Liberalism is yet to answer the challenges posed to it because it still has not faced up to, and therefore not addressed, the contradictions that lie embedded in its foundational tenets. I have sought to draw attention to two of these. One is liberalism’s attitude to the people of the colonies – an attitude that carried more than a tinge of racism. Therefore it is no surprise that it finds it difficult to articulate a coherent opposition (a moral outrage is not always a coherent opposition) to racism expressed in campaign speeches or in proposed policies and in violent attacks against minorities in the heartlands of liberalism.
The other is its portrayal of societies as an accidental conglomeration of atomised individuals. The positing of atomised individuals goes hand in hand with the apparently contradictory claim that these individuals are the natural bearers of certain universal rights. The other more profound issue is whether atomised individuals human beings can fully develop their capacities as human beings. This is related to the question of whether the liberal vision of human beings (if there is such a vision) can be attained by all human beings on their own without any recognition from the life of the society they inhabit. Liberal thinkers were notoriously or famously chary of raising questions relating to the nature of Man.
It is the peculiar fate of liberalism that its origins were entangled with the origins of its exact antithesis.
Liberalism is a direct product of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason, secularism and progress. The ideals of liberal and democratic societies upholding the rights of individuals, equality and freedom grew out of this world of ideas. Human beings also became more self-conscious and aware of their own abilities to understand and transform the world around them for the better through the exercise of reason. This new-found awareness also gave human beings the confidence and certainty that through the exercise of reason it was possible to arrive at Truth that was universally applicable.
This in turn made human beings go about inaugurating and establishing the project of improvement and reform across the world. It was believed a group of elite, enlightened people (elite because they were enlightened through education) could organise the conditions of lives of millions of people who were yet to be enlightened. Such projects came to implicate liberalism with empire and with attempts to build better societies.
The outcome of this certainty and confidence, as I have tried to demonstrate, in fact destroyed reason and freedom. The same fountainhead produced two streams running in opposite directions. Unnatural vices, to somewhat modify a line from TS Eliot’s Gerontion, were fathered by the heroism of liberalism. Liberalism continues to be indifferent to its own contradictory legacies by seeing phenomena like colonial violence and totalitarian regimes as aberrations rather than growing out of the zeal for reform based on the certainty of some universal principles and values.
More – perhaps most – importantly, liberalism persistently fails to recognise that these principles and values, as well as the project of improvement, become radically altered when they come to be closely linked with power.
Power often renders reason spastic and freedom inconsequential. For liberalism the owl of Minerva refuses to spread its wings even as dusk falls on the triumph of liberalism.
I invoke somewhat deliberately a celebrated phrase and image from the Preface of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. In another text Hegel conjured up the tantalising idea of the “cunning of Reason”. The latter, Hegel said, unleashes passions and makes passions work at the service of Reason. In the process of sending out the “particular of passion”, the cunning of reason “posits itself in existence, loses thereby and suffers injury”.
Liberalism, it could be argued, by focusing with intense concentration on the self-interests, private aims and selfish desires of individuals, lets loose forces which cannot be controlled and unwittingly leads individuals to “history as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States and the virtue of individuals have been victimised.” Similarly the Enlightenment, the parent of liberalism, in endowing human beings with the ability to reform the world by the light of knowledge, has ushered in darkness in various parts of the world. The modern world, and liberalism, are heirs to the light and the dark of the Enlightenment.
Herein lies the dilemma of liberalism and its legacy: it is difficult to conceive of civilised existence without freedom and equality; it is difficult to continue to live in a world where prejudice and violence become matters of everyday life; it is difficult to think of human beings in their own isolated pigeonholes struggling to bring meaning to their lives without ties of affection, sharing and empathy with other human beings.
Yet liberalism promises freedom and equality, having denied it to slaves and colonial subjects; liberal regimes have failed to eradicate racism and violence, and may even have incited these evils; and liberalism still clings to the idea of atomised individuals. But, as history shows, attempts to build societies on premises that are different from those of liberalism have produced results that can only be responded to by that cry of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!”
That cri de coeur resonates in the contemporary world because there are too many threats to the values that liberalism claims to uphold. The transgressions of these values are carried out not only by those who do not believe in liberalism but often by self-styled champions of liberal values. It is easy and entirely justifiable to condemn on liberal and humanitarian premises the innumerable acts of illiberalism and intolerance that have been perpetrated under the political and ideological dispensation of Narendra Modi with or without his direct consent. But such condemnation should not deflect attention from the fact that under the previous governments that professed to be tolerant and secular, the writer Arundhati Roy and the medical practitioner cum political activist Vinayak Sen were charged with sedition (and the latter jailed) for no other reason save that their views were not acceptable to the Indian state.
In Bengal, the chief minister who sees herself as a strong and loud opponent of Modi and his policies arrested an academic for circulating a cartoon that lampooned her. Instances like these from other parts of India can be added to make a very long list, which will include the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and the bringing down of a sixteenth-century mosque with the then prime minister, in Nero-like fashion, doing nothing, and another possible prime-ministerial candidate watching the destruction from a few metres away. Liberalism in India is vulnerable and fragile in spite of growing out of the history of the Indian national movement, and the foundations that Nehru laid. These only serve to buttress the point that liberalism is prone to transfigure itself when it comes to be inflected by power.
Power is notoriously suspicious of dissent. Yet the right to dissent, to differ, is at the heart of all that liberalism stands for. Liberalism advocates tolerance, but can it – dare one say it? – be tolerant of intolerance?
Kurtz’s cry, perhaps at many different registers, will continue to haunt liberalism as it tries to transcend the pessimism of history by the optimism of the will. As for most questions profoundly concerned with the human condition, there can be no easy and immediate answers. As a minor character in Rabindranath Tagore’s play Red Oleanders says, “We know the beginning but we do not know the end.”
Excerpted with permission from Twilight Falls on Liberalism, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Aleph Book Company.