Liberalism had a good run in India. Its most spectacular success, universal adult franchise, rooted the ethos of individual liberty in its democratic politics. The reforms of 1991 allowed the desire for limited government and market utopianism to go mainstream nearly overnight, signalling a U-turn not only in the country’s economic policy, but also in its vision of the future. Liberalism’s primary electoral vehicle, the shape-shifting Congress party, could, until recently, justifiably call itself “the default programme” in India’s computer, having triumphed over both left- and right-wing populism – often by cannibalising both – in every generation since 1947.
The effects of this history are hard to efface; even the anti-Congress Bharatiya Janata Party’s vision of governance remains, as the economist Arun Shourie pithily put it, “Congress plus cow.” The BJP’s poll promises (the printable ones, at least) took bog-standard liberal positions on limited government and market-friendly regulatory reform. So why does it feel, as the title of Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s wide-ranging long essay declares, that “twilight falls” today on this most resilient and opportunistic of political philosophies?
Blame it on neoliberalism
Mukherjee, a historian and former vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, contextualises the question by offering a primer on the origins of liberalism in modern Europe, and its role in establishing and sustaining the worldview of the British empire. He guides readers through Karl Marx’s elegant and humane criticism of its limits, as well as the objections of moral thinkers such as Gandhi and Tagore, powerful sceptics of the vision of an India built in continuity with its colonial state. These lead him into the meat of the book, a survey of the present landscape affected by three major world events: the election of a BJP government in India in 2014, the UK’s vote to exit the European Union in 2016, and the victory of Donald Trump in America’s presidential election later that year.
The blame emerging from left-wing discourse in each of these cultures tends to coalesce around the problems with “neoliberalism,” a concept whose definition no one can agree on. A recklessly broad description may peg it as a form of extreme market optimism in which the most useful form of wealth is privately-held capital, rather than tax revenue or wages. To be neoliberal – a word only your enemies will use for you – is to believe that individuals, as free and economically rational beings, voluntarily accept the crushing inequality caused by this belief in return for small private benefits.
What about the bedrock?
Mukherjee doesn’t use the neologism, but he glances at the left’s mockery of liberal thinking to summarise the divide between social and economic liberalism. Here, in spite of his learned and lucid historical lessons, he seems content to ignore the possibility that the two are not separate entities. As he traces how financial collapse has led to social dissatisfaction, which has taken recourse in rude tribalism, Mukherjee chooses to pin the blame on the tribalists themselves. He attributes India’s current mood of belligerent majoritarianism, therefore, to its thuggish politics; nowhere does he indicate that it might also be credited to the opportunism of cosmopolitans – including several titans of industry, media and the law – who underwrote the ascent of the thugs.
As a result, Twilight Falls On Liberalism never directly confronts the increasingly popular idea that liberalism is failing simply because its bedrock, the free market, is reneging on its promises to more and more people. Mukherjee skirts this argument. He says, towards the end of the essay, that “Power often renders reason spastic and freedom inconsequential.” Yet it seems much more confident describing this corruption as a thing of the past than as an ongoing crisis. While it articulates the conditions of liberalism’s early recourse to white supremacy – the moral justification for imperialism – Mukherjee does not entertain the more damning notion that the primary appeal of liberalism was always its usefulness in rationalising structural inequality: today’s neoliberalism, in other words, is yesterday’s colonialism.
I was taken aback to read Mukherjee’s assertion that along with the financial collapse of 2008-09, the primary reason for the endangerment of liberalism in the West and in India was “the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.” The idea that the perpetuation of the surveillance state and the rise of inflammatory anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiment was inevitable after the militant bombings and attacks of the early 2000s is unnervingly ahistorical. Worse, this clash-of-civilisations view neutralises Mukherjee’s whole case for liberalism as a rational political choice. Are we to assume that if brutes in Asia resent it so fundamentally, the whites must have been right about it being the sole preserve of reasonable Europeans in the first place?
Missing the key questions
This persistent sidelining of key questions and principal causes is a useful tactic in a twitter argument, but seems frustrating and misplaced in a purportedly serious inquiry. Forty years ago, Margaret Thatcher popularised the slogan that “there is no alternative”, meaning that the free market was essential to democratic endeavour. Nobody outside Davos has felt this with quite such unshakeable confidence in the decade since the financial collapse of 2008-09. Radicals and their supporters, therefore, are finding the alternatives perfectly thinkable, even desirable.
Rather than locating the germ of this upheaval in some essential flaw in the self-serving man, might it not be more honest to state the problem more narrowly, which is to ask: why does liberalism’s twilight cast a shadow only on its most vulnerable aspects? Why does plutocracy, as they call it in America, or crony capitalism, as we say here, remain unthreatened, even as egalitarianism – the expansive and adaptable liberal vision for humanity – fights for survival?
For it is precisely this aspect of liberal life that now comes in for daily assault. In India, this was the work not only of Nehru – acknowledged by Mukherjee as India’s archetypal liberal – but also of Ambedkar, oppressed-caste thinkers, free-thinkers of minority religions, the parties of the left, and in many ways, that of Gandhi and Tagore. From their struggle emerged one of the most sophisticated propositions of the twentieth century: that a state dedicated to the inalienable liberty of the individual was desirable, but not only for its own sake. It would be meaningless if it was not also committed to the welfare of her social milieu; if it did not make reparations for historical wrongs to the oppressed; if it did not uphold personal freedoms, and protect every citizen from mob rule. If Indian liberalism, with or without Nehru’s imprimatur, cannot stand for these ideas, it’s no wonder that the darkness seems to be closing in.
Twilight Falls On Liberalism, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Aleph Book Company.