The persistence of illiberalism
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
HOLDING A LIBERAL REGIME to stay liberal needs much more than ideology: it needs confidence. There is probably no liberal state that has been continuously liberal without slipping in and out of illiberal politics for fairly long periods. This is because, at one time or another, all these countries have faced a confidence crisis. When that happens, liberalism is no longer all virtue but ridiculed and derided by the very people who once pledged it unending loyalty. From a Marianne holding up the torch of Liberty it soon becomes a truant lady of the night.
This is best exemplified when a liberal state is in a wartime crisis, but civil unrest can set it off too. Under these circumstances, some of the staunchest liberal democrats are quick to shed their hitherto deeply cherished liberal values. Without their feet so much as being subjected to the fire, they unhesitatingly cheer for what they now call a “higher” value, namely, the protection of the nation-state. Even Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ to habeas corpus eight times during the American Civil War. In 1866, after that war ended, the US Supreme Court held that Lincoln had unduly exceeded his rightful authority.
History records several repetitions of this scenario across the Western world. Once tensions ease and normalcy returns, it is often realised that curbs on liberalism during that period were probably excessive and unwarranted. Yet when a nation’s confidence is threatened, liberalism is seen as a sinister force that needs muzzling. After the crisis is over, liberalism returns, duly polished and in full glory once again. Is liberalism then only for the good times?
After World War I ended, many Americans wondered if the contrarians of that period were really all that subversive as they were made out to be. They found enough reason to castigate President Woodrow Wilson for exaggerating the dangers the US faced as well as the depiction of his political opponents as divisive and dangerous. In their cool and considered post-war judgement, they went so far as to contend that the 1918 Sedition Act in the US was unnecessary and harmful.
Liberalism, sadly, is quite like the inconstant moon. Even the best and brightest democracies have given in to prolonged, dark illiberal phases which coincided perfectly with a crisis of confidence facing them. Watching over every wellfed and contented liberal regime in the happy playpen stands an illiberal sentinel waiting to rush in when an elbow is grazed. If liberalism is that powerless, how stable can this phase ever be?
America’s return to liberalism did not last very long. Hitler’s ascendancy caused major anxiety attacks in the US’ so-called liberal democratic establishment in the late 1930s. In quick time, liberalism began to sound odious once more giving rise to a mood that was reminiscent of the earlier World War I days. Civil libertarians were cautioned to be “realistic” by those very people who were, till recently, committed liberals.
Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), widely held as a leading liberal voice, doubted if his liberal minded Attorney General Francis Biddle was “tough enough” to let go of his liberalism now that the US was threatened by Germany. After all, the earlier attorney general, Frank Murphy, had promised to demonstrate to Roosevelt that America was not “a soft, pudgy democracy”.
When World War II was over and America emerged victorious and confident, liberalism returned. Years later, well after the mad McCarthy period was over, Roosevelt’s record of those years was scrutinised and roundly criticised. In 1983, the US Congress sanctioned a full study and concluded that the internment of ethnically Japanese American citizens ordered by FDR during World War II was a product of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” It was easy to come to this conclusion because the US had now won the war and regained its confidence. It was a good time to ring in liberalism once again.
Britain’s liberalism also waxed and waned in lockstep with its rise and fall of confidence. During World War I it promulgated Regulation 14B which allowed detention without trial of hostile suspects accused of disloyal conduct. When World War II happened, Britain promptly issued Regulation 18B which sanctioned pretty much what the earlier Regulation 14B had.
Churchill happily sanctioned Regulation 18B and his enthusiastic exhortation to “Collar the lot!” testified to his endorsement of going illiberal. His support for largescale internment of alien enemies in the absence of meaningful individual review as well as his support for their deportation—with at times tragic consequences—do not stand among his better legacies. In 1943, even Churchill found it odious because it made some of his friends and relations look suspect, yet he did not lift Regulation 18B.
France too has had long periods of illiberalism well after the difficult years of World War II and the Vichy regime. The Algerian War of Independence brought out that recessive gene and France passed several emergency decrees which curbed individual freedoms. October 17th, 1961 was a particularly gruesome day in Paris when atleast 200 protesters against the Algerian war were killed. Police Chief Maurice Papon who was in charge of that operation was later discovered to be the same person who, during World War II, had deported 1,600 Bordeaux Jews to certain death in concentration camps.
India’s tolerance of illiberalism predates the 1975 Emergency for it has allowed all manner of preventive detention going back to the Nehruvian days. That these provisions have been put to work by successive governments demonstrates how routine this practice has become: hardly exceptional. When they were first sanctioned it was believed to be necessary because India had just won independence but a bitter partition of the country meant a hostile neighbour and internal secessionists
Liberalism, sadly, is quite like the inconstant moon. Even the best and brightest democracies have given in to prolonged, dark illiberal phases which coincided perfectly with a crisis of confidence facing them. Watching over every wellfed and contented liberal regime in the happy playpen stands an illiberal sentinel waiting to rush in when an elbow is grazed. If liberalism is that powerless, how stable can this phase ever be? Glorious courage may well be grace under pressure, but liberalism, in contrast, is a kiss off for it is grace when there is no pressure.
The moment confidence declines, liberal values run for cover. This justifies calls to strengthen the nation-state and human rights suddenly become impediments. Even the mightiest countries have taken this route on the ground that airy liberal values only help anti-nationals and undermine the spirit of patriots. The US, for example, recently went through just this process when the illiberal slogan “Make America Great Again” cascaded down from the White House.
