Saturday, 2 July, 2022
HomeOpinionPutin's wrong on liberalism, but so are liberals themselves

Putin’s wrong on liberalism, but so are liberals themselves

The two liberalisms - one offering genuine human freedom, the other entrapping humans in ruthless market mechanisms - are fundamentally in conflict.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertion last week that Western liberalism was obsolete provoked some strident rebuttals. A contemptuous silence might have been preferable, saving us the embarrassment of Boris Johnson invoking “our values,” or European Council President Donald Tusk claiming, against overwhelming evidence, that it was authoritarianism that was obsolete.

Even the Financial Times, to which Putin confided his views, was reduced to childishly asserting that “while America is no longer the shining city on the hill it once seemed, the world’s poor and oppressed still head overwhelmingly for the U.S. and western Europe” rather than Russia.

Such rhetoric from both sides felt like a rehash of the cold war, and with the same purpose: to conceal the failures and weaknesses of both systems.

One function of Russia’s communist tyranny in the past was to make its capitalist opponents look vastly better. Centrally planned command economies failed spectacularly, revealing that communists had no economic solution to the modern riddles of injustice and inequality, and were, furthermore, devastatingly blind to their own environmental depredations.

Wealth-creating capitalist economies, on the other hand, can hardly be said to have resolved those problems or made the world more inhabitable for future generations. Their advocates made extravagant promises of freedom, justice and prosperity after the collapse of communism, claiming that capitalism was the only viable model left standing at the End of History. Then their feckless experiments in free markets set the stage for the authoritarian movements and personalities that now dominate the news.

It should not be forgotten that the shock therapy of free markets administered to Russia during the 1990s caused widespread venality, chaos and mass suffering there, eventually boosting Putin to power. That’s why it won’t be enough to invoke, against Putin’s demagoguery, the most flattering definition of liberalism: as a guarantee of individual rights and civil liberties.

To be sure, the liberal tradition that affirms human freedom and dignity against the forces of autocracy, reactionary conservatism and social conformism is profoundly honorable, and ought to be always defended. But there is another liberalism that has been bound up since the 19th century with the fate of capitalist expansion, concerned with advancing the individual interests of the propertied and the shareholder. This is the liberalism, unconcerned with the common good, popularly denounced today as “neo-liberalism.”

In fact, the two liberalisms — one offering genuine human freedom, the other entrapping humans in impersonal and often ruthless market mechanisms — were always fundamentally in conflict. Still, they managed for a long time to coexist uneasily because the West’s expanding capitalist societies seemed capable of gradually extending social rights and economic benefits to all their citizens.

That unique capacity is today endangered by grotesque levels of oligarchic power and domestic inequality, as well as formidable challenges from economic powers such as China that the capitalist West had once dominated and exploited. In other words, modern history is no longer on the side of Western liberalism.

The devastating loss of its special status has exposed this central Western ideology to mockery from demagogues such as Putin and the Hungarian leader Viktor Orban. They’re joined by men of the hard right in the West who also zero in on liberals’ always vulnerable faith in cultural pluralism, denouncing immigrants and multiculturalism as well as sexual minorities.

In a much-circulated recent article, Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor of the New York Post, complimented Donald Trump for shifting the national conversation from liberal notions of individual freedom to “order, continuity, and social cohesion.” But, as the intellectual historian Samuel Moyn put it last week, “the political system based on individual liberty and representative government doesn’t need to be celebrated or repudiated. It needs to be saved from itself” — from an obsession with “economic freedom that has undercut its own promise.”

Certainly, it won’t do to double down on shattered verities: to claim superior values, or to insist, as the Financial Times did, that “the superiority of private enterprise and free markets — at least within individual nations — in creating wealth is no longer seriously challenged.”

That seemingly last-minute qualifier, “at least within individual nations,” tries to conjure away the buffeting of national economies by opaque global forces. And it betrays the uncomfortable truth that, these days, even liberalism’s self-appointed defenders are not wholly convinced of their cause.

Perhaps, instead of mechanically asserting their superior status, they should examine their reflexively fanatical faith in market mechanisms. They should trace how the once-expansive liberal notion of individual freedom narrowed into a rigid principle of individual entrepreneurship and private wealth-creation. Indeed, such self-criticism has always defined the finest kind of liberalism. It is the best way today to renew an important tradition and convincingly defend it from its critics.

Also read: Populism isn’t the end of liberalism. It’s now push-backism & Rahul Gandhi just faced it


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  1. Liberalism without defining the details is a lofty ideal for people of all sorts because each can find what she/he looks for in that vague idea. That is why both capitalists and socialist can both call themselves liberal. The Liberals who think their accomplishments are the fruit of their enterprising spirit and any restrictions to enjoy what is their due is curtailing their freedom and unjust and illiberal. The Left liberals think that the social system denies the opportunities to the deprived class and that curtains the freedom of individuals belonging to that class. But these two ideas cannot be synthesized into a single idea.
    Revolutions become possible when different sections of society are dissatisfied with the ruling group. But after overthrowing them the idea of Liberalism become the source of conflict among the winners. That conflict leads to suppression of some groups by the others. Can that be called victory of Liberalism?
    For the purpose of fighting the opponents people join with some common minimum acceptable agenda thinking that the unresolved differences can be overcome after the common enemy is defeated. That is how Janata Party after emergency emerged under Liberal leadership. It could not rule India for full term because of the internal contradictions. The Arab spring movement in Egypt could not retain the liberal spirit after democratic election.
    The Liberals of all shades express anger for the sufferings of poor migrants. But The apparent unanimity is only as long as they are not required to pay to mitigate their sufferings.
    So presenting Liberalism as a universal ideal is impossible.

  2. This article is a reiteration of ideas that are the root of India’s failure. Simply stated, the writer is pushing for left liberalism, which isn’t liberalism at all. It leads to a massive bureaucracy, falsification of history, destruction of initiative, degradation of the environment and poverty. Pankaj Mishra is part of our elites with access to the highest levels of western media. These elites have so much damage to our economy and our institutions and yet they will not stop or even acknowledge how much they have harmed India.

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