This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 12 2019.
Vladimir Putin has caused a stir, which no doubt he intended, by saying, in an interview with the Financial Times, “The liberal idea has become obsolete.” He has often expressed the view that Western-style liberalism has failed, leaving the kind of authoritarianism he practises as the sole viable option. “The liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. The migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants must be protected”.
“Deep inside, there must be some fundamental human rules and moral values. In this sense, traditional values are more stable and more important for millions of people than this liberal idea, which, in my opinion, is really ceasing to exist.” Those who express such views are, of course, more than willing to decide what the fundamentals are and to do the authoritarian dirty work for us weak-willed lesser mortals
According to Raymond Williams in Keywords: “Liberal has, at first sight, so clear a political meaning that some of its further associations are puzzling. Yet the political meaning is comparatively modern, and much of the interesting history of the word is earlier”. Williams was writing in 1976 and the situation has become more confused since.
One standard dictionary definition is “generous, noble-minded” which is clearly not apt for any context involving politicians. “Liberal democracy” is defined as “a state or system which combines the right to individual freedom with the right to representative government”. Surely, not even the Tea Partiers and Christian fundamentalists could object to that!
According to Professor Will Kimlicka in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy: “A liberal state does not seek to resolve these conflicts (different beliefs about the meaning of life), but rather provides a ‘neutral’ framework within which citizens can pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life. Liberalism, on this view, is the only human response to the inevitable pluralism and diversity of modern societies”.
Who could possibly object to this benign philosophy?
The president of the US, not for the first time, completely missed the point when asked about Putin’s interview. He thought his buddy was talking about the decadence of California and blamed the Democrats for that. Trump is consistently inconsistent but has consistently praised dictators. He has mocked Kim Jong-un but envies his power within North Korea. He envies Putin because his Russian buddy does not have to worry about political opposition. Jonathan Chait writes: “His contempt for democratic norms is sub-ideological, a pure product of his narcissistic fear of disobedience and innate belief in natural hierarchy. He hates democracy deep in his soul, but does not understand why.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has said that his aim is to build an “illiberal state” on “national foundations,” citing as models China, Russia and Turkey. He denied that these plans conflicted with Hungary’s EU membership. If Hungary gets away with using sovereignty as a justification for passing laws that directly contradict important democratic and human rights principles, this could undermine the whole ethos of the EU. As the EU expands to include a more diverse array of countries and cultures with different versions of democracy, it needs to examine its economic, social, and political values.
Liberalism Attacked from the Right
Putin was not talking about the decadence of California but the longer historical tradition of liberalism that emerged from the laissez faire theories of John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and other philosophers whose writings laid the foundation for democratic government.
When we discuss ‘liberalism’ we are again in Humpty Dumpty territory. I mentioned in a previous column that distinguished linguistic philosopher Humpty Dumpty who told Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
To right-wingers in the USA, it seems, liberal means radical, immoderate. What the American right wing, as typified by such great intellects as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, mean by “liberal”, does not have to mean anyone as dangerous as a real communist or socialist of any kind. More extreme elements of the right wing see liberals as bloodthirsty revolutionaries determined to overthrow the state and destroy the family as an institution. The word “liberal” has become a code word in certain circles in the USA for all the kind of things that right-wing conservatives detest. The right hated John Kerry because he spoke French, liked fine wines and had an extremely rich wife. He represented the hated élite, unlike GW Bush, who was also rich and privileged but affected folksy ways and was of limited accomplishment or intellect. Right-wing Americans see ‘liberalism” as an obscenity and basically alien to the American Way. Ruder conservatives use terms like “libtard” which conflates their contempt for human rights and their lack of respect for people with mental health problems.
Liberalism Attacked from the Left
Liberals get attacked from the left as well. Liberalism is anathema to strict socialists because it is the highest form of thought within bourgeois society and is the philosophy of capitalism. Liberalism is based on individualist theories of man and society so it must be in fundamental conflict with strictly social theories and command economies.
These days we have ‘neo-liberalism’ which is blamed for all the ills the planet is heir to, and quite rightly so. The term was invented at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek were delegates. They saw the social democracy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the evolution of Britain’s welfare state, as dangerous collectivism that occupied philosophical territory akin to Nazism and Communism. In neoliberalism, laissez faire means huge tax cuts for the rich, neutering of trade unions, deregulation of financial institutions, privatisation of everything including impractical things such as probation services, outsourcing and competition in public services, even where it means fatalities among patients because of private firms providing catering and cleaning for profit.
Neoliberal doctrines according to George Monbiot, “played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump”.
Let Professor Kimlicka have the last word:
“Dire warnings about liberalism’s inability to contain the centrifugal tendencies of individual freedom can be found in every generation for the last three centuries, yet it appears that liberal societies have managed to endure while various forms of monarchy, theocracy, authoritarianism, and communism have come and gone… the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies.”