Two historic events which took place around the same time towards the end of 18th century made the US and France the motherships of liberalism in the world. The first was the making of the American constitution that came into effect on March 4th, 1789. Liberal ideas of individualism, freedom, equality and human rights became the founding ideas of the American constitution, a product of ‘The Federalist Papers’ of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the lesser known John Jay. The second historic event happened some 6,000 km away in feudal France. A popular revolution broke out on May 5th, 1789 on the streets of Paris, leading to the deposition of the centuries-old Ancien Régime led by King Louis XVI. Famously known as the French Revolution, this historic event, although survived only for a decade, established a constitutional government in France and laid strong foundations for a liberal democratic order based on the famous principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.
Both America and France emerged as beacons of liberal constitutionalism in the world in the last two centuries. They genuinely prided over their liberal credentials and successfully transported those ideas into almost all continents. Of the three great ideas of Western origin—liberalism, conservatism and communism—liberalism acquired greater halo and became a legitimate universal political idea of the last century. The French Revolution’s tri-ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity inspired and gave birth to many liberal democracies in the world, including India. For the Americans, the essence of their liberal dogma lies in the First Amendment, adopted as a part of the ten amendments—famously known as the Bill of Rights—on December 15th, 1791. The First Amendment is the epitome of the freedoms that Americans enjoy today—freedom of religion, speech, media, assembly and freedom to petition.
Every idea has a shelf life. The Marxian idea of communism met its Waterloo in the last century. When the collapse of communism happened towards the end of the last century and the conservative ideas of religion, morals and social structures too were sufficiently vilified with enormous zeal, the liberal elite in the West started dreaming of unassailability of their liberal bandwagon. Some of them even pronounced the ‘end of history’. Western liberalism was declared as the singular panacea for mankind’s future.
But the first two decades of the 21st century appear to be shaking up the foundations of that grand Western liberal idea too. In country after country, the liberals themselves are taking to streets now, demanding that those liberal ideas be damned. Democracy, once cherished by the liberals as the cornerstone of liberal constitutionalism, is today regarded as a wobbling bogey producing populist authoritarians and dictatorial demagogues. In smaller countries like Bolivia, Peru, Kyrgyzstan and many others, the citizens took to the streets in recent times against the election results. In Belarus, the protests against the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko are ongoing. In several of these popular protests against the elected regimes, the liberals seem to be leading the march.
Right from the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy has been seen as an imperfect yet the best available form of popular will. Democracies have matured over centuries and produced responsible and influential leaders across many countries. The liberals cheered the rise of leaders like Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton and Barack Obama, while the conservatives too had their own applause reserved for an Eisenhower or a Reagan or a Thatcher or a Merkel. But that bipartisan appreciation of the democratic virtue seems passé now. The liberal intellectuals appear convinced that their pet theme has passed its prime. They are convinced that Plato and Aristotle to Alexis de Tocqueville were right in their scepticism about democracy. The liberal onslaught over it today is most vicious, but also most vacuous.
What went wrong? Why are the liberals so annoyed with their own ideals now? Why the liberal democracies that they themselves nurtured look illiberal to them, producing populists and authoritarians? Why do neo-liberals now come to hate the very classical ideas of liberalism that include the spirit of the First Amendment? Simply put, why are liberals against liberalism?
The immediate cause appears to be the rise of nationalist leaders in the world using liberal democratic institutions. The return of nationalism as the flavour of the season in the 21st century is unsettling to neo-liberals. The ‘democratic competence’ of ordinary people, once regarded as the foundation for the liberal order, is now portrayed as questionable. Facebooks and Twitters, pompously declared not long ago as the voices of the faceless millions, are now seen as the dangerous vehicles of Trumpian illiberalism. Liberal demigods like John Stuart Mill are being pulled out of the library shelves and dusted off to proclaim that ‘persons of genius’, a class that both Plato and Mill considered fit to be the ruling class—Plato called them ‘philosopher kings’—ought to be brought back.
Something is wrong with neo-liberals. They are now vociferous against the very core liberal ideas of universal franchise and unfettered freedom of expression. Classical liberalism was not bad. It was a non-partisan project committed to according dignity and liberty to the individuals. Towards that end, it sought to minimise the role of the government and allow for individual enterprise to be the motivating engine for social progress. Such liberal ideas are not new to the non-Western world either. Dignity and liberty of the individual were regarded as the sacred goal by the ancient Indian classical thought. Bhishma’s Dharma Rajya to Gandhi’s Ram Rajya epitomised human dignity and freedom. Just as Eastern liberalism owed its existence and rise to its religion, morals and corresponding institutions, Western liberalism too benefitted from its philosophers and religions like Christianity.
If Western liberalism came to this pass today, the liberals were to be blamed. While the classical liberal ideals needed institutions to nurture and flourish, the neo-liberals have done just the opposite. Everything between the individual and the state, including religion, morals and social institutions have been destroyed by the overzealous liberal elite. The result is before the world today in the form of a death warrant for neo-liberalism.
What comes after this? The thinking world has to seriously ponder this question. Liberal democracies had stabilised in the world after the Second World War. Neo-liberals have distorted them. That should not pave the way for the return of the feudalists and fascists. Classical liberal ideals of human dignity and freedom must be upheld and protected. But they need a new expression in the 21st century. A search for a new vehicle for that purpose is the need of the hour. More than ideologies, idealism and pragmatism should drive such a quest.
(This is not exactly a review of any one book. But one latest book that I read—‘Why Liberalism Failed’—has triggered these thoughts in me. The book by Patrick J Deneen is very thought-provoking and a cogent critique of modern liberal fault-lines.)