Where is Liberalism?

A few weeks ago, I attended the launch of a book titled What Does It Mean To Be A Liberal In India.  The book is the product of an essay competition for young thinkers that was held by The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, and from over 300 entries, 19 selected essays form the content of the book, all written by young Indians in their 20’s.  Three of the authors were present at the event, and participated in discussions with contemporaries from the network of The Takshashila Institute (who had organised the event).  It was truly encouraging to know that young adults in India are thinking seriously on both the importance and nuances of liberalism.  And the event was also a provocation to think more deeply on liberalism, specifically in the context of a country like India and the current challenges faced.

There was some discussion on whether liberalism is an import from the West, given that its concepts and methodologies have largely been developed in Western contexts.  But the consensus was that a core feature of modern democracy is that it seeks  to replace earlier models of feudalism and colonialism, and the resultant priority granted to individual freedom means that the ethical imperatives of liberalism render the geography of its origin as irrelevant.  However, when we develop protocols of liberalism that derive from other contexts, we run up against problems in the specificities of our own context, and there was speculation on whether the definition of liberalism needed tweaking or adjustment in the Indian context.

This dilemma is reflected in a question that came up (but was not adequately tackled) in one of the discussions: does a Muslim woman who feels she must wear a burkha as an expression of her identity need to be made aware that this identity is also a means of repressing her?  A liberal position would tend to argue against the burkha as a prescriptive norm; for even if it is justified as something that serves the woman’s safety, by doing so it recognises that there is a problem of predatory sexual behaviour in which women are the victims, yet fails to challenge the patriarchal bias from which the problem springs by pushing a solution that places the onus on the victim to repress herself rather than on the perpetrator to behave with decency.  But if the liberal argues that the woman should not wear the burkha, and the fundamentalist argues that she should, both are guilty of the same crime: they both instruct the woman to instantly adopt an identity that someone else has constructed, instead of empowering her with the means to go through the process of deriving it on her own.

All of us are victims of our own conditioning to an extent that we rarely recognise.  It is not easy escape it, and we need help and time to break free of repressions contained in our past.  What the woman really needs is a sheltered space where she can confront this question free from external coercion or pressure, where she can find information that presents both sides of the question, where time is granted to her so that she can unhurriedly work her way through this dilemma, where she can access the support systems she needs, and most importantly, where she is given the assurance that whatever conclusion she arrives at will be accepted because it is her own free choice.  The overriding question then becomes one of where she can find such a sheltered space.  Which throws light on where the problem really is when we realise that such spaces are in very short supply.  Without such a space, the woman will find herself helplessly buffeted between conflicting forces: a conservative community of conformance within which she has grown up; a civil society made of people very different from her, and whose expectations are based on precepts largely foreign to her; and trolling from fundamentalists in both physical space and social media.  Deprived of the sheltered space she needs, she cannot exercise a liberal freedom to construct her own identity, is likely to choose an option based on the pressures of the moment, and realise the consequences only much later when it might be too late or too difficult to retract.

In this sense, the book falls into a trap that most discussions on liberalism fall into.  It assumes that the major question is “What is liberalism?”.  This is a question that will hopefully never be answered, for to answer it definitively is to limit subsequent action to following a formula out of habit.  The questions of liberalism and freedom are forever alive, always to be tackled, answered, renegotiated and reconstructed within changing contexts.  To set up the supporting infrastructure that empowers this, we must realise that the overarching question should be “Where is liberalism?”: a question that will compel us to create the sheltered public space that is needed.

Twenty-six years ago, in his Nobel Prize Lecture, the poet Octavio Paz warned us that we were entering an era for the first time in history where metahistorical questions were no longer debated in the public sphere, but had moved into privatised realms.  To retain a value-based foundation, it is necessary that such questions are simultaneously approached by people who are different from each other, yet willing to engage with each other: a possibility only within the public realm.   Within private space, the spaces are of similarity rather than difference, and this transforms questions of metahistory into tribal passions rather than the bridging of difference by tackling core ethical or idealistic values.  Once this becomes a dominant trend, the public realm degenerates into a contestation for power between forms of fanatical nationalism or religious fury, inflexibly fossilised within the private realm, pre-empting the possibility of public debate or adjustment.

In his book The Politics of the Governed, Partha Chatterjee argues that we recognise the concept of civil society as resting at the foundation of liberalism, but fail to recognise how fragmented and isolated this society is from the bulk of the population.  In the Indian context, he defines this group as “the closed association of modern elite groups, sequestered from the wider popular life of the communities, walled up within enclaves of civic freedom and rational law”.  The bulk of society is what Chatterjee calls political society: a population that follows tribal principals of communal solidarity, applying connections with the nation state to politically lobby with “governmental agencies pursuing multiple policies of security and welfare”, where security and welfare, rather than being universal categories, are applied uniquely to the community that seeks them.  When civil society recognises this wider population, it perceives them as stuck in a different mode of time, one that is pre-modern.  Rather than looking at how it can bridge the gulf between the two populations, civil society turns inwards in the belief that it should protect the secular foundations of constitutional liberalism as the contemporary space of modernity, in the faith that democracy will somehow allow the pre-modern to eventually catch up and enter this protected space.  In this inward turn, civic society becomes one more privatised quest for significance, another tribe among the various tribes in the contest for power.

The structural barriers of caste, class, gender (and other exclusions) that prevent these different “tribes” from coming together receive scant attention, and are gradually rendered invisible as the gaze of each of the various tribes turns more and more inward.  In a hard-hitting rendition of how extreme this has become, in a poem titled Man You Should Explode from the series Golpitha (translated by Dilip Chitre) the Marathi Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal writes

One should open the manholes of sewers and throw into them

Plato, Einstein, Archimedes, Socrates,

Marx, Ashoka, Hitler, Camus, Sartre, Kafka,

Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, Hopkins, Goethe,

Dostoevsky, Mayakovsky, Maxim Gorki,

Edison, Madison, Kalidasa, Tukaram, Vyasa, Shakespeare, Jnaneshvar

And keep them rotting there with all their words.

Dhasal’s words remind us that we live in a world where manual scavenging still exists, where the Dalit is dehumanised by untouchability to the level where it does not matter to others if his body is buried in sewage, where (like the prostitute) the existence of an individual rendered untouchable is included within social consideration only by dehumanisation to the point that all autonomy and desire are erased.  When social fragmentation exists at this level, idealistic thought (whether from philosophers, litterateurs, scientists, politicians or sages) may as well not exist, and is pointless for it will never reach the world of a person like the scavenger; in which case, it may as well be thrown into the same sewer to which he has been dismissed.

Liberalism rests on a foundation of human rights, and rights cannot be considered universal if they are only applied to people who are similar to us.  They can be called universal only when we are committed to applying them to everyone, especially the people with whom we are least capable of interacting.  For liberalism to exist, it needs a vibrant and inclusive public realm: a commons that contains the sheltered spaces and support systems that empowers people to be whom they want to be or become, irrespective of whom they may have been, and how affluent they are. Where this discourse happens is far more important than any conceptualisation of liberalism: and as long as the body politic exhibits a fundamental and degrading fragmentation, liberalism will remain an irrelevant, or at best peripheral, issue.  Politics shall remain incomplete and abstract until it is inclusively spatialised at the level of everyday life, and on this count there is much work to be done: at the levels of spatial design, politics and philosophy.