India’s tolerance of illiberalism predates the 1975 Emergency for it has allowed all manner of preventive detention going back to the Nehruvian days. That these provisions have been put to work by successive governments demonstrates how routine this practice has become: hardly exceptional. When they were first sanctioned it was believed to be necessary because India had just won independence but a bitter partition of the country meant a hostile neighbour and internal secessionists. Under these circumstances, normal legal procedures, the argument went, were too unmuscular for the job and needed illiberal heft.
Clearly, liberalism lacks the grits and guts to stand on its own. When the rough house begins, politicians and short-term economic self-interest can easily bully it into submission. With these factors forever in play, confidence in one’s nation-state are like golden moments in liberalism’s short span: they disappear just when you think you are having the most fun.
When confidence starts drifting away, only the lonely will hold themselves accountable. But for most, this is the moment to look for somebody to blame. On such occasions, nations feel the need to customise a blameworthy opponent drawing from history, myth or recent territorial confrontations. These fifth-columnist “others” must necessarily be cast as devious outsiders. They have wormed their way in by feeding on the generosity of their hosts but have, all the while, been sharpening their knives.
Seen thus, liberal values are much like noblesse oblige. It’s a favour that confidence and wellbeing allow, but can easily be cast as foolish and self-destructive indulgence. In difficult times, universal human rights, the cornerstone of liberalism, is painted as artful flummery that just comes in the way of effective governance. Anthropologist Victor Turner was probably right when he argued that goodwill and camaraderie are actually signs of anti-structure (hence exceptional) because structure is obedience, hierarchy and separation.
This explains why it is not at all difficult to front human rights when one’s confidence is on a high. At such times, liberalism does well for things are going swimmingly well. The image in the mirror is just fine, so where is the need to bawl at somebody else? At the same time, it must be acknowledged, largeheartedness is good but it is temperamental and idiosyncratic, liable to be turned off on a whim. And that is exactly how it has happened, again and again.
Noblesse oblige can petulantly turn into lèse-majesté and Marie Antoinette exemplifies this perfectly. It is important to call out whenever generosity poses as liberalism because the latter is principally about seeing oneself through the eyes of others and is not self-congratulatory and indulgent. Liberalism requires extreme discipline, from start to finish, which is unnatural in a normal, non-experimental setting. It is a fragile and delicate disposition which takes very little to crack into pieces.
Without their feet so much as being subjected to the fire, some of the staunchest liberal democrats unhesitatingly cheer for what they call a ‘higher’ value, namely, the protection of the nation-state. Even Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ to habeas corpus eight times during the American Civil War. In 1866, after that war ended, the US Supreme Court held that Lincoln had unduly exceeded his rightful authority
It is difficult to be a liberal for two principal reasons. The first is that it requires us to consider others as our equals and to craft policies keeping that in mind. This goes against an anthropological truism which holds that humans project others not as just being culturally different but, in essential terms, also inferior. It is possible that they may be wealthier and more powerful at present yet, fundamentally, they will always be flawed. Regardless of geography or economic development, this powerful prejudice is present everywhere: from the hunter-gatherer !Kung San of the Kalahari desert to the white supremacists in the US.
The second reason why it is so difficult to be a liberal is that it forces people, the leaders and the led, to be scientific in everyday matters. Just as in science all truths are provisional, so also a liberal outlook should regard all policies correct till a better one comes up. Earlier regulations might need complementary ones or, perhaps, be overturned completely, when new facts emerge.
This goes against the basic thrust of politics which, as Karl Mannheim noticed, favours an inflexible attitude to decisions once arrived at. Thus, while it may have once been a good liberal policy in India to let community-based personal law to remain untouched, there is a resistance to review it even after the initial coordinates of that decision have disappeared. Edicts may be carved in stone but the ground beneath them can shift away.
It is rank inflexibility, however, which characterises much of our politics and statecraft. This explains why Churchill found it difficult to rescind Regulation 18B, or why FDR held on to his draconian 1942 Executive Order 9066 that interned US citizens of Japanese descent, and also why many professed liberals in India are reluctant to give up their protective attitude towards dysfunctional public enterprises.
Inflexibility is a failing that colours all politics, but it is particularly hurtful when liberals succumb to it as well. There is no policy that is liberal forever other than the principle of human rights, which is but the motherboard. In fact, it should be the protection of these human rights on a labile terrain that should energise liberals to be flexible and nimble and not remain tied to a dictum arrived at long ago.
None of the tentative and fairweather-friend qualities of liberalism come through in any of the established treatises on this subject. The lasting impression one gets from the classics is that once liberalism is explained and adopted, it remains a strong redoubt (or embankment, at the least), which protects universal human rights.
It is, however, possible to argue that John Rawls comes closest to accepting the fragility of liberalism. In his theory of justice one has to self-consciously adopt an intersubjective attitude and consider policies from the viewpoint of the most deprived.
This suggests a superior commitment to a rare value and it will, therefore, always need an extraordinary confluence of good fortune to become activated. The Rawlsian social contract is leadership-driven and requires a voluntary submission to the principle of intersubjectivity. As it is not a mass act, it can wilt easily under popular pressure.
Against this backdrop it would be incorrect to label illiberalism as a “state of exception” as many contemporary scholars, such as Giorgio Agamben, tend to do. If liberalism is a lashing that coats the illiberalism that lies at the core, then we must reverse the usual understanding of what constitutes the “state of exception”.
As a nation’s confidence, when rattled, reveals its illiberal heart, liberalism, or what passes for it, comes through as a fleeting state of exception. When put to the test of confidence, it has rarely, if ever, managed to survive. Illiberalism is now, clearly, a much more enduring rule for that is what governments turn to when in trouble. If it takes a crisis to bring out a person’s character, then, by the same logic, it should also reveal a nation’s essence.