New Delhi: The attack on liberalism today is distinctive from the kind of challenges it has faced in the past, political commentator and Ashoka University vice-chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta said in the national capital Monday.
Speaking at the seminal memorial lecture for late journalist Vinod Mehta, held at the India International Centre, Mehta laid out a 5-point framework to explain why a sense of deep intellectual and political exhaustion about liberalism seems to be sweeping not only India, but most of the world.
“There is a constellation of exhaustion arguments that are coming at liberalism from very many different directions simultaneously,” Mehta said, pointing out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement last month that “liberalism is dead”.
“The churn of our times is such that I think at some point someone has to sit back and say ‘Are we getting what’s going on right?’ To what extent have we become prisoners of our own frameworks and assumptions and positions, and to what extent is that coming in the way of understanding the world?”
When looked at through the lens of sociological reality, liberalism appears like an idea that’s morally intuitive — for example, “Who could possibly be against the idea that we are free and equal and that all men have the presumptive right to political dignity,” Mehta asked.
But India’s liberal political class unambiguously lost the 2019 general election, and with masculine, right-wing leaders occupying central positions of power all over the world, Mehta wondered if the sociological frame of questioning itself is part of the problem.
“Liberals are much more enthralled to a sociological determinism than the opponents of liberalism are which is what makes them politically so powerful and what gets them to think politically,” argued Mehta.
As an intellectual who identifies himself as more of a political theorist, Mehta went on to outline five reasons for the ongoing crisis liberalism is facing around the world.
Liberalism failed because it succeeded
“So every single liberal principle, in the extreme version of it that its critics claim have become institutionalised, has turned liberalism into the opposite of what was intended,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta said.
The academic pointed out that liberalism worked a little too well for a little too long, transforming from what was once an insurgent ideology into a hegemony that it once fought to upturn.
In its extreme form, Mehta said “liberal egalitarianism — the idea that you should respect all persons equally — turns into its opposite of some insipid doctrine that respecting all people equally means respecting all opinions”.
In the same way, liberal freedom of speech allows for the right to falsehood, just as liberal fraternity is unable to find cohesion in the push for a liberal assertion of individual rights. A defence of the market is stretched to the commodification of all facets of existence, while liberal institutionalism, “which is an institutional imagination based on form, procedure, checks and balances has become a parody of itself by producing consistent gridlock and a really anaemic politics governed by bureaucrats and lawyers, who are the only people who care about form, where the masses care about results”, said Mehta.
Liberalism betrayed itself
The simple version of the second charge, which comes more from the Left, is encapsulated in one word, “neoliberalism”, Pratap Bhanu Mehta said.
“Liberalism’s loss of legitimacy and credibility comes from the fact that it got transformed into neoliberalism — a particular view of organising the economy that furthers the marketisation of relations in all spheres of social life, but whose net result is rising inequality and the creation of structures of autocracy and oligarchy that govern us,” he said.
In this regard, Mehta added, the “central weakness of liberalism is that while trying to uneasily operate in this wedge between democracy and capitalism, it has roughly failed to get the balance right”.
The same critique was applied to outline the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church during the French Revolution, where “the problem was not so much that people were against religion, but that the Catholic Church was so aligned with the rulers of the monarchy that in the revolution, both had to go down”, he said.
Liberalism has always rested on a fundamentally illiberal ground
According to the Ashoka University vice-chancellor, the illiberal ground on which liberalism rests composes of two strands. The first being the liberal ideology’s inability to work out the theory of membership of a political community, and the second being its convenient relationship with the boundaries of state and executive power.
“Given that we all live in political communities, with distinct identities, and distinct political claims to sovereignty, the central question is ‘who gets to be a member of that political community?’ Mehta asked, adding that liberals have been unable to answer this — a gap of clarity exposed when the subject of immigration is breached.
Mehta said that while liberalism calls for “the doctrine of checks and balances, and requires limited government to protect individual rights”, it also uses the state and its executive power to keep the memberships of political communities distinct, because then they “don’t have to take the moral burden of doing this stuff”.
Regulating and controlling membership
“Liberals hope that the answers won’t actually involve putting people in camps, separating parents from children, extraditing people who have been living for 30-40 years in a particular country. But you can see these are not first principle answers, and I think the charge against liberalism is that in order to maintain a distinct political community, it has always relied on these forms of deterrents, it just never owns up to them,” said Mehta.
Liberalism requires a strong state and executive prerogative to be able to regulate and control membership, “except nobody wants to be seen to be avowing these politics”, Mehta said.
Closer to home, the former president of the Centre for Policy Research asked those present to look at the debate surrounding the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, “which is fundamentally a question of membership”.
When fear meets a strong surveillance state
Using two global references to make his case — namely China and 9/11 — Mehta argued that in the current geopolitical moment, “panopticism, that is the idea of rendering citizens completely transparent to the state” has become the “default common sense of citizens”.
The 9/11 attack in the US led to the canonisation of a certain kind of more insidious, unexpected kind of threat — which “operates through the interstices of liberal society in a way, takes advantage of it, whether its through immigration, social policies etc”, Mehta said.
To fight this fear, “liberal society licenses extraordinary increase in surveillance powers”.
“You add to that the China factor”, Mehta continued, and you realise that what sets the state apart is “a sense of purpose and direction, unhindered by the pieties of liberal proceduralism and gridlock, which makes it capable of more decisive global action”.
China, in that sense, is setting precedent for the idea that “a modern successful state will require both a disregarding of proceduralism, but almost also a certain kind of panopticism where it’s ‘Look these threats are so insidious, we need to know everything about our citizens, we need to track them’”.
“Think of what happens to the liberal project,” Mehta urged, shifting focus to headlines in New Delhi’s papers these days. There are more “mundane varieties of this panopticism”, he said.
“I think in India it’s largely driven by these accountability concerns, and frankly I think it’s a nightmare that we’re going to put cameras in classrooms.
“Those that rail against Aadhaar should equally object to this stuff.”
Populism: A response to liberalism
According to Pratap Bhanu Mehta, populism has posited itself as the central counter-force to liberalism, “stitching together a set of diverse interests under a single sign”.
Populism is ideologically flexible, allowing itself significant leeway when deciding the patchwork-umbrella of interests it chooses to address.
Further, it needs anti-intellectualism, Mehta said, because “populism has grasped very subtly that it was easy for egalitarian liberals to rail against inequality and poverty… But psychologically speaking, populism’s main claim is that people find the distinction between social-cultural elites and the rest much more offensive than the economic distinction between the rich and poor”.
The academic recalled a conversation he had with someone in Sonepat who asked him, “Agar aap kisi se jaakar kahein ki aap gavaar hain ya phir aap kisi se jaakar kahein ki aap gareeb hai (If you call someone uncultured and if you call someone poor), what do you think they’ll be more offended by?”
A striking feature of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s electoral strategy this season was its ability to scratch at the cultural fault-line between the elite and the working class. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to his critics as the ‘Khan Market gang’ in an interview to The Indian Express was as much about highlighting class as it was about creating a narrative of elitist entitlement and the socio-cultural exclusivity of Lutyens’ Delhi.
When it comes to political machinery on the ground, BJP’s parent organisation, the RSS, “actually gives this populism the character of a social movement which is a trajectory and an aspiration which goes simply beyond electoral politics”, Mehta said in reply to an audience member in the time allowed for questions after his speech.
“In that sense, the battle for reclaiming civil society cannot be fought only through political means, because the foundation of this politics has been an enormous cultural labour of institutionalising and integrating this ideology,” Mehta added.