Some are saying that liberalism is dead or ought to be; others say it is under siege and ought to be saved; still others say that it is nothing but an elitist conceit or intellectual soft headedness or even colonial mulattohood; yet others say it is the vitalizing layer of all thought. The narrative is on the boil globally since Brexit, Trump, etc and in India it has got fresh vim after the recent general elections. Here are two bits adding to the narrative, which is not going to be squared soon.
The first bit is about what actually is liberalism. What is it? What are its doctrines, its tenets, its beliefs; what is its Book? Nobody knows. Odd, no?
Historically the European word and idea originated in Latin during the ancient Roman empire to designate some senators who did not represent particular geographical or commercial interests. These senators were called liberal – free – who did not have obvious “agendas”. Such liberals were valued and considered necessary in the agenda-packed Roman senates, much more so after republicanism gave way to Caesarism.
The word and the idea have evolved through the subsequent French, Spanish, and English templates of political thought. And we find in the 21st century that liberalism retains a similar connotation. It means an approach, an attitude, to matters which is “free” of the rigidities normal to these matters; an approach to liberate, not bind people to imperatives.
Seen this way the liberal approach is as old as mankind. In India the Rig Veda, which is a samhita – a compendium, is full of delightful and free floating hymns quite different from the business of the main body and bulk of the Indra-Agni hymns. Upanishads were liberalism par excellence of course; so was the entire shramana tradition. In China Confucian orthodoxy was diluted by Taoist strands, Islam was always shadowed by Sufism, Judaism by the Cabbala, and so on.
But liberalism is not, it should be noted, a standalone thing. It is not a doctrine but an accompaniment to some doctrine; certainly not a revolt or even an adversary. The liberal senators of ancient Rome were integral to the senate not reactionaries. The Upanishadic rishis did not repudiate the Vedas. The Sufis do not challenge Islam. Liberalisms leaven the doctrines, humanize them; make them more palatable.
Democracy, monarchy, communism, fascism, etc are mainline business things in political thought and practice, with substantial doctrines and precepts – these can be upheld or trashed as you please. And as may be expected we also have liberal democracy, liberal monarchy, liberal communism and so on. But curiously upholding or trashing these is not quite the same thing; does not carry intellectual punch. Why?
The answer may be found in the question: why do doctrines yield liberalisms? Mainly because the full range of diversities of life cannot be contained by any doctrine. Then there are also reasons of differences in geography, historical epochs, nativities, and sheer contingencies and cussedness of human condition. Truth is doctrines tend to become dogmas. And liberalisms try to soften the hardening edges; bring in nuance, layering, chanciness, even disguise. No surprise that liberalism seems to have a life of its own! And when liberalism is being calumnied and trashed it shields the underlying doctrine but it is really the doctrine that is under attack. This often gets overlooked.
During the 20th century the West has seen the spectacular rise and fall of both the Left and the Right. Their subsisting liberalisms, now without centre of gravity, have a disembodied look today. They are mere specters haunting Europe – dealing with issues like abortion, immigration, gender, race, LGBT, gun laws, rights in general; no doubt important things but hardly mainline stuff. The post Reagan-Thatcher era is neoconservative and in Newspeak it is called neoliberal, but by now it has become clear that it is just global capitalism and there is nothing liberal about it; actually it is brutal capitalism in the same sense as was 19th century colonialism.
In India and indeed in most of Asia and Africa the story is very different, where the initial, post independence dalliances with the Left are now over, and the current close encounters with the Right are on. In these parts bashing liberalism really is no more than bashing the departed Left.
Nothing gives bone structure and sinews and substance to a doctrine than its embrace by a state. The European 20th century moulds of the Right are being reshaped and naturalized in the 21st from Turkey to Philippines, in native forms and styles that are rich and strange. In India the turn to Right started with post-Janata Party Indira Gandhi of 1980 but officially from 1991 by Congress led regimes, with their habitual hypocrisy and half heartedness. The later BJP led regimes have been more forthright and energetic. But Indian Right is very much a work in process which is evolving creatively; it is not wholly contained within the early 20th century bunch of doctrines of its founding gurus. Same goes for Asia as a whole, mutatis mutandis.
Sensing an emerging doctrine, the central features of which will not be drastically different from the 20th century European Right, a liberalism of the Right is burgeoning in India. If our Left liberals` habitat was the Universities and the Indian Coffee Houses – but never Khan Market – the Right liberals have found refuge in the newly spawned fledgling Foundations and WhatsApp/Twitter. About half the Right liberals are erstwhile Left liberals who have simply moved over.
The second bit is about who owns liberalism. Where does liberalism reside in the society? Which segment of the social layers works as the native habitat of liberalism as a cognitive slant?
The elites? They seem to own all isms – in fact the entire mental space of social narratives. Regular incomes are wonderful jumping boards for ideas, this way or that way. But when ideologies shift with times the seemingly embedded elites often get stranded. In India today the left liberals are floundering while the greenhorn Right liberals do not yet make the grade for the first eleven. Twentyfive years from now things might well be different. The old liberal narrative now is of doom and gloom. Along with liberalism the old elites are facing a bashing.
But all over the world elitism of the day is always an expedient, a matter of shifting politics, because elites are moored with the ruling regimes and always function as the machinery of governance in public and private sectors; elites have no nativity of vision. The 20th century has shown mankind that elites can easily become very illiberal indeed. Elites won`t do. Their liberalism is tactical, not natural. We have to look elsewhere.
As noted, liberalism arises from the demands of infinite changeableness and contingencies of life itself. The “ignorant” working masses – the shudra castes, women, antyajas – will bow to Ram & Sita, also to Shiva, Hanuman, will also tie a hopeful thread around a boon tree, also go to a gurdwara or a dargah of a pir alongwith their neighbours, and also fold hands to an ochre daubed stone on the path to his/her field of work, wear a charmed bead or locket round the neck, and do all such things. S/he will go to all gods and powers: who knows what will work and who cares if something works? S/he will go for any science or superstition: who knows the difference, and when one changes into the other? The scenario is similar all over the world. S/he has been doing this for centuries, giving primacy to practical life over ideas and doctrines: this is the wellspring and aquifer for liberalism, at once both vulgar and protean. Syncreticism, a word much used but opaquely, is a clumsy and condescending name for this.
The working masses all over the world have always owned their liberalism, picking their way through thickets of dogmas. This native liberalism is ontological, an openness in seeing and accepting reality itself, very much like quantum physics. They would not have survived without it. The elites have merely to join up if they wish. Liberalism is safe and well, far from extinct.