The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an AdjectiveMichael Walzer
Yale University Press
176 pages|₹ ($30)
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IT IS THE WORD that permeates the polemics of the day, invoking the inevitability of a righteous political space that’s far removed from popular sentiments, reminding the already disillusioned about a grand failure in the battlefield of power. Liberalism, defying the osmosis that most other isms are destined to undergo, has a permanence about it, whether it’s cracked by the climate change in politics, or rearmed by the progressives fed on a regulatory diet of structural injustice, or made redundant by the new set of strongman-liberators who have gained direct access to the minds of the resentment class.
For the mourners of cracked-up liberalism, it’s a story of how a great idea—and the most essential one in the governance of an unrestrained civil society—has lost its passions and retreated to the echo chamber. The liberal, a moderate who strikes a perfect balance between individual liberties and communitarian idealism, has ceded ground to the new salvation warriors without a fight. The liberal has taken identity as a cross, a struggle, a categorising awareness that entraps. For the mourners, it’s about an argument that has collapsed under the weight of self-referential victimhood.
A terse critique of liberalism as an argument without ambition by a frustrated if not disillusioned liberal came from the American writer Mark Lilla in the aftermath of the Trump election. In his book-length essay, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, he argued, with epigrammatic flourish, how liberalism, steeped in a crisis of “imagination and ambition” failed to grasp the fundamentals of politics as put by Lincoln: “Public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.” Liberals failed in moulding public sentiment; they made themselves irrelevant in the race for power. Though he was writing in the context of American politics after Trump’s victory in 2016, his diagnosis revealed a larger liberal malady. Liberalism has ceased to be a political project and become an evangelical enterprise. As Lilla wrote, “evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.” I can’t resist this quote that sums up the denialism of liberals. (See the review of Lilla that appeared in this space: ‘Identity Politics and the Liberal Crack-Up’, October 16, 2017.)
Maybe we have a problem with the definition of power itself. For the Liberal Rearmed, power is in the mobilisation of arguments. The campaign, in which the pieties of the most righteous are pitted against the indifference of those who have failed in realising the social inequalities they have taken for granted, is a form of empowerment. Rearmed liberalism, the noisy version that is active on the street and in the seminar room, draws its power from the industrialisation of victimhood—out there someone continues to be punished by the insensitivities of the present and the toxic remains of the past. To condemn the past, it puts history on trial. A statue smashed or a classic redacted or a deviant speaker banished is the small price one must pay for a bigger cause.
Then there is the self-portrait of the liberal as an outcast in the looming shadow of the strongman-nationalist. The self-declared outcast carries his—or her—scarred conscience with the conviction of a solitary truthteller. And the truth is absolute; the lie is the other, personified by the big leader with an oversized mandate. It is a convenient self-portrait, for it frees the ‘outcast’ from the responsibility of asking the question that matters most: Who has made the strongman possible—and why? This is a classic liberal case of turning acquired irrelevance into phoney martyrdom.
Is it definitions that alter the trajectory of the liberal? And we define the liberal as a noun—and it won’t help. That is what a venerable liberal like Michael Walzer says in his new book The Struggle for a Decent Politics: On “Liberal” as an Adjective (Yale University Press, 176 pages, $30). Walzer gives hope to those who have already read enough about this exhausted ism and its last desperation. It works better if you are a liberal something instead of an absolute Liberal with a Capital L.
Liberalism, in its original sense, may be an ideological position rooted in the loftiness of the Enlightenment, celebrating the unfettered individual. The liberal today is a universal noun. It’s the cultural diversity the liberals have come to acquire that makes the adjective ‘liberal’ more of a moral attitude than an ideological posturing. That is why Walzer, an American political thinker who plays up his liberal credentials without the restraints of dogma, makes immense sense. Liberal as an adjective can prefix the various nouns that denote our commitment. “The adjective can’t stand by itself as it is commonly made to do (by adding the “ism”); it needs its nouns. But the nouns, the substantive commitments, will never be what they should be without the adjective liberal.” The adjective redeems.
They all need the adjective—democrats, socialists, nationalists, internationalists, feminists, communitarians, and even progressives. A liberal democrat “will defend a state where power is constrained, where the common life is pluralist and inclusive, where the right of the opposition is protected.” For the liberal democrat, an open society doesn’t contradict the powers of the state. It humanises the state, makes freedom a shared ideal of the citizen and the state.
Political nouns are prone to dogmatisation. There are still socialists who subscribe to Soviet-vintage ideological romance. They can still analyse inequalities with the confidence of a time-travelling commissar. They can find everything that matters in this wretched place in the Book. Liberal socialists, who could be independent leftists, are elastic in their thinking. They won’t find answers to the present wretchedness in the ghost stories of the past.
Liberal nationalists are unlikely to get easy acceptability in a world where, in the reality that the illiberal socialists and illiberal democrats have constructed, a nationalist by nature is illiberal. Nationalism, for liberal democrats and liberal socialists, is not a taboo. A liberal democrat like Walzer is a nationalist as well, qualified by the adjective ‘liberal’ of course. The nation as a closed home, regulated by the purity of the blood and threatened by the undesirables of wrong religion or with insufficient patriotism, exists only in the imagination of illiberal nationalists. Dogmatisation corrupts the noun; the adjective magnifies the moral attitude.
That said, Walzer’s liberating adjective is incompatible with nouns such as fascists and imperialists, plutocrats and totalitarians. Walzer’s mission here is to find suitable nouns in the political and cultural space for his beautiful adjective. The liberal he—and most likely the readers of his book—identifies with is not the doctrinaire absolutist. “For all the nouns to which the adjective applies,” he writes, “it brings its various liberal qualifications: the constraints of political power; the defence of individual rights, the pluralism of parties, religions, and nations; the openness of civil society; the rights of opposition and disagreement; the accommodation of difference; the welcome of strangers. It brings generosity of spirit together with scepticism and irony.” Our commitments, as democrats or nationalists, need a moral qualifier.
The absolute liberal, the raging noun, is not a keeper of a nation’s conscience but its most righteous controller. Bring in the adjective and make the conversation less noisy and more…liberal.