberalism, too, varies directly with the convictional tilt of the individual using the word. For instance, to a majority of Indians, Jawaharlal Nehru was a liberal — in fact, a champion liberal to many. But, when Chakraborty Rajagopalachari set up Swatantra Party, he felt Nehru was an interventionist, "The Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the State. It is an answer to the challenge of the so-called Socialism of the Indian Congress party." Curiously, what Rajagopalachari saw as interventionist, his followers, including blood relations, cite as pinnacles of liberalism. Another curious development today is communists, or whatever is leftover of them in India today, who feel Nehru's politics was liberal despite the fact that their leaders, mantra gurus to be precise, had been interned behind the bars by the government India's first prime minister had presided over. It may, therefore, seem that the word liberalism has different meanings for different people and can be even more different to the same set of people at different points of time.
Political colours aside, liberalism, loosely speaking, means the freedom to choose. This may be in respect to the choice of partners, sex notwithstanding, or places of worship, irrespective of religion. In a perfectly liberal world, a Hindu woman should have every right to visit Sabarimala and worship. In fact, this can also be stretched somewhat to include people born and professing any religion other than Hinduism to visit such temples. Luckily, liberalism, in our discourse, is restricted within the boundaries of India, which, though many lament is not liberal under the current dispensation, still provides ample opportunity to not only indulge in such critical discourse but also put those into practice. Liberalism is yet to cross borders and claim the rights of many to visit certain places considered holy by religions other than Hinduism.
When Patrick Deneen wrote about why liberalism failed, his focus was the liberalism that took shape in the United States of America. But, the basic malaise that dissuaded many, even in Uncle Sam's land of free economy (and society), is the fact that there is so much control over an individual's freedom of choice that they opted to vote non-liberals to power. Donald Trump's victory in 2016 is a case in point. In fact, even the British referendum over the exit of EU was the consequence of voters opting out of a certain set of rules governing the liberal politics that emerged in the continent. The weakening authority of German leader Angela Merkel is also a result of peoples' apathy towards her brand of liberal policies impacting the life, often even safety, of German people. Clearly stretched beyond a point, liberalism hurts the interests of a large section of people, hence, turning unpopular.
The acceptability of liberalism depends on the economic strata a person belongs to. Take the privacy debate over the imposition of Aadhar card in India, for instance. For someone whose crying need in life is not the direct benefit transferred by the government, Aadhar is unwanted trouble; while those who look for the benefits would not mind if the compulsion of Aadhaar cards breaches her/his privacy. A person born to use the open field as their toilet cares a hoot about who can hack their private details. They cannot follow, nor do they care to follow, a sworn liberal's hatred against cards like Aadhaar,
Disinterest in how the majority thinks or behaves is a primary factor behind liberalism losing its appeal. Liberals are obsessed with their own thoughts and remain confined in that boundary. They refuse to check if the world is truly economically or culturally liberal. A basic factor that is winked at is how the disparity of wealth has only been increasing globally. The technology boom has helped create even more disparity, no less than what was created in the pre-industrial phase of human civilisation. Tyler Cowen, an economist, had shown how high-earners are gaining using their technological prowess. Every business sector is relying more on machines and less on labour. It is jobless growth where those who have the means to use advanced technology take a larger pie of the additional income so generated. If the so-called liberals are losing in democratic elections, it is a result of the disparity that their system has helped to thrive.
Liberalism has taken a curious form in a complex developing country like India. Here, on one side, sections of women celebrate menstrual freedom and, in the same part, a large section of women of child-bearing age stay away from a shrine to not offend its celibate deity. A group of youngsters in Kerala celebrated menstruation through a festival "Aarpo Arthavam", while in India's North, a major public service campaign by the government is to save the girl child "Beti Bachao Beti Padao". And look at another aberration – the issue of Triple Talaq, a practice that has been declared illegal by India's apex court. Yet, the practice has no legally enforceable rule to deter its practice. Liberals, who champion the cause of women (rightly, I must admit), fail to accept the need for urgency in having rules framed to save women from the "illegal" action of men espousing a certain religion and swearing by Triple Talaq.
The curious contradiction in the thought process of a liberal – that can be seen in their support for Aarpo Athavan and opposition to laws on Triple Talaq – has been the reason behind liberalism being repeatedly challenged. What is glaring is that the opposition to liberalism has not come from any strong philosophical counter-narrative. In the case of Nazism and even Communism, it was the attraction of "liberalism" and its arguments which had written their obituaries. In the case of liberalism, the rust has set in from within. Hopefully, liberals will draw on their liberal outlook and usher in a solution to save liberalism from present-day dogmatic liberals.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)